The Indifferent Consumer: Expectations Are Falling

An air of resignation and lowered expectation hangs over South Africa’s customer service industry, according to the fifth annual edition of the South African Customer Experience Report, out this week.

The study, produced by digital agency Rogerwilco, market research company Ovatoyou and Julia Ahlfeldt CX Consulting in partnership, is based on insights from 2,000 South African consumers, juxtaposed with a separate survey of business executives.

This year’s report offers a holistic view of the state of customer experience (CX), considering digital and physical interactions with brands. Interestingly, the report found that South Africans are reaching a plateau in online shopping due to fund and connectivity limitations.

Despite the rise in digital, the human touch still matters. And the report highlights a troubling trend of consumers considering merely “good” service to be “good enough”. The cause could be the struggling economy, ailing infrastructure or a global information overload. Consumers report being delighted with experiences that are just average, setting a low bar for what is considered a great customer experience.

The report’s expert panel found that while many consumers are forgiving of lapses in service due to state failures such as load-shedding, negative experiences can still ignite their ire.

Complaints have risen sharply, with many people sharing their poor experiences more vocally than in previous years. However, businesses have remained resilient amid these challenges, claiming that state failures have not eroded their ability to deliver customer service.

Data sharing is a point of contention. Two-fifths of respondents expressed comfort with the amount of personal data companies collect, despite rising phishing and ransomware attacks, and hefty fines levied against corporates that mishandle such data.

When it comes to industry-specific satisfaction, the public sector performed poorly, which should come as no surprise. Yet a paradoxical 23% reported satisfaction with the government’s service delivery. This, notes the report, could be a testament to South African resilience or a symptom of lowered expectations. By contrast, industries that fared well include fast food and grocery retail, though it is interesting to note that businesses benchmark their CX efforts against the finance and insurance industries, not on those that consumers rate highly.

A troubling revelation was that only 14% of business respondents prioritise customer retention. In tough times, consumers will be more judicious about where they spend their money, and poor experiences can easily drive them away. In this context, a robust customer retention strategy centred on pleasing consumers is crucial.

Despite challenges, opportunities still abound for companies that can exceed the falling expectations. While corporate confidence may have hit a new low due to a slew of factors, from the Covid aftermath to geopolitical tensions, companies that prioritise CX can stand out and outperform their peers.

The report also says South African consumers, tired of too many ordinary experiences, are ready to invest in brands that go the extra mile.

Charlie Stewart, co-author of the report and CEO of Rogerwilco, tells the FM that the new national indifference is letting brands and businesses off the hook. “Where we should be complaining, we are accepting, and unless we vote with our wallets and use online channels to vent our concerns, we will continue to exist in a society where we accept good enough as our norm and excellence as rare.”

Stewart asks where all the good brands have gone when it comes to customer service. “Have they automated themselves so much that they no longer have a human connection with their customers? Of course there is a lot to be said about using technology to improve efficiencies and bring down prices, but at what cost? Human-to-human contact is still the preferred means through which to deal with a brand, given that 67% of those surveyed said they prefer to go into a branch or store while 47% contact a call centre.”

Stewart says brands that are getting the customer experience right throughout the on- and offline purchasing journey are winning. “In fact, so rare are these experiences that we as consumers tell all and sundry about it — 82% of those who we surveyed said they tell family and friends.”

Stewart thinks the South African psyche is to blame. “We are tired, worn out and apathetic. We are accepting of our lot, whether that is from the private or the public sector. Instead, we should be using whatever communication channels are available to us to make our voices heard, to call out those brands that have not delivered.”

Stewart warns that unless brands and businesses wake up, consumers will continue to operate in a “malaise of poor customer experiences.”

This piece originally appeared in the Financial Mail.