The COVID-19 global humanitarian and economic crisis has forced individuals and companies to rapidly change how they live and work.
Many elements of business and life are being challenged; in some cases, the next normal may look very different as new ways of working are carried over into the future.
Customer experience takes on a new meaning against this backdrop. Leading organisations are re-orienting their customer experience- and communication efforts to meet their customers’ primary needs, such as safety, security, and everyday convenience. By consciously providing empathy and care for their customers during this crisis, companies can build a foundation of goodwill and long-lasting emotional connections with the customers and communities they serve.
Seven actions to demonstrate empathy for customers in times of crisis
Over the past few months, companies had to quickly act to stabilise operations and safeguard their own employees. With this foundation established, companies have started finding genuine, creative ways to show empathy and emotionally connect with customers.
The following seven actions outline how companies can address essential customer needs around individual safety, security and stability, convenience, ease of use, emotional bonds and trust:
1. Minimise risk by reducing physical interactions
Society’s first responsibility during a pandemic of this scale is eliminating opportunities to spread the virus, especially among the most at-risk populations. Companies have been doing this in lots of ways, such as limiting the number of people in stores, and providing markings to guide shoppers on the right distance to remain apart.
Grocery retailers, for example, have also responded by taking extra precautions, such as extending opening hours for the elderly and healthcare workers as well as free home delivery for the vulnerable and elderly.
2. Actively contribute to safety by innovating the product portfolio
Companies should ask themselves two critical questions: Do we have a product the world needs right now? Or can we contribute to society and rapidly adapt our product portfolio to provide goods that are urgently needed?
For example, some distilleries are using their ethanol supplies to provide materials for hand sanitisers through partnerships with refineries. Others using their manufacturing facilities to support the production of personal protective equipment, or ventilators.
3. Provide pragmatic help to customers in financial distress
As companies are forced to decrease operations for an uncertain time period, individuals and millions of small business owners face massive income and liquidity issues. Providing flexible solutions when dealing with financial challenges is now both a responsibility and a huge trust driver for companies.
Financial institutions and utility providers for example are not penalising customers with charges or service termination for those unable to meet payment obligations.
4. Bring joy and support the emotional needs of customers ‘trapped at home’
Many people are still forced to stay at home, and experience all the concerns that come with that. Companies are acting to make homelife more enjoyable and to also ensure the well-being of their customers.
Families have to entertain children at home, making easy access to online content a truly fundamental need. Telcos are providing free unlimited data, and entertainment companies have released new content ahead of schedule.
As another example, meditation and mindfulness providers, such as the Headspace app, will be providing free subscriptions to healthcare professionals and unlocking free content for consumers.
5. Actively shift customers to online channels
With so many directives around the world to remain at home, companies that previously relied on physical operations have had to direct customers to online offerings.
As an example, since many gyms have been directed to close all physical facilities, they are now offering hundreds of free online home workout courses to members. Companies offering virtual capabilities, as with Cisco’s Webex, are assisting schools and universities as they transition to remote learning by offering free tools for teachers, parents, and students to support the development of online-learning plans.
Companies without online services can find ways to establish and scale online offerings to meet the customer’s digital experience needs. This shift to online and digital channels has the potential to dramatically increase online traffic post-recovery.
6. Stay reachable and treat customers with care in personal interactions
With physical channels such as bank branches and stores less accessible, many customers are turning to other channels for queries and requests that need personal attention and care.
Service companies in telcos and banking are currently experiencing increased inbound call volumes in their contact centres, while at the same time having to shift their customer-service centres to remote-working arrangements. For example, a leading European telco equipped 10,000 call-centre agents with laptops and tool infrastructure within a week, enabling them to take calls from their homes. Companies that provide customers with additional guidance and support can maintain communication and engagement.
While most companies must address reachability, some companies, such as those in the medical industry, face callers who have significantly different types of questions than they did prior to the pandemic. Another key priority is proactively training call-centre agents to manage these new questions.
7. Demonstrate care for the community through company values
Companies can stay true to their vision while showing that they genuinely care about their customers. Actions taken during crises can help build trust and reinforce brand values.
One of the most talked-about company initiatives in Germany came from McDonald’s and ALDI. The two companies initiated a staff sharing plan so that interested McDonald’s workers from temporarily closed branches can redeploy at ALDI stores to ensure that the retailer can meet the currently increased customer demand. Supporting local communities while linking these efforts back to company values is exemplified by companies delivering free, fresh meals to medical workers in the cities they serve.
Forging lasting connections with customers
During times of crisis, leading companies are pivoting from marketing to helping, and from fulfilling customer desires to meeting customer needs. Socially conscious organisations across sectors and geographies are finding ways to get involved and support their customers and communities.
In this respect, the current COVID-19 outbreak is an opportunity to re-think the connections companies have with their customers. Leading in a caring, empathetic manner during these difficult times has the potential to create real connections and new customer experiences, that will outlive the social and economic impacts of the pandemic.
The author would like to thank Fabricio Dore, David Malfara, and Kelly Ungerman for their contribution to this article.