How To Maintain Customer Relationships in a Time of Crisis
The reality of the situation we find ourselves in is that a number of your clients may well want to do business with you, but the wider economic impacts of the pandemic make it unrealistic to hand over their money right now. I believe that this is where management styles diverge, and with it, sales tactics. It’s worth remembering that these are working relationships that you need to foster, regardless of the fact they’re paying you or not. If your organisation can maintain itself as a source of empathy, trust-building information and reliability, when the larger market forces at work in the background fade away, you’ve positioned yourself perfectly to capitalise on a return to form. I’ve found that not enough management teams recognise the importance of this approach, and in light of that, I’ve put together a guide on how to maintain - and build upon - the trust you have in your customer relationships, so at a time when the dust is settling, your organisation can once again be an integral part of their operations.
Rule number one in business, particularly at a time like this in economic history is to deploy empathy all across your organisation… be it with your staff, your suppliers, but particularly, with your clients. It isn’t a completely selfless activity either, with a raft of benefits in store if you and your team take a step back from day-to-day activities and put yourselves in the shoes of your clients to identify friction points and issues that need to be addressed to make the customer journey as streamlined as possible. Deploy new ways of operating that directly addresses a consumer’s point of view; do whatever is possible with the resources you have at your disposal right now to make improvements in line with customer expectations and the promises you’ve sold to them.
Don’t sell- inform
There’s some times in the lifespan of a business where they simply can’t afford to buy from you, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not a valuable customer that deserves some of your organisation’s time and resources. While it may indeed be a quiet time for a lot of organisations right now, I still see the value in producing content to inform our customers, their clients, and anyone who will listen, really. That’s why we continue to put so much effort into the Insights section on our website, which is updated three-times every day. We’re well aware, as an organisation, that not everyone is in a position to buy right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t provide a worthwhile service to them in the form of industry news and breaking-down complex concepts of business. Sometimes, it’s much more worthwhile to inform, rather than sell to people; it maintains our position in the market as a high-level, informative organisation, and it helps to build our reputation in the marketplace.
If there is an inherent value in the information you’re handing out, they’ll more than likely return for business when they’ve got the resources they need in place… and if you’ve been informing, rather than just attempting to sell to these companies, they’ll more than likely be knocking on your door when the economy turns around.
“The key here is to signal that your company is taking ownership of the situation, as much as possible, rather than allowing the situation to take ownership of your company and its valued customers.” - Waldron & Wetherbe
Deploy the HEART principles
Associate professor of management, Ted Waldron and Professor James Wetherbe have written that one of the most effective ways an organisation can keep the healthy relationships with clients and prospective customers is to deploy the HEART framework, which draws on “nearly 70 years of combined experience in business practice, research, and education.” The framework is remarkably simple, and goes as follows:
Humanise your company
Educate about change
Tackle the future
The first step of the process, the authors argue, is to humanise your company, in order to “let consumers know that your company understands the dire social circumstances at play and cares about more than simply reaping profit during this difficult time...your company’s social media sites and customer mailing lists are ideal vehicles for doing this,” they state. They go on to cite an example of a restaurant deploying their staff to deliver food, which helped reassure and comfort their customers with “familiar servers deliver[ing] familiar menu items [which] helps patrols feel reassured and comforted, reinforc[ing] loyalty by reminding them of what they loved about the restaurant before the crisis.” The second example the authors cite is of financial institutions freezing or forgiving upcoming payments which promotes trust and the company’s sense of good will. There is a limit to this, however, as the authors state. “Although consumers certainly care about the ‘softer side’ of your business, don’t overplay it,” they say. “Ultimately customers will care most about the value you create for them. Also, expressing too much empathy could come across as insincere and blend into the soundscape of other companies saying the same things,” they add.
Next up, educating your customers is an essential part of gaining interactions. This builds upon what we discussed earlier in the piece surrounding the importance of informing your clients, rather than just selling products or services to them… If times are tough and their pockets are thin, why bother - you’ll likely illicit a negative reaction from them that can ultimately backfire. The authors, however, explain it in a different context, more specific to your operations. “Tell them about all changes to your operation, including new hours, facility closures, staff reductions, customer service availability...it’s far better if you are viewed as being proactive and motivated by your customers’ best interests,” rather than solely by the spread of the virus, they explain. They cite an example of Apple and Lululemon, who were well-aware store closures were coming. “They reached out to their customer list to encourage online shopping, emphasizing their convenient return policies and responsive call services that could help customers with problems and questions,” they write. A key takeaway here is that if your only touch-points with customers are strictly selling- you’re missing out on a valuable opportunity to inform and build customer trust and loyalty in your products or services.
From here, it’s important to assure customers that your organisation’s values, as well as the commitment to keeping the explicit and implied promises offered while doing business with your organisation will continue. “Elaborate how, despite the upheaval in how you operate, you will continue to provide things they have come to know and love - and defining reasons they patronise your business instead of others. If consumers value the impeccable quality of your wares or the thoughtful nature of your customer service, tell them how you will maintain those value propositions,” write the authors, adding that it’s important to elaborate on these points to remind customers that your organisation’s ability to deliver on your promises “transcends the obstacles imposed by the crisis.”
Up next, it’s time to revolutionise your core offering, and improve upon what consumers value most about your organisation. The authors cite the acclaimed philosopher, Sun Tzu who wrote The Art of War, stating that Tzu “recognised that chaos presents opportunity for innovation.” They say it’s essential for an organisation to be “assuring customers that your company’s existing value propositions will remain the same,” as well as informing them of “what innovations have arisen from dealing with the ongoing pandemic - after all, necessity is the mother of invention,” they write. The authors cited examples of fast food chains in the US addressing shortages of bread in households, electing to sell loaves of bread directly to the consumer, as well as some alcohol producers that have made hand sanitiser from distilled alcohol to address shortages in the market. “Companies that take these measures,” they write, “and let consumers know about them, will inject hope into their heartache, as they see how companies are developing ways to make their lives better. Doing so offers the added benefit of further humanizing a company,” they say.
The final step of the process is to tackle the future, which means it’s time for you to “reevaluate the changes to your company’s operations. Show customers that you are willing to go beyond what you need to do for their benefit, particularly if your company can handle the financial burden,” they say. “Make it evident that your company is well-positioned to maintain its revised business model until things return to normal, signalling that it is weathering the storm… signal that your company will come out stronger on the other side of the storm. The temporary improvements that satisfy customers now may become permanent improvements to your company’s business model in the future.”
“The key here is to signal that your company is taking ownership of the situation, as much as possible, rather than allowing the situation to take ownership of your company and its valued customers,” they conclude.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to all of this, while you might be a bit resource restricted at the moment, that doesn’t excuse you from putting in some work to establish the fundamentals of building a trusting rapport with your customers. There’s no better time to start than right now, so go at it!
Thanks for your time, and I'll see you in the next piece.