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. 

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Beware of Virtue Signaling or Outright Greed in Brand Communications About COVID-19

Like everyone else, marketing and communication professionals have had a challenging few weeks. As the pandemic expands, marketers and customer experience professionals have done their best to keep up with and bridge swiftly shifting consumer and brand needs.

We rapidly transitioned from a period when brands debated if they should communicate about COVID-19 to now, with brands tripping over each other to broadcast their coronavirus email messages to customers. If your inbox is like mine, you received almost no brand emails about the virus before a week ago. But in the past week, the volume has exploded. Brands seemed to go from COVID-19 denial to COVID-19 FOMO in a matter of days.
The global pandemic may or may not be a business opportunity for your company, but trying to make it a marketing opportunity for your brand is risky.
On Friday, I received more than two dozen brand emails about COVID-19. The problem is that few of these messages took a customer-centric approach; instead, the race to email consumers reflects a growing sense of brand virtue signaling or outright desperation for business. Consider what customers need and want to hear from your organization to best help your brand while dodging potential risks.

Avoid Virtue Signaling

Virtue signaling is when your brand conspicuously expresses its values without actually taking actions to live by those values. Today, it is not enough to tell consumers you are aware of and reacting to the pandemic — everyone is. We also don't need to know that your brand is keeping your employees safe — we hope that's business as usual. Finally, no one needs to hear how your brand is striving to continue its operations uninterrupted — it would be real news worth sharing if you weren't! If that is all your brand has to report to customers, then you do not need a special COVID-19-themed brand communication at this time.

For example, my mortgage company, with whom I have a completely digital relationship, felt it needed to email me "An important message" simply to say, "The health and safety of our customers and team members is — as always — the most important thing to us." How does this company, which merely processes my auto-payments once a month, have any impact on my physical health? And why would it be necessary for any organization to state it cares about the health of its team members? Put that on the list of the many things I assume is true of every brand and thus need not be said, such as that it follows laws and that its CEO puts pants on one leg at a time.

The problem with marketing messages that merely signal your brand's virtue without doing anything further is that they waste customers' time and do little to impact your relationship. In fact, messages like that do more to hurt brands because of what's missing — anything meaningful for customers. What one might expect of "an important message" from a mortgage processor during this global health crisis is information about what will happen if customers are unable to pay their mortgage. This email didn't address this topic, and the glaring omission of content to help or comfort customers only makes the brand-centric virtue-signaling that much more evident and damaging.

Don't Signal Your Brands Desperation

These are tough times for businesses large and small, and they are going to get tougher in the coming weeks and months. Companies can be excused for wanting to keep customers buying. But they cannot be forgiven for making their self-interest and desperation evident in marketing communications.

About a quarter of the COVID-19 messages I received Friday came from businesses with physical locations that wanted me to know they are regularly cleaning, urging employees who are sick to say home, and are still open for business. Those sorts of notices, absent any offer or helpful content, do nothing to differentiate the brand from every other brand that is saying the same thing.

Furthermore, if your company is considering a message to drive physical traffic to real-world locations this coming week, hit the pause button long enough to consider if that train has already left the station. Here in the US, the CDC is recommending social distancing of six feet, the media is full of guidance that urges people to stay home, and the social pressure to take action that saves lives is growing — this morning on Twitter, "#StayTheFHome" is trending. Unless your business is essential (to others, not just to you), then it may be time to shift strategies away from driving physical visits.

For example, a Sonoma winery sent me a message intended to seem comforting but instead sounded tone-deaf: "Our doors will remain open, the live music will carry on, and our staff would love to say hello and treat you to a cup of coffee." Nothing conveys how much your brand cares for customers like telling them to violate CDC instructions that save lives amid a global pandemic.

The other three-quarters of COVID-19 messages in my inbox are from digital brands with little to tell me other than "we still want your business." A clothing brand I love disappointed me by sending a seven-paragraph, 382-word missive that said, well, absolutely nothing. This brand thanked me, told me communication is key in times like this, expressed its commitment to my health and safety, disclosed it set up a COVID-19 task force, suggested I monitor the CDC site, and reminded me it has a website. At first glance, that may seem harmless enough, but what part of the message says anything that isn't painfully self-apparent? It was a three-minute read to convey nothing unexpected or meaningful to the customer during troubling times.

That sort of message may have seemed helpful and differentiated last week before customer inboxes were flooded with soundalike brand emails. But, broadcasting such a message now will only make your real intent clear — not "We care deeply for our customers," but "We're still here, need your business, and hope you'll spend money with us." This isn't to say your brand doesn't have something important and valuable to say during this crisis, but the onus is on you to make sure your message is essential and useful to your customers and not just to your brand. Don't forget the WIIFM.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Examples of Proactive COVID-19 Communications That Enhance Customer Experience

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of proactive customer communications during the unsettling period of rapid change caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and COVID-19 disease. Brands are already acting to intercept potential brand problems and offer support to uncertain and concerned customers.

This health event will continue to evolve for months to come, creating unprecedented disruptions to business operations and significantly altering the needs, wants, and expectations of customers. Being proactive now is an opportunity to create a win-win, allowing your brand to simultaneously solve brand and customer problems.

Among the difficulties your organization may face are a host of customer concerns that can deter them from conducting business with your company, such as:
  • Customer anxiety about visiting your location or purchasing your product. Is your product safe? What steps are you taking to ensure customer health in your physical site?
  • Customer worries about your ability to deliver on promises: If I purchase from you versus a competitor, can you deliver on time? Will your inventory or logistics issues cause delays or frustrations?
  • Customer hesitancy about making commitments: If I purchase advance travel, can I cancel if my situation changes or I am prevented from going? If I buy a ticket to your event, what happens if I'm unable to attend or the event is canceled? What are your timeframes or conditions for refunds?
If customers wonder about these questions, then they are becoming obstacles to your business maintaining its revenue in a difficult period. Furthermore, questions like these can raise your call volume, increase expenses, and further strain your staff as people seek answers.

Proactive action and communications during this epidemic can do more than minimize customer objections. They also represent a chance for your brand to demonstrate its customer centricity, earn trust, and build relationships. Brands that act quickly can differentiate themselves with decisions and information that decrease customer anxiety and solve customer problems before they develop.

If you are not yet communicating to customers on issues around the COVID-19 outbreak, you're already behind organizations that have taken the lead to bring clarity and comfort in a time of growing fear and worry. I will share some examples, but if you have any worthy instances of brand communications you have seen (or launched), please share them in the comments or on Twitter.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Customer Experience Implications of the SARS-CoV-2 Coronavirus and COVID-19 Disease

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 behaviors. It's sensible to plan ahead for interruptions to your production and operations, but customer-centric organizations 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:

  • Consider likely and possible changes to customer needs and journeys
  • Be proactive now with information for customers
  • Listen to your customers
  • Be prepared to act
  • Plan for rapid shifts in corporate priorities and budgets

To read suggestions on each of these categories of CX action, please continue reading on my Gartner blog.