How to Regain Customer Trust in 2021
FOR MOST BUSINESSES and their customers, the pandemic has delivered a crash course in how viral contagion can happen in shared environments like stores, bank branches, doctors’ offices, aircraft passenger cabins, and the like. It’s made people more aware of—and concerned about—touching surfaces that others have touched and about breathing near others, especially in enclosed spaces.
This anxiety has sparked two changes that will dominate most companies’ relationships with customers in 2021: a leap to digital, for interactions that can be conducted digitally (through a website or an app); and for interactions that are hard or impossible to conduct digitally, a reshuffling of how people decide which companies to do business with.
Have you responded by igniting a digital transformation or supercharging one that was already under way at your company? And if any part of your business involves face-to-face interactions with customers, have you transformed the environments and behavior patterns that shape those interactions?
Companies that do both will fare better in 2021 than those that do not. A survey Forrester Research conducted about how well companies provided guidance through the pandemic found that U.S. respondents’ trust was in shambles—only 13 percent said they trusted retailers, and the number was even lower for technology companies, travel companies, and several other sectors. Healthcare providers fared best but were still at only 58 percent, meaning that a whopping 42 percent of respondents did not trust even healthcare providers to provide effective guidance through the pandemic.
This crisis of trust has been ongoing, but the pandemic has made it much worse. And it’s led companies like Target to offer services such as curbside pickup for safety’s sake. Target succeeded at moving quickly to rework its mobile app to support that, but like most companies, it failed to think through the end-to-end customer journey, so it still relied on some technologies that did require physical contact, like POS systems with buttons and signature pads. To effectively earn the trust of wary customers, companies are going to need to do better. Here’s what the winners will do:
• Respond to the leap to digital by taking concrete steps to build end-to-end user confidence—one of the pillars of great user experience.
• Design customer experiences for shared spaces to be touchless, in response to customers’ concerns about health and safety.
Unfortunately, many companies pursuing digital transformation invest in technology while forgetting that the quality of the interaction design will determine whether customers actually care to use the technology. But some companies will be successful by designing for confidence: ensuring users are able to accomplish their goals (rather than just focusing on company goals like conversion), perceive the effort required to do so as appropriate, feel confident about their actions and outcomes, can perform the actions they want, and feel that all the elements that make up the interactions meet their needs.
The need for safer interactions in shared spaces has accelerated interest in “zero UI,” which refers not to the elimination of user interfaces but to designing interfaces that rely much less on screens and instead more on touchless modalities: proximity, gesture, and voice. Those modalities are limited, though. The range of intents proximity and gesture let users express is narrow; they’re effective for simple needs like opening an automatic door or activating a hand dryer, but most customer interactions require more nuance. And while voice interfaces might seem more promising initially, they perform poorly in noisy environments, don’t provide enough privacy, and give the impression they understand more than they really can.
The more promising avenue for these interactions is to tap into the power of smartphones and smartwatches—devices people already own that can serve as their interfaces in the moment. It’s been happening for years with simple interactions like payment (e.g., Apple Pay). Companies should build on that model and let people use their devices to pair on the spot and control their interactions with the business’s physical environments. JetBlue, for example, has begun letting passengers pair smartphones with the seatback display so they no longer have to touch it.
Should you think of these initiatives as temporary measures you can disregard once the pandemic is behind us? No. Boosting user confidence has always been good for customers and good for business. So has making interactions safer for customers, even if the risks were much smaller most of the time previously. These changes will be here to stay—so don’t delay.
David Truog is vice president and research director for customer experience at Forrester Research.