Picture: A worker disinfects a building in Beijing. Credit: Tedward Quinn via Unsplash.

By Nina Hurson 

The eruption of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has forced the world against the clock to undergo a transformation unlike anything in recent decades. In the face of this global challenge, China has emerged as one of the nations leading the international experiment, as it becomes the first nation headed toward the “new normal.” Despite differences between countries, what lessons can be extrapolated from the Chinese model to rethink society and redesign client experience in the post-coronavirus era? 

In the last 15 years, China has intensified its efforts to position itself as the most important technological actor on the world stage, second only to the United States. In fact, by 2030, China plans to become the world leader in artificial intelligence and to drive cutting-edge technologies like big data, fintech, and 5G, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). This positioning enables China to get a head start in facing some of the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

High Tech and Privacy: A corporate paradigm shift 
Rigorous hygiene and distancing protocols, apps to control access and temperatures, use of protective screens and masks, QR codes with clinical and movement history, robots to regulate space capacity, surveillance cameras, and driverless cars are just a few of the measures that China has already installed to control the pandemic. 

This is a bet on technological innovation as the motor of change. Nonetheless, people “should not get carried away by big displays of technology, and differentiate these shows of control, modernity, or innovation that we now see, with what will later happen in reality,” says Opinno UX project manager Laura García Muñoz.  

Picture: Robot assistant in a shop. Credit: Franck V. via Unsplash.

In this sense, García underlines the volatility of the current situation and explains that others must be cautious in using China as a reference, given that the starting point for consumer experience there is very different from that in other countries. “Analysis is needed to know to what point a population is willing to sacrifice its privacy for control,” García adds. 

García expounds that Chinese users have been accustomed for some time to a “concentrated and controlled digital experience.” The most famous example is that of WeChat, an app launched in 2011. The main messaging platform hosts the majority of communications in China and has even replaced professional communications platforms. Furthermore, it has become in a consumer favorite to make payments. Because of this, many Chinese brands integrate their service within WeChat. 

Another example that has earned much international visibility is Alibaba. The data from their in-store and online payment app Alipay has been used by Chinese authorities in their fight against the coronavirus, according to a recent article in the New York Times. 

On this point, García points out that we are “attending a paradigm shift in which companies are very conditioned by the regulations and controls imposed by governments when it comes to designing customer experience.” 

China and the US have heavily wagered on technology, but Europe does not seem willing to follow the same path. The European Union departs from a different premise, since one of its goals is adjusting the technology sector’s legal framework to the union’s democratic and sustainability principles, centering development around users, as detailed by the European Commission.   

New Habits and the Boom of Premium Service  

Despite the uncertainty surrounding health and economies due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “the consumer still exists,” says Aurelia Pérez Velasco, expert in CEX (Customer Experience) and project manager in innovation and strategy at Opinno. She adds that the differential corporate factor will be in offering a disruptive client experience that is adapted to emerging needs. 

Picture. A market in Macau. Credit: Macau Photo Agency via Unsplash.

Pérez asserts that the pandemic is already driving psychological changes in consumers which enables outlining coming trends, like the ones gathered in Opinno’s RESTART: 10 Trends Post-COVID-19 report. 

Among these trends is a new customer experience marked by certain social hypochondria and insecurity. This will promote buying decisions aimed at the long term, with lower costs, and with a particular focus on the environmental impact of brands and their products. Additionally, the acceleration of a digital transformation will have to coexist with a return to “industrial patriotism” and a prioritization of national consumption.  

Nonetheless, according to a white paper published by the World Economic Forum, the coronavirus crisis has created an opportunity for the emergence of novel business models. The report highlights that the only companies that will grow will be those capable of diversifying their monetization and of creating added value on top of their traditional processes. For this, those companies will have to take another step toward their digitalization, transforming their clients’ data into new products and innovative services to fit current needs.  

In these scenarios, the “new normal” in consumption “will open a growing gap between the companies capable of flaunting new models of premium service and those that make no change with respect to the past,” says Pérez, who adds: “In the medium term, the premium model will be the star among companies, giving customers a feeling of exclusivity.” 

Despite the structural differences between the Asian and European markets, some of the main takeaways from China’s return to the “new normal” coincide with the redesign of future scenarios in which digital transformation becomes a key aspect of consumer experience. 

In this sense, it will be crucial for companies to rethink the fundamentals of their value propositions to respond to the necessities and the cultural frameworks of consumers. This process will require alignment with trends sharpened by COVID-19, like flexibility, security, privacy, authenticity, collaboration, and sustainability.