Customer-centricity: Predictions for 2021 & beyond


A transformative 2020 has elevated the role of the customer in monumental ways, accelerating any preexisting imperatives that ladder up to business growth.

For retail in particular, the notion of achieving true customer centricity is increasingly important as the world becomes more digital—and as consumers adapt to change. Still, while the criticality of treating customers as stakeholders is clearer than ever, a year of extreme uncertainty has left the path toward getting there seemingly impossible to follow. This is because it requires repaving.

So, how should retailers recalibrate to ensure customer centricity—both in-store and online—endures? Based on research, experience and permissible behavioral data, a team of industry-leading experts from Gongos Inc. have made the following predictions for customer-centricity in 2021 and beyond:

  1. In the face of COVID, countless brands showed up in meaningful ways and at record speed. We all remember auto manufacturers quickly pivoting to produce hospital equipment, liquor brands rushing to produce hand sanitizer, and brick-and-mortar retailers rapidly refining stores while growing their digital presence in the name of health and safety.

This reaction time will be remembered, as will the ability to provide products and services in new ways. As a result, consumer patience for quality innovation and execution will become shorter than ever.

  1. Forced brand disloyalty as a consequence of COVID is sure to continue into 2021. Necessities are trumping nice-to-haves and consumers will continue to cheat on their favorite brands if they aren’t able to fulfill on their most fundamental needs. This came to life as retailers struggled to keep essentials like toilet paper and coffee stocked. Shoppers selected supplies from alternative brands without hesitation and, in many cases, stuck with them.

Therefore, brands that weren’t already will need to refocus the customer experiences they deliver on the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy—the outcomes most important to their customers.

  1. Rife with historic social movements, 2020 placed a magnifying glass on where brands stand when it comes to cultural matters. Consumers had already been looking to companies for meaningful responses to causes they care about, but these expectations have reached new heights.

In 2021 and beyond, the most genuine brands will engage in the exercise of finding their customers in their corporate purpose and doubling down on it, using their “why” to drive the right responses—ones that align with their identity. After all, consumers today crave brand authenticity and will swiftly cancel a company they see as making hollow attempts to appear “in touch.”

  1. A critical precursor to customer experience—the employee experience—was already a big talking point among organizations pre-pandemic. Then, the workforce was heavily disrupted, forcing individuals to pivot work styles, and accept salary cuts, furloughs, and layoffs. These experiences will leave a deep and lasting imprint on employees.

More than ever, they will demand to be treated as equals. So, the importance of cultivating an environment that treats all employees as stakeholders will be greater than ever to achieving customer centricity in 2021.

  1. The year 2020 introduced a new appreciation for “casual,” namely through the propagation of the work-from-home environment. With kids and pets and other house happenings exposed, increased vulnerability—and comfort with it—became inevitable.

Less buttoned-up business interactions between colleagues will carry over to influence how they, as consumers, view their relationships with brands. This makes it important for organizations to rethink not only the tone they take in communicating with consumers, but the channels they choose to engage with them.

  1. Innovation will have to become consumer-led. Most companies have had the innovation process backward all along. The order will have to change so that, instead of brands formulating ideas from within and then testing them with consumers, ideas come from, and/or are co-created with, consumers.
  2. For Gen Z consumers, born after 1996, COVID will play a prominent part in shaping perceptions. That said, the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic will likely come to mean very different things for those who are in college planning to enter the workforce versus those who are in grade school. 

As a result, Gen Z could be redefined in 2021, with the creation of asub-cohort that formally delineates the older of the generation from the youngest given their unique perspectives.

  1. The exponential acceleration of digital transformation triggered by the pandemic will likely mean brands go overboard in both their reliance on data and pursuit of frictionless experiences. In their quest to achieve customer centricity in 2021 and beyond, companies must stay in tune with their customers to ensure experiences are as emotionally in touch as they are functionally touchless.

For one, they will have to carefully assess which data streams are most relevant to their goal of deeply understanding customers. Second, they must complement the “what” unveiled by this data with not only the “why” behind it but the “what’s next” in front of it.

Greg Heist is chief innovation office for Gongo Inc.

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