Monday, June 15, 2020

The COVID-19 Dilemma: Remaining Customer-Centric When Customers Expect Incompatible Pandemic Rules

"The Customer is always right." As a customer experience (CX) professional, I've heard that maxim quite a lot. The well-worn adage has never been entirely correct. The customer can be wrong, and knowing when and how to identify and manage that situation requires brands to recognize the distinction between being customer-centric and customer-subservient. Understanding that difference is vital as you consider the right policies to lure customers back to your business while ensuring the safety of customers and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I say the customer isn't always right, I'm not simply talking about the occasional unreasonable or abusive customer but about the fact "It's not the customer's job to know what they want" (as Steve Jobs is credited with saying). If we acted as if every customer whim is equal, we risk becoming customer-subservient, blindly chasing every consumer impulse. Being customer-centric is a little different--it means making decisions that are in the best interest of your customer.

In normal times, the difference between customer-centric and customer-subservient can seem relatively minor or meaningless, but in times of stress, change, and challenge, the two can be quite different.

Drugstores, Cigarettes and the Difference Between Customer-Subservience and Customer-Centricity

To explore the subservient/centric difference, ask yourself it is customer-subservient or customer-centric for a drugstore chain to sell cigarettes. A drugstore's customer personas include a person who wants to purchase cigarettes regularly, and when they do, they often add other items to their basket. That there is a market to be served is unquestionable, but should a drugstore committed to the health and well-being of its customers sell "cancer sticks"?

For decades, there was no question. I worked my way through high school in a drugstore run by pharmacists, and I never gave a thought to the number of customers to whom I sold products containing a prominent health warning. But then attitudes began to shift, forcing drugstore executives to reconsider their values, brand, and customer-centricity.

Six years ago, the trend toward tobacco-free pharmacies got a boost when CVS became the first national drugstore chain to drop sales of cigarettes. Some of its competitors haven't yet followed suit as they struggle to balance profit versus health or, put another way, weighing customer-subservience versus customer-centricity. A customer-subservient approach suggests a drugstore brand must do what the customer wants provided there's profit to be earned, while a customer-centric mindset considers that "It's not the customer's job to know what they want."

These are sensitive and important decisions, particularly for corporations with a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. And, of course, people's strong emotions over smoking only make these decisions even more difficult. A drugstore may view the decision to carry cigarettes through the lens of profit versus customer health, but customers often line up on starkly different lines, with liberty and personal choice on one side versus the greater good of the community on the other.

COVID-19, Masks, and Social Distancing

Does any of that feel a bit familiar in the COVID-19 era? It does to brands with physical locations struggling to set the right policies as they reopen. On the one side are people who expect brands to have and enforce safe policies during a global health crisis, and on the other are people who oppose wearing masks and social distancing. Whatever your brand decides will be viewed in starkly partisan ways--either as an affront to freedom and individual rights or a deadly capitulation that risks the health and lives of customers and employees. 

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Bias Toward Actions During the Pandemic to Avoid "COVIDwashing" Backlash

Cut and paste ad template: “ has been here for for years, and we’re here for you today during these unprecedented times. Our commitment to our customers and employees has never been greater. At our core, our company has always been about people, and that fuels our belief that together, we can thrive during this difficult and challenging period. We may need to stay apart to ensure the safety of our families, but we’ve never been closer. thanks you for making us part of your life and allowing us to support you–yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

A month ago (or a year in COVID-19 time), I wrote about the dangers of “Virtue signaling.” In March, our inboxes were flooded with nearly identical messages as brands raced to express how they empathized with our concerns and deeply cared for their employees and customers. Too often, those messages said brands cared without demonstrating the necessary actions and decisions to help customers during a period of worry and challenge.

And now, the TV airwaves feel the same. Every ad affirms how intensely each brand cares, the many years it’s been there for us, and its hopeful message that we’ll get through this together. Just as with the wave of emails in March, consumers may have welcomed and appreciated the first brands to offer empathetic 30-second spots. But, the stream of undifferentiated commercials now risks boosting the perception brands are leveraging the pandemic for marketing purposes.

