Part 1 – The survival of the fastest

The future ain’t what it used to be – Yogi Berra.

I was delighted to see that one of my favourite columnist Giles Coren, writing in The Times, published The Lockdown Things That Giles Coren Finds Common, in which he named a plethora of things and phrases that have irritated him (and others I’m sure) and that emerged from the pandemic.  And while his tongue was very much in his cheek, and many of the items he listed were innocent little time wasters, there, lurking in the tall grass, was a phrase at the very top of my most despised and meaningless jargon list, that truly appalling pronouncement “The New Normal” and its sorry sibling “The Next Normal.”  I’ve been raging against these for some time, as have other commentators such as Harry Wallop and Anne Trenaman, and this, along with other overused and dreaded phrases such as “unprecedented times “, “working tirelessly”, and my latest favourite “Reimagining” – anything. Any emails, or other invitations that I get, to join webinars with any of these words in the subject line, are instantly and joyfully dispatched to the trash bin. And it’s not just for semantic reasons or other crimes against literature.

Why won’t there be a “new normal?”

I realised I wasn’t alone in my feelings when I Googled the “new normal” and found comments that mirrored my own and although some were from conspiracy theorists, this teaser from Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, summarises it best:

‘The new normal. When people say this, they sometimes mean “things are different from what we’re used to,” and sometimes they mean that “even after this mess is over, things are never going to be the way they used to be.” Either way, it’s the wrong thing to say. “Normal,” like “average,” is a moving target.’

Why do I share his views? Because there is no new normal, there never was a normal; life in every context has been evolving forever and this is no different, just faster and in some ways better. And when I talk about survival of the fastest, I don’t just mean speed for the sake of it. I’m talking about being fastest to recognise and act on what’s happening today in every facet of business and personal life.  But the pandemic has been the mother of all wake-up calls and it’s taken a wrecking ball to any concept of normality. But it’s clear that many companies have slept through the alarm!

These are the companies who have aimed low and missed and whose websites are filled with excuses such as,” we’re currently experiencing higher than normal volumes of orders, calls, emails, blah, blah, blah”, and the sharp eyed among you will know that many of them had these messages long before Covid-19 hit. Yes, in the early days of Covid, this may have been valid, but boys and girls you’ve had over 12 months to sort it out!

Wouldn’t you like to be in the meeting room when the Head of Customer Service and his team are discussing what to put on their responses to your email inquiries regarding their response times. “we should probably put 5 days, Ooh, I don’t think so, we’d be safer with 10.”  What are they thinking?

I continue to experience these tone-deaf messages. Only last week two interactions with my bank, one a chat session and one a call, featured those ghastly words “experiencing higher than normal volumes.” Now I realise that the bank is in the midst of making 35,000 people redundant, but they also posted a 79% increase in profits so you’d think they might just splash a little of that cash to improve customer service for us poor suckers, I mean customers.

What is clear that those of us faced with these scenarios aren’t just customers or colleagues, we are witnesses for the prosecution, and we will remember.

The world has changed, there’s no going back, but many of the companies, suffering from moral incontinence and hiding behind these pathetic, meaningless, message, don’t seem to have noticed and are hoping that once “new normal” is in place things will be just like they were in the old days – early 2020.  Adding even more weight to the evolutionary tale are comments made by Harley Finkelstein, the Canadian founder of Shopify, the second biggest ecommerce business in North America. When asked about the death of the high street. He said, “I don’t think there’s a death on the high street. I don’t think there’s going to be funerals for bricks and mortar. I don’t think the future of retail is online-only, it’s about consumer choice. The death that you speak of is about resistant retail, you’re talking about retail that has frankly not evolved at all. There’s a tale of two retail worlds and the resistant retail world is waiting for the status quo to come back. The resilient one is adapting. There’s a big tidal wave coming, and the resistant ones are running for the shore to grab their towels and the resilient ones are grabbing their surfboards.”

Even when this latest crisis begins to wane, they’ll be another just around the corner. In recent years we’ve had Y2K, even if it wasn’t the Armageddon that everyone predicted, the financial crash, Brexit, climate change, European Super League – All these keep coming along like London buses, not on schedule and when you least expect them.

And for all those waiting in the rain at the bus stop there has never been a better time to get on board with the holy trinity of business change – People, process, and technology. And while independently none of these will not be enough to save the world, when allied with the increasing importance of customer experience (CX) and employee engagement, they can really take you and your customers on an enjoyable, repeatable and worthwhile journey.

Real sustainable changes for people and organisations

Whether we look at this through our own customer eyes or from a business perspective, it’s clear that some organisations have reacted more positively, swiftly, and effectively than others. They were more prepared, with agile leadership and flexible employees who flourish in a continuously changing world and who have found way to prosper and grow. They’ve recognised the value that technology can play, especially digital self-service, and have made valuable and vital decisions faster than ever before. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the companies whose alarm worked and here is a snapshot of some of the benefits they shared with me.

