It used to be that you would walk into a store or shopping mall, browse casually for a few hours, maybe grab a bite to eat in the food court, then walk out without having purchased anything. Even as vaccination numbers continue to climb, those days still feel as if they may never return.
In-store browsing is only one element of the pre-pandemic customer experience. But, with shelter-in-place, physical distancing guidelines and a general fear of getting sick, all segments have become more and more digital because they have to. Online shopping is not just for the early adopters or younger generations any longer.
COVID-19 has given birth to Generation Novel, or Gen N – a term coined by Brian Solis, a digital analyst, anthropologist, and futurist – which he describes as the new critical customer segment created by the pandemic. Unbound by age, Gen N is connected by deep emotions such as fear and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, which are driving changes in consumer behaviours and resetting consumer values as well.
Almost everyone on the planet—from digital novices to digital natives—has been affected by the forging of a new consumer climate. And now, so many of us across wide-ranging demographics are becoming deeply dependent upon the internet and digital channels and platforms to connect us to our jobs, families and friends, communities, and ultimately to the retail world.
Additionally, consumers’ expectations of trust have skyrocketed during the pandemic. According to Salesforce, a remarkable 82% of customers in a recent survey said a company’s trustworthiness matters more now than it did last year. More than half of respondents (56%) have changed their view of the societal role of companies, and 62% said they’ve stopped buying from companies whose values do not align with their own. These are all indications that shoppers are thinking about their habits beyond a transaction-to-transaction scope and are more heavily considering their relationships with brands. That suggests they may be more willing to shop around and try out new brands to find a better ‘fit’.
What these shifts symbolise, and how they materialise, will surely be written about in hundreds of future books. However, business leaders need to grasp those changes now to survive and to lay the new groundwork to thrive. Real-time analytics of transactions, customer service interactions and other brand metrics are key—but only if we have high-quality, annotated data from which to mine insights, and only if brands have concrete, actionable ways to apply their findings.
As Solis has said, though, it’s incredibly difficult to make things easy, and this task feels particularly massive. Climbing this mountain begins with a single, solid foothold. Let’s take it.
Does the present market inform the future?
How the consumer realm has changed in the past 14 months is a near-total blending, and sometimes blurring, of the lines between the physical and digital worlds, aided by existing and emerging technology.
Order online, pick up in-store. Click the “here” button on mobile to have an order brought to your car. Once the items are picked up or delivered, an automated email thanks you for your business. Indeed, the explosive growth of curbside and in-store pickup is a perfect example of this melding of the markets. It has been profitable: according to figures from the US Department of Commerce, total e-commerce sales for 2020 were pegged at nearly $792 billion—up an astounding 32.4% since 2019. Curbside and BOPIS (buy online pickup in-store) options were credited by Walmart, Costco and other major retailers as a source of revenue surges. It helped many small businesses stay afloat, too.
Better yet, people like it. According to a survey we recently did at TELUS International, 78% of Americans said their digital customer experiences since the start of the pandemic exceeded their pre-pandemic experiences.
There is a “but;” however.
These improved experiences are happening to some degree inside of a pandemic bubble, and that makes it exceedingly difficult for companies to understand what will happen to Gen N when it pops. After all, market and consumer trend predictions can only foretell so much, and these uncertainties loom large for brands trying to plan staffing, inventory, digital transformation, capital investments and so on. It is like feeling around for a light switch in the dark.
Let’s put it this way: Before the pandemic, analysts could confidently attribute or assign certain favourite channels and ways to shop or engage with brands by age range, which helped brands meet their customers’ needs. Identifying where and how to meet consumers on their customer journey was simpler. But that no longer applies. That map has flown out the window.
As McKinsey wrote in its influential Quickening report, US e-commerce penetration jumped ahead by 10 years in the first three months of the pandemic—and the foot’s still on the gas pedal in this regard – making it increasingly difficult to see the landscape when you’re travelling at such a rapid speed.
Questions remain. Will life revert back to pre-pandemic days? Will we be rocketed into a new consumer landscape? Or, perhaps a little bit of both?
To understand business in 2021 and beyond, Solis argues, we need to accelerate our study of Gen N to fully understand and appreciate how technology filters the consumer experience. We also need to look at how the human experience, and the cultural norms that shape our existence, have been destabilised and, ultimately, primed for transformation.
In this examination, we should consider how different types of businesses reacted to and were affected by the pandemic. Shopify smartly points out in its Future of Commerce 2021 report that these learnings will be different for each type of business. Digital-only businesses had their own challenges; as Shopify noted, “only 38% of the largest companies are capable of competing on customer experience” and that direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands had a much easier time appealing to the pandemic generation. “The opportunity for DTC brands is to build on their e-commerce expertise. The challenge for everyone else is keeping up,” said the Shopify report.