People are beginning to notice. Frito-Lay produced an ad, “It’s About People,” that gently mocks other brands; “The world doesn’t need brands to tell us how to think or feel,” it says. A video called “Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same” is beginning to circulate among marketers on social networks. The video, which has earned 250,000 views in two days, strings together the indistinguishable music, copy, and imagery used in the current deluge of COVID-19 TV ads.

And, while nascent, the term “COVIDwashing” is beginning to appear in articles and on Twitter. The New York Times used the term in an article about Draper James, Reese Witherspoon’s fashion label, which stumbled into a PR crisis by making a well-intentioned but ill-conceived offer. Two weeks ago, the brand took to Instagram to say to teachers, “We see you working harder than ever to educate our children. To show our gratitude, Draper James would like to give teachers a free dress.” The post generated a lot of publicity and interest, and soon the brand had to backpedal as the application form crashed. The company realized interest was much greater than anticipated, offered a raffle for a limited number of dresses, and many consumers took to social media to accuse the company of reneging on their promise.

To learn more about the term COVIDwashing and learn advice about what your brand can do to protect itself from the accusation of using the pandemic for marketing purposes, please continue reading on my Gartner blog.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

COVID-19 and the Rise Of Intermediate-Term Business and Marketing Planning in 2020

Photo by John Gibbons on Unsplash
Phrases like "medium-term" and "intermediate-term" have been lost from our business lexicon, it seems. According to Google Trends, searches for these keyphrases have declined 50% or more in the past 15 years. But 2020 is going to be the year intermediate-term planning becomes necessary. Now is an excellent time to consider what that may mean for preparing and managing your business for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Back when I went to school, we spoke of timeframes such as ten years for long-term planning and five years for intermediate-term, but with the pace of change in recent decades, ten years feels a bit like planning for the next century. Who can anticipate that far ahead in a world where a new technology or competitor can swiftly arise and destabilize a marketplace? With our planning horizons collapsed, it can feel as if much of our business and marketing planning has been reduced to just two horizons: What we need to get done now (short-term) and what we must do to prepare for where we hope to be in three to five years (long-term). There's little room for the intermediate-term in a business environment that changes fast and demands agility.

COVID-19 Here and Now

But, if we thought the pace of change was hectic in recent years, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is forcing business to react at a breakneck speed. It may seem hard to believe, but the first US case of unknown origin stemming from "community spread" was announced less than a month ago (on February 26). As I type this, it's been just 11 days since the NBA suspended its season. The US passed 5,000 cases less than a week ago, and by the time you read this, the tally of known COVID-19 cases in the US will likely be more than 30,000.

At unprecedented speed, many brands have been quick to react with care and empathy. Banks have raced to suspend late penalties and early-withdrawal fees, many brands are offering assistance to customers, and some employers have made commitments to workers adversely impacted by furloughs and reduced hours. These immediate and short-term reactions have been admiral and have helped to minimize the blow to many anxious people.

Build COVID-19 Scenarios for Business and Marketing

But what's next? It is no exaggeration to say that no one can say. There is simply too much that is unknown (including the actual number of infections and how well the COVID-19 mitigation efforts are working in different locations). To show just how little we really know, a survey of infectious disease researchers conducted March 16 and 17 found the consensus forecast of expected cases in the US for March 29 was roughly 19,000; in fact, the US exceeded that number just days after the survey was conducted. (Of course, in a rapidly growing pandemic, reporting is quite variable; as I type this the CDC website, last updated Friday, currently shows 15,219 confirmed cases in the US, while the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard shows 27,004 and Worldometer is reporting 29, 214.)

If the most knowledgeable infectious experts can't predict the future with accuracy, neither can you. This is why the best minds in public health, epidemiology, and disease modelers are considering a range of possible scenarios. You must, too.

To learn what Gartner is recommending to clients about scenario planning and why a three-horizon plan with short-, intermediate-, and long-term perspectives is important for your business and marketing plan, please continue reading my post on Gartner blogs.