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What’s a Research Company To Do?

May 14, 2020

How Customers View Relationships with Businesses During COVID-19

Those who study the customer journey know that mastering the tactical aspects of any business is necessary. However, businesses that thrive know that developing and retaining a strong relationship with customers is even more important in retaining them in the long run. While this is not new thinking, what is new is how customers look at and evaluate that relationship in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has caused us all to question long-held truths and expectations about everything. In many cases, routine actions are no longer routine and developing the new normal has a long way to go. Sociologists refer to this state when old rules break down and new rules have yet to solidify as anomie. When anomie occurs, new and often strange behavior arises to fill the void. These include the development of “group think” resulting in behaviors such as hoarding, which are not always logical or in anyone’s best interest. In addition, consumers find themselves interacting with new brands, and even new products as they seek to normalize their lives to the extent possible. When an economy is hit with an unpredictable crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen since the influenza epidemic of 1918, that’s anomie. Let’s explore this from two highly inter-related perspectives: how companies are reacting to this and in turn, how consumers view it.

Companies: Tactical Reactions and Customer Centricity

Not surprisingly, we initially see companies struggling to normalize the tactical aspects of their businesses. Companies must learn to deal with supply chains that are extremely unpredictable or broken. Quarantines and prohibitions mean that many businesses cannot rely on their old business models, causing shifts in how they must operate. It is not surprising that we see delivery of goods across the spectrum on an increase, as the world does its best to social distance and stay healthy.

In a normal economy it is extremely difficult to run a successful business. Given the fact that the old rules have changed and there are not new rules in place for guidance, it is not surprising that companies are spending nearly all their time navigating their survival. In short, they are managing anomie through tactical means. In times like these tensions can run especially high. Even when companies do their best, what worked in the past may well not work now. Or they might not even know exactly what to do.

During more stable economic times, studies have consistently shown that companies that have mastered a customer-centric perspective are able to attract and retain customers through the best and worst of times.

However, in tough times, many companies put the “relationship component” in second place as a default. Their own confusion about what customers want and need and their ability to meet those needs can be quite palpable, and there may not be a straightforward fix.  Unfortunately, for customers who are struggling, the timing couldn’t be worse.

A View from the Consumer

Under normal conditions, organizations are more apt to focus on customer centricity.  However, in times like now, that’s much harder to accomplish. Not only are organizations experiencing anomie, but so are their customers.

Customers are likewise trying to navigate an uncertain world. They are not sure what the next day may bring or what help they may need. While some are being impacted directly by the virus itself, far more are being impacted indirectly most notably from under- or un-employment.

In their role as customers, new challenges and skills are called for.

  • Many are trying to stock supplies to limit trips to stores but are unable to find products.
  • Online ordering and delivery have been helpful, but they are failing in some areas under the extensive demand.
  • Consumers are reaching out to each other to give tips, tricks and clues to how they may gather and figure out how their needs can be met.

While much remains murky, clever and sometimes unexpected innovations can gain traction quickly, leaving businesses struggling to keep up. What is clear is that we see small movements among some gaining large traction quickly. Customers rapidly learn which strategies work and which ones don’t, only to have these realities changing constantly.

During this time, information is omnipresent, but it is not always clear. Much of this is driven by the fact that communications take the form of one-way conversations from brands to consumers. What is missing is a solid feedback-loop that operates in real-time and seeks to understand not only how people feel but what they need.

In short, at a time when customers need their relationships with brands to be at their strongest, customers feel at a loss to communicate their needs to brands. This is a time when the isolation of the pandemic makes customers yearn for connection in general, and with brands. This is a time when what they want to tell brands may be very different than it was two months ago. How does this make customers feel? Abandoned.

What’s a Company to Do?

We realize that continued communication with our customers is essential. We know that information is a powerful resource and we want to understand what our clients are going through and what we can do to help them.

We are pleased to report that our overtures to our clients and contacts have been well received. We were not surprised because our work on customer-centricity suggests that ongoing communication, in good times and bad, are central to client relationships.

What is surprising to us is that many of our clients feel that to invade customers’ lives at this point is inappropriate, invasive, or insensitive. We have found just the opposite to be the case: those who have the courage to cut through the awkwardness and ask how things are going or what they could do to help are the ones you remember when the storm passes.

Do these times call for different approaches to research? Maybe, but all studies conducted at any time should be carefully thought out and account for how it might impact a customer.  In short, we are already being careful. We are not counselling anything new.

Further, we know from talking to friends and family that many people are feeling particularly isolated at this point, and appreciate companies reaching out to them. They particularly appreciate being able to tell their stories from their perspective. They also realize that by weighing in on your questions it may make lives of other people easier. We already know that if they don’t want to do this, they won’t respond. This is certainly not news. Nor does it mean that they are angry at your brand.

Consumers are craving connection – not just with friends and family but with the businesses they rely on to make their lives work. Recently Big Village CARAVAN surveyed 1000 consumer about participating in research, and they indicated they not only were open to the idea but really eager. One of the key reasons for this is that they want to be productive and helpful. If that isn’t a compelling reason enough, over 90% indicated they would view a company more favorably that reaches out and asks for input.

To conclude, focus in on the fundamental principle that communication and sharing of information is something people value and people need. Hiding from customers during difficult times will do little good in the long run.

Big Village can help navigate this sensitive and difficult time. Through our tools such as Digital Hives and CARAVAN, to our understanding of consumers and how to work with them to unearth insights, we can help your company develop a playbook where one currently doesn’t exist.

Written by Lisa Marie Fortier, Senior Vice President, and Scott Pimley, Senior Director, at Big Village Insights.