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What customers want next: Decoding the clues

Jeannie Walters offers strategies for businesses as they adapt for the future retail environment – and rapidly shifting consumer behaviour.

Human behaviour is notoriously difficult to predict; sophisticated modelling and data analysis can help, but these are typically based on past behaviour.

Past behaviour might be helpful for predicting future success if all variables remain the same, but what if the context – or the entire environment – changes over time?

In one study by analytics firm Concentric, 99 per cent of business leaders reported doing some kind of forecasting, yet only 14 per cent stated they were “effective” at doing so.

It’s the secret everyone knows – predicting the future is hard.

Many organisations and businesses are benefiting from machine learning and artificial intelligence tools to isolate data points that can help predict the next actions of customers, as well as the likelihood of desired outcomes.

But like any form of analysis, these methodologies rely on good data – and many businesses are still ‘playing catch up’ on getting the inputs right.

So, what can a business leader do to look ahead and predict future customer behaviour?

Searching for clues

The first step in predicting customer behaviour is a simple one – know your customers and their goals.

Business owners and leaders are regularly told to improve customer experience in order to increase sales, but with little instruction or information on how to do so.

There is no data, there is no defined goal, and in some cases, there is no shared understanding of what ‘customer experience’ is!

Therefore, it’s important to start with the foundations.

Firstly find out what you can about your customers. If you have data, such as purchasing history, use it; if you don’t, collect whatever feedback you can from social media and product reviews.

Next, consider your customers’ lives; don’t get stuck in the ‘our customers only care about our product’ fantasy!

To look for clues about how customers may behave in the future, it’s vital to understand their present reality.

That means looking beyond basic demographics or job titles to knowing how they get their information, the needs their community has, and other brands to which they are loyal.

What about their stage of life? Are they dealing with school schedules or planning for retirement?

Keep in mind the life they’ve led most recently; the pandemic created a different daily routine for most people.

Observe broader trends
“Too often, I see business owners and leaders struggle with predictions because they create a universe where the customer has one goal – to use the company’s product.”

Almost without exception, most business owners and leaders tell me their industry is unique, but there are absolutely trends that apply across almost every industry.

For example, a very significant customer experience trend for the future, across the market, is a focus on health and safety.

Business owners must look for the trends and then plan around them.

Don’t automatically ignore something because it doesn’t immediately apply to your industry – eventually, it might!

Another trend is people relocating from cities to suburbs and regional areas during the pandemic.

Remote working allowed for this flexibility and people shifted their lives in order to accommodate more space and desirable outdoor living.

What does that mean for your business? It could mean a lot in terms of store location, delivery expectations, and even the product selection on offer.

Too often, I see business owners and leaders struggle with predictions because they create a universe where the customer has one goal – to use the company’s product.

That’s not how people work, and the more you can truly pay attention to their overall environment, the more successful you’ll be in finding and acting on those customer clues.

Applying knowledge

Now that you have an idea of the current consumer environment, what can you do with these insights?

• Mapping the future customer’s journey – Who is the customer in one year or five? What are their needs and expectations? How can you adapt your customer journey accordingly?

Journey mapping is an exercise where a diagram is used to illustrate how a customer interacts with a business.

The journey starts when the customer identifies a specific need and progresses through to researching product options to meet that need, visiting a bricks-and- mortar or online store, making their purchase, using the product, seeking customer service support from the business, and repeating the purchase.

The way a customer discovers and purchases from your business in the future may be very different from how they do so today; mapping allows you to identify the areas where you should prioritise development and investment.

• Fix the future ‘pain points’ – One of the key elements of customer journey mapping is identifying ‘pain points’ – the negative experiences that prevent a shopper from purchasing or re-purchasing from a business.

These can include being unable to find the correct size, an inability to find a suitable product within budget, or waiting too long for a response from a business’ customer service staff.

Compare your current and future customer journey maps – are there any existing pain points that could worsen with time?

For example, more customers are now comfortable with using their mobile phone to get information while they’re shopping in-person, so a store’s slow Wi-Fi connection could present a barrier to purchase.

Consider how a customer will use their device in-store and develop the environment to support that new behaviour.

• Invite employee feedback – Employees have great ideas and often see customer expectations changing in real time; they need a way to communicate these observations and ideas with management.

Customer support staff often hear about frustrations caused by comparisons to the competition, such as wait times.

For example, they may say things like, “Even my car mechanic has a mobile update system now – why do I have to call and wait on hold?”

It is important for businesses to be exposed to all types of feedback, yet staff may be discouraged from reporting negative observations.

Keeping your finger on the pulse of change means looking ahead and getting the support you need to act quickly.

Don’t ignore the future

Several years ago, IT firm Cisco released a report about what healthcare providers and consumers wanted from healthcare.

One of the findings that stood out was the idea that virtual doctor visits – also known as telehealth – were perfectly acceptable to many consumers.

The study found that while consumers still depend heavily on in-person medical treatments, given a choice between virtual access to care and human contact, three quarters said access to care was more important than physical contact with their care provider.

Consumers surveyed in the study were overwhelmingly comfortable with the use of technology for the clinician interaction.

I read this study in 2013 and thought, doesn’t this apply to everything?

Everyone is living more frenzied and complicated lives than ever and while technology gives us access to services, it also keeps us tethered to jobs and obligations like never before.

Therefore, convenience continues to be a top-ranking driver for customer behaviour and loyalty. Healthcare is no different, so why not offer video doctor visits for care that can be provided in that way?

Yet many healthcare providers ignored this trend; just think of how many GPs were still unprepared for the surge in telehealth consultations in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began!

They were scrambling to set up basic video connections, and many still required patients to call their office to schedule those appointments.

Patients had been asking for that type of service for nearly a decade, and they missed or dismissed the clues.

It was – and is – simpler and less expensive to simply keep doing what’s always been done, until it isn’t.

Inertia is a powerful force, and it is all too easy to just let things happen the way they always have. Leaders look ahead and consider the clues, then, most importantly, they act.

This is an edited version of an article originally published on ExperienceInvestigators.com. It has been republished with permission.


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Jeannie Walters

Contributor • Experience Investigators

Jeannie Walters is founder and CEO of Experience Investigators. Learn more: experienceinvestigators.com

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