Maintaining their interest

Editor's note: Paul Child is global client partner at U.K. research firm InSites Consulting. 

For service industries and those providing an intangible product, the customer experience has long been an opportunity to develop relationships, build the brand and encourage loyalty. But the global pandemic has put operating models under strain, challenged assumptions about value creation and necessitated radical re-thinks at speed. As the world continues to adjust to life in 2020, what have the last several months taught us about crisis response, human needs and seeking certainty in a world seemingly so determined to confound expectations?

Back in April 2019, before we’d even heard of the term “COVID-19,” Edelman published its annual Trust Barometer. In it, the firm identified an ongoing rise in trust in financial services providers, but it was a rise tempered by two key facts: financial services remained the least-trusted sector within the Barometer and levels of trust diverged between the mass population and informed public, meaning that for those with less engagement in the sector, trust was lower. Fast-forward to 2020, and while the Barometer reports a rise across almost every sector in most markets measured, the sector is still in the lower half of the list.

With an already low level of trust in the sector, how can banks and other financial services providers bounce back and what cues can be taken from the past six months to set a course for recovery? With customer experience as a central theme, we draw on our observations and interactions with thousands of consumers from our proprietary online communities around the world and the perspectives of our in-house Culture + Trends team to offer some possible answers to that question.

Happen at speed

The global spread of COVID-19 has affected us all. The impact continues to be significant and severe and has yet to play out fully. In the business world, disaster recovery and radical reassessment of operating models have had to happen at speed. Necessity has been the mother of invention and initiatives previously thought near impossible have been activated and executed within weeks rather than months or years. The financial services sector is no exception.

Banks and insurers have mobilized new operating models at a pace previously unheard of, cutting through logistical or administrative barriers and adopting new systems, processes and approaches. Digital transformation has accelerated. From tellers equipped with tablets and inbound calls to their home phone lines, to live video consultations moving from centralized to de-centralized models. “We’ve seen brands mobilize very quickly and many can mark it down as an operational success,” says Tom Dreaves, research director, InSites Consulting UK. “But they haven’t necessarily been able to consult with customers along the way. That gap in understanding needs to be filled, as it’s easy to fall into assumptions based on our own preferences and needs.”

In Hong Kong, financial services firm HSBC has launched a videoconferencing service via Zoom for its high-net worth Jade customers so that they can still get advice for making informed investment decisions from an adviser they have a relationship with. Similarly, a few big insurance brands such as Prudential and AIA also launched virtual onboarding services to enable remote application for a wide range of life, savings and protection products (which previously required face-to-face interactions). Financial services providers have contributed to the effort to respond more widely too. AXA Belgium, for example, opened up its medical helplines to support medical frontline staff, an initiative that was validated using its customer community. 

“In Belgium, as a corporate social responsibility initiative, we temporarily extended our telemedicine services by making them available to all the Belgians who suspected having the coronavirus,” says Karel Coudré, director product management life and health insurance, AXA Belgium. “We were able to test perceptions prior to launch, utilizing our agile research platform, and do so at speed. This helped give confidence to our leadership and to our teams that the effort involved in mobilizing this initiative was the right way to go. Staying in touch with the sentiment of our customers has always been important to us but in such a fast-moving environment, being able to quickly validate their views accelerates our ability to get to market with solutions. We expect this to continue to be the case as we continue to adapt and evolve how people experience our products, services and the brand generally. We’re excited because there’s never been more of an opportunity for insight to provide the illumination of these issues.” 

But has acting at speed come at the cost of consulting with customers? Has the customer voice remained a part of those decision-making processes or has it fallen silent as speed trumps consultation? Is the AXA Belgium case an exception to the norm? And if so, how do we double-back to ensure that our innovations are appropriate for all?

Shapes expectations

To support clients in bouncing back better, we have been staying close to consumers throughout the pandemic, not only through clients’ insight communities but also through our own global COVID-19 consumer community. For three months of the lockdown period, we deeply engaged with 102 consumers from 13 countries to get an understanding of the changes in their everyday lives. We consciously extended our ongoing dialogue with consumers, to dive more deeply into their experience of the pandemic and how that shapes their expectations and needs both during and emerging from various states of lockdown and restricted movements.

