With a semblance of normality returning to many European countries as COVID-19 lockdown restrictions ease, it’s perhaps a pertinent moment to look back on how businesses have reacted and adapted to these difficult times, and which lessons we can take into the future.
The most encouraging outcome from this formidable period is that organisations have started treating customers like real-life human beings – people with their own emotions, challenges, and needs. Brands are no longer solely focusing on profit margins, but the health of their employees and the unique concerns of their customers.
I urge those brands that have taken positive steps towards establishing more human and authentic relationships not to revert to old ways of thinking – to take this opportunity to inspire a permanent step-change in how they talk to their customers.
So, what has changed?
For many brands, the unique challenges presented by the pandemic have prompted wholesale changes and subtle shifts in their approaches to people, process, and technology. And for many, it’s been a long overdue wake-up call.
For years, we’ve been urging brands to focus on the human element of their customer relationships, on fostering a sense of community that supports and inspires.
When the lockdown was first announced, many smaller businesses immediately feared the worse. And, while some SMEs may not recover, the surge of public support for local businesses, from butchers to takeaways, and pubs to greengrocers, means that many will emerge from lockdown in a position to not only survive the coming months and years, but thrive.
New features released by Facebook and Instagram that make it easier for the public to display their support for local brands have helped, but it’s the sense of the wider community, of people wanting to actively lend aid that has shone through.
This sense of community isn’t just limited to SMEs either, and there are other, more subtle steps that big brands have taken over the past few months. This has ranged from something as simple as toning down potentially overbearing sales chat, to scaling back marketing messages so brands can be sure they’re talking to the right people in exactly the right place, and on time.
- Retail culture starts with local shops that are family-owned and provide a personal touch.
- Remember how you – as a human and consumer – want to be treated, and mirror this with how you execute your brand purpose.
And how has this affected customer expectations?
People now expect to be communicated to as exactly that, people. The value that consumers place in honesty and transparency has increased exponentially. After all, who are customers more likely to turn to in the coming months, the brand who treated them with respect, or the competitor that continued to try to sell, sell, sell?
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that people admire brands that take a proactive, honest, and decisive stance, built on serving the needs and wants of the customer.
For example, when my local hardware store shut its doors to the public during lockdown, it remained open, with employees literally walking down the aisles taking orders on the phone from customers.
Now, will I expect that exact same service when I can visit the store myself? No – but as a consumer, I will expect the same personal and human approach to the way they do business, whether that’s through how they talk to me online (via social or email), or in-store.
- Price is important, but shopping at local stores isn’t exceedingly more expensive than national/global chains. Local shops provide a personal touch and, often, a higher quality product or service.
- Consumers want variety from their high street and city centres. Who wants to see the same retailers dominating every place they visit?
- Global retailers and consumer brands should take an active role in supporting local businesses through partnerships that source products locally (e.g. bakeries, butchers, hardware stories).
This plea doesn’t just relate to retail though. Encouragingly, brands of all shapes and sizes have re-evaluated how they approach their customers, putting aside monetary gains in favour of lending aid and support to the public.
Whether it’s through donations to hospitals, transforming factories into PPC production lines, or research teams banding together with a common purpose; never before have we witnessed such an outpouring of altruism, collaboration, and community in the business world – and long may it continue.
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