Developing and refining these understandings of how consumerism is changing is critical to the future of retail, and the future of every business sector touched by humans and their continuously evolving expectations. They’re also fundamental to creating a better system. Solis’ Gen N framework is a lens for looking at how the next 24 months will evolve. It’s also meant as an empowerment tool to move brands away from only meeting basic needs and throwing up their hands in pre-emptive defeat when thinking about a “new normal” or “next normal.”
This, Solis says, “is really about taking those sources of inspiration and recognising that, yes, this is a devastating time, but it’s also a ‘control-alt-delete’ moment, and we can move forward in it. We have much more control in the direction we go. We’re already disrupted— why would we want to go back to normal? Let’s create the future we really want and make it matter.”
But, some of the answers we are seeking about the future, may in fact lie in the past.
Emphasising the human side of tech
27 years ago, Dan Kohn made history.
The then-21-year-old college student sold a Sting CD—Ten Summoner’s Tales, if you were wondering—to friend Phil Brandenberger in Philadelphia for $12.48 plus shipping.
It was the first-ever secure transaction made online.
Kohn had created the framework for the transaction under the umbrella of his online marketplace startup, NetMarket. He told Vice a year before his November 2020 death that making that transaction was a “mind-blowing experience.”
That novelty has morphed into a juggernaut that some economies rely upon for wealth production. He lived to see something he probably never in a million years would have imagined back in college: In 2020, $1 in every $5 spent on retail purchases in the US came from online orders.
That moment in 1994 changed the world. Kohn’s legacy, though, lives on in a more meaningful way than in dollars and cents. He used his foothold in the tech world to become a champion of open-source software. Later in his career, he also led the Linux Foundation’s Public Health Initiative, which houses a program helping to combat COVID-19 through contact tracing and exposure notifications.
Fundamentally, he spent his life connecting the virtual world and the physical one, in many aspects helping to pave the way for how humans behave in the era of the “extremely online.”
He also paved the way for other innovators. Since he sold that Sting CD in 1994, the trajectory of commerce has been further transformed by others working to connect people to the digital realm. COVID put that steady transformation into hyperdrive.
“You have Amazon and e-commerce in 1996 or so, then every wave after that — you look at the iPhone in 2005, you look at Facebook in 2006, then Twitter in 2007, then Instagram following, TikTok, Snapchat, app economy, delivery, gig economy,” Solis recently told Patrick Haughey, TELUS International Studios podcast host. “Every single one of those things has fundamentally changed how we behave as human beings, and that humanisation is actually what makes transformation and innovation so meaningful.”
Kohn knew that keeping and augmenting the human touch in technology would be essential to the health of our digital futures and that pursuing technology for technology’s sake without humans at the centre is unsustainable. “Being in Silicon Valley all of these years, it has been an uphill battle and still kind of is,” Solis said in the podcast. “The pandemic has changed that for the better though. I’ve had to break conversations down from being technology- or digital-first, to being human-centred, and then we can bring in technology to be an enabler.”
A return to, and a new emphasis on, the human elements of tech are intrinsic to serving Gen N and future generations of consumers shaped by the pandemic.
According to a survey we recently did at TELUS International, 78% of Americans said their digital customer experiences since the start of the pandemic exceeded their pre-pandemic experiences.
What matters most to Gen N
Generation N may be composed of drastically different ages, ethnicities and genders, but these consumers share several important commonalities. They want – and are demanding – the following from the brands they choose:
Empathy: More genuine kindness and helpfulness from brands and their customer service teams.
Balance: Greater equilibrium between tech and humans, and making more efforts to maximise both where they shine brightest to improve efficiency and convenience.
Ease of use: According to research by Shopify, 84% of consumers shopped online during the pandemic. But, that same research also said 53% of consumers will abandon a site that takes longer than three seconds to load on mobile. User interface design and user experience (UI and UX) need to be smart, simple and fast.
Transparency: This is big, and it has a lot of dimensions. By transparency, we could look at making brand policies and product information easy to find on brand websites and also making it easily searchable online through search engines. Or, openly communicating brand difficulties to customers. Or, giving customers and employees clearer views into inventory and supply chain functioning and challenges. Or, it could mean data collection transparency. And maybe it is all of them. It is through an almost rebellious, revolutionary spirit of transparency that brands stand out and gain consumer trust.
