The Dwindling Well of Forgiveness for Your Post-COVID Customer Experience

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Last March and April, as businesses struggled to implement "work from home" policies and contain service disruptions, something remarkable happened: Customer satisfaction scores rose. Clients and Voice of the Customer platforms reported that VoC scores improved quite broadly across categories and businesses. Why would customers report more satisfaction as service quality declined? Forgiveness. As your customers fought to adapt to the new pandemic reality and saw their employers grapple with COVID-induced difficulties, they were more inclined to forgive the sorts of experiences that would have previously generated a complaint. By summer and fall, as life settled into the "new normal," NPS, CSAT, and effort scores tended to return to normal (and, in some cases, declined as brands tried to meet customers' new expectations.) This spring, as the United States recovered from COVID, mask and business restrictions lifted, and people returned to normal--US restaurants have operated within 5% of their 2019 volumes on recent weekends--it seemed a grateful population was ready to return with a new well of forgiveness for businesses striving to adapt to post-pandemic difficulties. But I've noticed that the well of forgiveness is rapidly dwindling, and that means organizations must consider what is necessary to either get their customer experience (CX) right or to replenish their customers' well of forgiveness. As I research and advise clients on CX best practices, I observe that brands fail to understand the full ROI of CX. As CX improves and customer loyalty is strengthened, brands will measure direct financial benefits such as improved sales, reduced churn, and increased lifetime value. Brands also often seek to measure softer benefits, such as enhanced engagement and greater WOM. But one benefit of CX is often overlooked, and that's forgiveness. Strong, consistent customer experiences earn more forgiveness. More forgiving customers are inclined to overlook isolated problems and are less likely to seek redress or share frustrations with others. While brands cannot count on their customers' endless forgiveness, they can do more to earn that forgiveness. If your organization is struggling to meet expectations, consider ways to fill your customers' well of forgiveness: Excel where you can to compensate for where you disappoint: The better your experiences, the more trust and loyalty you earn. Too often, brands strive for a "minimum viable experience" across all of their touchpoints, but if you are failing to meet expectations in one touchpoint, consider overdelivering in others. Be transparent (but don't make excuses): If you're experiencing issues, be proactive in letting people know, but be cautious with justifications. Some companies have opted to complain about their difficulties hiring staff, but that can do more reputational harm than good. Instead, set expectations so that customers know what to anticipate and keep them informed. Make honest apologies: An apology goes a long way, but most companies (and people) get apologies wrong. Apologies must be made honestly, and that means your scripted language ("I can see where that would be frustrating") falls short. An apology should be an opportunity to take responsibility, not pass it off. That means apologizing "that we disappointed you" and not "If you were disappointed." An apology and promise to do better earn a great deal of forgiveness when done properly, but a weak, rote, or self-interested apology will only reduce forgiveness. Make sure your employees know the difference. Compensate disappointed customers before they complain: Don't ignore today's broken touchpoints or count on endless forgiveness from customers. If you know something's broken and you can't fix it quickly, then give something back to customers before they complain. I've seen examples such as restaurants offering free desserts to people whose orders took long to deliver, and one small grocery store handed out chocolates to customers standing in long lines at checkout. Don't wait for someone to complain because many won't--they'll just walk away disappointed and angry. Address your known issues head-on. Give your employees more autonomy:  In times of stress and challenge, empower your employees to make decisions in the moment that can resolve issues, satisfy customers, and earn more forgiveness. Don't compound poor customer experiences because of an unwillingness to trust the judgment of your frontline workers. After a difficult year, many businesses want to focus on improving profitability and growth rather than investing in their customer experience, but remember that your most profitable customers in 2022 will be the ones you keep, build and foster in 2021. The COVID pandemic isn't over. In recent days, the downward trend in US daily cases has shown signs of ending, and the highly contagious "delta" variant is now growing in the US. No one expects the sorts of deadly surges we experienced in the past year, given that two-thirds of adults in the US have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Still, it's possible your customers and your business may yet experience more COVID struggles later this year. Continue to keep your focus on customers' shifting needs and do what you can to earn, keep and grow their loyalty in what remains an unsettled environment.

