Adapting to COVID-19

What crisis can mean for customer engagement and customer loyalty

  • Paul Greenburg
    Paul Greenberg
  • Jun 15, 2020

The single most important effort your company can make is to be empathetic. That means recognize that your customers need you to be supportive to them, the community surrounding your company, and the population on the larger stage, given the size and scope of the company.

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Prior to COVID-19 upending life as we know it, each of us was getting an incredible stream of seemingly endless emails, notifications, pushed content, and banner ads that are at the very least confusing in its volume, and at worst annoying and distracting. In contemporary buzz speak, we were unable to separate the signal from the noise because we were overwhelmed by the volume.

But then the coronavirus came along, and the context changed. As more and more information flowed at global, national, and local levels, the reliability of that information and the value of reliable or useful information became a lot more important. It’s what I call an “escalated scenario.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise. An escalated scenario like the global pandemic brings out two very human reactions and desires even more vividly than normal. First, the desire for information. Second, the desire to communicate with others for multiple reasons, among them:

  1. Comfort,

  2. Concern,

  3. Distraction, and

  4. Even more information.

The patterns for both interacting and information-gathering are quickly becoming part of the day-to-day way we engage.

My favorite example of this is Zoom. This video conferencing tool is now a proprietary eponym—as in, “let’s Zoom,” regardless of what kind of video conferencing tool is being used. Within the two weeks of when COVID-19 lockdowns began, downloads of the Zoom iPhone app went from a hefty 50,000 a day to 2,000,000. Five million total users pre-crisis has since grown to 300 million.

Further evidence of changes in our communication habits reported by AT&T highlight our desire for real-time communication amid a sense of urgency:

  • Voice calls: +33 percent

  • Instant messaging: +63 percent

  • Text messaging: +41 percent

  • Emailing: -18 percent

  • Web browsing: -5 percent

  • Video: +4 percent (also accounts for over half of all mobility traffic)

There is one other thing that has to be considered when it comes to engagement during a crisis. We process information differently. According to CDC’s Crisis + Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) report: Psychology of a Crisis (freely available here), during crises we do four things:

  1. We organically simplify the messages we get—That means that we don’t fully hear what is being said, we don’t remember as much as we normally do, and we misinterpret confusing action messages.

  2. We hold onto current beliefs—Especially when we receive conflicting messages from experts that we don’t know or at least don’t trust, we tend to do whatever it is we always do. It was no exaggeration that the COVID-19 crisis was worse for the fact that people continued to ignore the pleas to physically distance themselves.

  3. We tend to reach out to get even more information—More often than not, we are looking for information that can contradict discomforting information. We also seek out consistency in messaging for taking action.

  4. We tend to believe the first message we hear—It’s our way of filling in blanks we have about “the situation” whatever the crisis may be.

Taking everything into account, there is a lot to both process and a lot to address in how you choose to engage and communicate.

In times of global crisis or even localized emergency, the speed of communications matters as much as the reason for the communication itself. The “new abnormal” as analyst Phil Fersht calls it, drives the form of the communication, the desired response time of the interaction, and the amount of knowledge required to keep the person engaged in what you or they initiated.

The change in context requires a change in how you run your business too—both operationally and when it comes to customer engagement.

What to do?

Businesses are caught in a bit of a dilemma during a crisis. On the one hand, they have to recognize that changed circumstances, a different context, and heightened… everything from emotions to sheer volume and velocity of communications, requires an “abnormal” response—a different way to engage.

Your company will be judged on how they respond during this crisis after it’s all over. In fact, 65 percent of customers worldwide say so. This is a new abnormal now, meaning we are learning and exhibiting new ways to communicate, interact and behave, but it is not a sandbox. Things after will not “revert.” They will change. And the memory of the population will be long. So, what you do now, forever will typify your company to the general public and will be a determining factor in whether your customers or the general public see you as a trusted source.

Here are four key ways to foster continued engagement during this escalation scenario.

1. Empathy drives the relationship

The single most important effort your company can make is to be empathetic. That means recognize that your customers need you to be supportive to them, the community surrounding your company, and the population on the larger stage, given the size and scope of the company.

That means not trying to pitch them during the crisis, but instead be a partner to them and open and communicative. To highlight what I mean, I’m going all the way back to the “analog era.”

The single best localized example is the Johnson and Johnson handling of the 1982 Tylenol tampering.

I don’t know how many of you remember, but in 1982, a madman who was never caught tampered with multiple bottles of extra strength Tylenol in Chicago. The killer injected Tylenol capsules with very high doses of cyanide, enough to be lethal 1000 times over. He/she killed 7 people this way.

How Johnson and Johnson handled it was the textbook case (literally) on how to do this the way it should be done.

