How to understand your customer’s concerns in times of crisis

Misia Tramp

26 March 2020

During times of crisis businesses often find themselves on the backfoot, uncertain whether they should continue communicating with their customers, worrying whether they’ll get it wrong and make headlines for all the wrong reasons.

As nations across the world are battling with the new reality brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people find themselves not only adapting to new work environments but also living in a completely different cultural and social context.

Brands have a place in this new order but understanding the new rules of engagement is challenging – especially when these rules are changing overnight.

Avoiding clumsy ambulance chasing is critical. Today we all already have inboxes full of badly framed and alienating sales pitches inspired by COVID-19, their senders will be forever consigned to junk mail or unsubscribed.

Understanding your customers with a true 360-degree view is the first step to making sure you don’t come across as crassly insensitive or simply ignorant to this new context.

We have identified five key factors to help guide you when deciding your next moves during a crisis.

1. Minimize intellectual and emotional effort

Crisis often brings a change to working and living environments. Tasks that were business as usual, may now be more arduous. Alleviating effort, where your business might provide a genuine response, will go a long way to reduce customer stress and boosting brand perception. Authenticity in your actions and motivations are crucial when looking to minimize effort and anxiety for your customers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have jumped to bombard their email lists with information on ‘what we’re doing for coronavirus’. Despite best intentions, spam never comes across well. It leads people to tune out and potentially numbs them to your activity once the crisis is over. A better move for many companies may be to put this messaging out via social media or through owned channels to reduce intrusiveness.

Rent the Runway provide a good example of a business minimizing effort for customers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The clothing subscription service emailed customers offering them the opportunity to pause their subscription (rather than all out cancel it). This reduced the amount of thinking customers had to do when evaluating whether the service was still worth it in the current climate. Total cancellation is a more decisive action and requires greater effort on the part of the customer. Despite using email as the communication method, the messaging was much more useful to customers than simply: ‘what we’re doing for coronavirus’.

2. Reduce anxiety

Ask yourself if there is anything your business can do to minimize anxiety. This could be online shopping services offering more flexible delivery slots, banks suspending mortgage payments for those hit by crisis, or gyms offering online workouts at home.

Rent the Runway provide us with another example here. The subscription service pivoted their messaging to suggest clothing that was more suited to working at home. Moving away from outfits that might be worn to dinner or to a business meeting, customers were offered more casual options that could be worn on a conference call while remaining comfortable around the house.

If there isn’t an appropriate action your company can take to reduce anxiety, then you’re probably better off doing nothing that involves direct engagement with customers unless asked. Sometimes doing nothing is the best strategy. Tell your marketers to sit tight. Adding to the noise with spam can instead increase anxiety and diminish your brand.

3. Display empathy

To have a true understanding of your customer, you need to have a 360-degree view. Data and insight must be harnessed to understand what is driving anxiety and increasing effort. Once this view is established, you’ll be able to see the problems you can genuinely solve and be authentically empathetic towards.

Inside the current COVID-19 pandemic, social listening shows us that there’s a lot of conversation around getting tasks done you’ve been putting off for a while and making sure to use the time spent in the house. This is particularly pertinent for financial services brands. Physical and fiscal health share reactionary triggers. In moments of crisis people think more about the future and their more vulnerable finances should anything ever happen to them. By understanding this concern, financial services brands can exhibit empathy to offer relevant assistance to their customers

4. Adapt to context

Companies must think differently around how they approach both customer and employee experiences. It’s not possible to simply carry on as before. In a crisis, context completely shifts. Your audience will begin seeing things through a different lens.

Recognizing where you fit in this context and adapting your offering to minimize effort and reduce anxiety are key.

In the current COVID-19 scenario, many workforces are suddenly more highly distributed. Most are facing the challenge of collaborating remotely and we’re pushing the limits of what teams can achieve when physically apart.

This new, far more distributed workscape has left us relying on software as a service (SaaS) companies, particularly those that enable collaboration.

Zoom has led the way, not only supporting existing clients but making their platform easy to adopt for the tidal wave of consumers looking for video conferencing options.

Anecdotally, people are starting to use ‘Zooming’ to denote video conferencing in the same way they talk about ‘Googling’ in place of searching. We’ve heard stories of Zoom weddings, raves and workouts showing the capabilities of the platform as a way to virtualize culture as well as work.

This example also demonstrates a true 360-degree understanding of the customer. The COVID-19 pandemic is bringing about a huge contextual shift, not only when it comes to work but socially too.

People no longer want a dull message about remaining productive and are more inclined to use the software that is already on their desktop – as long as it’s easily accessible for those outside their workplace. Zoom were the first to offer their platform to schools for free, demonstrating a simple humanity and willingness to approach their audience in a personal way.

5. Learn from every experience

Learning from the situation is arguably the most important thing any brand can do during a crisis. This may not be the crisis your business is best placed to react to, so staying silent is the best move. However, switching off entirely would be a mistake. Crises tend to require immediate, short-term reaction but we must not forget long-term strategies and what we can take away from the here and now.

As you move through the cycle of crisis as a business, capture every idea and solution your employees bring to the table. Necessity is the mother of invention and many of the best ideas come when backed up against the wall.

Think before you act

The factors I have described are important to consider at the best of times for any business that wants to develop healthy client relationships. In times of crisis they are critical.
Reactions are best if well considered and tempered by experience, rather than an immediate reaction inspired by revenue chasing. Better still if they are tuned by an intimate understanding of the audience, their concerns and issues.

While crises seldom deliver short term wins (Zoom excepted, perhaps), they do offer long term opportunity for brands to forge deeper, stronger relationships and build loyalty.