Opinion

Normal Sucked. Let’s Make Sure New Normal Doesn’t.

Since lockdown, it’s been easy to mythologise ‘normal’ as if the markets and economies generally were taking full advantage of what 21st century CX had to offer.

Many people in fact, were simply coping in their different ways, with internal struggles, professionally and personally, with tech trends and anagrams – from AI to IVA, NPS to CES. Analysts meanwhile continued to point out areas of opportunity for truly agile and adaptable businesses while suggesting remedial strategies to avoid irrelevance for those that were dragging their heels.

In that pre-pandemic reality of course, the 20th century continued to hold sway over large sectors of business thinking, modelling and deployment, and one person’s normal, professionally or otherwise, was another’s history lesson. I still hear of bosses who want to ‘see the whites of their eyes’ rather than allow staff to work from home (not in the BPO sector I must add), while others are so comfortable with video calls that they need to be reminded not everyone needs a guided tour of their home, or an introduction to the cat.

As customers, what is ‘normal’ has always meant different things dependent on the market served, the products or services on offer, and the age, or more broadly, the generation of the individual engaged, and channels available. These overlap of course and in some cases are linear for most while others are more nuanced and determined by one or other of these parameters.

From company posts and comments shared online with industry colleagues over the past weeks, there can be no doubt that the clear direction of travel is towards a more tech-enabled CX paradigm, as stakeholders in automation and AI solutions vie for attention with cloud-based tools and infrastructure. Meanwhile, ‘normal’ board-level debate regarding solution development, involving months of meetings and sub-committees, and the attendant business decision making, has been truncated to one-hour Zoom calls and follow up emails – thus proving such an approach was always possible.

Indeed, to some degree the response needed to the pandemic has accelerated brands along the ‘righteous path’ towards blended solutions: the appropriate application of automation, machine learning and RPA, alongside focused, empathetic and intelligence-led advisor populations handling complex, emotive customer engagement. At the same time, the W@H requirement has reduced site occupancy to zero or essential personnel only, with record increases in productivity and reduced absenteeism, with cloud technologies being tested to the max in real time, every time.

But in operationalising the new normal, we must reflect on what we’ve learned in our collective response to the regrettable circumstance of the pandemic.

We don’t need to travel so much, even those of us with a face for radio can do a video call. Sure, we’ve lost the water cooler chat, but we’ve also lost the frustrated daily commute, and managed to weaponise the Zoom Party with Shiraz, Prosecco and beer! And we don’t all need to work from an office all of the time. CEOs and CFOs are already doing the maths, revising, and in some cases, curtailing commercial property leases and expansion. Yes, there are security and regulatory concerns, but there are health concerns too. A tried and tested vaccine is months away, if not longer, and nobody is predicting a relaxation of lock down means crowding back onto public transport and office floors. New health and safety measures and working practices will require immediate implementation, and companies that proactively seek solutions that put employees at ease will more quickly re-populate their sites.

As customers we’re also recalibrating. What we considered a valuable purchase in February 2020 may seem rash right now.

Whatever the product or service, if we can’t enjoy it, need it or find a use for it in and around the home, it’s likely to fall to the bottom of the wish list. However, that includes a significant slice of ecommerce, retail and essential markets in food, grocery, consumer electronics and those all-important ‘office consumables’. Subscription services too are growing offering content and entertainment for distraction-hungry kids, education and keep fit programmes. The real losers here may be those brands that have come to depend on an ill-defined relationship between footfall and online, they may not have invested enough in either.

Some markets won’t recover or at least will need significant consolidation to survive. Automotive, travel, leisure and luxury – as Instagram influencers are finding out, when FOMO (fear of missing out) is no longer a thing – the high value purchase needs a far greater justification. The real danger for the economy lies in the impact on employment. Those products and services we only enjoy when away from the home are supported by a multitude of primary and secondary industries with a significant workforce.

And then there’s the most expensive sector of all – housing. Both the financial crash in 2008 and the EU Referendum vote in 2016 deflated house values to a greater or lesser degree across the UK, it’s doubtful with an economic slump of this magnitude that bricks and mortar won’t take a hit, with London estate agent Knight Frank forecasting the three Ds – devaluation, divorce and debt – putting a major brake on house sales in 2020.

In the end, lock-downs will lift, and however its organised, people will go back to work, will begin to travel once more to see family, friends and lovers, and will begin to socialise once again as before.

5G will arrive and with it new smart devices, IoT, VR and a slew of innovative products for home and corporate use. It would be a fitting testimony to the sacrifices so many have made if investments were made immediately in how these could benefit the medical and care fields in particular, as well as the forward planning and preparedness for future crises.

Finally, whatever the challenges that beset us as adults, it is the next generation whom we must support and encourage to see a future full of opportunities and possibilities, with energy and enthusiasm, that should no longer resemble the normalcy of the 20th century we took so long to shake off but give way to the potential exuberance (some might say ‘chaos’) of the 21st.

Pre-pandemic ‘normal’ wasn’t all that – let’s make sure the ‘new normal’ is the best of us!

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