Business, Customer Experience & the coronavirus… 8 ways that might help you fight off a global pandemic

Coronavirus is a global gamechanger.

We’ve seen game-changers before – world wars, Islamist terrorism, Brexit… However, on a global scale, nothing has ever impacted as broadly, quickly and intrusively as the coronavirus pandemic. And it will have a permanent impact on everything, including the world of commerce. 

Over the past few days, a number of commentators have suggested that companies will always survive difficult times by offering a ‘better’ customer experience. Sadly, I don’t think that this will always be the case when it comes to the impact of coronavirus, and here’s why…

One way of looking at Customer Experience is that a business makes a promise to the customer and then delivers against it. The closer the delivery to the promise, the better the experience. Under-delivery can be perceived as a lie, and over-delivery can cause problems in terms of consistency, potentially driving ongoing trust and expectation issues. So, is consistency the secret to ongoing customer experience success?

Not necessarily…

The survival of many businesses will largely hinge on their business propositions and operating models. If you’re a business that relies on volume sales of high (stock) turnover, low margin products with high levels of F2F contact, then these are going to be challenging times. We are already seeing this in the airline industry with Norwegian, RyanAir and British Airways making significant announcements over the past 48 hours. I can only imagine that companies such as Primark (and those with difficult cash flow situations) will be facing similar challenges. 

(And, as I write this, I look up the latest news: Primark owner shares halted after virus sales warning

Primark’s promise is something along the lines of ‘throw-away, high street fashion at an affordable price”. The service you get isn’t necessarily great, but the experience arguably is, because they consistently deliver against their promise. However, remaining consistent to their promise isn’t necessarily going to be enough to guarantee the ongoing survival of that business. Now, I’m not suggesting that Primark is going to go under, however, as is the case with a number of organisations, they are undoubtedly facing tough times.

So what can organisations do to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on their operations? These thoughts are not designed to resolve specific issues, rather help organisations think about how they can consider creatively addressing many of the challenges currently faced: 

1. Can we ride the supply & demand wave? 

As a result of consumer panic buying and stockpiling, many supermarkets are currently going through a period of just-in-time delivery readjustment. We have seen an increasing prevalence of empty shelves over the last couple of weeks, but this is very likely to calm down as the grocery retailers take time to adjust to these new supply & demand conditions. And, of course, it could be considered immoral for the retailers to increase the price of items during high-demand, low-supply periods. That being said…

If an organisation has a segmented & separated customer base, depending on the nature of the proposition and the customer base, could it be argued that it would be beneficial for some consumers to be offered a short-term premium proposition? Would those prepared to pay a little more in order to guarantee supply be subsidising those people who may need financial support during these tough times?

Could this be done in such a way so as to not upset consumers and to remain consistent to your customer promise? I’m not suggesting that all organisations SHOULD do this, rather whether some might be improving the overall levels of customer satisfaction and contentment. 

EXAMPLE: Could an optional delivery surcharge be offered to some customers that could then be used to subsidise free delivery to more vulnerable customers? 

2. How can we add more value than our competitors? 

Competition is tough at the best of times, but right now, when all businesses and consumers are suffering, organisations need to be asking themselves if there is anything that they can do, over and above their competitors, to either guarantee the loyalty and/ or spend of customers. Is there anything that a business can give, at little or no cost to themselves, that would be difficult or time-consuming for competitors to replicate and which would add significant value to consumers?

Example: Can we provide free next day delivery for all items considered by consumers to be ‘essential’? 

3. What can we give the customer that offers them security, but costs us little or nothing? 

A similar point to the one made above, however without taking the competition into consideration. Just because our competitors would find it difficult to add the same value that we can isn’t the only reason why the organisation should be looking to add value to the customer’s experience. During such difficult, and for some, harrowing times, the ability to build significant trust and reputational value with consumers could be invaluable in the long term. 

Example: Can we offer a free extended warranty on our proposition? Coronavirus: BBC delays over-75 TV licence fee changes

4. Can we put customers in control? 

The value of self-service technology has been undisputed for well over a decade, however now, more than ever, providing consumers with the ability to manage their own requirements will not only improve the confidence and control of those customers but will also potentially reduce the long-term operating costs for the business, which would otherwise require ‘people’ to service the needs of the customer. Can we look all the way across the customer’s journey to identify opportunities to encourage the use of existing self-serve tech and/ or introduce new self-serve tech? 

