Around this time a year ago, ‘pandemic’ may have seemed like an overstatement. Many companies and teams were barely beginning to consider a short-term remote working situation, let alone one for the foreseeable future.
Fast forward through a historic year. While shortages of toilet paper and hand sanitizer have subsided, people all around the world are still adjusting to a world with limited in-person connections. The experience has put organizations and consumers in an interesting position—all of us grappling with the same challenges. And through these experiences, one thing has become clear: empathy for your customers and fellow humans isn’t optional.
As the saying goes, walk a mile in your customers’ shoes, and you’ll better understand their journey. The pandemic laid bare the disconnect between companies and their customers and provided a rare opportunity to get closer to the people they’re designing experiences for, even if they can’t physically be near them.
Even teams that have always strived to be customer-centric uncovered more ways they could meet their customers where they are, with customer empathy driving the charge for evolution and adaptability in this new remote-centered environment.
For the past eight years, we've surveyed CX professionals around the world about trends they’re seeing. With 2020 presenting the world with rapid changes and incredible challenges, we reevaluated what we asked in an effort to shed some light on how the pandemic has impacted teams across the industry and around the world.
UserTesting’s 2021 CX Industry Survey reveals the immediate shift in focus to customer empathy, the need for digital experiences, and remote-centered solutions, brought on by the pandemic. What was once a nice-to-have, or something to aspire to that world-class brands espoused, reached its tipping point and became a matter of survival for all companies, nearly overnight.
Despite global uncertainty and a seismic shift to remote working environments, many organizations doubled down on customer empathy, recognizing the need to understand customers was greater than ever, and taking the opportunity to delight their customers in every way possible, even in such challenging times.
While there’s no way to be certain what the future holds as it relates to the pandemic, it’s clear that customer empathy isn’t optional if an organization wants to survive, let alone succeed.
I hope that the insights shared in this report helps illustrate the strength and resilience exemplified by so many organizations and teams, just like yours, and underscores the unprecedented opportunity for companies of all shapes and sizes to rise up to the challenge to become more customer-centric, through the power of human insight.
I welcome your comments and encourage you to share your experiences with me directly via Twitter at @apmacmillan.
Change is often hard. But one thing the pandemic revealed is that teams discovered they have more resilience and adaptability than they realized, and suddenly when change isn’t optional, big transformations happen in a fraction of the time companies thought they needed—and will shape the future as a result.
One such change is the shift to remote-centered cultures. With many countries forced into lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic, businesses had to pivot from the in-office corporate culture they were used to, to a fully-distributed workforce and all the considerations that went along with that.
Whatever objections organizations had to remote work prior to the pandemic were abandoned in favor of keeping the lights on, and in the process, something interesting happened. Long-held reservations to remote work and processes began to fade, and now, as we’re approaching some return to normal, many teams aren’t so willing to go back to the way things were before.
It’s [remote research] really become an essential part of our experience design and engineering culture, and senior leaders are consistently asking to see results from our user tests. It’s been such a blessing, especially during a pandemic. We did not miss a beat in collecting prospective customer insights…
The remote-centric movement is having its moment, and that’s a great thing for customer-centric teams. Many have learned that not only is empathy something that can be achieved remotely, taking a remote-first approach to customer and user feedback is a powerful strategy that promotes and supports a customer-centric culture.
Prior to the pandemic, most people who participated in our survey noted they relied on a mix of in-person and remote methods to gather customer feedback and conduct research. Naturally, most feedback and research are currently gathered remotely until teams venture back to in-person environments, but our findings show that many teams expect remote methods to not only remain but to overtake in-person methods, even when those are available again.
And it’s not just the feedback and research that’s going remote. Teams are shifting their work environments, too. Prior to the pandemic, over half of respondents noted they worked exclusively from their office. Not surprisingly, the vast majority are currently working exclusively from home, but what’s interesting is the shift that’s expected post-pandemic. Much like the revelations teams have had about the speed and efficiencies of remote feedback and research, organizations have come to recognize the benefits of enabling teams to work remotely—at least some of the time. Only 13% of respondents said they expected to go back to working exclusively from the office. Everyone else envisions a mix of fully-remote or split between working from home and the office.
When we asked participants to expand on how they felt about their new work-life balance, many indicated that their prediction of splitting time between home and office would be driven by employees’ high level of satisfaction and better work-life balance gained by not commuting to the office five days per week. Many people highlighted the shift in mentality about working from home that the pandemic caused, noting that managers and teams realized that not only could people work from home logistically, but they were also just as (if not more) efficient as working in the office.
The added benefits of more flexibility and less commute time could easily translate into a better employee experience (EX) which, in turn, leads to better CX, and great CX directly impacts the bottom line—since 1998, the companies on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list outperformed the S&P by nearly two to one. Those companies focus on creating an irresistible culture that empowers employees and makes them feel aligned with the company’s mission. They know that their competitive advantage is its employees, and they do everything they can to make sure they have an incredible experience.
