One of the most significant market shifts in recent history is happening worldwide as consumers change how they live, work, and shop in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus. Brands have been caught off guard in the same way the public has, and marketers like you are likely rushing to respond. But in times of uncertainty, according to the BCG Henderson Institute, it’s important to take the long view and put together a thought-out strategy that will enable a strong recovery.
Embrace planning, not panic
The truth of all this unexpected change is that those who adapt to it best will come out of it most successfully. Yes, purchasing patterns will be altered—people are now spending much of their time at home and spending less due to all the uncertainty. Additionally, nearly all shopping is moving online, and shoppers will consume more digital content as they seek productive and entertaining ways to utilize their devices.
However, if you plan for these new ways of life and focus on your customers’ current needs, you’ll have a unique opportunity to elevate your customer experience and engagement. The more personalized experiences, useful content and relevant offers you can deliver, the more you’ll build trust and solidify your relationship with consumers going forward. Market shifts like this are also a chance for you to build brand affinity by displaying leadership and showing that you value people over profits. In the long run, this type of approach can turn into increased lifetime value (LTV) and ultimately revenue
By creating a bounceback strategy centered on personalized customer experiences, you’ll position your brand to get back on track as markets rebound, which could even happen sooner than anticipated. Evidence of a return to business as usual is already visible in China, with Apple and Starbucks reopening stores in several provinces, and JP Morgan Research predicting that the Chinese economy will grow by 15% in Q2 of 2020.
Customers want to know how your company will help them through the coming uncertainty. They don’t want to receive business-as-usual communications that don’t acknowledge that times have changed. On the other hand, they’re probably not interested in every detail of your business continuity plan, particularly if this information appears to be self-serving or PR-driven.
Find the right balance by giving customers concise information on the topics that affect them most. Rather than posting a lengthy news release, consider creating an easy-to-navigate FAQ that updates them on concerns like extended shipping times and replacements for out-of-stock items.
Your marketing communications and offers will also need an update—it no longer makes sense to send out automated posts and emails you planned three months ago. Instead, focus on delivering relevant value.
We’re already seeing many educational companies provide free subscriptions for children affected by school closures, while other companies are offering free shipping, expanded delivery and no-contact drop-offs. And groceries, pharmacies and some big box retailers who are seeing large influx of consumers depending on their services and goods during the crisis must find ways to engage customers after the crisis.
Lastly, adjust your tone to reflect the current climate. Avoid “salesy” language and introduce empathy, consideration and light humor to your messaging. For example, an outdoor furniture maker may change their messaging from “Patio Furniture Sale – This Week Only!” to “You’ll be spending a lot of time in your yard. We can help you spruce it up.”
Each customer has specific needs and motivations during times of change. To address them, you need to deliver the right message and offer, at the right time and right place. The most effective way to accomplish that is with 1:1 personalization.
For example, consider a customer in a city where most of your retail shops have temporarily closed. Switching a broad offer (like a 20% off coupon) from in-store to online may address the situation, but not the customer’s individual preferences. 1:1 personalization would identify that the customer is a trendsetter on social media, and perhaps create an offer that rewards her for sharing her new routine during social distancing.
Sales have been moving online and away from brick-and-mortar locations for the last several years, but current global events are accelerating this trend. Even the high demand for groceries will increasingly shift to the digital space. Online grocer Farmstead reported that delivery volume rose more than 30% over their usual levels.
You can also look to China for an example of customer attitudes toward digital sales. 80% of Chinese consumers expressed a preference for online grocery, and at Chinese online retailer JD.com, online grocery sales grew 215% year-over-year from late January to early February.
In light of customer preference, think about recalibrating your strategy to put digital sales first. That includes tailoring your messaging to the current situation, trying new tactics like digital showrooms, and allocating more resources to digital engagement avenues such as your customer loyalty program.
In unpredictable times, customers are looking for protection from uncertainty. Consider being flexible with policies like returns and order cancellations in order to provide a sense of reassurance.
Recently United Airlines took a leadership position on this issue by waiving change fees for flights booked during the recent outbreak, and other airlines quickly followed suit. According to Forbes, if they hadn’t, travelers likely would have migrated to other airlines that did offer a no-change-fee policy.
Another place flexibility can benefit you is your loyalty program. You may want to make it temporarily more generous by extending point expirations or lowering the point-price of certain rewards. The right marketing personalization solution will be able to make unique adjustments like this for each individual customer.
When customers are feeling fearful, your brand can take a leadership position by showing them they’re not alone. Shift your communications to messages of support, and consider making donations to relevant organizations if applicable. Donations are well-received when they don’t appear to be a marketing ploy, but are publicized in an authentic way.
Vogue Business recently reported that, in response to recent events in China, companies there are building community by investing in e-commerce, gamification and live streaming. Another trend is reallocating influencer marketing budgets to retention marketing using key opinion customers (KOCs). According to the publication, “As highly engaged, everyday customers, KOCs have the advantage of appearing more trustworthy and relatable than [influencers], while requiring less spending from brands.”
You’re likely already collecting customer data from multiple sources. Now is the time to put it to use to plan for the future. Review your data to determine how much market share you’ve maintained, and identify opportunities for new gains or winning back previous customers. Pay particular attention to data about customers with the highest LTV, such as repeat customers and members of your loyalty program. Make a list of actions you can take to expand those relationships, and earmark those efforts for future investment.
Global events can create multiple hurdles for your supply chain, from work stoppages affecting production to restricted travel creating logistical blockages. That in turn can cause stock shortages and increase customer anxiety.
To combat these challenges, consultancy McKinsey recommends a few key steps, including creating transparency within your multi-tier supply chains, estimating how much available inventory you have throughout your value chain and assessing realistic customer demand to determine how well you can meet it. Taking these steps can help you calm customer concerns, manage expectations and deliver on your brand promise.
Research has shown that the employee experience directly impacts the customer experience, and that’s never more true than during times of major change. Customer-facing employees can convey your company’s response and provide reassurance, but only if they feel reassured and supported themselves.
Make sure your internal lines of communication are open and that every employee has the information they need to know, from safety procedures to updates for customers. Informed employees can better respond to customer needs in urgent situations.
Most importantly, make it clear that caring for employees and customers is your top priority. Right now companies around the world are making policy changes to accommodate employee health needs, and switching to work-from-home is just the beginning. Walmart is letting its 1.4 million workers take emergency leave if they fear the spread of COVID-19, while Starbucks is offering remote mental health counseling, and Amazon has created a $25 million relief fund for delivery drivers and seasonal workers. Taking similar supportive actions will create positive word of mouth among your employees and leave a lasting impression with customers.
Companies that Adapt to Change Will Lead the Recovery
In uncertain times, change is inevitable. That may mean that to stay in business, you need to change the way you do business. The faster you accept that and act on it, the more quickly your business will bounce back—or for some sectors, gain loyalty from new customers. Focus on engagement rather than awareness, invest in retention rather than acquisition and elevate your customer experience to exceed expectations. You’ll not only help your company weather the storm, but emerge stronger from it.