Example: Can we drop the minimum charge fee on card transactions in order that customers can use contactless / chip & pin technology for low-value purchases, facilitating a more sterile transaction? 

5. Can we switch the customer to a different channel?

Sometimes we do things, not because it is the easiest thing to do, rather because we’re used to doing them that way. They say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes it depends on how desperate that ‘old dog’ gets! It can be easy to get into a rut. 

Older consumers, for example, can often find it difficult to use new technologies. Ironically, however, they would also be the people most likely to benefit from services such as grocery delivery, which are reliant on the use of internet technologies for ordering. Is there anything you could be doing to encourage or help a consumer to switch to a channel that they would be better suited to during this difficult time?

Example: Can grocery retailers offer/ sell/ lend 4G/5G tablets to encourage (through education) more vulnerable & isolated customers (over 70s) to use delivery services to make their purchases? 

6. Are our people able to work remotely? 

Senior and middle management typically benefit from being equipped with laptops and mobile phones, enabling them to work from home when needed. For everyone else, traditionally the only real option has been working from the office. But does that need to be the case? If the organisation can afford to equip all staff with laptops (they may already be equipped with such!), then it only needs to provide remote login capabilities. Do people have company mobile phones, or even better IP software that can integrate a landline into a laptop through the addition of a headset?

And with the availability of cloud-based technologies, would it even be possible to provide colleagues with remote access to the workplace from their own personal technology? 

Example: Could it even be feasible to run a contact centre through personal smartphones, tablets and laptops (with earphones/ headsets), so that colleagues can take calls in their pyjamas from home? 

7. Can we redeploy our people? 

When times get tough, one of the first things that many companies do is to lay staff off. Only yesterday morning, Norwegian Airlines announced that they would be temporarily laying off 7,500 staff. BA are cutting flight capacity by 75% and have said that there will be redundancies. Similar announcements were made by RyanAir, Virgin & EasyJet. 

At this stage, it is impossible to say what the impact of this will be on employee morale, but with there being an indisputable link between employee experience and customer satisfaction, there is likely to be a long-term negative impact on customer experience and organisational reputation. 

But can organisations get creative about how they deal with staffing issues? Are there other options available to businesses other than laying people off? Are there other parts of the organisation that require additional headcount during the tough operational periods? Could staff be a lot more productive if they were used in a completely different way? 

One example was mentioned by Christopher Brooks in a blog post yesterday, when he quoted an HBR article which highlighted how ‘cosmetics company Lin Qingxuan who had to close 40% of its stores during the crisis, redeployed its 100+ beauty advisors from those stores to become online influencers who leveraged digital tools, such as WeChat, to engage customers virtually and drive online sales. As a result, its sales in Wuhan achieved 200% growth compared to the prior year’s sales.

Although Lin Qingxuan may have inadvertently stumbled across this seemingly creative, clever and commercially astute decision, it nevertheless goes to show how out-of-the-box thinking can lead to unexpected commercial success. 

Example: Can we get our salespeople to help out in the contact centre during periods of high consumer demand? Would encouraging a sales-via-service culture actually improve the organisation’s overall commercial performance? 

8. Can we/ should we remain consistent to our promise?

As mentioned earlier in the article, one way of looking at Customer Experience is to consider the difference between what the organisation promises and delivers. This is clearly not a commercial reality for some companies that, as a result of their operating models are forced to underdeliver, as can currently be observed in the airline industry. 

But what about those companies that overdeliver? Some organisations have made the decision to go the extra mile or make concessions for their customers during these difficult times. But how will these concessions be viewed in the longer term? Will they be seen as a kind, short-term gesture offered on a one-off basis during exceptional circumstances; or will they be seen as cynical decisions that should be being offered to consumers on a permanent basis? 

The answer is… it depends. 

It depends on the nature of the product/ service, the state of the competitive environment and relative strength of the consumer in all of this. Of course, there is a danger that consumer expectations may have been raised, but a judgment call needs to be made as to whether this will now be considered as being something that should be done by the company all the time.


So, can Customer Experience survive the coronavirus? Why not! It just depends on how creative organisations choose to get…