If you're a small business owner looking to find better ways to connect with customers during the disruption caused by COVID-19 and social distancing, you may want to take a look at your data and customer service policies.
“Businesses are worried about keeping their employees and their customers safe, while also keeping their business running,” says Gabe Larsen, vice president of growth at Kustomer, a customer-centric omnichannel software company.
“With so much uncertainty," Larsen continues, "transparent and honest communication between businesses, vendors and customers becomes crucial."
Customers can be more forgiving of brands in a crisis if they are transparent, so establishing open communication and activating your data is the first step of improving your customers' experience.
Use data to surface customer insights
Data-driven insights can inform personalised interactions with customers to better address their needs and deepen your relationships with them. This is especially important given the unfamiliar circumstances caused by COVID-19.
The first step is to understand who your customers are and what motivates them. Leena Rinne, co-author of Leading Loyalty: Cracking the Code to Customer Devotion, encourages companies to gather data that can help them understand the reasons customers come to their brand during normal market conditions.
When customers purchase, why they buy from you, which of their needs you meet, and why they chose you over a competitor are fundamental to understanding your customers at any time. “If you know these things, you can leverage the information for how the relationship looks during challenging times as well,” says Rinne.
Cultivate customer loyalty
Rinne’s questions can be answered by looking at the data you've collected from your systems that track customer feedback and relationships. If you don’t yet have that level of data available to your business, Rinne suggests two ways to implement a substitute system.
Smaller businesses can use POS terminals that integrate with a simple customer database. This stores information about past appointments and purchases alongside more detailed, real-time customer analytics, including profiles and customer spend.
Larger businesses can access a myriad of robust CRM software solutions to organise customer data in a single repository, taking customer interaction data from multiple channels and touchpoints, such as email click-through rate, lifetime customer value, and customer service enquiry records.
In both cases, the aim is to better understand your customers so that they are known to your sales and marketing teams regardless of where and when they’ve previously interacted with your business.
In fact, organisations with better-aligned sales and marketing teams experience higher customer retention rates. Your business can act on your data by developing a strategy that reduces stress at the various touchpoints across the customer journey. By doing so, your customer interactions could be quicker, more convenient, helpful, and friendly.
“A simple touchpoint can let customers know you care and that you are thinking of them,” says Rinne. “These touchpoints have to be sincere, not fabricated.”
Shore-up your customer service survival strategy
To craft meaningful touchpoints, Larsen and Rinne offer four tips to get brands started with a revamped customer service strategy:
1. Think like a direct-to-consumer brand
Larsen believes every business needs to act like a direct-to-consumer (DTC) brand, whether they have a physical store or not. This means a business should put the customer first and come up with creative ways to solve issues.
To help your business emulate DTC brand best practices, Larsen encourages you to start by personalising communications using available historical customer data. Data about previous purchases and communications can inform how you craft customer service scripts, emails, and social media content to better address customer concerns.
These personalised communications demonstrate that you're in tune with what customers have wanted in the past and how those wants might have changed with the current state of the world.
2. Focus on empathy and generosity
People are moving through the world today with big feelings and new problems – this is especially true during a pandemic. That's why leading every customer interaction with empathy and generosity is more important than ever.
“Taking extra time to understand and listen to customers with our ears, eyes, and heart is key to understanding their story and emotions,” says Rinne.
She advises her clients to do three specific things to retrain the way they listen:
- Stay silent until the person has finished talking.
- Don’t worry about how to answer – focus on understanding.
- Rephrase what was said and check for understanding.
"If training an employee, I would role play with them – let them be an angry customer with a problem and show them how I would handle it," Rinne says. "So much of this is achieved in the tone of my voice. Does it sound like I am reading a script or do I sound like an empathetic, caring person who genuinely wants to help? Customers can quickly tell the difference."
3. Meet your customers where they are
It’s time to expand your customer service strategy to meet customers where they are and deliver superior service across every channel.
“Your customer service needs to reflect the many areas consumers choose to communicate,” Larsen says. “This means communicating via phone, chat, email, messenger, social media and more.”
Chat, messaging, and texting are particularly important channels for customer requests during the COVID-19 outbreak. Chat enables customers to find answers immediately, while messaging and texting allow them to begin and end a conversation when they choose to.
Effective communication is about being able to pick up the same thread of a conversation across all channels where customers might reach out to you.
"For example, if a customer question initially comes in through an email, but then is followed up with a phone call, that customer doesn't want to repeat themselves or worse, get a conflicting answer from a difficult service agent," says Larsen. "When agents have all historical information on past communications and purchases, they are able to get a holistic view of the customer and can figure out the best way to respond, no matter what channel is used."
4. Invest in simple feedback strategies
With any customer service strategy, it’s natural to want to know how your customers think you’re doing. After all, you’re relying on customer service to power you through an unprecedented economic tide.
Short surveys, especially in today's uncertain times, increase the chance that customers will respond. To get the feedback engine rolling, companies can register for a wide variety of online survey companies. Here, you can create simple one- to three-question surveys and add the survey link to the end of a "thank you" email.
"We find that a phone call is also incredibly effective," Rinne says. "Call the customer and ask, 'What, if anything, could the company have done to better serve you?'" An open-ended question can inspire your customers to share concerns and offer solutions that your company can implement to the benefit of all customers.
Customer service can be the survival strategy that will endear you to customers, build loyalty, and even encourage customers to look for ways to support you while operations are slowed or shut down. By gathering your customer data and using it to craft personalised and sincere interactions, you’ll be doing the good work to stay in your loyal customers’ good graces.
And with any hope, you'll cultivate new and loyal fans who will remember you as a warm and supportive presence during a time of so much uncertainty.