Written by Amy Shioji, CCXP, Head of Customer Experience & Insights, Strategic Education, Inc
Last month, amongst the barrage of COVID-19-related emails I received from various companies (Hello, “unsubscribe”), one stuck out as noteworthy: an email from my mortgage company titled “Important Coronavirus Information about Your Loan”. Curious, I opened it, only to find the information largely flat and irrelevant: “During these unprecedented times, we are here to help. There is no change to accessing your loan information online, and automatic payments have not been disrupted.” An email about payment options for financial hardships would certainly have been informative; an email stating that there was no change to the process – much less to a process that one wouldn’t assume would be impacted by this situation (i.e. no reason to cause a disruption to automatic payments) – felt like nothing short of getting caught up in a company’s obligatory COVID-19 response attempt.
So how do you communicate with customers during crisis situations, and what are the guidelines for meaningful messaging?
1. Focus on relevance. As depicted in the scenario above, it’s important to remember that in stressful times, more information isn’t necessarily better. Consumers are overwhelmed between disruptions to their daily lives and information overload from companies they engage with. So ask yourself: Do customers need to hear from us right now? Have operations or supply chains been affected? Are we offering new processes or protocols to help accommodate customers? If the answer is no, consider communicating your support and empathy to those that do contact you, or by posting your ongoing commitment via your website. Communicating via email for its own sake doesn’t always lead to greater customer assurance or clarity in a time of need.
2. Communicate with empathy. Regardless of the communication, a largely universal characteristic of COVID-19 communications is the empathetic tone they strike. Accommodations aside, ask yourself: is there a reason you can’t extend that degree of compassion and humanity in your go-forward communications?
3. Know where and how to accommodate. By now, virtually every company has been impacted by this pandemic in some way, but do you know the full extent to which your customers have been? Whether directly with your products and services or indirectly in terms of financial impacts that may affect their purchasing power or level of engagement, leveraging Voice of the Customer data or understanding your customer journeys and segmentation can help to uncover what immediate and longer-term hardships may surface, leading to the appropriate and accommodative support measures that should be pursued.
4. Keep your promises. If you’ve attempted to introduce new protocols to ease customer anxiety or friction in your current processes, it’s critical that your teams are fully trained on these new measures – both in terms of how to handle these changes operationally, as well as how to speak assuredly and empathetically to your customers. The last thing you want to do is communicate new measures of support, only to leave the customer and the agent confused and frustrated on what needs to be done on either side.
5. Make it about them, not you. I’ve often written about A Tale of Two Airlines – one of which always writes from a customer point-of-view, while the other often takes a decidedly internal, company-view to its communications and priorities. In the past weeks, Delta has continued to regularly communicate relevant customer changes to its policies – from increased safety and sanitization measures, to adjustments to travel changes, or safeguards to mileage loyalty benefits. The other airline opted to communicate its changing role in the COVID-19 crisis, instead highlighting noble efforts to redeploy its carriers to transport much-needed medical supplies and freight across the globe to countries in crisis. Indeed, I applauded their commitment (though it’s likely that most airlines are doing the same thing), but their last line gave me pause: “Our nation and communities will recover and [we] will return to service you, our customers. When that happens, we want you to fly [us] with even greater pride because of the actions we took on behalf of our customers, our employees, and everyone we serve.” Their efforts are commendable, but it felt a bit self-serving to overtly encourage more brand loyalty as a result.
6. Aim for the soft sell. It’s inevitable that Q2 and yearly projected revenues and forecasts have all but been discarded at this point. And while companies need to focus on sustainability and recovery, it’s critical to revisit your sales strategy to avoid appearing opportunistic, tone-deaf, or oblivious to any hesitancy or financial considerations of your prospective customers.
7. Strive for consistency. When crafting new communications with a softer tone or situational context, look to carry that through to other communications and touch points for a more cohesive messaging approach. Look beyond email to ensure that your website, your advertising, and your social media presence reflects the same consistent tone, talking points, and messaging.
8. Think about existing communications. No doubt your company has communicated several new policies or sent new incremental emails to your customers. Think also about the existing or automated and triggered communications that regularly deploy at certain journey stages or based on certain customer actions. For example, if you’ve made accommodations to relax past due balances due to financial hardships, but you have a triggered email that goes out for accounts with certain balance thresholds or past due dates, you should look to reconcile and update those to eliminate confusion and deliver effectively on promises made during this period (see #4).
9. Be authentic. At the end of the day, what matters most is authenticity. While compassionate communications can go a long way in building rapport with your customers, they will see through thinly-veiled sales attempts or messaging that doesn’t reflect your overall customer experience and brand promise across all interactions.
10. Consider your employees. Sure, companies exist to have customers. But they also exist because of employees. More than ever, customers align themselves to brands that not only take care of their customers, but take care of their workforce and their communities. While tone and balance are needed so communications aren’t perceived to be solely about you, the company, sharing the support that’s been extended to employees in terms of pay, continuity, and health and safety safeguards (which customers do have a vested interest in), is another angle of care continuity that customers often want to hear about.
While communicating through a crisis is important, use this moment as an opportunity to extend greater clarity, empathy, and customer-centricity – beyond messaging – to the decisions and ranks of the overall organization. With hope of a fleeting pandemic, may it leave behind a lasting and greater sense of humanity, purpose, and commitment to the individuals and employees we serve.