5 customer experience trends to watch for in 2021

How to prepare for your customers' changing expectations in the New Year according to Forrester’s 2021 CX predictions.

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Editor’s Note: This guide was written in 2020 in partnership with Jeannie Walters, CCXP, CEO, founder of Experience Investigators™.

It’s strange to say it, but due to COVID-19, we've just experienced a year of acceleration and a year of great pause. These conflicting traits led to challenges and loss for businesses and people at large. Yet the challenges were also met with innovation and ideas that upended the status quo and expedited digital experiences to meet customer needs in days or weeks, not months or years.

Customer experience (CX) changed in dramatic ways for both customers and the brands that serve them. “Nice to have” experience improvements became “must-have” ways to get customers what they needed and frankly, to stay in business.

When the world changed dramatically, in some cases literally overnight, brands and businesses had to figure out how to shift to new models in real time. What’s amazing is how they answered the call and continued to serve employees and customers in new ways.

Customer experience expectations are forever changed. It’s not enough to have a multi-year strategy and hope for the best. Customers have real needs in real time, and brands need to be nimble enough to deliver for them.

Let’s look ahead to next year and beyond. These CX predictions may require new thinking, new ways of doing business, and new ways to work. Let’s dive in.

Prediction 1

Customer trust relies on health and safety visibility

People all over the world experienced a collective ordeal as the COVID-19 pandemic affected almost every aspect of life. Customers now want to interact with brands they trust, and that trust goes way beyond the idea of “it’s a brand I know and trust.”

Customers want evidence, not just talking points. How will this brand take care of me from a health and safety perspective? How will this brand ensure employee safety and wellness? How will this brand deliver on their promises? 

Trust will be built by showing, not telling.

Frequent travelers have been told hotel rooms will be sanitized and deep-cleaned between each use, for example. It’s one thing to say something is clean, but how will customers see the evidence? 

Hotel brands will continue to experiment with both protocol and communications to assure customers of their hygiene processes, recommended by the CDC. Some have started to provide reassurance with obvious, low-tech touches that showcase these cleaning procedures. 

Hilton, promoting their CleanStay initiatives, started placing physical stickers across guest room doors to show the arriving guest nobody had entered after housekeeping. Hilton and other hotel chains even created special wraps and stickers to highlight high-touch areas of the guest room, like the remote control and even the toilet paper, had been disinfected. 

Forrester reports in their Predictions 2021: Customer Experience guide that just 6% of U.S. online adults trust travel companies to make smart choices in regard to guidance around proximity and hygiene. 

Brands need to continually consider how to show the evidence to customers around these issues. In the future, more customers will demand these considerations and won’t be afraid to walk away from experiences that don’t feel clean and safe.

Prediction 2

Smartphones become even more personal

Shopping via smartphones is growing exponentially. Customers are becoming more comfortable with devices because the needs of the pandemic required quick adoption to digital channels, including mobile. 

In their Unboxing 2020’s Holiday Shopping Forecast, Adobe predicts smartphone shopping dollars will grow by 55% year-over-year in the 2020 holiday season. Customers who had never even considered shopping via their phone last year are doing it with gusto this year. That trend will continue to grow as more brands offer better mobile experiences to do so.

Mobile devices are becoming necessary to view restaurant menus and avoid touching kiosks in airports, hotel lobbies, and other populated places. QR codes are becoming integral to interact with these experiences. Mobile users scan the code to see the menu, make selections, and more. 

Customers will continue to want contactless methods where they can browse and order from their personal mobile device. Restaurants adopted this technology quickly, but in somewhat limited ways. 

The flexibility of building an interactive menu could lead to customer-focused improvements. Each menu selection, for example, could provide a deeper dive into descriptions of how the food is prepared or even sourced. Food allergy questions could be proactively addressed, and perhaps recommended choices could be proactively offered, similar to how Amazon suggests what you might like based on past purchases and browsing. 

China has asked their population to rely on QR code scanning as an entry point of sorts. Abbot, the medical company responsible for one of the tests for COVID-19, has released an app that could become an “all-clear” pass. Customers who receive a negative test get a QR code on the app, which airlines, offices, and even retail environments could scan to allow entry. 

There are definite limitations to this, including how many people would actually sign up for it, but it could definitely become a more common experience in the future. Some employers may insist on it to keep workplaces and customers safe. 

Smartphones had already become our tickets to concerts, airplanes and movies. The trend around how we rely on these devices will continue to accelerate for customers, so brands should be ready to innovate and create seamless mobile experiences.

