Anxiety might be a part of the human condition, and it’s not a new factor in marketing, sales, and the customer experience. However, following the pandemic there is a new type of anxiety colouring customer behaviour, presenting both challenges and opportunities for businesses.
In June’s Navigator Forum, we discussed customer angst and anxiety in the wake of Covid-19, led by keynote speakers and behavioural change experts Rob Clarke and Lee Jones from Elev-8 performance improvement.
The end of lockdown is not the end of anxiety
The experience of the pandemic has made people cautious. Evidence from China, which has been out of lockdown longest, indicates that caution doesn’t disappear when lockdown lifts. EY’s Future Consumer Index shows that, in general, people are far more worried than they used to be, and that risk is at the forefront of their minds when deciding what to buy. In a study, 48% of people in China strongly agreed that the way they live their lives will fundamentally change because of Covid. Companies need to be cognisant of that.
One way in which we can see the impact of Covid-19 on consumer behaviour is in their changing priorities. A snapshot of what people are spending money on shows an emphasis on fresh food and hygiene products – i.e., items to help keep you healthy and to mitigate risk. Frozen foods were also a high priority – likely linked to the anxiety over further lockdowns at short notice. There are clear indications about consumer concerns both in what they are buying and how they are accessing those products (online as opposed to in store).
The role of angst in business
What do we mean when we talk about angst and anxiety in the context of driving consumer behaviours?
The dictionary definitions that we started with are:
- Angst: a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.
- Anxiety: a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome
Rob and Lee defined angst as fear, and within that identified a variety of factors, including confusion, cynicism, vulnerability and Covid related politics. While brands typically focus on market trends, customer pain points and net promoter scores, it’s this concoction of emotions linked to anxiety that needs the most attention in a post-lockdown world.
Handling anxiety is not without precedent. If we look to the past for guidance, when e-commerce experiences were first on the scene, businesses spent a lot of time looking at ways in which they could reduce consumer anxiety around the security of buying online. Concepts such as free returns were all designed to increase trust and a sense of safety.
Historically, businesses have also found that leveraging fear can be extremely powerful as part of the psychology of convincing someone to purchase. This raised the questions:
- Where is it prudent, ethical, and helpful to drive angst in businesses?
- And where can we reduce it?
Covid has been a humanising experience for many. It’s shown our collective fallibility and it’s had an impact on everyone. Mental health is something we talk about more openly, and vulnerability, an awareness of vulnerable groups and the fear of becoming vulnerable ourselves is at the forefront of many individuals’ thoughts, requiring attention from businesses in a way that it hasn’t done before. The collective feeling in discussions was that the focus for brands should be on easing rather than leveraging fear.
The point was raised that all these factors around anxiety don’t just apply to customers, but also apply to employees, who themselves require support in order to support the customer experience.
Taking the first step
For businesses that hinge on getting customers and/or staff back into a physical environment, the importance of timeliness and support in making the first step was raised amongst forum contributors.
The travel industry is the perfect example of an area that has suffered and whose long-term success hinges on getting people to take that first journey post-pandemic. Individuals have not been able to travel, and as restrictions lift many continue to choose not to travel until the pandemic’s repercussions have further subsided.
The industry needs to look at ways to change that mindset, as the longer people opt out of travel due to anxiety, the harder it will be to come back. The same applies to staff returning to offices. Many are nervous about returning to the workplace and have developed new habits around working from home.
Whether you’re thinking about an employee or customers, there’s a new set of perceived risks (risk of illness, risk of needing to isolate, risk of passing illness on). The feeling amongst the group was that to facilitate that all-important first step back to physical environments, organisations need to reduce those perceptions of risk as well as remind people of the benefits of change.
The need for active re-assurance
To achieve that first step, the need for proactive reassurance was discussed. There was a feeling that companies are missing some very important and comparatively simple solutions in helping to ease consumer anxiety. This came down to clear and informative communications.
