The coronavirus is wreaking havoc on many businesses. While I don’t diminish the severity of the issue, some organizations have overreacted or reacted too soon and are making crucial mistakes that will have a long-term impact on their business.
First and foremost, the health and safety of everyone—employees, customers, families and more—should be the highest priority. If a business needs to temporarily shut down, require employees to work from home, or take any other action outside the norm, then that is how it must operate.
As a keynote speaker who presents at events around the world, I’ve had several clients cancel or postpone meetings. Some are looking at hybrid meetings in which presentations are streamed to a phone or computer. I recognize that in some cases, canceling an event is absolutely the right thing to do. But I also applaud the companies that are making alternate plans instead of simply canceling out of fear.
One of our clients was distraught about canceling their event. They felt that the customer service and experience message their audience would have heard was crucial to differentiating their company and keeping them out of the commodity trap. That leads us into another vitally important conversation:
In difficult times, it is more important than ever to maintain or boost the customer experience.
I’ve experienced—alongside my clients—major economic downturns in the past 30-plus years. The last recession was almost 12 years ago. There was 9/11. There was the bursting of the dot.com bubble. In all these tough economic times, I watched companies cut expenses. Sometimes, that included people. Some of it had to be done. That may even be the case for some companies today. Consider the hotel that expected 500 people to show up next week for a conference. It now has 500 empty rooms and no banquets to prepare. Undoubtedly, there will be a workforce reduction. But, in this situation, the hotel won’t cut people and then have 500 guests show up only to receive subpar service. Nobody will notice the missing employees because there won’t be any guests there to notice.
But what if the hotel reduces staffing in other areas that do get noticed? The hotel may begin to look dirty if some of the housekeeping and maintenance personnel are let go. The lines to check-in will grow longer if they cut front desk staff. Those changes become noticeable.
Consider the long-term effect of cutting costs and people. If what you cut in expenses impacts your product quality and the customer service/experience, you’re making cuts in the wrong place and it will be noticed by your customer.
It won’t be easy, but you must find ways to tighten up that won’t be felt by the outside customer. If you don’t do this right, the customer will notice and start to compare you to others in your industry. You’ll lose your advantage. The relationship you carefully built will only take you so far. The new less-than-usual experience could potentially cause your customer to consider others, even when things return to normal, which will hopefully be sooner rather than later.
Some companies will take a smarter approach as they see competitors cutting in areas that can be noticed by the customer. They will do the opposite and ramp up their customer experience. They will show their customers (and potential customers) that to them, it’s less about profit and more about taking care of customers. When things get back to normal, they will be in a better position to keep the customers they have, both old and new.
Airlines seem to be doing this right. Some of you will find that hard to believe, but the airlines are stepping up to give customers confidence in booking a trip. Most of them have publicly announced that if you need to cancel or change a trip, they will give you a credit toward another flight—with no cancellation fees. What would happen if they didn’t do that? Everyone would gravitate toward Southwest Airlines, which has practiced that no-change-fee credit policy all along. Southwest would no longer be just another option; it would be a safer option. Customers will gravitate toward businesses that provide safety and create confidence.
Back to the original reason for writing this article. I get it. Many businesses are going to suffer financially because of this. Rather than deteriorate in front of your customers, show how you’re there for them through thick and thin. They shouldn’t notice an interruption in the way they’ve always done business with you. That may mean you can’t cut in all the places you want to cut. You may even need to intensify your efforts to ensure you deliver the best experience. Unfortunately, some organizations will make the mistake of cutting in the wrong places, and as a result, customers will experience metaphorical pain. If that is what your competitors decide to do, it creates a great opportunity for you.
We must have a little faith in the “system,” in that our economies worldwide will return to normal. It may take months—or even longer. In the meantime, don’t erode the relationships you have with your best customers. Exploit the opportunity to show them you are there for them and build even stronger relationships. While the state of the world may look grim right now, have an attitude of optimism. Remember … this too shall pass.