Prediction 3

Augmented reality becomes a more universal tool for brands and customers

It’s not just restaurants that will rely on customer’s personal mobile devices. Customers want to understand, see, and experience their choices before buying. Furniture showrooms, makeup counters, and that classic shoe store staple foot-measuring device can all be translated into a fully-digital experience via a customer’s smartphone. 

Wayfair, Warby Parker, Nike and several other brands have already been offering Augmented reality (AR) options. The pandemic led brands with traditionally more in-person shopping to embrace options like AR as customers stayed closer to home.

Customers have been asking for more options—and it behooves brands to listen. Conversion rates increase by 90% for those customers who engage with AR compared to those who don’t, according to data reported by Retail Customer Experience. And brands offering AR options for mobile and digital shopping have seen a 19% spike in customer engagement since the early days of the pandemic, according to the same report. 

The experience of shopping at home became ubiquitous in 2020. Instead of pulling out the measuring tape to see if that chair would fit the space, augmented reality could show the user exactly how it fits and how it would look in the space.

Augmented Reality for eCommerce

(Source: Wikimedia)

Levi’s CEO Chip Bergh announced in 2019 that within the next ten years, generic sizing would be replaced by custom fit apparel. This is possible because body scanning through AR would allow for made-to-order clothing for most customers. 

Customers will expect more customization via AR. Virtually trying on clothes or seeing what the dining room table will look like are excellent uses, but what if AR could actually go a step further and improve how customers interact in their daily lives? 

Potential uses could tie personalization and suggested choices together. Enter a bit of data about yourself and use your phone to suggest the ideal, ergonomic home desk setup, for example. Or scan your refrigerator to identify anything with artificial colors. Instead of just focusing on one product or brand, customers will see value from brands that support their lives, not just the one purchase.

The possibilities really are endless. But customers need more information on how to use this technology in the palm of their hand. Brands that get this right, and communicate the power and ease of it the right way, will support the overall customer experience and build loyalty in the process.

Prediction 4

Familiar experiences require new customer journeys

The restrictions introduced around capacity limits at restaurants, wearing masks, and keeping socially distant, had an immediate impact on the customer experience this year. Customers won’t immediately feel comfortable going back to waiting in a crowded line or eating at a restaurant with tables packed together. 

Familiar and accepted experiences, like walking into a coffee shop with a friend spontaneously, will require planning and reservations. According to Forrester’s Predictions 2021: Customer Experience guide, consumers will be seeking in-person experiences: 

As consumers hungry for face-to-face interactions shop more in person instead of online and ease back into travel, restaurants, concerts, athletic events, and other discretionary in-person experiences, they’ll favor the brands that do best at saying and doing what it takes to earn trust—even if they find other brands’ offerings more attractive in other ways.

Customers will want, in some ways, for things to go back to “normal.” But pre-pandemic norms won’t be seen as safe or reassuring in the foreseeable future.  

Brands can tackle these challenges with tried-and-true customer experience best practices like customer journey mapping and service blueprinting

Take the coffee shop experience, for example. Customers will need guidance on how to make a reservation if that’s a new step on the journey. Employees will need to understand how to determine if the customer showing up at the door has a reservation or not. And what if they don’t? How will that be handled? How will distance between customers be maintained? What’s the cleaning protocol and how is that communicated to customers?

While the possibilities for new customer journeys may feel overwhelming, there is an easy way to understand their new expectations. Simply ask them. When you open up a channel of feedback and surveying, you can communicate with customers and ask them exactly what they need to feel safe and satisfied.

A simple survey asking, “What improvements would you like to see in the coming months?” with an open-text box for the customer to leave their thoughts becomes the roadmap for your brand to create innovative experiences that your customers actually want. 

Doctor’s waiting rooms are another area that will require re-thinking. Will patients feel comfortable seated in a closed space with other people who may be sick? Many have asked patients to wait in their cars until they receive a text alert to come into the building itself. What will happen when a patient who hasn’t been to the doctor in a while comes back for the first time? Communicating both before, during and after the experience will require new steps in the journey.

These are important questions that deserve well thought-out answers. Brands like Starbucks are already considering how to reduce the need for one-on-one contact for customers and employees. Earlier this year, they announced expansion plans around drive-thru and mobile order only stores to respond to customer needs. 

More businesses will need to adapt their physical locations, their employee experience, and their customer experience to fit customer’s 2021 needs. 

It’s important to map the employee experience alongside the customer journey. Employees will need to understand how to reduce the customer effort of these evolving customer journeys. 

