The COVID-19 pandemic, known as the « black swan of the decade, » has taken many businesses by surprise. Many of them have gone bankrupt and closed down, as shown by the Fortune 1000 list where 94 percent of the companies were affected by COVID-19. The pandemic is not just wreaking economic havoc, it is also a crisis classified as having the greatest impact on human beings due to its effect on physical and mental health. Employees and clients, from the business and commercial world, were affected by the virus in just a few months, damaging interpersonal relationships. Fear, worry and stress were reflected in the behavior of business employees as well as customers. Therefore, necessary measures must be taken to counteract the effects of this crisis. The role that companies play at this time is crucial.
COVID-19 has generated a 360-degree turnaround in the interaction between managers, employees and customers. Employees who were used to working face-to-face with customers were affected by the pandemic crisis. They, like any other human being, were afraid of catching the coronavirus and infecting their families. However, they were forced to turn up to their places of employment. The fear of contagion led to defensive behavior towards customers which caused many customers to take offense and go to other businesses. This behavior was widespread in all industries and countries. As a result of this situation, many companies generated remote working and reduced working hours. This contributed to employees feeling more secure physically and psychologically which overall led to an improved work experience and interaction with customers.
Companies around the world are transforming their businesses, but only a small number have made the energizing of their frontline workers as a central part of their renewal. These leading companies are embracing the concept of the “workplace as experience,” in which every aspect of work is carefully designed, organized and monitored to energize and inspire employees to deliver the prescribed customer experience. Transforming the customer experience requires organizations to take an equally methodical approach to the employee experience. The perception of an employee’s experience is now an important decision point for customers. 41 percent of customers say it is now more important to them because of COVID-19. Customers want to be sure that employees are treated well, safe and enjoy their work. (Hernandez, 2020)
During the pandemic, many of us, at least once, perceived that our customer experience was lacking and wondered what had happened. According to Fioretti (2020) there are five trends in the consumer experience that accelerated during COVID-19. The first trend is “contactless payments,” which has grown amongst consumers by 20 percent since the beginning of the pandemic with Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay being the most used systems. The second trend is online shopping and in-store pickup. This service was accelerated during the pandemic. According to Invesp, 67 percent of US shoppers have used the Online Purchase and In-Store Pickup (BOPIS) service in the past six months. The third trend is “working from anywhere.” Companies around the world promoted working remotely which allows contact with customers through phone, email, chat, video and messaging. The fourth trend is « virtual engagement. » As virtual engagement becomes more widespread, companies are also demanding richer, more interactive and more personalized experiences with their employees, customers and prospects through these virtual conferencing and webinar platforms. ON24 and Zoom are at the forefront of enabling high level virtual engagement. The fifth trend is “explosion of messaging as a channel.” The pandemic surprised many organizations that tried to respond to the explosion of inquiries and incoming calls, which were the only methods of contact that many companies offered. Consumers have long been pushing brands to adopt messaging channels such as live chat for customer service. For example, in just 10 days in March, WhatsApp had a 40% increase in usage.
The traditional customer experience was transformed by COVID-19. The new customer experience has expanded the need for easy access to products and services and information. Most customers now feel comfortable using online channels to purchase what they need. They are reducing the occasions for physical purchases and are gravitating towards contactless purchases and contactless payments. 82 percent of consumers said they are more likely to use digital wallets or cards in the future. The use of chat and social media technologies has tripled, and consumers say they will use social channels, webchat, messaging applications and SMS chat as their main means of communication with organizations in the new reality. (Knight. 2020)
Going Beyond “Unconventional Experiences”
Companies have to rethink their business and operational models. As the effects of COVID-19 reshape economies, organizations have to re-engage strategically with their customers. Organizations have to invest in new digital methods of communication and payments. The priority of digital security will be key. It is an opportunity for entire industries to reinvent themselves through supply chains, production lines, products and business models, redefining new ways to reach customers and consumers with products and service models that are sustainable and relevant in a crisis and beyond.
Hernandez (2020) proposed six pillars that can help businesses better connect with customers and employees during COVID-19. First is empathy: showing that you care, choosing the right emotional response to meet the customer’s circumstances. Second is personalization: understanding the customer’s circumstances, prioritizing effectively and putting the customer back in control. Thirdly, time and effort: making it easy for customers to access information, get essentials, access customer communities and networks. Fourthly, expectations: setting, managing and meeting customer expectations accurately in these difficult times. Fifthly, resolution: responding rapidly to customer needs and finding solutions to new customer problems, and accelerating innovation. Finally, integrity: doing the right thing, ensuring the needs of the many are met, prioritizing safety, protecting the vulnerable and being seen to act fairly in all customers’ best interests.
They are a set of simple principles that can help companies navigate through the current challenges by adopting a “customer first” approach. As the global situation becomes more complex, how and when companies should support their customers and colleagues is uncharted territory. Unlike disaster relief, there is no road map or recipe for business involvement. However, businesses must continue to maintain the trust of their employees, understand evolving consumer and community needs, and provide products, services and resources where appropriate.
COVID-19 presents challenges for businesses but also opportunities!
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