Listening to Your Customers' Needs in the Wake of COVID-19

By Carmel Dibner

We often think of customer needs as fairly stable, shifting only gradually over time. Research shows that under typical circumstances, it’s necessary to refresh Voice of the Customer research every 3-5 years. However, that is not always the case. That assumption is unlikely to hold in the face of major, transformational historical events. These memorable events have the power to abruptly change customer needs. While some of the changes are short-lived, others are long-lasting.  

By way of example, 9/11 changed how many think about safety and security while traveling and in airports in particular. The tragedy also changed how Americans think about topics like patriotism and loyalty. 

COVID-19 is the major transformational event that is top of mind for all right now. In an effort to slow the pandemic, almost all aspects of Americans’ lives have been temporarily altered – non-essential businesses are closed, school doors are shut as students turn to remote learning, and many around the world are practicing social distancing. Businesses in virtually every sector are thinking about both the short and long-term implications of the health crisis.  

As a result of these sweeping changes, many new short-term needs have emerged, including, but not limited to: the need for contactless deliveries, the need to find virtual ways to connect socially, and the need for children to be able to learn remotely.  

However, once this period is behind us, it’s safe to assume that several of the needs that emerged during this period will not automatically vanish. Rather, it is almost certain that COVID-19 will lead to lasting changes in the way we behave. These changes will impact both functional and emotional needs long-term. The assumption that you can move forward with Voice of the Customer research from 1-2 years ago, let alone 3-5 years ago, is risky 

Below are several tips for how to think about Voice of the Customer in this time:  

1) Don’t rely on outdated research 

The recency of Voice of the Customer research will become even more important. Businesses that have a plan to understand how customers’ needs have shifted during this time will have a significant advantage over those who don’t. 

2) Look for new needs 

It’ll be important to identify new trends and the associated needs that have emerged and that are here to stay. For example, in healthcare, will telehealth become the norm for many doctors’ visits? In the food service space, will Americans’ eating habits change in the long-run? Will Americans cook more? Or, will there be pent up demand for eating out at restaurants once that becomes an option again? In B2B, will the way we interact with our customers and the frequency of in-person visits change? Will the hand-shake be replaced with another type of business greeting? 

3) Understand how needs have shifted priority 

It will be critical to consider how needs have changed in importance. For example, how will hospitals further prioritize and address the need for infection control? Will patients, nurses and doctors be screened for infections every time they enter hospitals? Will it become more important to be able to perform surgeries with fewer support staff? Will medical robotics gain a greater foothold?  

4) Consider functional and emotional needs 

Look beyond changes in functional needs and consider changes in emotional needs as well. For example, we’ve all heard stories about short-term demand and/or supply issues related to grocery staplesuch as toilet paper, flour, eggs, or disinfectant wipes. However, once these issues are resolved and panic buying is long over, will there be lasting impact on how people choose to stock their pantries? Will consumers find emotional comfort in making sure they always have essentials on hand? How will this impact long-term purchasing patterns for staple food items?  

While the times are unsettling and many questions remain unanswered, businesses with a customer-centric mindset will come out ahead when we emerge on the other side of this crisis.  

The saying “the only constant is change” holds true now more than ever. Businesses that accept the sweeping changes – short-term and long-term – and who are prepared to adapt as needed, will fare far better than those who don’t. Market researchers have an important role to play to ensure companies listen to the Voice of the Customer in the wake of these unprecedented times.  

For more tips on listening to your customers' needs while remote, watch our recent webinar.

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