As professional people observers, we are well aware of the concept of hierarchies of needs and wants and the notion of rationally or emotionally driven actions. Dealing with both emotional and practical issues, people have been reporting a sense of lost control and disempowerment. Governments and health organizations have stepped in to set the tone and establish a course of action, affecting individuals and businesses and shifting people’s circumstances almost overnight. “People have been through so much in such a short space of time, and often found themselves experiencing major highs and lows in the space of a day. The lack of the familiar has really challenged people’s instinctive decision-making,” says Peter Latham, Culture + Trends consultant, InSites Consulting.

On the emotional front, there is the loss of the familiar, an initial period which seems comparable to the curves seen in post-traumatic recovery. People think through every action and reaction – instinctive decision-making is much harder as the familiar recedes from their gaze. Even the usual is unusual: mental fatigue from video-calling as our familiar senses when seeing people all send signs that something is not quite normal. (Why can’t I sense them fully as I would if I were seeing them normally?) The lack of physicality presents cognitive dissonance.

The fundamental drivers of protecting our health and wealth kick in. Are our families okay? Is our immediate bubble protected? Do we have what we need financially to maintain their safety and well-being? What are the processes to access help and support? Who around me can I help?

We adopt coping mechanisms. Reading through feedback, watching video diaries and observing people as they navigate their lockdown lives, it becomes clear that people are establishing small routines or mental hacks to keep themselves positive in outlook.

We have also observed this mood of collectivism and goodwill dissipate over time. Containment begins to breed resentment; those who aren’t following the rules or seem to regard themselves above it are called out. Frustration spills out into everyday interactions leading to friction points for frontline staff. People start to look for allocation of blame and perpetrators of perceived transgressions are held up as setting bad examples.

On a practical note, old routines are thrown out or relearned for a pandemic setting. Shopping for essentials, your ability to roam and how you spend your time at home all shifted considerably. Some were coping with empty nests refilling or timetabling for home-schooling. Others were faced with isolation and loneliness, cut off from friends and family. Baking, gardening, home improvements. Social media, news. Spikes in the purchase of home gym equipment, home technology like TVs, all indicated the habits we were adopting at home.

And of course, this starts to unveil new expectations around service and access to services. Online or remote access increases in prominence. Grudging adoption turns to an appreciation of the convenience and some talk of adopting new channels or fulfilment modes even when things return to normal. But as time extends, a sort of mini-nostalgia emerges. And as we come back out, are some of these things relics to a time we’d rather not dwell on? Does the queuing at non-essential shops, the crowded bars, the beaches, the nightclubs and the drive-in gigs actually represent a desire to reassert a normality based on how things were before?

Not in the same place

As one of our clients commented in April: “The million-dollar question is: How can we be ready for the recovery phase?” In preparing for what comes next, there seemingly is a fragility to the uneasy harmony we’ve attempted to reach in reconciling ourselves with our situation. The reflection back to pre-COVID-19 suggests a desire to return to the familiar. It is also clear that not everyone is in the same place as to their perceptions of the recovery curve.

Returning to the fundamental needs for health and wealth, there is an emergent tension between those who remain fearful and prioritize the health of themselves and their family. They see scenes of crowds as creating risk and those flouting distancing rules as irresponsible. They lament the contradiction of having maintained strict regimens, sometimes at significant emotional cost, only to see it being potentially sacrificed by others.

For these people, prioritizing safety, health and well-being in public spaces will be key. The experience must have health baked-in and active, visible management of risk will provide reassuring positive friction. They will likely tolerate additional steps and processes and may become concerned where these are not consistently applied. Indeed, it’s already becoming apparent on social media that this could become highly proactive – challenging others about their behavior that is perceived as creating risk for all. Even our creative network, eÿeka, prioritized hygiene and well-being solutions when asked to help consumers live in a post-COVID-19 world. We presented this challenge to the eÿeka network in the form of an open contest asking creatives to help brands prepare for the new normal in a post-COVID-19 world, specifically addressing what sorts of products and services consumers will look for; and how brands can evolve to provide for those needs and help consumers leave their homes “with caution.” In 12 days, the contest generated 142 ideas from 77 participants in 35 countries. 

