Today’s consumers demand more from brands on every level. Millennials and Generation Zers have entered the driver’s seat with a combined $3 trillion in purchasing power, according to YPulse, and they have made their expectations clear.
Offering products at competitive prices is no longer enough — you must also provide a top-tier customer experience. That means creating open lines of communication with consumers, listening to their feedback, and offering products that anticipate their needs.
Customer experience becomes especially crucial during times of crisis, such as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. This experience is reflected in the values that consumers want companies to hold, such as a move toward more natural, sustainable materials and processes. Companies that empathize with consumers and show compassion by reflecting these values in their manufacturing and logistics can stand out from the pack.
General Motors Co., for example, created and filled a new C-suite position for sustainability earlier this year to show its values to manufacturing partners and customers. When the coronavirus began to spread throughout the country, the company started creating ventilators to help people suffering from the worst cases of COVID-19. This appeals to consumers, as 53% believe brands should get involved in social issues that don’t impact their businesses.
There are countless ways to interact with your audience and gather insights into their preferences, ranging from social media posts to online reviews and email surveys. However, a shockingly low number of companies engage in these beneficial activities. According to a 2019 HubSpot study, 42% of companies say they do not collect feedback from their customers.
Creating products and services without listening to customers is a risky move. A great example of a company making this mistake came in 1985, when Coca-Cola changed its formula for the first time in 99 years. The company had gradually lost market share to Pepsi, so its leaders tried to make a splash with New Coke, which tasted more like Pepsi. Coke’s loyal consumers were blindsided by the change, however. They loved the taste of classic Coca-Cola and refused to embrace the new offering. Sales plummeted, and Coca-Cola reverted to its tried-and-true formula a few months later.
Microsoft made a similar blunder in 2012 with the release of Windows 8. Fresh from the failure of Windows Vista, the company decided to change the look and feel of its operating system completely to resemble Apple’s user interface. The decision backfired. Windows 8 released to poor reviews, and fewer consumers adopted it than Windows Vista. Since then, Microsoft has returned to its traditional look.
Companies like Coca-Cola and Microsoft can afford to make big mistakes. But for most small and midsize organizations, these missteps can have detrimental consequences.
Follow these tips to ensure your operation remains on par with customer preferences:
1. Leverage CRM technology.
Manually tracking customer feedback is a fool’s errand. There are simply too many simultaneous conversations occurring across a multitude of venues. Instead, companies should use customer relationship management (CRM) software to track their interactions with current and potential consumers and to aggregate customer insights into a centralized location.
I took this exact approach while at my previous company, Schmidt’s Naturals. I was able to read customer reviews and communicate with users more efficiently. This helped us discover that customers wanted a new form of our product, which we delivered.
Most CRM platforms offer mobile access, which has been shown to improve productivity and make it easier to maintain open communication with customers. In light of the ongoing pandemic, some CRM vendors have stepped up to help struggling businesses. For example, Salesforce has gone above and beyond by offering free solutions to help companies communicate with customers during these uncertain times.
2. Reply early and often.
According to HubSpot research, a majority of consumers expect companies to reply to their messages in 10 minutes or less. To meet this expectation, devote team members to monitor your CRM system and social media accounts for questions and comments — and respond to them quickly.
You’ll also want to pay attention to comments on your social media ads, which are easy to overlook. Even if a question seems like a no-brainer, answer it. Chances are, several other customers are wondering the same thing.
Artificial intelligence and chatbots can be useful in this area. Many companies use these technologies on their websites and social media pages to help them interact with consumers, answer simple questions, provide product recommendations, and even facilitate transactions.
Yelp has done this well during the pandemic by offering updated services that allow restaurants and businesses to communicate more easily with their customers. For example, Yelp has added banner alerts to each restaurant’s page to display relevant information in a prominent spot.
3. Make authentic connections.
According to Quick Sprout, consumers are less likely to shop around and more likely to recommend you to friends if they feel an authentic connection to your brand. Chatbots might be able to handle the bulk of your customer interactions, but that doesn’t mean you should become overly reliant on the technology. Research from Sitel Group suggests that 70% of consumers would rather interact with a real person than a chatbot, so you’ll want to balance your use of AI with an authentic human touch.
Zappos is a shining example of a company that interacts authentically with consumers online. The shoe retailer’s social media team routinely — and cheerfully — replies to the majority of comments it receives, with team members signing each message with their initials. Even as Zappos transitions employees to work from home, it’s still focused on “WOWing” customers, vendors, and employees. During trying times, brands must adhere to the core values that have always driven them.
Customer preferences are always changing, and they fully expect the companies they support to keep up with them. This has never been truer than during a global crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. To innovate and stay relevant, you must continually check in with customers, monitor their online conversations, and offer a tailored experience that shows you’re listening.
Modern consumers don’t just buy products — they invest in brands. They care about purpose, transparency, and authenticity. If your company does not deliver those three essential elements, it will not survive.
Michael Cammarata is the president and CEO of Neptune Wellness Solutions, an innovative wellness company based in Quebec offering high-quality, environmentally friendly, natural alternative products. He also co-founded Schmidt’s Naturals, a fast-growing wellness brand that was acquired by Unilever in 2017.