Out of their very human concern, they did a massive, immediate recall of ALL their Tylenol products from store shelves, nationally, even though the deaths were only in Illinois.

This is what I mean by empathy. They took into consideration the possible effects on all their potential customers. That not only included the lethal effect but the psychological impact that leaving the products on the shelf outside of Illinois could have.

They immediately became publicly transparent and set up live video feeds across the country that were available to the press and the public. They redesigned a triple seal bottle so that there would be little to no possibility of a repeat of this ever again. They provided compensation and counseling to the victim’s families, even though they weren’t seen as responsible for the tampering. They made public safety their singular concern—not just in words, but actions too.

This is what empathy means during a crisis.

When you are dealing with a crisis at the global level, these are the guidelines for communicating with your customers.

  • Put customers concerns’ first and be truthful in how you allay them.

  • Be rapidly and fully responsive – enabling customers to make informed decisions by addressing their requests.

  • Show them that you are their partner. Open communication, availability, understanding that their situation as customers is important – not just yours as a company.

Make them feel as if you are in their eyes “a company like me.” That means a company who they can identify with and more importantly, who they can trust.

2. Personalization and humanization

It’s no secret that providing personalized messages and optimized individual offers leads to greater spend among customers and supports customer loyalty.

The basic premise of successful engagement is making sure that the customer feels that they have relevant choices and then allowing them to choose. In my most recent book, “The Commonwealth of Self-Interest: Business Success through Customer Engagement” (2019), I define customer engagement as the following:

“The ongoing interaction between company and customer, offered by the company, chosen by the customer.”

Engagement is enriched and sustained by letting the customer know that you value them as an individual and demonstrating that through relevant messages and offers.

That is more typically satisfied by using customer profiles for personalization.

But in the course of a crisis or emergency, this is too limited. Instead what these pressing times call for are solutions that take care of people and their well-being—and not without at least a discount. To earn their trust, 89 percent of consumers worldwide say brands must offer free or lower-priced products to health workers, high-risk individuals and those whose jobs have been affected or at least shift to producing products that help people meet the challenges.

Both personal empathy and business empathy are required.

Implied in that is “we are in this together,” and in a global crisis or even a local emergency that is a powerful message where the actions resonate loudly.

So, what are the requirements for humanization:

  • Make contact with customers in real-time.

  • Ensure that customer interactions are aligned with the new context and reality. Communicate your plans for helping customers as both individuals and organizations and of course, follow-through with them.

  • Communicate with compassion and a sensitivity to the full spectrum of challenges people are facing.

3. Determine the message

As I said earlier, people process information and messages differently in times of crisis. They will simplify them, and if the message is somewhat complex, they will still simplify it by misinterpreting it. Be tactfully honest, use straightforward data when possible, be clear with your plans, own up to unknowns, and clearly outline the ultimate goals.

People are seeking a sense of security and are looking for confidence and understanding from leaders. Based on a global survey of consumers, here are actionable ways to ensure your messages are well received. 

  • Keep the public fully informed regarding how the brand is supporting and protecting their employees and customers.

  • Be an educator, offering people instructional information about the virus and how to protect themselves from it.

  • Be a reliable news source, keeping people informed about the virus and the progress being made in the fight against it.

4. Define the media

This is to some degree the easiest and the most difficult. The most important thing to remember is that people engage when they feel that what they want is both known and respected. With the extraordinary number of media available – the vast number of channels – communicating that emphatic, simplified, humanized message needs to be made appropriate to the format.

For years, we’ve heard about the consistency of the message being the key, but consistency doesn’t mean the sameness or the identical form of the message. Forty-five percent of consumers worldwide prefer local and national media for receiving communications about the virus and a brand’s response to the pandemic.

How a company engages and responds during crises and emergencies is how they are remembered when the emergencies pass. Already, 37 percent of consumers have recently started using a new brand because of the innovative or compassionate way they have responded to the virus outbreak.

Explore the guide

Read our COVID-19 Communications Field Guide to learn more.

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Paul Greenburg

Paul Greenberg

Paul is the author of the best-selling book CRM at the Speed of Light: Social CRM Strategies, Tools, and Techniques for Engaging Your Customers. He is president of The 56 Group, LLC, a customer strategy consulting firm, and a founding partner of the CRM training company, BPT Partners, LLC, a training and consulting venture. 

Why the communications revolution requires a new approach

More than a technology revolution, we're experiencing a communications revolution. Companies must have conversations with customers — and customers have high expectations for how, when, and where those take place. To succeed, the focus must be on: conversational interactions, customer-centric outcomes, data-driven insights, and customer-engaged systems.

Paul Greenberg