Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Most customers expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to COVID-19

Over 15,000 consumers and business buyers weigh in on the future of customer engagement in Salesforce's fourth edition of the State of the Connected Customer global research report.

Salesforce has published the fourth edition of its State of the Connected Customer research report, an annual study of how customer expectations and behaviors are changing as businesses, technology, and society at large evolve. This year's survey was our largest and most global yet, soliciting over 15,000 responses across 27 countries and six continents. The report provides a snapshot of how customer engagement is transforming with unprecedented scale and speed against the backdrop of simultaneous public health, economic, social, environmental, and leadership crises. 

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The fourth edition of its State of the Connected Customer research report, by Salesforce

Here are the four key takeaways of the State of the Connected Customer report

  1. Customer Connections Are Essential amid Crises. The events of this year have upended the relationships between customers and brands. During a time when uncertainty and confusion reign, brands have an opportunity to reinforce and rebuild trust with new and loyal customers alike.

    Eighty-nine percent of customers say how a company acts during a crisis demonstrates its trustworthiness. 

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  3. Understanding and Convenience Drive Differentiation. As each individual navigates change and uncertainty, empathy for and support of customers' unique needs, expectations, and challenges are as critical, as is providing a convenient, connected experience that eliminates unnecessary burdens in a stressful time.

    Fifty-four percent of customers say it generally feels like sales, service, and marketing don't share information. 

  4. The Digital Imperative Hits Its Moment of Truth. Digital-first behavior is here to stay as customers develop new habits that will last for the long term. As digital engagement grows, customers expect companies to digitize their operations for multichannel, high-touch interactions. This relies in no small part on the use of personal information, and customers are calling for enhanced transparency and stewardship.

    Eighty-eight percent of customers expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to COVID-19. 

  5. Customers Demand That Brands Demonstrate Their Values. Long-overdue reckonings with social, economic, and ecological ills have come to the fore, and society is calling on businesses to do their part in righting wrongs. A failure to heed responsibilities to more than shareholders threatens bottom lines.

    Eighty-six percent of customers say the societal role of companies is changing.

The fourth State of the Connected Consumer report, based on a global survey of over 15,000 consumers and business buyers, details how, and provides invaluable insights for business leaders navigating their paths back to growth. As you can see from the executive summary, the report details key elements of customer engagement in our radically changing times, including: 

• Earning trust against the backdrop of widespread uncertainty 
• Demonstrating empathy and understanding along increasingly disjointed customer journeys.
• Embracing digital transformations that enable business continuity

Here are my key takeaways from the State of the Connected Customer report:

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    Customer experience remains a key company differentiator 

  1.   The customer experience matters as much as the product. Four-fifths of customers place the same emphasis on flawless engagement as they do on product quality. For business buyers, the percentage is 85%. Extraordinary experiences help companies earn more than sales -- they build relationships. Fifty-three percent of customers say they feel an emotional connection to the brands they buy from the most.
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    Digital Innovation Drives New Standard of Engagement 

  3. Customers expect companies to accelerate their digital transformation. Eighty-eight percent of customers expect companies to accelerate digital initiatives due to COVID-19. An important 2020 lesson: every company must become a digital company. Seventy-eight percent of customers say this year's crises should be a catalyst for business improvement.

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    Brand renovation during a crisis begins with trustworthiness 

  5. Trust is the most important business core value. The fundamental building block of relationships, trust rises above all other imperatives. Ninety-nine percent of customers believe companies need to improve their trustworthiness. Ninety percent of customers say how a company acts during a crisis reveals its trustworthiness. Thirty-one percent trust a company less because of its response to 31% this year's crises. Fifty-one percent trust a company more because of its response to 51% this year's crises. According to the report: "Today, customers aren't just putting more emphasis on the importance of trust in their relationships with brands but also setting a higher bar for earning that trust." Forty-eight percent of customers say they generally trust companies.

    Eighty-four percent of business buyers are more likely to buy from a company that demonstrates an understanding of their business goals.

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    Companies fall short of customer expectations with respect to service delivery 

Strong customers service delivery capabilities are more important than ever. 

Great customer service doesn't just benefit trust and engagement -- it benefits the bottom line and can even restore lost trust. Ninety-one percent of customers say they're more likely to make another purchase after a great service experience. 

  • 83% of customers expect to engage with someone immediately when contacting a company -- up from 78% in 2019. 
  • 52% of customers describe most service interactions as fragmented. 
  • 52% of customers expect offers to always be personalized -- up from 49% in 2019.  
  • 83% of customers expect flexible shipping and fulfillment options such as buy-online-pick-up-in-store.
  • 76% of customers expect consistent interactions across departments.
  • 54% of customers say it generally feels like sales, service, and marketing don't share information.
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    Omni channel engagement breaks customer experience by design

  1.  Digital channels of customer engagements have grown during the crisis. Customers turn to an average of nine channels to browse inventory, seek advice, and make purchases. Millennials claim to use more channels than other generations, even Gen Z. Seventy-six percent of customers prefer different channels depending on the context. In 2020, messenger apps like WhatsApp and social media edged up in popularity. Text/SMS and video chat made their debut on the list of customers' 10 most preferred channels this year. Digital engagement has hit a tipping point this year, with an estimated 60% of interactions taking place online, compared to 42% last year. Sixty-eight percent of customers say they're online more often than not. This trend is expected to persist beyond the pandemic. Fifty-eight percent of consumers expect to do more online shopping after the pandemic than before, and 80% of business buyers expect to conduct more business online.

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    Customers Open to the Use of AI to Improve Experiences

  3.  The role of AI in everyday life is steadily becoming more recognized and understood. 46% of customers can think of an example of AI they use every day -- up from 40% in 2019. 60% of customers are open to the use of AI in customer engagement, including 66% of millennials. Fewer than half (48%) of customers trust companies to use AI ethically, and 54% are concerned about its potential bias. Only 27% of consumers completely understand how companies use their personal information. Eighty-six percent of consumers want more transparency over how 86% of personal information is used. Consumers generally want to be a part of the COVID-19 solution, and 71% understand the role their personal information plays in the contact tracing efforts. Seventy-one percent of customers expect COVID-19 to change how people think about their personal information.

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    Corporate values impact customer acquisition and retention 

  5. Values create value. Corporate values impact customer acquisition and retention. Fifty-six percent of customers have reevaluated the societal role of companies this year. In the pandemic, companies are being held to a higher standard, and in areas that boardrooms have largely not considered. Fifty-five percent of customers believe they have the power to influence change in companies. Seventy-five percent of business buyers say vendors' ethics increasingly factor into their purchasing decisions. Seventy-one percent of respondents said they are paying more attention to companies' values than they did a year ago.

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    Younger generation set the accountability bar higher 

  7. The younger generation has higher expectations with regard to company values. Eighty-nine percent of customers expect companies to clearly state their values, and 90% expect them to clearly demonstrate those values. Companies seeking to differentiate themselves are wise to look beyond their immediate competition and evaluate how their capabilities stack up against other industries. Sixty-two percent of customers say their experiences with one industry influence their expectations of others.

The findings uncovered by the research reveal a customer base that craves personalized, digital-first experiences from brands they can trust. As our world continues to adapt and shift day by day, business leaders have an opportunity to use this knowledge to revamp how they engage their customers. In addition to the broad trends covered above, this research offers insights across demographic subsets and geographic boundaries. To further dig into this data, check out the interactive Tableau dashboards, and browse the full State of the Connected Consumer report