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Creating the Right Experience: Supporting Customers During COVID-19

With the spread of COVID-19, experience and sharing-economy-based businesses are taking a hit. With consumers being forced to avoid public spaces and travel, they are wary of shared resources that might carry dangerous germs. In only a week, the US population decreased its spending with ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber by 21 percent. Early in this pandemic, people were opting to avoid restaurant dining, causing a 42 percent drop in revenue. Today, most restaurants have closed their dining rooms and changed their business model to carry-out or delivery only – or worse, shuttered their doors altogether.

In recent research conducted by Merkle, 54% of consumers indicated that they used the internet more frequently since this health pandemic began. As many of us have experienced, brands are utilizing their email lists and social media platforms to establish their stance on this virus. With the hope that the condition of the world will soon return to normal, experience-centered businesses are seeking to preserve customer loyalty. However, that requires a delicate balance of strengthening the customer experience without exploiting the ever-changing and sensitive state of this global pandemic. It is imperative, now more than ever, to differentiate from competitors and stand out from all the noise.

Now is the time to refine customer experience (CX) strategies and bring online experiences to life. 

Time to Truly Focus on Customers’ Needs

Naturally, the first step is sending out communications. Thirty percent of people feel that if a company offered some type of special solution or extra service because of COVID-19, they could see themselves supporting the brand once things settle down. One company that succeeded with this first step was Noodles & Co. Early on, the fast-casual eatery reassured its patrons by ensuring that franchises would beef up their hygiene standards and provide hourly employees with two weeks of sick leave so that they would not feel pressured to work when they are feeling ill. This allowed customers to feel comfortable coming into the restaurant during the early stages of the virus’s spread.

Although it is essential to offer support during this crisis, that alone will not elicit long-term loyalty. People need more than reassurances and are looking for companies to go beyond standardized emails informing them of business continuity plans and service without interruption. They need companies to meet them on their terms and to offer honest, personalized help for their specific needs. 

Thirty-one percent of people in our study cited that the cancellation of services/events had the greatest impact on them, with letters from CEOs (12%) and actions taken to support employees (10%) coming in second and third place. This suggests that consumers want to know how these changes are affecting them personally. Companies should take extra effort to humanize their brands and their messaging. After all, people are looking for empathetic brands that can help them navigate this crisis and offer transparency. 

The Importance of Responsive Marketing

More than ever, responsive marketing and personalization should be key priorities in your communications strategy. Pointing customers to digital resources and easy-to-understand instruction on how to use these resources is valuable for those who are less familiar. Highlighting the availability of essential items, or offering special discounts targeted to people undergoing hardship are good strategies. Openly communicating delivery timeframes and changes is critical in a time when people are dependent on delivery services. 

When you’re thinking about relevancy and personalization, you also have to consider the timeliness of your messages. In our study, responders rated message timeliness 3.2 out of 5 suggesting there is room for improvement here as well. Given the fast-changing nature of COVID-19, people are tracking real-time news updates all day long. Companies should be prepared to send timely responses that align with real-time updates, all while ensuring messaging is responsive to customers’ needs. 

Tone-deaf Messaging

One experience-based company had a particularly poor response to this crisis. Although the company has since adjusted its messaging, initial emails continued to feature discounts to customers for “a night out”. At the time the emails were sent, many people were already in quarantine and some were already becoming frustrated with peers forgoing the CDC’s recommendations. The emails could have been misconstrued as the company promoting the narrative that ”going out is okay” or, at the very least, that the company was tone deaf to the current climate.  

Instead, the experience-based company could have taken the opportunity to feature experiences that can be participated in online or indoors, highlighting ways to support local businesses, or discounts on food delivery services, gift cards, and games for the family. While 45% of our survey respondents said that special solutions did not change their behavior, 54% said special solutions could influence future support for the business, or that they have already shared the info with family and/or friends. Offering special solutions like these alternatives can be beneficial to both the business and the customer now and in the long-term. 

Unsupported Customers

A large, well known hospitality service provider is another brand that has not immersed itself in the customer mindset. As airlines continue to cancel flights and countries implement necessary travel bans, this hospitality service provider is surely taking a hit. Although this company acknowledged the current health crisis in its initial communications, the follow up communications told travelers not to contact them unless their trip was confirmed within a specific time period. Instead of helping customers feel supported, this hospitality service provider limited its interactions with customers.  Rather than asking customers to avoid contacting customer service centers, this hospitality service provider could have sent communications that established expectations on travel delays and offered resources, or online guides, to help customers feel empowered to seek support independently. This, in turn, could have also simultaneously eased the load on customer service employees. 

Additionally, after the company included France on its list of high-risk countries and allowed customers receive refunds for their travel, the company continued to send emails featuring things to do in Paris. Customers were already concerned about their trips, and communications like this just created unnecessary confusion.

Learning from these companies, brands must be responsible and ensure they do not send out ill-timed automated emails that can cause frustration and upset. Adjusting content and campaigns to meet heightened sensitivities and customer needs is essential. 

Relevancy at its Best

There are many brands who are getting it right, like Dunkin Donuts. Following the CDCs guidance to move to a take-out and drive-thru only model, Dunkin wanted to further incentivize its customers’ continued support and encourage safety for both employees and customers. Dunkin emailed customers with a “We’ve got your back message” explaining the changes related to COVID-19 and provided links to clear instructions and videos on how to complete online orders and use Grubhub delivery. Additionally, Dunkin implemented a “Social Distancing Reward” program to provide 100 extra reward points to customers who used the order ahead feature on their mobile app and followed up with an email campaign a few days later highlighting an activation of $1.25M in emergency funding to help support families impacted by the crisis. Dunkin’s clear communication, tailored incentives for customers in the current climate, and its broader efforts to positively impact the community are great examples of relevant and timely communication.

Another company that has reacted well is the cabin-rental company, Getaway. Getaway started by pitching its cabins as means to get out of the house while maintaining social distancing and giving customers the peace of mind that they could cancel or change the date of their stay with no hassle. The messaging also emphasized that the cleaning standards would be increased, so that guests would not have to fear leftover germs from other visitors. Finally, the communication series wrapped by providing helpful resources on how to maintain semblances of normalcy during a tumultuous period. Overall, Getaway not only situated itself as a good option to disconnect from the terrors of today, but also reaffirmed to its customers that the company cared.

Although there is still uncertainty around the economic impact of this pandemic, brands should use this time to benefit from consumers’ new purchasing habits and online behaviors. The brands that come through for customers now are the brands that will earn long-term loyalty and truly be remembered. Be empathetic, be relevant, and be timely; your customers will appreciate it.

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