Social distancing requirements relating to COVID-19 have lasted far longer than anyone originally projected. Stay-at-home measures that we hoped would be over after a month or two have now been in place for almost a year. Psychologists estimate that it takes an average of 66 days to form an automatic habit. After a year, the behaviors people have adopted in response to the pandemic have become fully ingrained.
For retailers, the shopping behaviors of 2020 are no longer an anomalous emergency response, but are a harbinger of the future. The past year created new habits in how people shop and what they buy. Retailers and customer support BPOs (business processing outsourcers) need to build capacity and new capabilities now to handle sustained demand and new challenges in readiness for the post-COVID consumer.
Tech Purchases Helped Fuel the E-Commerce Boom
E-commerce grew 44% in 2020, dwarfing any previous years’ growth. Across age demographics, shoppers grew more comfortable shopping online, even for perishable items like groceries, and long-term investments like furniture. Social-distancing may have started this transformation, but the sheer convenience of e-commerce allowed it to continue, especially as home-based workers no longer need to worry about losing packages to porch pirates, or missing work to receive valuable or large deliveries.
Although there were certainly short-term surges for items like disinfectant and paper products at the beginning of the pandemic, some interesting long-term patterns emerged over the course of the year. Specifically, people have been buying tech. Best Buy jumped from the tenth largest online retailer in 2019 to the fifth largest in 2020; in fact, three of the top five largest e-commerce sellers – Apple, Dell, and Best Buy – are tech-focused.
Pandemic Purchases Set Off a Long-Term Trend
Clearly, many of these purchases were driven by consumers working and attending school from home over the past year. These tech purchases could be seen as yet another emergency supply, like hand sanitizer or toilet paper, if they weren’t accompanied by a telling change in sentiment. In 2016, a Pew survey found that 28% of Americans identified as strong early adopters of technology – people who must have the newest tech before other people have it, and enjoy talking about their new tech experiences. One of the findings of this study was that openness to new experiences was correlated with early tech adoption. Could it be that, as so many other types of new experiences became unavailable in the pandemic, people have formed a new habit of early technology adoption?
A study commissioned in 2020 by Mojo indicates that this is likely. In Mojo’s survey, 43% of respondents fell into the “first adopter” category, a significant jump from the 28% who fell into the similar “early adopter” category in Pew’s 2016 survey. Regardless of whether respondents identified as first adopters, they reported purchasing more new technology and feeling more dependent on it than before the pandemic. A large majority of first adopters are likely to continue their increased rate of technology purchases once the pandemic subsides; interestingly, 41% of “Later Adopters” agree. The study projects that the COVID-19 pandemic will cause a significant cultural shift towards early tech adoption.
In combination, the trends of increased e-commerce and earlier tech adoption imply that consumers will buy more cutting-edge technology without even first seeing or trying it in a store. This is undoubtedly an exciting prospect for tech retailers, until they consider what happens after the product arrives on the customer’s doorstep. These brand new, high-tech devices are going to require a lot of customer support.
Support Services are Critical for Early Adopters
As the leader of a company providing customer and technical support services, I look at these trends in terms of how the customer support industry needs to evolve. Recent research from Parks Associates highlights the extent and importance of the customer support required for tech consumers. In their “Supporting Connected Consumers” whitepaper, Parks reveals that 13% of consumer electronics owners have never attempted to set up a device themselves, and that 22% of those who do attempt DIY setup encounter problems. In the smart home category, the numbers are even starker, at 37% and 31%, respectively. Customer support of smart home devices is incredibly complex, because the expert must be able to troubleshoot not just the devices, but the network and other integrated devices connected to it.
The problems consumers encounter in setting up and troubleshooting these devices can have a major impact on brands. After all, the “late majority” is largely waiting on “first adopter” feedback before making purchasing decisions. In order to appropriately support the rising tide of early adopters, retailers, OEMs, and emerging tech companies need customer and technical support experts who are deeply knowledgeable and experienced with the products and the ecosystems in which they reside. This is a tall order when the products are by nature brand new, and support personnel are increasingly working remotely across the globe.
Remote Support for Remote Consumers
The pandemic has decentralized customer support services, pushing jobs that were once primarily performed at brick-and-mortar call centers towards home-based models. For early-adopter tech support, that could be a very good thing. The IT-savvy, networking background, device fluency, and mental agility required for high-quality tech support of emerging devices – particularly IoT devices – means that these roles should be occupied by skilled knowledge workers. Overwhelmingly, knowledge workers prefer to work at home. Even before the pandemic, 74% of knowledge workers surveyed by Zapier said they would quit their current job for an opportunity to work from home. Since COVID-19, further studies have found that such workers are both reluctant to return to physical offices and more productive when working from home. The shift toward home-based technical support means BPOs with a homesourced “expert anywhere” model – that is, an employment model organized around an entirely home-based workforce – have a distinct advantages with respect to recruiting, training, managing, and supporting staff to ensure excellent customer experiences.
BPOs with an expert anywhere model can hire technical support experts from anywhere in the world – wherever these experts want to live. Moreover, since they don’t have to commute, these homesourced workers have access to flexible scheduling options, such as part-time, split shift, or flexible schedules. A homesourcing organization therefore has access to deep pools of talent: parents who have left the workforce in the U.S. due to childcare responsibilities; college-educated call center workers in the Philippines who no longer wish to spend four hours per day commuting; the untapped female workforce in India, where women rarely work outside the home; disabled military veterans with deep technological expertise who find navigating office facilities challenging. The people who can provide the expert support are out there. They just need the systems and practices in place to support them. Homesourced experts need online learning that allows them to quickly get up to speed on new technologies. They also need tools that will help them resolve complex problems in context. For example, Support.com leverages live training sessions, asynchronous training that allows experts to practice on their own, and a proprietary Guided PathsTM system that uses dynamic decision points to help experts quickly identify the root cause of a problem. Our systems were designed specifically to allow home-based experts to master new technology quickly, and intelligently support them as they assist customers.
Even the most sophisticated BPOs will need to evolve to meet the needs of tomorrow’s early adopters. Just as 3D graphics and AR rendering have made e-commerce more like brick-and-mortar retail, the development of virtual product labs will simulate hands-on product training for home-based customer support experts. Remote experts should have the opportunity to examine and operate products in a realistic digital environment so they can assist customers from a position of authority. With virtual product labs, teams will be able to more quickly get up to speed on new product releases or updates, and practice complex situations such as the product’s interaction or integration with other devices.
More than learning from home or even working from home, shopping from home may be the most indelible new habit of the pandemic. Combined with increased enthusiasm for technology, customer support services need to innovate quickly to keep these new early adopters happy. It’s a virtuous cycle: to benefit from the explosive growth in technology e-commerce, the industry needs to do a little early adoption of its own.
Lance Rosenzweig is President & CEO of Support.com, a leader in customer and technical support solutions delivered by home-based employees. Previously, he has been CEO of three leading business process outsourcing companies, including Startek, Aegis, and PeopleSupport. Rosenzweig is also an entrepreneur and board member, with a track record of building great companies and generating substantial shareholder returns.