Diversity: Fundamentally, this means greater diversity of products and greater diversity of customer service employees, to serve consumers ranging in age, ethnicity, language, abilities and needs. This is especially critical now, as many companies stripped operations down to the bare bones to tackle the challenges of the pandemic, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives were among the first to be sacrificed.
Early on in the pandemic, DE&I consultant Lily Zhang wrote in the Harvard Business Review that one VP told her: “Diversity work is nice, but not essential.” To Zhang, they couldn’t see that not pursuing diversity work during the pandemic can actually exacerbate talent problems. “We are in two crises right now, an economic crisis and a people crisis, and organisations that acknowledge only one risk exacerbating the other. DE&I efforts can be a powerful solution to both challenges—but the nature of diversity work must evolve to meet that charge.”
In a customer support context, we need only remind ourselves that Gen N is a multi-demographic cohort full of first-time e-commerce shoppers with different skills and abilities, to recognise Zhang is right.
Ethical/sustainable choices: People are becoming more politically and socially conscious and motivated to change their consumer habits. They expect the brands they support to be invested in their ideals. For instance, in the midst of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, consumers overwhelmingly agreed that companies should take a public stance on the issue of racism and police brutality. Events like these may be flashpoints that are hard to study the market impacts of in a long-term way, but we should focus more on the genesis and evolution of these consumer values. They didn’t come from nowhere; in fact, a lot of conscious consumerism has to do with the groundwork laid by environmental advocacy groups trying to hold companies to account. That seed has spread to other areas of inequality and justice.
For instance, Capgemini Research Institute recently surveyed 7,500 people and 750 large organisations, asking them about how sustainability objectives are modifying consumer behaviour. It reported that 80% of consumers want to help save the planet for future generations, that 77% are worried about the treatment of workers and 74% see purchasing sustainable products as a moral responsibility. On the flip side, that same report also found that 44% of people don’t trust sustainability claims—which brings us back to the earlier mention of transparency.
How tech plays a role in serving Gen N
Some of these consumer demands have COVID outcroppings, but in many cases, the pandemic simply accelerated existing social and customer experience trends. For example, GDPR and CCPA—each now several years old—grew out of demands for transparency. Calls for a greater human/tech balance are growing out of increasing automation. Disability advocates have long asked for simpler, easier online experiences informed by universal design and accessibility principles. Empathy in customer service has been a nut many companies have tried to crack for years, and the global experience of hard times has made it much more widely felt and acknowledged. Now that consumer concerns and needs are no longer segmented like they once were means brands need to step up in this regard to stay ahead.
Doing that in a scalable way takes intelligent deployment of technology. My colleague Mike Ringman, CIO at TELUS International, recently mentioned how CX delivery centres are managing these demands: “Tasking bots with answering simple and repetitive questions, scheduling appointments for your customers and providing product- and service-related updates improves communication and frees up your agents to address more complex and nuanced queries.” This includes empowering them to focus on making meaningful, empathetic connections. Utilising this type of next-gen tech also results in faster resolution times – which is another benefit to customers.
Who doesn’t want faster, simpler mobile user experiences, with easier pathways to product search and payment, plus quick, effective and kind customer service? As long as businesses exist, they will be iterating toward this goal. In many ways, though, this is a forest/trees situation. Building the technology is great, but that innovation has to happen with a human-centric framework that has your brand’s and your customers’ shared values at the core.
Putting ideas into action
I often reflect back to that Solis line: It’s incredibly hard to make things easy.
Here are some ideas for actually accomplishing these goals:
Embrace universal design: Using the premise of universal design to make web and mobile e-commerce and brand experiences more accessible to everyone regardless of skill level, ultimately improves everyone’s experience. That rests on making information and help easier to find, as well as making more seamless, integrated user experiences.
Make corporate social responsibility a verb: This looks like defining and taking a stand on brand values, using tech and humans to root out even the least obvious forms of discrimination (data bias, e.g.), pushing for better sustainability and labour practices. Leadership really matters here. According to data my company, TELUS International, has collected, 25% of consumers have started purchasing a product because of a company leader’s behaviour.
Make multidisciplinary teams and seek employee input: Silos are over. Making the best customer experiences today demands better representation, and that means having more people with diverse backgrounds around the table when discussing design, processes, and policies. Diversity and inclusion efforts play a role here; teams should be a reflection of the customers they are serving and designing for.
This might feel like extreme juggling, but we need not feel overwhelmed. Remembering why we are all here—the human element—helps keep us from dropping the ball.
TELUS International is a customer experience (CX) innovator that designs, builds and delivers next-gen digital solutions for global and disruptive brands from more than 25 countries around the world.