  • Internal growth opportunities for colleagues who really expanded their knowledge and understood the whole business.
  • Measurably speedier and more effective ways of doing business for both companies & customers.
  • Better ways of working that provide more free time, less travel, and less stress for employees
  • Faster digital deployment & self-service that actually benefited customers.
  • Companies finding out what they do really well and focusing efforts on that, but also ramping up their people to see where and how they need to improve.
  • Cross-functional teamwork that has accelerated CX enhancements and employee engagement.
  • Using these positive reputational outcomes to attract new talent and reduce attrition

A number of years ago I introduced the Four Principles of Customer Experience, Culture, Communications, Commitment, Community, which I explore in far more detail in my book, When a Customer wins Nobody Loses. What made this latest feedback more meaningful and personally satisfying, was that many of the organisations seemed to adopt some or all of these principles to guide their response to the pandemic. Which said something about the adaptability and longevity of those principles which I had hoped would be the case.

But while these are over-arching principles and extremely important in setting the direction of travel, there are a number of specific, underlying elements that are driving the successful companies forward and helping them transform at the speed of right. Here are a few examples that I’ve uncovered, or perhaps rediscovered over the past year or so.

  1. Getting closer to Customers – Building and retaining their trust
    The Edelman Trust Barometer has been demonstrating how trust in both businesses and governments has been declining for a number of years and the pandemic has only amplified and accelerated this. While businesses have fared slightly better in the 2021 results, the survey still shows that 56% of the public believes that business leaders are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false. or gross exaggerations. Companies that recognised that customers were under emotional and financial stress and made allowances in positive ways have shown that fairness, compassion, and understanding are the best and only ways to a customer’s heart – and their wallet!  But communicating with passengers, customers or guests is very much dependent on a company having an open and honest communication policy that builds trust and provides reinforcement for employees to act with integrity and compassion in those critical moments of truth that can define a great customer experience. 
  1. Nurturing Employee Engagement

When employees are trusted to make the right decision – for the customer – even if they can’t solve the problem immediately, the employee can own it and see it through to resolution. This is all about giving employees permission to engage with customers on an emotional and personal level to make that compassionate connection. It puts the responsibility for great customer experience back where it belongs; in the hands or voice of the front-line people who own the customer moment and deliver the service. Engaged and trusted employees naturally want to help and find it easy to locate their ‘inner customer’ where they store their reserves of empathy and understanding, to tune into their customer and turn up their performance.

  1. Crossing the Digital Divide – Reach for the cloud

Despite the fact that Digital Transformation and Omni-Channel communications have apparently had their hands up vying for attention for some time, many businesses ignored the requests, or at best deployed separate solutions that didn’t talk to each other or socialised like close friends. The pandemic has definitely changed that – at least for some. And those organisations that heeded the call have found that they could swiftly deploy native, fully integrated, multi- functional cloud solutions. And found that even if they were committed financially, contractually, and operationally to their older legacy systems, they can still use the cloud to push and pull data to and from the right places, thereby increasing their ability to provide an updated, accurate view of the customer and deliver a greater customer experience. This was also a critical element in ensuring that colleagues could work from home effectively, safely, and securely, without compromising performance or service.

  1. Developing Cross Functional Collaboration

Many companies reverted to working from Home (WFH) very quickly and while in some cases this may have negatively impacted face to face employee interactions, notwithstanding Zoom fatigue, it actually developed a stronger argument for internal interactions that allowed cross-functional collaboration to really come into its own. The need for a consolidated, company-wide view of customer transactions and behaviour and clarity within each department regarding where and how they fit into the customer journey, and how their activities and actions impact the customer experience, are foundational elements of establishing cross-functional collaboration. During the pandemic, but realistically at any time, these foundations help create the potential for an organisation to operate as a single cohesive unit guided by a business-wide view of the customer experience; an organisation where internal structures and silos are not allowed to impede delivery of a seamless end-to-end experience and where the first instinct of departments, teams and individuals is to connect and collaborate.

I’ll be going onto more details and shining a light on the stars and dogs of Covid-19 customer experiences and providing examples of businesses that have pursued these strategies successfully, or not, in part two of this blog. But in a nutshell the companies that have succeeded throughout the pandemic have introduced these elements to quickly adapt to a changing world. They have visibly supported their customers and employees and have been rewarded with a powerful combination of loyalty, enthusiasm, empathy & proficiency in their handling of customer interactions and in their ability to survive and thrive throughout.

The Final Words

Far smarter people than me have made their feelings known about evolution, especially Charles Darwin who is associated with the phrase “survival of the fittest “, but that was actually coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, and is often widely misunderstood. For starters, there is a lot more to evolution by natural selection than just the survival of the fittest. By itself, survival of the fittest is a dead end. Some businesspeople are especially guilty of confusing survival of the fittest with evolution, when, as with many aspects of success in any field, there are many and varied components, as we are finding out with Covid-19.

But I’ll leave the final words to Charles Darwin.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

He never said, “The New Normal”.