This requires ongoing evaluation of the journey from both the customer and the employee perspectives. Brands will need to dedicate resources to this type of ongoing evaluation to deliver consistently great experiences in the future.

For example, consistently tracking CX metrics like Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) and Customer Effort Score (CES) with surveys shows you exactly how well any changes you make are impacting the customer experience.

Prediction 5

Customers seek brands that deliver on their diversity and inclusion promises

Customers have been seeking brands that align with their values and putting more and more of their money where their values are. Millennials have made this a key factor in where and how they buy. In fact, 83% of this demographic alone want companies that align with their values, according to 5WPR’s 2020 Consumer Culture Report.

The summer of 2020 brought about sweeping social justice protests in all fifty states and across much of the globe. 

These values around racial and social justice came into focus in immediate ways. Brands announced promises to improve the ways they hired employees, developed their executive boards, and interacted with customers to create a more diverse and inclusive experience. 

What comes next will be watched carefully by values-driven customers. Promises and press releases aren’t enough, and customers want the evidence of change to be transparent and authentic. 

Brands should report out publicly on how they are doing on progress toward those promises. Have they hired more people of color? Are they incorporating more inclusive practices for both employees and customers? Customers will want these types of updates in visible and timely ways.

Forrester’s Predictions 2021: Customer Experience guide predicts many of these organizations will stay focused inside the business. But the focus on employees only misses the mark of what inclusion practices could really yield. A majority of customers reported wanting a company they do business with to share a position regarding “racial equity, social justice and anti-discrimination” issues, according to 5WPR’s 2020 Consumer Culture Report

Brands shouldn't remain silent on the greater issues of the world. Customers are expecting to not just hear about change, but to see the progress and results toward it as well.

Customer experience professionals have a big job on any given day, but 2020 showed just how vital it is to stay connected to the changing expectations, needs and outside forces of our customers. To stay ahead of changes, CX professionals must look to how the entire experience ecosystem fits together.

Customers have expectations to meet and employees have to deliver new experiences. Processes, systems and procedures must support these experiences for both employees and customers.

Effective experience design means understanding where customers are today, what they need for tomorrow, and how the journey can get them there.

Leveraging techniques like customer journey mapping and service blueprinting is great if considerations are made for the unknowns and predicted customer expectations.

Here is a brief recap of the 2021 predicted trends and how you can address them in your CX initiatives:

No. 1: Customers expect to feel safe in their shopping experience with your brand. They want evidence and reassurance of cleaning practices. How will your shopping and customer journeys reflect this type of reassurance at key points in the journey? Not sure what the key points in the journey are? Ask your customers about their journey and which points are the easiest and which create friction. 

No. 2: Smartphones can reduce the need for contact and publicly shared tools like kiosk touch screens or paper menus. Are there moments in the journey where customers can use their personal devices instead of the traditional ways? 

What tools, technologies and back-end processes are required to make this easy for customers? What do employees need to know to help them interact with it all smoothly? How will you know it’s actually working for customers? Leverage analytic and CX software to capture feedback in an ongoing and meaningful way.

No. 3: Augmented reality has changed the way customers shop already. Is there a use for this in your customer’s journey? Customers won’t be heading into crowded shopping malls anytime soon, and now the convenience of shopping at home is expected. Are there ways AR could help eliminate the anxiety of making purchases this way for your customers? 

What tools, technology and processes are required? And how will these new ways of doing business be communicated to customers? To determine the importance of integrating new technology, ask your customer to rank their priorities and plan accordingly. 

No. 4: Customer journeys may fundamentally change. Instead of focusing on “back to normal” brands need to focus on how to deliver new experiences within the limitations, restrictions and reality of the future. 

Brands can reimagine the customer journey to meet these realities. Need to reduce capacity at a store or physical location? What do customers need to know? How will they be welcomed and engaged in these new journeys? Avoid assuming customers will figure it out on their own. Familiar journeys might feel the most awkward in their reinvention.

No. 5: Brands must live up to their promises for social justice and other values. Customers are willing to go to other brands who live up to their values. 

Is there a plan for not only introducing the ideas of diversity and inclusion but how to share those efforts at large? Customers will not have patience for brands that promise internal-only efforts and provide no evidence of their efforts. 

Customers want brands to do the right thing, and they are willing to vote with their dollars accordingly.

2020 has been a year like no other. Pandemic protocols, social justice, and the real-world impacts of both will leave a set of new expectations for customers. Brands that dedicate themselves to really listening to customers and anticipating what they need will continue to earn trust, loyalty and ultimately more customers. The future is different, but it is also bright for those who work together to earn and maintain trust into 2021 and beyond.

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