COVID's long-term effect on customer relations
When the current world covid pandemic subsides, the return to “normal” is likely to see some changes in the dynamic of the market and the administration for business. The operation of the consumer market is more likely to change more than that of business to business. How might these possible changes affect the commercial manager responsible for producing profitable income for the long-term future of the business by anticipating and satisfying customer requirements?
Business-to-business operations are often conducted via negotiation and demonstration. These will continue to involve face to face communication between customer and suppliers, and will continue to involve buyers, specifiers and users. Future negotiations may include more frequent use of video meetings via Zoom or similar link, while regular orders of standard materials and services will increase as online transactions. However, when involving high value contracts, it is likely that face to face contact will predominate in negotiations.
Online shopping for consumer goods is the modern replacement to old style catalogue shopping. But apart from speed and convenience, online shopping experiences the same problems of buying from a catalogue, namely not being able to properly evaluate and judge a product until it is actually received. Buying via the internet is not a substitute for personal buying, as the ability to see feel check and test a product are important factors in deciding to purchase. This creates a particular problem for clothing suppliers, in that there is a high volume of returns, which may have been part worn, making re-sale and the recoupment of value difficult or impossible.
To counter the effects of increased online shopping, good customer service in the customer/supplier interface will be increasingly important. Smaller businesses can often be closer to their customers and with a flexible attitude, have the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstance faster than larger organisations.
Perhaps one of the more difficult changes that may result from the pandemic is in the area of office administration. Businesses have had to adapt to survive and to continue to provide products and services to their customers. Over the past eighteen months many staff have been furloughed, or have had to work from home by Government decree. Now as government restrictions are eased, commercial managers will have to consider whether and how they may need to adapt working conditions.
As lockdowns ease, there is a call to return to the office, but at the same time there is resistance from some to return to daily commuting and a desire to continue with home working permanently, or at least for part of the week. In some cases, working from home has been taken to extreme, where the employee has relocated off shore to a distant location. Working from home for many office based businesses may be practicable, if not necessarily desirable, but it raises a number of problems for the commercial manager. Some of the problems are of a practical nature relating to the resources and ability of an employee to work at home, while others relate to customer relations.
- Under the UK’s Health and Safety act 1974, employers, organisations and the Government are required to ensure that the risks to the health, safety and welfare of people affected by their activities and operations are reduced to as low as reasonably practicable. Employers have to provide suitable desks and chairs commensurate with using laptop or desk top computers. Using a kitchen table, kitchen chair or a bed to sit on, is not acceptable.
- Is the employee’s broadband connection sufficient, who owns the connection and who pays for it?
- The business is using the employee’s space, heat and light, how is this to be paid for?
- How will database security be maintained, especially to comply with the Data Protection Act, when access is being made away from a secure office
- How to maintain the security of company and customer information beyond the office
- How to prevent moonlighting with company equipment, and information.
- Inter personal contact in the office promotes problem solving, communication, idea generation and reduces individual isolation.
Organisations must do their utmost to maintain and develop customer service. Ensuring good customer communication channels that are easy to access are essential for good customer relations. Email contact alone is not good enough. Direct telephone contact to designated personnel rather than an automated system is essential to avoid barriers to customers, who generally prefer personal contact to an automated impersonal system. Using call centres may appear cost effective, but generally tends to increases the separation from the customer on which the business depends, as the contractors do not have the same incentive to retain customer’s loyalty and business for the future. Using Covid as an excuse for poor or non-service is not acceptable.
Changes in market dynamics may necessitate change in working practice and organisation, but customers and their requirements must remain the primary concern as it is only the customer who provides the money on which the future of the business, its employees and owners depend. Change in any working practice should not, in anyway adversely affect customer communications and customer relationship.