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Learning to live with customer angst

By March 21, 2022Insights

No one is talking about the pandemic at the moment and the environmental crisis is on the carbon fuelled backburner because there’s a war in Ukraine. There’s a humanitarian disaster playing out before our eyes and as if that wasn’t enough it’s sending an already skyrocketing cost of living even further into the exosphere. Feeling anxious? There’s more…

There’s a skills shortage across multiple industries making customer service levels varied at best and threatening the long-term viability of various industry sectors, and all the while technological advances are changing the living and working landscape at pace. Against that backdrop, it’s little surprise that customer angst is one of the greatest challenges for modern businesses, but also one of the most overlooked. 

We have written about customer angst and anxiety before in the midst of the pandemic. However, as we move forward, businesses are not just responding to angst in a real time to fresh situations, but learning to navigate long-term anxiety as well.

So, what can organisations do about customer angst? As businesses, we can’t wait for it to go away – it won’t, it will just evolve. We can’t pretend it’s not happening – it is, and it feeds into every interaction we have with our customers. The net result is that we have to understand it and ensure we’re building the customer into experiences, creating an environment that eases rather than exacerbates anxiety and its knock on effects for our customer relationships.

The collective trauma response

Often intangible, angst and anxiety are all pervading feelings that most of us have got used to over the last two years. Anxiety is a reported long-term effect of trauma in individuals, so it’s little surprise that as a collective whole, we’re seeing an awful lot of it. With that in mind, it would be foolhardy to think anxiety would not impact customer behaviour and require proactive changes to the customer journey within all organisations.

We see customer anxiety play out in a number of ways – how people approach their spending, limited brand loyalty and being quicker to anger or to make a complaint. In financial services alone, by January 2021, the Financial Ombudsman had received 3,500 complaints related to Covid-19. Some of those complaints will have been driven by anxiety and some will have been the result of exposed issues in the customer experience, but in short the customer experience and the customer needs were not in line with one another.

There’s also something of an expectation of poor experience following the pandemic, but the ‘Covid excuse’ is no longer acceptable. There’s a sense that consumers are jaded about the explanation and they don’t trust its authenticity. One of the other effects of anxiety seems to be a considerable drop in consumer trust.

The changing landscape

There are other, less acute things that also contribute to a pervading sense of anxiety and that continue to challenge businesses. Post-pandemic we continue to live in a world of change. Businesses and individuals alike are adapting to a hybrid model of working, lots of people took the time during the pandemic to reconsider their values and change careers, there are ongoing concerns over job security in a world of more ‘gig’ style working, and lots of people still don’t want to return to the office at all.

Change is psychologically challenging for most of us even when it’s positive. Our natural position is to resist it and our brains tend to perceive it as something negative, which can cause stress and influence our decision-making. All of that can affect the culture and atmosphere in the workplace and ultimately lead to poor brand representation and a poor customer experience. If staff leave through a lack of motivation and enthusiasm then that too impacts customer experience by affecting continuity of service as you train or find new members of the team. That’s if you can find them at all in this environment. 

All the while, businesses are seeking to recover lost income, many have gone from famine to feast, which creates different challenges both to organisations and employees as they rebuild supply chains and respond to the ‘great resignation’.

This is ultimately to highlight that the customer experience needs to take an end-to-end approach. In terms of angst, that means considering it across the board to understand the effect of staff anxiety on the consumer and your relationship with them as well.

Transforming customer experience

Lots of businesses either pivoted entirely or changed their approach to business in some way during the pandemic out of necessity. For many, those two years were defined by a focus on the financials. That was a fair and reasonable short-term response in lots of instances because there wasn’t any other way to operate in order to save the business. However, as we move into a space of not simply needing to hunker down and survive, but to thrive and grow, the customer relationship is the most important relationship that we have.

Now we are moving beyond the pandemic, businesses need to transform again, adapting to Covid’s after effects, the impact it has had on the customer, and thinking on a long-term basis.  The wider world view means that within that long-term approach businesses need to consider two things:

  • We are operating in a space where there is angst as a trauma response to what has already been. 
  • We are also working in an environment where there is ongoing anxiety over what is happening and might happen. 

As a result, businesses need to create a dynamic response to customer experience, which can and will adapt over time to the changing environment and the continual evolution of customers and their needs. 

In short, we need to learn to live with customer angst successfully, which includes a number of key areas of consideration:

1) Self-reflection and customer experience

In many ways to look forward, businesses need to reflect on where they were in March 2020 and look at how things played out since then. How resilient was your organisation to such extraordinary circumstances? Where were the holes in your customer experience and what were the challenges? Were you able to maintain standards during that time and stay true to your brand promises? Were your internal systems and processes flexible and adaptable enough to help you pivot into the new normal, and as restrictions ended were you agile enough to switch once again?​ If any of the answers are no, how are you going to change that moving forward?

2) An end-to-end approach

Customer experience has to take your team into consideration as well as your technological and logistical capabilities. It is always hard to find good, dependable, enthusiastic team members, but it’s even harder now, so attracting and keeping valued members of staff is essential. 

With that in mind, how can you structure your business to best respond to customer needs, taking into account internal structures, people and processes? That means if/how you’re attracting good people to work within your brand, incorporating a hybrid working environment, motivating remote workers to deliver the best brand experience, and ensuring your staff are appropriately equipped to do their job well.

3) Customer insights

We know that data and analytics are essential tools in a modern business, informing everything from marketing to technological updates – all of which have a role to play in customer experience. 

Gathering the right information rather than all the information without being invasive, protecting it, and analysing it effectively are all powerful tools for creating an initial customer experience and ensuring it can be personalised as your relationship with that customer evolves. 

However, customer insights only work to the benefit of the customer and the business if they’re used well and with clear objectives in mind. For example, ask yourself: how does customer insight and customer experience design fit into your planning, and how do your customers feel when they reflect on the experiences they have had to date?

4) Expect the unexpected

If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. It’s no use looking at the last couple of years as an anomaly because things happen all the time. The after effects of the pandemic and the rising and unknown issues caused by the war in Ukraine are just a couple of examples.

If you were caught out in 2020, how can you make sure it doesn’t happen again – both for the short-term resilience of your business, and to prevent the long-term damage caused by poor customer experiences? 

Consider the following when designing your customer experience:

  • How do you build resilience and responsiveness into your business to rapidly navigate unforeseen events? 
  • How do you keep abreast of new trends and ever changing customer needs? 
  • How do you engage your teams so they feel prepared to respond and react to changing circumstances and customer expectations?
5) Design experiences with customers in mind

What all of these things come down to is making the customer a central part of business transformation. A great customer experience doesn’t happen by accident, it’s about explicitly designing the one you want to deliver. Having that vision is critical to any transformation programme.

Finally, while analytics and data are fundamental tools in creating a dynamic and positive customer experience, it’s important to remember that everything you do is ultimately about people. That’s the fundamental thing about angst and anxiety, and possibly where so many businesses struggle to address it within the design of their customer experience. Anxiety is unpredictable, ever-changing and emotional – it’s human, and it’s humans that you need to connect with to make your business a success.

Are your customers missing the human connection? Read about digital transformation that proactively engages with people.