10 ways to deal with customers during COVID-19

24th Mar 2020

We are living in troubling times fraught with uncertainty. There are many questions about what comes next in the COVID-19 outbreak. 

We talked about this in a recent podcast. Many of our clients have been calling us about what to do. Here are ten things we have been telling them.

1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. In times of trouble, it is best to start a dialog with your customers. Moreover, it is better to over-communicate rather than under-communicate. Much of the problem in the current crisis is uncertainty. Communicating with your customers will not reduce the global uncertainty around the health crisis. Still, it will provide some small sense of certainty around how your organization will react to it. People value predictability in times of uncertainty. So, do your small part; Over-communicate and overshare.

2. Be transparent. Be open and honest with your customers. People will understand things that are not great news when you do. I've had two interesting emails from Southwest Airlines and Delta explaining what they were doing to respond to the crisis. They were open and honest, and perhaps more importantly, they weren't trying to hide or spin things. They acknowledged the issue, explained how they were changing their cleaning process to respond. In Southwest’s case, they were reminding customers that they could change their flight with no cancellation fees, while also explaining that there could be fare changes. Delta has an extensive web page devoted to it.

3. Mind the tone of your communication. It is best to have a sincere tone that is authentic, empathetic, and, perhaps most importantly, confident. People want leadership. People want to believe you, and they will only accept you if you're sincere and feel you're authentic and empathetic to their situation.

4. Be fair. This time is not the time to price gouge. (I’m looking at you online hand sanitizer hawkers.)

5. Listen and be empathetic. We recommend putting yourself in your customers’ shoes (because we are, aren’t we?). Recognize that customers are going to be emotional and anxious. Empathy means that you understand where they're coming from, but it doesn't mean you have to give them everything they demand. Listen to your customers.  

6. Invest in the long-term with customers. People will remember the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020, and they will tell their stories. You want them to tell good stories about your company, not cautionary tales. Nobel-Prize winning Economist Professor Daniel Kahneman talks about this with the Peak-End Rule, which says that what people remember about experiences is the strongest emotion they felt (the Peak) and how they felt at the end. Moreover, people still talk about the fact that Southwest Airlines were the only airline after 9/11 that let people change flights without any additional costs. People have long memories when it comes to these things. The long and short of it is to think long term.

7. Set proper expectations. You should give them the bad news. However, it is essential to tell them WHY you have bad news. While it may upset them at that particular moment, people will understand. (Moreover, if you go back to number two, which is about being transparent, honest and open, and number three, you're sincere, authentic, empathetic and confident in your approach, then you know you have to tell them the bad news.) People understand the difference between bad things happening to them and how they are treated when bad things happen to them. We did work with a hospital in Houston years ago to improve their cancer treatment experience for patients. Having cancer was terrible, but we learned in our research that people could differentiate how bad it is to have cancer from how they are treated while having cancer. Also, people with financial difficulties know it is terrible to have them; however, they also remember how people treated them when they had financial problems. This COVID-19 situation is not pleasant for anybody, but people will remember how they are treated by your organization when going through this “not nice” situation. People will make allowances because of that. We're all in it together.

8. Think of the next step. Customers feel more confident when they know you are thinking ahead. What we know is this is bad. It's probably going to get worse before it gets better. However, what happens after this? If you have those answers, it will help build a relationship with your customers.  

9. Recognize how people feel coming into the experience. People will be stressed and anxious, and it will be best to do things to mitigate their feelings and manage them to a better place. In other words, when people call into the call center who are feeling stressed and anxious, getting them off the phone as fast as you can might not be the best thing to do. However, you might have to because people are sick in the call center, and you might be understaffed. Well, guess what? You have to be open and honest with people and tell the callers if you can't spend a lot of time talking to them. The point is, you should recognize that stress and anxiety will be on the other end of the line and react accordingly.

10. Suggest new ways of interacting. Every cloud has a silver lining, even at times of change like this one. The silver lining here is you could potentially get people to change their habits. If you want them to move online, then maybe now is an opportunity to do that, with some support from you. Now is also a time to help meet customers’ needs by getting them to do something different. If it can coincide with what you want them to do in six months when this is over, then all the better.

In England, we talk about the Dunkirk spirit. In World War II, the British Army got caught on the beaches of Dunkirk. So, regular British citizens used their boats to bring the soldiers back across the channel. It was treacherous. The Dunkirk spirit refers to how we're all in this together. That is key to this COVID-19 situation. You're in this along with the customers, and we're all doing our part to fight the virus. The main thing is to keep calm and carry on and just keep safe.

To hear more about this marketing tool in more detail, listen to the complete podcast here.

What customers say they want and what they really want are often different things. It is vital to know what drives value for your organization. Our Emotional Signature research can tell you where you are compared to other organizations and what to focus on to drive value for your customers. To learn more, please click here. 

Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s leading Customer experience consultancy & training organizations. Colin is an international author of six bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

Follow Colin Shaw on Twitter @ColinShaw_CX

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