At the most basic level, a good company is built to solve a customer problem. As customers’ wants, needs, and preferences evolve, spurred by the pace of technological innovation and social and economic change, great companies adapt their business model to explore entirely new ways to serve their customers. In most cases, this process is gradual and the arc of change is long, especially for large enterprises. But what happens when your customers’ lives are suddenly turned upside down? 

You’d be hard pressed to find an individual whose daily life has not been significantly impacted by the pandemic -- emotionally, behaviorally, and economically. A cascade of dramatic and interconnected business impacts is playing out real-time - from grounding worldwide travel to unprecedented rates of unemployment. In the wake of so much uncertainty, some companies are acting boldly. 

By examining the impacts of COVID-19 on their customers, vendors, or channel partners, and thoughtfully positioning a response, leading companies have turned a chaotic moment into an opportunity to connect and listen — creating upside for the future of their business. Let’s investigate the process of converting chaos into actionable business strategy, starting with the impacts to your customers.

Changing perspectives: everyone’s new worldview

COVID-19 has changed both how people feel and how they act. Emotionally, stress is at an all-time high with newfound financial hardship, added homeschooling responsibilities for parents, and worry for sick or at-risk family members and friends. Physical distancing strategies like stay-at-home orders have imposed a second layer of emotional strain in the form of isolation and loneliness for many, with an unclear endgame. 

Unprecedented shifts in behavior have accompanied this new mental state. People are stuck in their homes, awkwardly learning how to connect with co-workers and loved ones through glitchy online platforms. They’re consuming more media and news than ever before. In avoidance of stores, online purchasing rules - including grocery ordering - which may be a first for many.

At work, different challenges present themselves. Revenue goals have been discarded along with empty bottles of hand sanitizer as leaders scramble to re-prioritize, make critical business decisions, and lead their organizations through the tumult, all while working from a spare bedroom or kitchen table. 

With everything spinning at home and at work, it’s easy to pursue a strategy of wait and see. However, some companies have recognized the tempest as an opportunity to build. What’s compelling them to do so right now?

Why loyalty has become the most valuable currency 

This crisis has caused many to reconsider their relationship with customers and everyone in that value chain. In a recession, the new prize is not necessarily acceleration of existing business - it’s winning the trust and loyalty of your customers, so that when demand returns, the business returns to you. Companies that invest in building customer loyalty during downturns reap greater shareholder returns. The business case for customer loyalty holds true across industries and geographies. Winning loyalty means earning:

  1. Greater lifetime value: existing customers are 50% more likely to try your new products and spend 31% more than new customers.
  2. Shareholder returns: Companies leading in customer experience have seen 3x increase in returns compared with laggard companies during the same recession time period.
  3. Reduced churn rate: a 5% increase in customer retention rates increases profits 25-95% 
  4. Increased referrals: 84% of B2B decision makers start the buying process with a referral 

But what drives the connection to your brand, specifically? And how can you harness the operational agility to implement quickly? The actions you take right now - while your customers cope with total upheaval - can either capture customer attention and resonate with them (Coca-Cola unity ad, below), or it can seem irrelevant at best or tone-deaf at worst, causing customers to turn their attention elsewhere. 

Coca-Cola ad in Times Square March, 2020. Call for unity in direct response to feelings of loneliness in quarantine.

In the wild: brands acting boldly 

Smart brands are quickly rising to action to find new points of connection with customers and earn their loyalty that will outlast any virus. How? We summarize three routes to connect with your customers in any crisis: through their values, their feelings and their needs. Let’s look at a few examples of companies giving us hope. 

Customer values: demonstrating importance of community service, customer and employee health. 

- Fanatics, Nike, Armani repurpose product material and dedicate production resources for mask, shield or single use  overall production, demonstrating value of service

- Shine Distillery in Portland OR, and others across the U.S. are producing hand sanitizer for local donation demonstrating value of community support and generosity

- PepsiCo and Fred Meyer Grocery Chain demonstrating support for protecting essential worker safety through ad campaign

Customer feelings: responding to newfound stress, anxiety and isolation.

- Alaska and other Airlines quick, retroactive flight refund offers and added flexibility in response to customer travel anxiety 

- Wegmans and other grocery chains reducing store capacity to 15-20% and instituting employee wellness checks

- Costco requiring all customers to wear masks, to ease fears of virus transmission

Customer needs: pivoting business models to serve customers in quarantine.

- Barba salon in New York city offers zoom classes to learn how to cut hair

- Verily (Google) launches “Project Baseline” to help customers find testing sites nearby

- Orange Theory and other gyms pivot services for members to offer online experience

If you’re not thinking about customer experience as a centerpiece of your business strategy, now is a great time to build it in. 

Where do I start? Take some tips from CX professionals

Designing personal, emotionally-resonant experiences for your customers starts with tapping into the values, needs and feelings of those you serve. While this may sound like a very qualitative exercise, there are tools and ways to aggregate and document your findings. Ultimately, institutionalizing the process will allow you to pivot even more quickly in the future. Here are some tips and tools from Customer Experience professionals at Propeller:

1. Know your customer’s worth

Any effort to appeal to customer needs should prioritize to target your most valuable customers. Do you know who your most important customers are (highest customer lifetime value)? 


Download Persona worksheet

2. Identify breaking points in their experience

Your customer’s “journey” is their entire experience with your brand, starting even before they’ve become a customer. Do you know which touch points along your customer’s journey have been upended because of the pandemic? Do you know what their biggest challenges are right now? What emerging patterns of behavior?

  • Understand and map your customer’s journey with your brand
  • Gather feedback quickly from people on the front lines or social media
  • Conduct some guerilla research (quick, low cost investigation) to understand where your customers are struggling the most
  • Prioritize the most important problems to solve

A more evolved, mature customer experience program will lead you to setting up and maintaining active listening channels, commonly referred to as a Voice of Customer (VoC) program. This provides a continuous pipeline of insights to target experience improvement.  

3. Bring your A-team together and build something

With the discovery behind you, you’re ready to dive in and design! What solutions will address your customer’s short-term needs?

  • Set up a design sprint to ideate and hypothesize possible solutions
  • Prototype and test selected new concepts
  • Experiment by bringing new services to market
  • Measure results and iterate the process!
Propeller’s “double-diamond” design thinking process (adapted from the British Design Council 2005 concept) can guide your problem-solving. This approach uses a series of divergent and convergent steps to first identify the right problems, then facilitate building the right solutions.

The most opportunistic business leaders value the scrappy and nimble characteristics of small companies to design, test and implement quickly. The faster you can work through the above cycle, the better your chances of increasing coveted loyalty during a downturn. 

This pandemic will pass. Our world will adapt. But optimizing customer experiences will never go out of style as the global marketplace competes for trust and loyalty. If companies don’t analyze their customers, shore up their listening gaps, and act boldly with their findings, they’re missing an opportunity to build a useful muscle -- the ability to rapidly respond to change and seize opportunities to win new trust. 

Learn more about Propeller

Check out Propeller's Experience Design Practice Area for more insights into how we position our clients’ teams for success as they evaluate CX maturity, build Voice of the Customer (VoC) programs, and identify ways to design with intent.