COVID-19: Alert bar

Preserving and strengthening customer bonds

As your customers’ lives have changed, so have their needs. Understanding how Australians’ circumstances have shifted during the pandemic, and serving them with empathy and dependability throughout recovery, may help you earn their long-term loyalty.

Key points

  • COVID-19 has changed customers’ needs.
  • Quality customer experiences can drive business growth.
  • How you can provide human connection and a sense of belonging.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we all operate. As Australians have adapted on a personal level, businesses have made a big transition to digital platforms – and quickly – to survive.

Organisations have changed the way they service their customers. Financial advice is dispensed through virtual meetings instead of face to face. Local restaurants are providing non-contact delivery to homes. And medical consultations are done over the phone or computer.

Australia Post’s General Manager, Solutions & Partners Claire Bourke says new demands brought on by COVID-19 have left organisations no choice but to make changes – many of which they didn’t even realise they needed.

“You see companies of all sizes years ahead of where they thought they could be,” she says. “The acceleration of different business models has been extraordinary in the last few months, and it’s continuing now. People are saying, ‘We did that in eight weeks, what’s possible going forward?’.”

These transitions can be unsettling not only for business owners, but also for customers experiencing tremendous uncertainty. COVID-19 caused the unemployment rate to jump to 6.2% in April, claiming nearly 600,000 jobs.

Around 3.5 million Australians were receiving income through the federal government’s JobKeeper scheme in May. Isolation guidelines have kept people from seeing friends and family at work, school and social events. And there were strict limits on wedding and funeral numbers.

All of this has had a drastic effect on the country’s state of mental health. And Beyond Blue has reported record numbers of connections with its services.1

Even as restrictions ease and the country establishes a ‘new normal’, Australians are going to be feeling the impacts of this disruption for months, if not years, to come. As your business continues to evolve in this environment, it’s important to continually assess how and why your customers’ needs have changed.

A key driver for growth

A 2019 Forrester report shows that customer experience can be a key driver of business growth, especially for non-retail organisations.2

In the report, Forrester examined 15 industries in the US – including investment firms and brokers, health insurers, auto manufacturers, hotels, banks and telcos – and found that even a slight increase in customer experience scores generated positive business impacts in areas such as revenue and customer loyalty.

A quality customer experience might look different now than it did a few months ago, but human connection remains vital, especially as reliance on digital delivery increases.

A 2018 PwC customer experience survey showed 59% of participants felt that companies had “lost touch with the human element of customer experience.” And that was well before COVID-19 limited physical contact between businesses and customers.

With the coronavirus causing so much upheaval in people’s lives, Harvard Business Review suggests organisations globally need to consider prioritising their human elements with empathy.

So, how can you do this?

Major factors to consider

What your customers are going through should play a role in re-shaping your service delivery. Here are a few factors that may be impacting their needs, and some ideas to help earn their appreciation now and loyalty later.

Changed working conditions. Thousands of Australians have had their hours or pay cut – or have lost their job completely. Months of missed wages can have a ripple effect on their ability to regularly pay for services; how you handle this change can have a huge impact on your customer relationships.

Can you make it easier for those experiencing financial hardship to still use your service? Consider developing flexible payment plans. Allow changes to contract terms. Advise your clients that you won’t be increasing regular fees.

Mental and emotional health issues. As there is no vaccine for COVID-19 yet, many Australians will feel anxiety about contracting the virus even as case numbers decrease. They might also be nervous about loved ones getting sick, especially older relatives and friends. Continued isolation can also play a significant role in the mental health of your customers.

As US-based Bain partner Darci Darnell says, “If you can help your customers reduce their anxiety and increase their sense of belonging, you’re going to be more relevant now and in the future.”

Can you help bring a sense of community to customers experiencing the discomfort of distancing? Face-to-face video meetings or user groups on social channels could provide a sense of connection.

For example, Beyond Blue says its coronavirus forums have seen over 800,000 engagements. Local yoga and pilates studios are live-streaming classes so that participants can take their favourite classes in their living rooms – and in some cases, connect via chat afterwards.

Overcoming digital roadblocks

As businesses have had to quickly shift to digital channels, so have many users previously unfamiliar with technology – such as older people. Grandparents are learning how to log on to video messaging platforms to see grandchildren, and retirees are being forced to discuss changes to their income streams without the comfort of a visit to their financial advisor.

How can you make this transition easier for your audience? If you’re able to deliver your service over video, think about how you might need to get customers up and running. Talk them through setting up apps such as Zoom, Skype or Teams over the phone.

Some customers might need to transition to online payments for the first time. Consider providing more payment options – such as Australia Post’s Post BillPay®, which enables bill payment online, over the phone, through an app, or in person at participating Post Offices.

And don’t forget the mailbox. According to a recent study of more than 2,000 Australian consumers, commissioned by Australia Post and conducted independently by Accenture, 39% said receiving mail makes them feel valued by a company.

Physical communications can still be practical even with an uptake in digital. For instance, you could mail customers important documents and directions and tips for using your new online channels.

As an example, when Red Cross Australia needed to raise awareness about relief assistance amongst drought-impacted farmers in Queensland, online channels proved less effective than expected. Targeted postcard drops to drought-affected areas helped spread the word to those with lower digital literacy, and there was an uptick in applications for help.

“It was a really useful initiative – anecdotally, we’ve heard that some people in need would not have known about the program or realised they were eligible, if they hadn’t received the postcard,” says Antoine Chandonnet, Australian Red Cross Community Recovery and Development Officer.

In times of crisis recovery, customer experience requires a foundation of empathy. COVID-19 has impacted the life of every Australian in some way. Unless you acknowledge what your customers are going through, you cannot meet their needs and solve their problems.

Think about the new circumstances under which they’re living. How does this impact the way they interact with your business and use your service? By answering these questions, you can better determine how you can help make their lives easier – and earn long-term loyalty.

1 Staying mentally healthy in challenging times, webinar with Beyond Blue CEO, Georgie Harman hosted by DCA and Cisco Systems, May 11 2020. (Transcript provided by Australia Post)

2 How Customer Experience Drives Business Growth, 2019. Forrester, 13 Dec 2019.

This article is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to be specific advice for your business needs.

 

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