The necessary shift to remote work and remote methods of customer feedback had an interesting consequence. Teams that were previously set in their in-person methods were forced to adapt to more remote approaches if they wanted to stay competitive and remain customer-centric. Not connecting with customers because of the pandemic wasn’t an excuse—teams had to find ways to not only maintain but enhance their customer-centered processes and practices, no matter where they were or what resources they had access to. As it turned out, much of that shift was made possible through remote methodologies and platforms, and many teams indicate that remote work and methods are here to stay because it enables teams to empathize with their customers, anytime, anywhere.
It’s [remote research] faster, it’s less expensive, and we’re able to get insights at scale pretty quickly. It would be pretty hard to go back to traditional research methods.
Hear real people talk about transitioning to remote work
One side effect of a global pandemic is that it strips many teams of the luxury of analysis paralysis. Most companies are pivoting to meet the needs of their customers in a completely new environment, making anything that doesn’t directly impact the customer experience (CX) or the bottom line, a lower priority. This ends up helping teams cut through the noise and zero in on how they can make the most difference in the experiences that matter to their customers.
The experiences that matter, despite our new remote-centered culture, aren’t all digital, either. The world still functions in analog and needs solutions to handle those situations.
The restaurant and retail industries are great examples. Many restaurants and brick and mortar retailers struggled during the pandemic and had to find ways to take something that’s decidedly an in-person experience and make it safe for employees and customers alike.
Hear UserTesting customers talk about their experiences
While in-person dining and shopping may look very different, consumers still expect the same level of service and experience from their favorite brands—even if that experience has transitioned from a point-of-sale transaction within a physical location to a buy online, pick-up in-store, or curbside one.
Consumers’ interactions with companies may have shifted, but their expectations are as high as ever (if not higher).
Some companies even doubled down on CX in the wake of the pandemic, increasing their investments in customer feedback and user research. And many foresee increased dependencies on feedback in the year ahead, too.
And when asked about their organization’s progress with digital transformation, the vast majority, 71%, noted that they’re either in-process or have completed their digital transformation. This is a sharp increase from when we last asked the question in our survey, in 2019, in which only 56% said they were that far along in their journey.
This indicates that the pandemic helped motivate teams to dedicate more time and resources to digital transformation in an effort to improve overall CX. Digital transformation initiatives which may have been on the roadmap years from now were thrown into the spotlight as teams pivoted to find ways to connect with their customers through more digital channels.
Yet despite all this newfound focus on CX, many teams note that their organizations are still in the early stages of a mature, established CX practice, with 60% of the people surveyed indicating their organization either doesn’t have a CX strategy in place or is only reacting to issues as they arise.
What we took for granted in the relationship between our brands and products with the customers served, took a severe detour. Trust and safety became a priority for employees and customers. Brands and products that delivered on these promises became paramount to their ongoing success.
Hear real people talk about how the pandemic intensified the focus on CX
Time and resources seem to always be in short supply for teams large and small, and the pandemic didn’t help matters. Nearly 70% reported that either spending or workforce was reduced as a result of the pandemic, and over half (53%) reported an increase in their workload.
Add to this the fact that 46% of teams reported a pivot in their product or service—something previously not on their roadmap—as a result of the pandemic, and it’s easy to see how teams will be searching for ways to do more with less.
Over half, 53%, report that they don’t have time to gather user/customer feedback before their deliverables go live.
Yet despite all this, the vast majority of teams, 72%, expect the frequency of customer/user feedback to increase in 2021—barely anyone felt it would decrease.
The resounding message here is that no matter what, teams need to step up their CX game and meet their customers where they’re at. Lack of time and resources, or increased demand and workload can’t get in the way of creating great CX, requiring teams to work smarter and more efficiently than ever to stay competitive and continue to exceed customer expectations.
Where do we go from here?
The pandemic has accelerated many changes within the industry that were already underway, pushing customer-centric cultures and strategies into the spotlight, no longer as options, but as a necessary means of survival for every company.
The leaders and laggards will be defined by their continued ability to evolve and adapt in uncertain times, all of which hinges on their commitment to giving their customers a seat at the table and a voice in how their products and experiences are brought to market.
The world—and the work we all do—will never be quite the same. The teams and organizations that use this opportunity to step up to empathize with and meet the ever-changing needs of their customers help define the new benchmarks for great CX for years to come—no matter what challenges those years may bring.
The people on our team who are doing research are very busy. Their plates are full. But we're also spending a lot of time trying to democratize research so that we can put the research into the hands of more people so that we can do more with less.
Hear real people talk about their teams doing more with less
In this eighth annual Customer Experience Industry Survey, we asked over 4,700 professionals from around the world* across a wide variety of industries how their organizations are approaching customer experience and conducting CX research.
The survey was divided into sections based on the respondent’s job role, plus a set of general questions asked of everyone.
- Asked of everyone
- Asked of marketers
- Asked of researchers
- Asked of designers
- Asked of product teams
- Asked of executives
*Countries represented in the survey
Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, India, Mexico, Singapore, Spain, United Kingdom, United States