The Covid-19 pandemic is forcing companies to maintain and build relationships with consumers at a time when their world has turned upside down. Today, a business must stimulate sales in times of extreme economic difficulties, and this is at variance with the new priorities and preferences of consumers, which pose a threat to life and income, hanging over each person.
This inconsistency is real, it is especially acutely felt by new enterprises or small companies producing non-mass demand goods: they may not have the resources to survive a long period of reduction in cash flow.
Literally overnight, coronavirus changed even larger, more resilient companies. For example, on Monday, March 16th, typical activity was observed in 380 Nordstrom stores in the USA and Canada. After all the day, the lights went out in all of these stores, as consumers and employees were advised to refrain from visiting them because of the risk of the spread of coronavirus. This is the reality for business during a pandemic.
What can small, new, vulnerable companies do to strengthen relationships with consumers if social exclusion minimizes or eliminates personal interaction?
Based on almost 70 years of experience in the commercial field, research and educational activities, we found that five key strategies help companies survive in times of crisis and maintain their relationship with consumers:
- Humanize your company (Make your company humane)
- Educate about change
- Assure stability
- Revolutionize offerings
- Tackle the future
These strategies are part of what we call the HEART Sustainable Crisis Communication Concept (from the English “heart”, the first letter abbreviation of all five strategies – approx. Ed.). It determines what consumers need and do not need to say during prolonged crises, and emphasizes the need to educate existing and potential customers about your customer support plans and create new value that may be useful to them.
HEART concept: how it works
We will illustrate the components of our concept based on various examples: from large financial companies (Fidelity Investments) to car services in New Mexico.
Make your company humane. Let consumers know that your company is aware of difficult social circumstances and is not only concerned about making a profit. Show empathy to everyone affected by Covid-19 and tell us about the steps your company is taking to help customers, employees, and other interested parties. The ideal tool for this is your social media pages and client mailings.
For example, many restaurants do not fire staff, but redirect them to deliver groceries. Sugarfish, a network of sushi restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, announced that it will transfer employees to carry out personal deliveries and thus do without outsourcing in this area. When a familiar waiter brings customers their favorite dishes, they feel calmer and more confident, their loyalty is strengthened, as this reminds them of why they liked to go to this restaurant before the crisis.
Another example: financial institutions “forgive” upcoming payments. This is a great way to demonstrate trust and goodwill. As a protective measure against the spread of the virus and a useful promotion element, the American company Fidelity offers customers to keep the pen with the company logo used for transactions. She reminds clients that Fidelity takes care of their physical and financial health during the crisis, and this will strengthen their loyalty after the crisis is over.
Addressing your customers with a message about what you can offer them, make your message short and stylish. Although consumers, of course, are interested in the “heart side” of your business, do not replay it. Ultimately, the value that you create for them is most important to customers. In addition, excessive empathy may seem insincere and merge with the voices of other companies saying the same thing.
Educate consumers on how to interact with your company. Notify them of any changes, including information on new opening hours, closures of work infrastructure facilities, staff reductions, and customer support mode and order options. Although you can invoke extraordinary government regulations that require these changes, it will be much better if you are considered proactive and motivated by the interests of your clients.
For example, Lulu lemon and Apple were aware of the impending closure of stores and anticipated this even before the relevant government orders. They appealed to their customers to make purchases on the Internet, recalling their convenient policy of returning goods and responsive employees of call centers that provide customer support.
Reassure consumers that company values will remain unchanged. Determine how in the new circumstances you will give your customers what they have managed to taste and love, and for which they are devoted to your business, and not to someone else’s business. If consumers value the impeccable quality of your products or their thoughtful service style, tell them how you will preserve these values.
For example, the Yoga8 Yoga Studio in Waco, Texas, which prides itself on rigorous workshops, has announced the conversion of its courses into interactive online meetings and ready-made video classes. Hans Whittler Automotive Service Auto Workers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, renowned for their convenience and safety, now pick up cars for repairs from their client’s home and return them later.
Such guarantees remind consumers that the values your company offers go beyond the barriers of the crisis.
Make a revolution in what consumer’s value in your business. Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, acknowledged that chaos opens up new possibilities. This thought has been heard many times over the centuries. In addition to assuring your customers that your existing value propositions will remain the same, tell them what innovations have emerged as a result of the fight against the ongoing pandemic, because in the end, the need gives birth to inventions.
Tell your customers what’s new in your service. Reach out to potential customers by offering innovative products or services that solve a new problem. For example, the Fuddruckers hamburger network is now solving the shortage of goods at grocery stores by baking and selling bread. Some alcohol companies in the fight against a deficiency of antiseptics decided to produce it.
Organizations that take these steps and communicate them to their customers inspire hope in their hearts as they see how companies are developing new ways to improve their lives. Such measures create additional benefits from the humanization of your company.
Work for the future. Set a schedule by which you will reassess changes in your operations. And although you must comply with any restrictions imposed by the government, do more if you can. Show people that you are ready to bring additional benefits to your customers, especially if your company can cope with the financial burden.
Demonstrate that you are doing everything possible and impossible, and this will become a glimmer of hope in the current situation. Demonstrate that you are ready to support your revised business model until the situation normalizes, that is, until your company survives the storm. Tell us what lessons you learned from the pandemic and how these lessons will help improve your organization’s performance after the crisis. Let your customers know that your business will become stronger after the storm. Temporary improvements that are satisfying customers now in the future may become permanent improvements to your business model. This will inspire confidence, because you take responsibility for the situation as much as possible, instead of allowing the situation to control the fate of your company and its valuable customers.
With the right, customer-oriented approach and understanding of what people need right now, companies will be able to survive this crisis and strengthen their relations with consumers. In this difficult time, open your heart to your customers with the HEART concept. This will preserve their goodwill and provide an incentive to stay with you in the future.