Customer experience during the COVID-19 crisis is about one thing: empathetic engagement. But the timing of your engagement is also incredibly important. To show true empathy, you have to reach out before your customers come to you stressed and worried. You have to make time to understand their mindset and take clear steps to meet their needs before they even express them. That’s what empathetic engagement is all about.
So, how do you undertake proactive customer experience in the age of COVID-19? It’s not as difficult as you think. It may require loss in the short-term for your company, but it will pay off dividends in the long-term if you do it right.
The Empathy Factor
You’ve likely heard of emotional intelligence, a.k.a. EQ. It’s partially defined as the ability to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. This is exactly the type of soft skill companies need to be leaning into as the COVID-19 crisis continues to impact our customer base. It is going through pain and grief right now. Every person on your team needs to think of themselves as part-time therapists, as they seek to improve the lives of your customers with every call.
What does working with empathy require? It requires high-touch—even if it’s done by phone or video. Customers want to talk to real live humans. They want to be asked in advance what will make their lives better. They don’t want to be further stressed by getting lost in an endless phone tree or bot-chat that goes nowhere. What’s more, they want your people to be aware of what your company is doing to help its customers. That means: training and communication are needed at every employee level, every day to keep your team informed about how to help your customers most quickly. It also means that you actually need to follow through on what you tell customers you’re going to do. For instance, I recently ordered from a chain restaurant for lunch, which advertised free delivery throughout the COVID-19 crisis. The delivery still showed as a $6.97 fee. Was it worth my time or mental workload to call and ask for my money back? Of course not. But it did knock the restaurant down a peg in my cache of restaurants to return to when the crisis is over.
Remember, your employees are going through the crisis, too—they’re just as worried as your customers are about their families, their finances, and the future. Take time to have empathy for them, too.
Reevaluating Your Current Programs
It’s possible you headed into the COVID-19 crisis thinking your customer experience game is already strong. That’s great—but I’d encourage you to think again. The things customers need right now are not the same things they needed a few weeks ago. They don’t necessarily need text alerts for 10 percent discounts off their favorite latte, for instance. They want to know that life as they know it is going to be OK. They may need a free latte to improve their spirits. A way to send a free meal to a friend they are worried about. A way to donate safety supplies to your employees if they’re worried about them. These are the kinds of things you need to start thinking about as we continue to move throughout the crisis—even if it means completely restructuring the customer experience journey you already had in place.
Am I saying to change the “brand” or “vibe” of your company? Of course not. Customers need unchanging realities right now. Knowing their favorite brands are alive, well, and “similar” brings a certain sense of calm. Still, the experiences themselves must be different if you want your company to stay relevant right now. That may mean increasing your spend on social responsibility and decreasing your focus on sales.
Stay Rooted in Reality
As a dear friend always tells me: be where your feet are. The Harvard Business Review is advising the same thing—stay present to what is actually happening now, rather than worrying about what may happen to your business down the line. Customers will not be buying or spending as much as they usually do throughout this crisis, and likely long after. However, we also know people are spending more time at home. That means instead of pushing sales, it would be a good time to increase your digital user experience—buttoning up any broken links, lagging stream times, shopping cart errors, or anything else that may make a customer leave your app or website. I know I have already quit a few apps who haven’t been able to keep up with the changes caused by COVID-19, including Instacart and Shipt. Why pay a monthly fee for delivery when there are no delivery windows open? (Instacart has also come under fire for their lack of support for their employees during this crisis—another even more important reason not to support them.) These are the kinds of issues you need to focus on—issues where you can see clear spots on the customer journey where customers are jumping ship and taking steps to rectify them.
Remember: COVID-19 isn’t going away May 1, no matter what your local governments may tell you. This issue—and everything it’s impacted, including unemployment, low consumer demand, etc.—is going to last months, if not years. There is still time to proactively engage your customers, even if you haven’t started yet. Brands that take proactive steps to comfort customers and protect their safety and financial confidence will earn strong reputational benefits in the long run. The key is to listen and follow-through on what they need—whether it’s good for you in the moment, or not.
Futurum Research provides industry research and analysis. These columns are for educational purposes only and should not be considered in any way investment advice.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.