The time for change is now: what must organisations do to survive COVID-19?

Organisations must be prepared to change the way they structure, think and behave, in order to meet the rapidly evolving needs of their customers and employees during COVID-19.
27 March 2020
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Dr Susanne O'Gorman
Dr Susanne
O'Gorman

Global Head of Customer Experience, Insights Division

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Whether Times Square, Piccadilly Circus or the Taj Mahal, photography of empty places in former crowded spaces signal how dramatically our lives have changed over the past few weeks. Stores, restaurants, schools are being closed while governments desperately seek to prepare their health systems for the worst. In many cities people are playing music from balconies and lighting candles in windows, fighting a virus for which there is (yet) no cure with a heightened sense of community and personal resilience. Resilience is also what companies need right now. Since mid-February, the virus has destroyed $23tn in global market value (The Economist, 21 March). For many companies, continuing to be in business will be a significant challenge, and unfortunately not all challenges can right now be controlled. But what brands can and should control is the type of customer and employee experience they offer during and beyond the crisis.

In fast motion: agile re-design of customer journeys

The UK grocery retailer Morrisons announced on 18 March a range of changes to help customers in the coming weeks and months: pre-assembled food parcels which can easily be ordered and delivered, and a newly established call-centre where customers who are not online can order food to be home delivered. Just one example of many companies that are currently changing products, services and re-designing their customer journeys.

With shops being closed, people are turning to call centres, websites and social media, which for many brands represents a big change in the way they interact with their customers. Many companies are not prepared for this. For example, a mere 9% of customers in the UK think that UK grocery brands provide innovative digital services (Kantar CX+ 2020). For these kinds of companies, a shift to untested new customer solutions may feel risky, but in fact it is likely to be essential to surviving the crisis.

Speed and agility are imperative in redesigning customer journeys. What usually would take months of careful preparation, piloting and launching now needs to be done ad hoc, as a necessary and immediate response to the crisis. This is best done through setting up a dedicated cross-functional CX team that understands how customers are now interacting with the brand, and can ensure that new or adapted customer journeys are consistently supported through marketing, sales, operations, customer care. Additionally, CX Maturity Audits can quickly be executed to help identify where international stakeholders see strength and weaknesses, whether internal departments feel prepared to meet current challenges, and how aligned the organisation is around a common vision.

Social distancing – but closeness to customers

Just over a week ago, the restaurant chain Vapiano declared insolvency. Sales declined drastically with over 50 restaurants closing because of the COVID-19 crisis. However, the restaurant has been struggling for a number of years. Reports about alleged deficits in hygiene, waiting times that customers deemed too long, an aggressive expansion strategy with some unprofitable locations and declining share prices were harbingers of further disasters. Clearly, brands that are already struggling with customer experience will suffer more and take longer to recover – if they recover at all.

Successfully achieving customer centricity in times of great upheaval requires having effective feedback systems in place. Continuous listening is crucial, especially when new touchpoints are being implemented. Real-time feedback should be collected to understand how well new and adapted journeys are working, where customers see deficits, where expectations have not been met, but also to learn from positive stories.

Some companies will have to adapt touchpoints not only because of changed customer journeys, but also because they are forced to cut costs and increase operational efficiency to soften the economic hardship. But where to start? What can be deprioritised? A strategic view on the most important drivers of customer relationships helps identify which moments matter most to customers and where investment should be placed.

In difficult times, we must not forget the lessons from previous crises. The 2008 financial crisis proved that in times of turbulence, customer emotions need to be acknowledged. Many of the retail banks that did not understand this at the time are still suffering. For example, our recent CX+ research in Spain showed that Spanish retail banks still need to regain confidence amongst consumers who, more than 10 years later, still don’t view them as being truly customer-centric. For brands navigating today’s crisis, listening and responding to feedback can help create closeness to customers. Closing the loop enables contact centre agents and their managers to have conversations with customers, understand whether they feel safe, what their fears and also hopes are for the future.

What do employees need right now?

Many companies are at the moment prioritising the health and safety of their employees. But more can be done. Whether we are employees, customers, citizens: we have all have the same fears and challenges. Remote working while schools are closed is a tough task, and often IT structures are not ideally set up to meet the demands of video conferencing and access to organisational systems. Same as for customers, employee listening systems should now be scrutinised on how they can support closeness to staff. How do your people feel in times of uncertainty? What are the immediate needs that leadership needs to respond to? How do messages from leaders resonate with the organisation?

If there ever was a time to push for employee empowerment, it is now. The required speed of actions makes it impossible for companies to set up guidelines and detailed processes. Employees need to quickly react to adapted journeys, potentially set up new touchpoints, care for customers and in some cases re-invent products and services. Those brands that have fostered an organisational culture of engagement and empowerment have a better chance of adapting to customer demands during the crisis than others. But the current challenges can also be used to trigger the type of organisational change that many companies have long aimed at: agile ways of working, cross-functional teams, outside-in thinking – now is the opportunity to implement this, pilot, test and relaunch. Preparing for a future post corona

It is unlikely that we will be bouncing back to normal anytime soon. The looming economic recession – whether short lived or lasting – is already requiring many companies to change how they operate. This should be done with a close eye on shifting customer expectations and behaviours. The current need for contactless touchpoints, hygiene regulations, social distancing, but also the strong sense of community and togetherness are likely to leave imprints on the customer-brand relationship going forward. While companies who have already mastered the digital transformation are having a head-start now, it would be too easy to say that this is all it takes to be successful going forward.

Foremost, the virus has forced upon us a new need for speed and agility, requiring organisations to adapt quickly to change. Now is a good time to take inventory. Are employees sufficiently empowered? Is the organisation empowering customers to reach out to them in a way that works best for them? Are we setting the right KPIs that allow us to monitor success now and in the future? Are we clear on what our brand stands for and delivering to that promise? And how will this potentially shift during and after the crisis? While innovative and agile styles of working are now called for, they need to be part of a bigger transformation process or are in danger of losing momentum quickly. Leadership will play a big part in this. As the proverb says, “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”. As with all crises, when this one finally subsides it will provide ample learnings for us on how to navigate through times of uncertainty.

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