Embrace Proactive Customer Experience in the Midst of COVID-19

Brands that take proactive steps to comfort customers and protect their safety and financial confidence will earn strong reputational benefits during a volatile time.

In the first week of March, U.S. delivery platform Instacart launched a new feature — Leave at My Door Delivery an alternative for quarantined or vulnerable people who want to avoid close contact during the coronavirus crisis. Instacart’s launch is just one example of creating proactive customer experience consistent with the new normal of customer uncertainty in the era of COVID-19.

Brands across industries and geographies must confront a new reality of: 

  • Customer anxiety about visiting your location or purchasing your product. Is your product safe? What steps are you taking to ensure customer health at your physical site? How will you serve customers if you can’t open for business?
  • Customer concerns about your ability to deliver. If I buy your product, can you deliver on time? Will your inventory or logistics cause delays?
  • Customer hesitancy about making commitments. If I buy an event ticket or make a reservation I’m unable to use, will I get a refund? If I make a purchase and my financial situation changes, what options are available to me?

Concerns like these can raise call volumes, increase expenses and strain your staff. And they’re still just the tip of the iceberg, because customers are delaying or canceling purchases or foregoing them altogether.

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Brands that take proactive steps to address customer concerns demonstrate customer centricity, which earns customer trust and builds relationships. This is especially important at a time when customer needs and sensitivities are so great. By making early decisions to protect customers, brands decrease anxiety and solve problems before they develop. A few examples of proactive steps and communication include:

Citi’s COVID-19 email

Citi sent a proactive email to inform clients about its efforts to augment daily cleaning of branches and also reminded customers about the bank’s online and mobile apps. This email did more than resolve brand issues. It also proactively offered to solve customer difficulties by waiving monthly service fees and penalties for early CD withdrawal. At a time when many customers are experiencing volatile incomes, Citi is stepping up as a trusted partner.

TaskRabbit’s COVID-19 email

TaskRabbit, a gig economy platform that matches independent contractors with private customers, took a similarly proactive stance in an email informing clients that it would allow customers to cancel or reschedule a task within 24 hours of the start time if they fall ill. The independent contractors likewise will reschedule if they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Allowing more flexibility for customers removes a barrier that could prevent customers from committing. 

United Airlines drops change fees for fares booked in March

United also made a policy shift by offering to waive change fees for travel booked in March. By removing financial risk for customers, the brand is lowering barriers that could prevent purchases.

Small businesses adapt to COVID-19 conditions

Big brands aren’t the only ones taking creative and proactive steps. Local small businesses are also adjusting their process to adapt to the new normal. A family-owned provider of music instrument rentals and lessons switched to video lessons. Gyms and sports facilities are offering free classes via video streaming. Arts organizations are streaming concerts and offering virtual tours of galleries in an effort to share some beauty (and homeschooling resources) at a challenging time.

Brands need to do the right thing

Nor are customers the only stakeholders to consider. Brand reputation also hinges on the community of employees that make the business run, who in turn depend on their employers for income and connection — both threatened by shutdowns and social distancing policies. Businesses that do the right thing for their teams earn high marks in the court of public opinion.

Microsoft set the bar when it announced it will pay hourly workers their full pay — not just if they’re sick and need to stay home, but also if their hours are cut due to diminished demand. Trader Joe’s likewise changed its sick-leave policy to reimburse hourly workers who would otherwise not be paid for hours missed due to illness. These changes encourage workers to stay home if they feel ill and reduce the risk of transmitting the disease to customers or coworkers.

Read more: Your Paid Leave Policies Will Impact Your Employer Brand

The exact decision or actions any given brand takes will vary according to the business it’s in, the customers it serves and its employee dynamics. B2B customers may face supply chain disruptions or reductions in revenue. B2C brands may feel the follow-on impacts of volatile customer incomes, as well as limited mobility and freedom caused by quarantines. Brands that proactively help people in a time of crisis can ensure healthy customer and employee relationships.

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Augie Ray is Vice President Analyst at Gartner. He covers customer experience (CX) for marketing and CX leaders with topics that include the ROI of CX, CX strategy and governance, voice of the customer, customer journey mapping, CX analytics and measurement and more. _____________________________________________________________ Gartner clients can visit the Gartner COVID-19 Resource Center to learn more.

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