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Last March and April, as businesses struggled to implement “work from home” policies and contain service disruptions, something remarkable happened: Customer satisfaction scores rose. Clients and Voice of the Customer platforms reported that VoC scores improved quite broadly across categories and businesses.

Why would customers report more satisfaction as service quality declined? Forgiveness. As your customers fought to adapt to the new pandemic reality and saw their employers grapple with COVID-induced difficulties, they were more inclined to forgive the sorts of experiences that would have previously generated a complaint. By summer and fall, as life settled into the “new normal,” NPS, CSAT, and effort scores tended to return to normal (and, in some cases, declined as brands tried to meet customers’ new expectations.)

This spring, as the United States recovered from COVID, mask and business restrictions lifted, and people returned to normal–US restaurants have operated within 5% of their 2019 volumes on recent weekends–it seemed a grateful population was ready to return with a new well of forgiveness for businesses striving to adapt to post-pandemic difficulties. But I’ve noticed that the well of forgiveness is rapidly dwindling, and that means organizations must consider what is necessary to either get their customer experience (CX) right or to replenish their customers’ well of forgiveness.

As I research and advise clients on CX best practices, I observe that brands fail to understand the full ROI of CX. As CX improves and customer loyalty is strengthened, brands will measure direct financial benefits such as improved sales, reduced churn, and increased lifetime value. Brands also often seek to measure softer benefits, such as enhanced engagement and greater WOM. But one benefit of CX is often overlooked, and that’s forgiveness. Strong, consistent customer experiences earn more forgiveness. More forgiving customers are inclined to overlook isolated problems and are less likely to seek redress or share frustrations with others.

While brands cannot count on their customers’ endless forgiveness, they can do more to earn that forgiveness. If your organization is struggling to meet expectations, consider ways to fill your customers’ well of forgiveness:

Excel where you can to compensate for where you disappoint: The better your experiences, the more trust and loyalty you earn. Too often, brands strive for a “minimum viable experience” across all of their touchpoints, but if you are failing to meet expectations in one touchpoint, consider overdelivering in others.
Be transparent (but don’t make excuses): If you’re experiencing issues, be proactive in letting people know, but be cautious with justifications. Some companies have opted to complain about their difficulties hiring staff, but that can do more reputational harm than good. Instead, set expectations so that customers know what to anticipate and keep them informed.
Make honest apologies: An apology goes a long way, but most companies (and people) get apologies wrong. Apologies must be made honestly, and that means your scripted language (“I can see where that would be frustrating”) falls short. An apology should be an opportunity to take responsibility, not pass it off. That means apologizing “that we disappointed you” and not “If you were disappointed.” An apology and promise to do better earn a great deal of forgiveness when done properly, but a weak, rote, or self-interested apology will only reduce forgiveness. Make sure your employees know the difference.
Compensate disappointed customers before they complain: Don’t ignore today’s broken touchpoints or count on endless forgiveness from customers. If you know something’s broken and you can’t fix it quickly, then give something back to customers before they complain. I’ve seen examples such as restaurants offering free desserts to people whose orders took long to deliver, and one small grocery store handed out chocolates to customers standing in long lines at checkout. Don’t wait for someone to complain because many won’t–they’ll just walk away disappointed and angry. Address your known issues head-on.
Give your employees more autonomy:  In times of stress and challenge, empower your employees to make decisions in the moment that can resolve issues, satisfy customers, and earn more forgiveness. Don’t compound poor customer experiences because of an unwillingness to trust the judgment of your frontline workers.

After a difficult year, many businesses want to focus on improving profitability and growth rather than investing in their customer experience, but remember that your most profitable customers in 2022 will be the ones you keep, build and foster in 2021.

The COVID pandemic isn’t over. In recent days, the downward trend in US daily cases has shown signs of ending, and the highly contagious “delta” variant is now growing in the US. No one expects the sorts of deadly surges we experienced in the past year, given that two-thirds of adults in the US have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Still, it’s possible your customers and your business may yet experience more COVID struggles later this year. Continue to keep your focus on customers’ shifting needs and do what you can to earn, keep and grow their loyalty in what remains an unsettled environment.

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