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

The new standards of customer engagement: Why we won't go back to 'normal'

Understanding the macro trends shaping technology, the economy, and society as a whole is the first step for any business seeking to survive -- let alone thrive--— as they navigate a series of crises. Businesses must plan for the future, not a return to the past.

The scale and pace of how customers are changing is hard to keep up with. Salesforce Research surveyed 12,000 consumers and 3,600 business buyers across 27 countries to gauge how their expectations and behaviors have shifted since the world entered its most severe pandemic in a century, and what they anticipate for the future.

Salesforce's findings are wrapped up in the new fourth edition of the State of the Connected Customer report. The research shows that experience remains the key competitive differentiator for companies to acquire new customers, earn the loyalty of existing ones, and ultimately gain market share. But the report also lays out in stark terms how the novel economy is setting new standards for what constitutes a great experience, as well as the longstanding pillars that companies must double down on.

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Fifty-eight percent of consumers expect to do more online shopping after the pandemic is over than they did before, and 80% of business buyers expect to conduct more business online.

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

Businesses Must Plan for the Future, Not a Return to the Past

Humans crave stability, and so it's natural that leaders and everyday citizens are eager for a return to normalcy. The fact is, however, that major events such as those we are living through now spark lasting change. Survey respondents anticipate that many shifting habits they've adopted over the course of 2020 will persist for the long haul.

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The impact of the pandemic on accelerating digital engagements

Nearly six out of ten customers around the globe say their engagement with companies has transformed, with greater shares having transformed how they live online and offline. In reality, these shifts were already in process long before the pandemic dominated everyday life, but the pace of change has accelerated with breakneck speed, forcing some businesses to confront a future that is arriving much sooner than they had anticipated.

Among the most notable shifts is a redefinition of and increased emphasis on convenience. In a physically distanced world, offerings like Zoom appointments to save a trip, curbside pickup to minimize contact, or chatbots to handle unexpected surges in service case volume are now commonplace and expected. Moving forward, convenience will be an increasingly critical aspect of the experience offered by companies regardless of their industry or size. This will be especially true as millennials and Gen Zers expand their purchasing power. 

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Customers who prioritize convenience over brand 

It's Now or Never for Businesses to Digitally Transform

As customers find themselves with less mobility and more time with their devices, their standards for convenience are more and more digitally oriented. In fact, customers have a critical threshold this year as more than half of their interactions with companies now take place online. What's more, that share is not expected to drop in 2021.

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Split of online and offline interactions with companies

Fifty-eight percent of consumers expect to do more online shopping after the pandemic is over than they did before, and 80% of business buyers expect to conduct more business online.

Given their increased time online this year, 68% of survey respondents say their expectations of digital capabilities have risen, and 60% say COVID-19 is transforming their relationship with technology. Eighty-eight percent expect companies to keep up by accelerating their digital initiatives. But as Salesforce's Chief Innovation Officer Simon Mulcahy notes, business leaders must think of digital transformation as more than pouring new technology over old products and processes.

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Simon Mulcahy, chief innovation officer, Salesforce

Understanding and Empathy Drive Differentiation

Last year's State of the Connected Customer report established how customers expect a coordinated, unified front when it comes to their interactions with companies. In other words, as they navigate a myriad of digital touchpoints and cross-departmental contacts along their paths to purchase, they expect contextualized engagement based on their stated -- and even implied -- signals, and they certainly don't want to repeat information. 

The stakes for this type of personalized engagement are higher this year, as every individual confronts strange circumstances and a changing set of unique needs. The mandate for companies now is not to just send relevant offers at the right time and on the right channel, but to demonstrate a clear understanding and concern for each customer, and to offer advice and help that makes their lives easier. As Tiffani Bova, chief growth Eeangelist at Salesforce observed, failure to do this presents a danger.

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  Tiffani Bova, chief growth evangelist at Salesforce

Despite its importance, most companies are falling fall short of providing customers with customer's expectations for empathy and understanding, offering a clear and open opportunity for differentiation for those that do.

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Customer expectations for empathy versus reality 

Leading With Values Earns Business as Trust Falls to New Lows

In the midst of simultaneous crises of public health, economics, leadership, racial injustice, and climate change, customers are losing trust in institutions. More than half (52%) of survey respondents told Salesforce that they generally don't trust companies and 61% saying it's difficult for companies to earn their trust -- up from 54% in 2019.

Companies actions are under scrutiny for their impacts to all stakeholders, not just their shareholders. Ninety percent of survey respondents agree that how a company acts during a crisis reveals its trustworthiness. From how they treat essential employees to their actions against injustices to their environmental practices, a company's demonstrated values have an outsized factor in whether or not they'll earn a customer's business. 

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What influences customers to buy from a company 

Sixty-one percent of survey respondents say they have stopped buying from a company whose values didn't align with theirs. Companies that seize the opportunity to re-articulate what they stand for, publically commit to benefiting society as a whole, and take legitimate action to make the world a better place have a distinct advantage in our new normal.

I encourage you to read the full State of the Connected Customer report or explore the survey data yourself, and to let me know what sticks out as most relevant for your business.