The Never Normal Customer

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My friend and Business Partner Peter Hinssen has been talking and writing a lot about the Never Normal for the past few years. The concept first started out as a play on words on his book the New Normal which explained how digital was becoming the new normal, about 10 years ago. But post-pandemic, it took on a whole new meaning, referring to an era of great volatility, uncertainty and unpredictability under the continuous threat of seismic shocks and ensuing systemic shifts. An era in which we find ourselves in a continuous cycle of change and adaptation.

Peter feels that, among other things, continuously changing consumer behavior triggered a new way of performing business on the edge, permanently adapting. Where companies have to become agile in capacity and resources. And where they need a different type of skillset, different personality types of people, different types of organizational structures, etc. It sounds challenging, but as Peter likes to put it “the Never Normal is an opportunity as much as it is a threat.”

I love that concept of the Never Normal and I believe that there also is something like a Never Normal Customer. This too, is a threat and an opportunity. I believe that if you really understand, the behavior and mindset of this new type of customer, this will help you adapt and thrive in these challenging times.

And the way I see it, the Never Normal Customer answers to these four characteristics:

  1. Harboring extreme opinions
  2. Worrying about society
  3. Being open to new technologies
  4. Showing less interest in traditional jobs

A few decades ago, it was probably safe to say that the majority of the population was pretty nuanced in their opinion. Today, this distribution curve has been turned upside down. The recent abundance of dis- and misinformation and fake news, combined with the filter bubbles created by social media as well as the hardship of these difficult economic and political times is deeply changing the way we are thinking and communicating with each other. The result is that the number of people with extreme opinions now seems to dominate the discourse.

In fact, a recent study in the US for instance uncovered that 80% of Democrats and 70% of Republicans say misinformation increases extreme political views. Similarly, 85% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans say misinformation increases violence motivated by gender, religion or race. Yet on the other hand, a meager 28% of Americans consult fact-checking sites or tools “most of the time”. And about a third say they do so hardly ever or never.

So for me, the first key characteristic of the Never Normal Customer is that their opinions are becoming more and more extreme. Disinformation is probably one of the biggest drivers, but I also believe that it is because our circumstances – the climate, geopolitics, cost of living etc. – are becoming more extreme.

Because of these changing circumstances, people worry a lot. They are really concerned about society, and their place in it. It’s pretty normal, realizing all the global challenges on our plate: the inequality, the increasing urgence of the climate issue, the inflation, the energy crunch etc. These are the ones foreseen by the World Economic Forum:

And these are the ones defined by Ian Bremmer’s Eurasia Group:

Enough to worry about, right? So it’s pretty natural that more and more customers expect your organization to become part of the solution. Remaining neutral like Switzerland is not an option in this case. If you don’t speak up, people will assume that you disagree or you just don’t care. In other words, if you’re not part of the solution, you will be seen as part of the problem. Because of that, I see a new type of challenge for organizations when it comes to finding their voice and learning to live with the fact that – if they use it – someone might not share their opinion.

A fantastic example here is Nike. At the end of 2016, young and talented American football player Colin Kaepernick kneeled during a national anthem. While his motives were pure – “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” – a lot of people perceived his action as disrespectful. He received a lot of backlash which culminated in his dismissal and no other American football team wanting to offer him a job. Basically it was game over for him.

But Nike stood by him. They launched a powerful campaign, with Colin’s headshot and the quote “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”. And though lots of people approved, many others were really mad. Customers started to burn their Nike gear and post their anger and frustration on social media. They made it clear that they didn’t want to have anything to do with Nike anymore.

But Nike’s response was truly brilliant. Probably pretty risky in the Trump era, but crystal clear and definitely not neutral like Switzerland. It bought large pages in all of the top newspapers and offered advice on how to burn their products safely. I still think this is one of the most powerful ads ever. They ‘casually’ and coolly told the haters that “It’s okay that you disagree with us. It’s okay that you burn our products, but let’s try to do that in a safe way so that you don’t hurt yourself or others in that process. Just know that we will not change our opinion because of your behavior.”

Amidst the growing concerns about society I believe that this choice of opinion and this clarity of voice will only become more important. You will need to learn to deal with that in order to convince the customer that you are part of their team.

The third characteristic of the Never Normal Customer is that they’re very open to new technologies. And the latter are evolving faster and faster. Just think of the recent progress from effortless to enhanced VR, AR and MR interfaces. With the latter, customers can for instance try on a pair of glasses with augmented reality before their actually buy them, which decreases the return rate by about 22%.

And of course, I have to mention the currently ubiquitous ChatGPT, the chatbot from OpenAI which has been showing some amazing results. Everyone is talking about it. Many have been experimenting with it. I too, have done so. For example, I asked it to write an essay on customer experience in financial services, and the result was super-impressive. The cool part is that you can add some flavor to it and ask it to write that piece in the style of Barack Obama or, in my case, of Mickey Mouse. And it really did work, the essay started with “Oh boy, customer experience and financial services” (I don’t know about you, but personally, I can only read this and hear it with Mickey’s high pitched cartoon voice).

And this generative AI landscape of which text is only a small part is involving incredibly fast, as you can see from this landscape map from Sequoia Capital:

And so amidst this ever faster rise of new technologies, we also see an increasingly fast adoption by users and consumers.

The fourth and last characteristic of the Never Normal Customer may seem less related to the subject of CX at first sight, but it has a pretty big impact on your customer experience. It has to do with how we’ve seen an increased number of people lose interest in more traditional jobs. This year, there was for instance a lot of talk about The Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, The Lying Flat Movement in China or what Gary Vaynerchuk calls “the never apply in the first place generation”. Amidst all the turmoil and disruption and the current abundance of job-related options, people are redefining what they want in life and work. And that will probably look pretty different from what most of us have been used to.

When I graduated from university, most people were hired by a large company: a bank, a big consultancy firm, an energy company, an FMCG giant etc. You know, companies like Procter and Gamble, Unilever or McKinsey. Today, the job market is so incredibly diverse – startups, unicorns, platforms for freelancers, gig economy platforms, corporates, NGOs, etc. – that it is increasingly difficult to attract talent. And if you are not able to attract the right talent for your CX departments, that also means that it will be very difficult to keep your customer service levels high. And that is going to be a huge challenge when it comes to dealing with the Never Normal Customer.

It’s pretty simple, if our societal, political and business environment becomes Never Normal, then customers become Never Normal too and it is up to you, as a company, to adapt to that and grab all of the opportunities that this presents.

Here you can here me talk about The Never Normal Customer:

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steven Van Belleghem
Steven Van Belleghem is inspirator at B-Conversational. He is an inspirator, a coach and gives strategic advice to help companies better understand the world of conversations, social media and digital marketing. In 2010, he published his first book The Conversation Manager, which became a management literature bestseller and was awarded with the Marketing Literature Prize. In 2012, The Conversation Company was published. Steven is also part time Marketing Professor at the Vlerick Management School. He is a former managing partner of the innovative research agency InSites Consulting.

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