Sixty-one percent of consumers believe ending payment deferral programs can significantly damage brand reputation, according to Gartner, Inc. To mitigate the potential for reputational damage, marketing and communications leaders should look to minimize backlash by urging senior leaders to build repayment plans that accommodate individual customers’ circumstances and clearly communicate those plans with empathy and emotion.
“These are the moments where the brand is at risk,” said Dorian Cundick, vice president for Gartner for Marketers. “Marketing and communications leaders know better than anyone that the fine print on policy changes is generally lost on those who only hear about them from mainstream or social media.
“For highly sensitive messages, like announcing the organization is ending a period of bill relief and resuming normal business operations, that missing context can cause significant and lasting damage to the brand. Brands must tread carefully with these types of messages, ever cognizant that the audience extends far beyond current customers to include potential customers and the general online population.”
The Gartner Consumer Community Survey, which polled nearly 300 consumers in December 2020, shows that 55% of respondents view deferred payments for customers as more of an ethical issue than a business issue. In fact, another Gartner survey of 2,448 consumers in December 2020 reveals that 48% of consumers expect companies to act with moral integrity on social issues, even when it hurts their bottom lines.
Most consumers (90%) say they expect companies to help out their customers in times of economic hardship. COVID-19 pandemic related hardships have not ended for many U.S. consumers. Gartner research shows that two-thirds of consumers say that, even if they become fully vaccinated against COVID-19, they still don’t believe their lives will return to normal for another six months to a year or more. Combine that with the fact that a third of consumers feel that their personal finances won’t recover from the pandemic impact for a year or more.
“For most consumers, the pandemic is an ongoing, unabated crisis,” said Jennifer Sigler, director of research for Gartner for Marketers. “Therefore, corporate statements that suggest a return to normal operations may feel too abrupt or downright inappropriate right now.”
Marketing and communications leaders looking to guide their organization through the end of a COVID-19 payment deferral program with minimal harm to its reputation should consider the following:
- Lobby to Continue the Payment Deferral Program: Explain to senior leaders the potential for reputational harm presented by a decision to resume normal business operations while the pandemic is ongoing. Suggest to senior leaders that customer welfare be their top CSR priority until the end of the pandemic, even if it means suspending other social and philanthropic efforts to cut costs.
- Advocate for Flexible Repayment Plans: Stress to senior leaders the importance of building flexibility into repayment plans by, for example, allowing customers to design repayment schedules tailored to their unique circumstances.
- Craft Empathetic Messaging at All Customer Touchpoints: Craft empathetic, human-sounding—rather than business- or finance-sounding—messaging to communicate the end of the payment deferral program to the public, and emphasize the steps that the company is taking to continue accommodating customers.
Gartner for Marketers clients can learn more in the report “Safeguard Your Reputation as COVID-19 Payment Deferral Programs End.”
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