Back in the summer of 1999, I was eating in a lovely restaurant in the south of France and saw someone paying their bill using a chip and pin credit card. At the time, I thought that this was revolutionary, not only for security but also for convenience.
Fast forward 20 years: I was shopping last week and as I went to pay, the cashier told me they didn’t accept contactless payment. Having to slide my card into the reader and type in the four digits of my PIN number felt like I’d gone back to the middle ages. Those precious few seconds and effort of having to type four numbers felt like a real inconvenience.
Although my reaction may sound rather extreme, this is an illustration of how quickly customer expectations can change. Chip and pin used to feel state of the art, but now it just feels old and inconvenient.
Consumers are used to being able to tap their credit card, phone, or even watch on a reader and walking away with their purchase. Fast forward a few years into the future, and I expect that even getting my card out of my pocket will begin to feel archaic. Amazon have already experimented this with their Amazon Go grocery stores.
In this digital rich and time poor world, convenience and experience are everything. Customers expect their experiences to be as seamless and as fast as possible, and, crucially, they get used to things very, very quickly. What is new and innovative today will be an expectation tomorrow.
A few years ago, next day delivery for online purchases was considered something special, while delivery within 3-5 days was the standard customer expectation. Retailers that offered delivery the next day had a key advantage over their competitors.
Today, customers are so used to next day delivery, that they simply expect it to be available. Any retailer that does not offer it is in the minority and at a big disadvantage. Companies like Amazon have honed customer expectations to be able to order on a Saturday evening and receive the item on a Sunday, and when this does not happen, we feel let down.
Now retailers are looking at options like same day delivery or ‘try before you buy’ to give them an edge over their peers. Maybe drone delivery will be next once same day delivery becomes the norm.
I have found that some of the more traditional retailers seem to view an e-commerce re-platform in the same way they view a shop re-fit. They carry out the re-fit, then leave the store for the next 5 years before doing it again. In the digital world, these retailers would find themselves far behind their competitors if they made no changes to their online offering for 5 years.
E-commerce largely makes geography redundant, which is why it is so competitive. Before the days of digital, if I wanted to buy a pair of shoes, I would probably visit the handful of shoe shops that were geographically close to me. Today, I can literally visit hundreds of shoe shops from the comfort of my sofa. This simple fact drives competition online, and competition drives change.
This competition means that brands are constantly adding new offerings to improve their customers’ experience and gain an edge on their competitors. This means that any brand that stands still is actually going backwards in real terms.
There are generally three types of brands when it comes to innovation: Those that lead the way, those that follow, and those that lag behind. Most brands will sit in the middle bracket and watch what the leaders are doing, then copy what is successful.
While it is vitally important that brands pay attention to shifting customer expectations and continue to change their offerings to match these expectations, it is not hard to see a correlation between those brands that drive innovation and their success.
On the reverse side, it is not hard to see a correlation between those who lag behind and a lack of success. Over the past few years, the UK high street has been a tough place with some high-profile casualties. The sad truth is that if you look at many of those retailers that have failed, there is a clear pattern of a failure to stay relevant and keep up with customer expectations.
We can contrast this with brands that drive innovation. The likes of Amazon, Zara, Zalando, and Nordstrom are known for being innovative retailers, and are also among the most successful. We can then look at Apple, probably the company that has done more to shift customer expectations than any other company in recent times.
You could argue that Apple practically invented user experience. Before Apple, brands didn’t pay a great deal of attention to their packaging, but now we all expect a great unboxing experience. Before Apple, we expected computers to be hard to use, but now, it is almost unacceptable if we actually need to read instructions.
Innovation can be expensive and carries a certain risk, but the rewards can be high. This is why innovation is usually driven from the top with a CEO or board that is willing to invest the time and money and empower their staff to take a few risks and innovate.
Innovators get to write the script and everyone else just gets to read it.
The key to understanding customer expectations is measuring their behaviour, as well as simply asking them.
There are plenty of tools available which allow brands to accurately measure how their customers behave online; allowing them to identify pain points and, to an extent, measure their customer’s satisfaction. However, these do not really tell you how your customers feel, what they expect, and what they want. The only real way to understand that is to ask them.
Asking the right question, in the right way, at the right time is a very hard thing to do. A brand will have so many touchpoints and interactions with a customer, each of which are very important, and asking the wrong question in the wrong way at the wrong time could be very damaging to a customer’s experience.
One interesting tool that can help with this is Qualtrics. Ostensibly, Qualtrics is a very sophisticated survey tool. You may, then, ask why SAP recently paid $8 billion for a survey tool. The reason is that it is so much more than that and, what sounds like a simple concept, is actually very powerful. Products such as Qualtrics allow brands to put micro-surveys in front of customers at any point of their journey in a variety of different ways and then analyze the responses to understand what customers expect and want.
It is easy to think of commerce as a silo which starts with the customer visiting your website, and ends with them placing an order. But your customers’ experience starts way before that and ends far afterwards. They may have seen your advertisements, they may have visited a physical store, or you may have sent them an email.
After the purchase, they will have had a delivery, maybe picked their order up in store, or even returned an item. These, again, are important customer touchpoints that all add up to an overall customer experience. All of these moments matter, and are opportunities to ask your customers how they feel.
With tools like like this, you could send your customers an SMS message a few days after their item was delivered, asking them whether they are happy with the item, or whether the delivery met their expectations. Maybe you could message them three months later to see how they are getting on with the product.
This feedback can be vital in adapting your products and services to match your customer’s expectations. You are likely to have many thousands of even millions of customers and imagine getting valuable feedback on all aspects of their experience from even a small percentage of them. That information would be gold!
For more articles by Branwell Moffat also see https://www.the-future-of-commerce.com/contributor/branwell-moffat.