The SARS-CoV-2 virus and COVID-19 disease are increasingly making headlines. As you are no doubt aware, the number of known and reported cases will surpass 80,000 today, and more than 2,600 have been killed by the disease. While the first priority is health and safety, CX leaders must give consideration to how this growing epidemic (soon, likely, to be labeled a pandemic) will impact customers.

Customer Experience (CX) is about knowing and responding to customer expectations and needs to improve customer satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy. In typical times, it can difficult to understand what drives satisfaction and dissatisfaction and encourages loyalty and disloyalty. But in those rare moments in time when unexpected, profound, and significant changes are thrust upon the world (so-called “black swan events”), your customer’s needs and expectations can evolve in rapid and surprising ways.

At this point, depending on your brand’s category, you might think that your primary issues are oriented to your supply chain and not to changes in customer preferences, attitudes, or behaviours. It’s sensible to plan ahead for interruptions to your production and operations, but customer-centric organisations will also prepare for how their customers’ questions and needs will change rapidly in the coming months.

On the one hand, it might be argued that all brands are on equal footing, so the impact of your words and actions will have little influence on your brand’s satisfaction, loyalty, and advocacy relative to its competition. After all, today’s epidemic was unforeseen just two months ago, and with the news changing daily, your brand, just like all brands and people, is caught in a maelstrom of rapidly evolving knowledge and recommendations.

That’s true, but with each passing week, brands will be made unequal based on their preparedness, communications, priorities, and actions. This event, just like any that alters consumer expectations, activities, and motivations, will impact the customer perception of different brands in different ways. Keep in mind our opportunity to excel (or fail) for customers is greatest in instances when emotion and needs are running high versus in regular periods when everything is going as expected.

Today’s global health emergency may be without precedent for generations, but that doesn’t mean our brands cannot find ways to prepare for different customer scenarios and maintain a customer-centric approach in the face of the unexpected. Traditional crisis response along with CX best practices provide some guidance you can use and consider:

First, consider likely and possible changes to customer needs and journeys: Generally, customer personas, needs, and journeys shift relatively slowly over time, but the coming months won’t be business as usual. Customer awareness, concern, and reaction to the virus will bring rapid shifts to expectations and needs, and growing government restrictions will impact customer actions.

CX leaders can direct and participate in efforts to build customer scenarios based on the research and data they already possess about customer perceptions and priorities. One way to do so is to work with cross-functional teams to envision how the understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 will impact customer journeys. Start with reality–how are my customers affected today in their locations, and what do we know about interruptions to our firm’s supply chains? But don’t stop with only what is already known. In times of rapid change, consider scenarios for how your different customer segments and personas are likely to be affected by the epidemic.

Identify potential changes in customers’ journeys and the touchpoints that may be most important to customers in these unusual times, and prepare for likely shifts away from existing journeys and touchpoints. Evaluating your customer data and forecasting shifts in future wants and needs is a customer-centric way to prepare your brand to better serve your customers as your less-prepared competitors scramble to react.

Be proactive now with information for customers: If you wait for customers and employees to grow concerned and start demanding information from your brand, you’ll already be too late. If you have not yet, start working on a proactive and reactive communication plan.

Don’t just consider what your brand will want to communicate. Consider questions customers will have and ask of your employees, and evaluate if your brand has an opportunity or obligation to provide information. It might not seem, for example, that a retailer needs to address how customers can keep themselves safe in a pandemic, but conveying what your brand is doing to ensure a safe shopping experience in physical locations can earn trust (and business). Informational needs for customers may include:

  • How do I keep myself and my family safe while using your product or service?
  • Should I alter any behaviours, actions, or buying decisions to minimise my risk?
  • How do I know your products safe?
  • How will the interruptions caused by the virus impact your delivery and support?
  • Does your brand recommend I do something today to prepare for the future?