For airlines, for example, there’s an issue with uncertainty when it comes to regulations in different countries and government guidelines. If you are flying from the UK, you might know what the rules and expectations are surrounding Covid-secure measures at one end of your flight, but not at the other.
There’s a general feeling that the variations from one place to another make travel too complicated. Experience indicates that travel companies are not communicating strongly enough when it comes to providing assurance on these points. This could be as simple as explaining what the process will be when you land and how long it will most likely take.
By not providing that assurance at each stage of the consumer journey, or by sending mixed messages, not only does it damage customer loyalty and generate frustration, but by not helping individuals to make decisions, they default to not travelling at all. Conversely, by making people feel safe and managing uncertainty at each stage of customer experience, you generate positive feedback and customer loyalty.
One participant cited a former experience working with a company that ran popular exhibitions. By connecting the sales team with the operating team, they were able to identify points of anxiety, provide information advising people of probable queue times to manage expectations and reassure them that there would be shelter and bottles of water available while they waited.
The perfect storm for innovation
We have seen clients suffer through the pandemic, and in many instances, it has forced them to think differently about their approach and innovate in a variety of ways.
Studies show there is still a distinct discomfort around public spaces, and this has facilitated noticeable behaviour changes. For example, where cleaning was once done behind closed doors in shops, restaurants, and hotels, it’s now very much on show to provide tangible proof of hygiene measures.
We have also seen the escalation of digital experiences. These need to adapt to the new world we’re living in, but also recognise the human emotions that underpin it. We are seeing that in the emergence of virtual technologies designed to allow an immersive experience without the risk (e.g., Peloton). Amazon Go has also been developed to minimise touch in the shopping experience with no checkout and there are dramatic improvements in voice control. Even the NHS app is an example of ways in which organisations are turning to technology to demonstrate that users are safe to overcome anxiety in a meaningful way.
The emphasis is very much on asking how to bring customers back. The need to encourage customers in has accelerated a shift towards more integrated experiences, and better customer service.
We have seen shopping centres respond to anxiety, not just in terms of Covid-19 but in a wider sense as well. Recognising that there were ‘unseen’ groups of people for whom shopping presented a permanent sense of anxiety (perhaps due to mental or physical health challenges), and many have introduced quiet shopping times to provide a more empathetic experience.
We talk a lot about leadership modelling and proximity to the customer. At a water company this connection proved its value, when they introduced a ‘No Water Challenge’, where leaders would go without water to their homes for a weekend and were given bottled water to carry them through, just as their customers were during disrupted services. This caused them to realise that what they really needed were wet wipes, resulting in a change in policy.
Importance of relationships
A recurring theme in our forums is the role and importance of emotional connections and human interactions.
The customer journey and a push towards digital is one factor, but it is not the only factor in consumer relationships. If we make it difficult for customers to speak to someone, companies can lose the ability to empathise and really connect with customer needs.
One contributor highlighted that for years businesses have pushed the concept of standardisation in customer communications for the sake of efficiency. However, now we are realising the importance of human discretion. Are companies allowing staff to take ownership of interactions with customers or are we penalising them for veering off script?
Lee highlighted a case study where customers at a call centre who were processed via a script were both disappointed and spent more time on the phone than those who felt heard. When staff moved to be more empathetic, call handling time went down and customer feedback improved.
The consensus was that while technology is excellent for some elements of the customer journey, such as transactions, when talking about angst it needs an emotional response.
How do we get to the new future?
While angst is a negative thing in general, recognising it does present positive opportunities to do things better.
The feeling was that now is the time for businesses to focus on how they are going to reach the new future. Many of us have seen organisations trying to return to the old way of doing things and evidence so far shows that will not work.
Some organisations are simply trying to tweak business models to be successful in this new environment, but many are going to have to consider much more serious change. For example, if planes have a model that requires 85% capacity to be profitable, will that work in the future?
The conclusion from discussions was that encouraging customers to return and generating customer loyalty starts by making individuals feel good, and if that isn’t currently part of the DNA of a brand, it might have to be going forward.