There is also appetite for clear, concise instructions. Signage and navigation should be easy to interpret. Practical messages are likely to find favor and the channel that offers safety and efficiency will win out. Physical in-person channels will be approached with caution but if expectations are set, well-managed and the experience is safe, it will likely be received positively. As one consumer in the Philippines, aged 56+, said: “For as long as no vaccine or cure is invented or discovered, businesses should see to it that the guidelines of the health organizations and the government are followed and that consumers are helped to observe the guidelines too.”

At the other end of the gradient are those desperate to leave the confinement of home. Reporting a desire to reenter the world that is as much a push as it is a pull back to normality. They reconcile themselves with the message of the risk having passed, that the signal is that, in the main, life is returning to normal. Caution should be applied but they are ready to heed the call back to the places they went before. “Would love to go to my favorite department store with my mother and just spend a nice time there watching the collection and sit down for a cup of coffee,” said a consumer in the Netherlands, aged 25-39. 

There is a desire here to make up for lost time. There could be frustration over measures that are seen to exceed what is reasonable and present unnecessary delay. Any ways to reduce wait times or minimize time spent waiting will be welcomed – and could be benchmarked against other experiences both online and offline. Actively managing expectations and mood amongst those engaging in face-to-face settings will be key, as will the continued ability to service needs remotely.

Early indications are that tension will manifest itself as these two groups meet and mix in public settings. We need to be prepared to design our experiences in a way that caters for both. Innovations in experience design are already appearing and the introduction of in-situ entertainment, borrowed from theme parks, or drive-in servicing that lets people remain protected in their vehicles, perhaps point to some of the future experiences we will all have. Immediate revisions will be to move to a contactless environment, utilizing technology as part of the experience to allow for interactions to involve as little touching of surfaces or possible transmission or relay of disease as possible.

In a world where physical manifestations of brands such as branches and shops are having to be reimagined, revisions to channel strategies are high priority. Those who foresee an all-digital model were quick to predict the pandemic as the herald for this all-encompassing revolution. But the role of a bank branch, or any face-to-face interaction, can be much more than a functional facility to perform a transaction. It offers the opportunity to provide an experience to connect customers to your brand and also provides familiarity and a setting appropriate to certain types of conversation. Given the sensitive nature of an increased number of people post-COVID-19, the role for in-person human interaction should not be underestimated.

With the possibility of local-level responses to outbreaks coupled with the reengagement in the locality promoted by time in lockdown, the ability to localize responses and relate that to customers will help establish empathy.

Bring agility

The most successful brands will bring agility to the heart of their business, beyond digital and innovation to their channel mix, how they manage demand and supply and even physical space. Now is the time for “sense and respond” in order to really drive response. There is a chance to coauthor the future with your users, customers – those who experience your services – building in and encouraging empowered agility and driving decision-making to the frontline of your organization so that local interpretations can be made and advantage taken of specific settings and locales.

“We know the world will be even more complex and many businesses are preparing for how to remain responsive to people’s needs at speed. They’ll need to balance the needs of staff, customers and the business while remaining responsive to the landscape set by government and the global economy,” says Christophe Vergult, managing partner, InSites Consulting.

Reassessing the spaces that have been designed to make interactions less formal has led to challenges when faced with ensuring the well-being of staff and customers in a post-pandemic world. De-formalizing spaces, removing barriers to interaction and opening up banking spaces to create a less intimidating, friendlier version of the austere banks of old also creates spaces rife with disease to spread if not carefully reconstructed.

Lessons may need to be drawn from other sectors, where agility has been applied to physical spaces as well as working practices. For example, the yoga studio in Hong Kong that has fitted portable plexiglass to create on-demand spaces and shield individuals but which can be reconfigured to create an area where a small group can gather while adhering to local guidelines.

Banking and finance brands must now utilize their channels, often in combination, to best provide an experience that: provides individuals with a sense of safety both in-branch and online; offers empathy towards consumers’ financial circumstances through actions as well as words; contributes to the collective recovery, at both local and national level; does not seek to take advantage of the circumstances; and stays attuned to the customer mood.