How your brand responds to questions like this will vary wildly based on your category. A travel company will have a very different answer than one that produces cosmetics, for example. Consider both the proactive and reactive:

  • Proactive: Understand customers’ informational needs and provide that content proactively via websites, social media, and apps. This will help you to meet and exceed customer expectations, demonstrate your care, minimise contact volume, and avoid business disruptions.
  • Reactive: Arm your contact center, social media, sales, and PR teams with the info they’ll need to demonstrate your brand’s concern for the health and welfare of its customers.

Finally, consider how your customers’ changing needs and perceptions may impact your other marketing and communications plans. Consider your upcoming campaigns in terms of messaging and timing. Do you want to invest in a substantial new campaign with a comedic tone as your audience is concerned about growing COVID-19 mortality or launch ads showing people partying together as restrictions on mass gatherings are being implemented?

Listen to your customers: CX and customer insight leaders are in a better position than others in the organization to understand how customer needs and expectations are swiftly changing. Start shifting your customer listening strategy immediately:

  • Use Voice of the Customer platforms to monitor for mentions of the virus and disease in your survey responses.
  • Tune your social listening platforms to recognise broad trends among your customers and specific inquiries directed to your brand’s Twitter and other social media accounts.
  • Work with your customer care team to capture and report changes in customer queries and call volume related to SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19.

Attitudes and perceptions will change very rapidly, so it will be essential to establish real-time monitoring and reporting. Many people who were not taking the virus seriously a week ago are doing so today, and those who aren’t concerned today may be so within weeks. Simply put, month-old data on customer attitudes and perceptions of the virus may as well be decade-old data, so stay abreast of changes that may occur day-to-day in the coming weeks and months.

Be prepared to act: Scenario planning, providing relevant info, and listening to customer sentiment are a good start, but as the virus grows, your customers’ needs will be less informational and more behavioural:

  • How will your brand deal with cancelations and returns at scale? Will you alter policies to support customers in this unique time?
  • Does your brand depend on real-world delivery of products and services, and how will you serve customers if those are curtailed? Will you need to implement testing or furnish masks to customers? How will you deal with customers who exhibit symptoms? Must your employees in every location understand and interact with local health officials?
  • How might you support people who are quarantined, either voluntarily and under government restrictions? Can you shift to digital delivery or at-home deliveries to serve customers? Can your brand offer solutions to keep people healthy, fed, safe, and entertained if they’re quarantined at home for extended periods?

The answers to questions such as these are not easy since they involve issues of product, logistics, inventory, supply chain, and operations. Don’t be fooled into thinking these questions are only pertinent for brands in the most immediately affected categories, like health products and travel. These questions can and will impact your customers and your brands in the coming months.

Plan for rapid shifts in corporate priorities and budgets: CX leaders, as with all business leaders, must plan for interruptions to their existing portfolio of projects. Organisational priorities will shift, and efforts once thought important or urgent may quickly seem less vital as new customer needs quickly emerge or business operations are interrupted. The opposite may also happen–individual projects may need to be accelerated to establish urgent customer capabilities. For example, a CX effort to train employees on empathy cues may be put on hold as call volumes rise and employee attendance falls; conversely, a program to improve online self-service capabilities may be escalated to better support urgent customer needs.

Resources will shift as companies change their focus from solving broken touchpoints to addressing distinct and urgent customer needs and flexing to address severe operational, manufacturing, or logistics issues. Under normal conditions, CX leaders need to fight to secure and keep resources, but in the coming months, their ability to use customer insight to inform urgent decisions and support shifts in priorities will be more important than maintaining a steady course.

Your organisation is already, undoubtedly, discussing the potential or actual implications to the business of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19, but are you also being customer-centric and evaluating how your customers’ needs and expectations will evolve? Don’t just focus on the impact on your business; consider the virus’s implications to your customers’ health, lives, preferences, and behaviours. Keep your brand customer-focused, and you will be better prepared to know how customer needs and expectations are changing, to rapidly adapt to those changes, and to improve customer relationships, trust, and loyalty throughout the epidemic period and beyond.

*This article is reprinted from the Gartner Blog Network with permission. 

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