Customers are changing in the pandemic. Are you listening?
By Mark Hurst • May 22, 2020

Now that I'm ten weeks into lockdown in my Manhattan apartment, I can observe changes brought on by the pandemic - I'm cooking a lot more, for example, and I can easily hear the birds above the dimmed street noise. Overall I feel very lucky. I know friends and colleagues who have lost work, or fallen ill, or even lost loved ones to the virus. It's a trite conclusion, but everyone here in New York, and I suppose beyond New York as well, has been affected by the pandemic in some way.

This is important for teams everywhere to keep in mind, because the game has dramatically changed. Specifically, the pandemic has changed your customers' lives, and as a result it has changed what they want from your product or service.

Do you know how the pandemic has changed your customers?

Most teams don't. And that's understandable, given how new our "new normal" is. What's more, the pandemic affects people in many different ways, and the context - stay-at-home orders, mask regulations, and so on - is changing week-to-week, with the result that, for the immediate future, customer insight is a moving target.

All of which makes it even more important - right now - to listen to your customers, understand the pressures they're under, and find out how to serve them better.

What we already know

Of course, the pandemic has brought about some obvious changes. We've all heard these "insights" for weeks:

• Customers are almost exclusively using online channels to research, shop, and buy.

• Social groups - friends, clubs, churches, etc. - are connecting online and not in person.

• More people than ever are working from home, and even after re-opening they'll expect some ability to work remotely.

Profound, right? People are using the internet for stuff. You've likely read news stories expanding on the theme, detailing (say) the rising usage of streaming and delivery services.

The problem is that most teams stop there and don't explore any further. Simply saying "customers are online more" is grossly insufficient for making product decisions. To really serve customers right now, we have to reach out to understand what they're dealing with, and thus discover opportunities for true innovation - that is, building products to improve customers' lives.

What we can learn

Customers during the pandemic are facing a huge diversity of challenges. While we can generally state that most people are stuck at home, people also have acute constraints and needs, unique to their situation, that define what they want from products. We can only find these out by spending time listening to customers.

Here are a few examples. These are all based on conversations I've had, during lockdown, both informally and in actual remote user research:

• (Healthcare) Woman has moved her family to a new town, during the pandemic, and isn't sure what her insurer will cover through providers there. She can't easily change insurers, and she's not even sure if the new town will become their permanent residence.

• (Ecommerce) Breadwinner of the family has lost his job, so the household budget is tighter, yet the kids are at home for the rest of the school year - and likely the summer, too - and so he's seeking affordable kid-friendly products to keep them busy and entertained.

• (B2B) Small-business owner is watching expenses - he's trying to avoid layoffs - but still needs premium-subscription software tools to keep the business running. Where are the tools with short-term subscription commitments at a reasonable price?

All of these are insights, based directly on customer input, that can drive innovation - a new product, a new feature, even a new "pandemic special" subscription level. Conversely, none of these are insights that would emerge from an A/B test, a multiple-choice survey, or any sort of automated usability service. Instead, customer insights come from listening to customers.

Crisis as opportunity

Now is the moment when companies need customer insight. Because the pandemic is already changing your customers, and it's changing what they want from you.

As I asked last week: How will you know what to build - and what not to build - unless you find out what your customers really need? Remote research can answer that question. (Contact me if I can help.)

Meantime, stay strong!

- Mark Hurst
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