Future of customer relationships - Cris-atunity!

Future-Fit recently researched the impact of COVID-19 on commercial relationships and perceptions of the future ‘new normal’. Insights gained were distilled into seven lessons.

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In The Simpsons, Homer’s daughter Lisa tells him the Chinese use the same word for crisis and opportunity. The great philosopher Homer replies, “Yes! Cris-atunity!”

Times of crisis signal a transition from one era to another. They are challenging times but also contain seeds of opportunity. On 26th March 2020, South Africa implemented a lockdown that brought economic activity virtually to a halt. It is no understatement that COVID-19 has been a shock, with everyone learning to pivot and adapt in a world turned upside down. 

Our research indicates clear winners and losers. Essential service businesses reported little financial stress, some even grew. Restrictions were more administrative and were quickly overcome. In non-essential services, revenue impact was pronounced with drops of up to 40%, with airlines reporting cataclysmic declines of up to 90%. 

The adaption also had a human side. People have been forced into physical separation from friends, extended family, their workplaces and social venues. It has required us all to adapt to digital or remote ways of doing business, significantly changing our ‘normal’ work experiences. 

In retrospect, the root causes of a disruption like COVID-19 were outside of our control. What was however within our control however was the way we responded to the crisis. What are some of the lessons we’ve learnt?

 

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1. Empathy pays dividends – Customers are people too!

When people are anxious, stressed and desperate for authentic human connections, doing business often takes a backseat. On the positive side, respondents reported that their adaption to a new work experience was fast, well thought through with few real continuity challenges. They’ve also personally enjoyed working from home.

Looking to the future however, most respondents are despondent, citing both stressed consumers and financially constrained businesses. Many recognize the psychological impact of COVID-19, highlighting that the ‘honeymoon’ of working from home was wearing thin. Many missed social interaction and face to face collaboration with colleagues.

If you are a salesperson, the reality is that your Customer is not just another organization but a warm-blooded human being! Everyone you interact with will have an emotional mixed-bag of hopes and fears based upon their personal experiences. The chances are that your Customers are craving to reconnect with people. Although you may well be driven by increasing your market share or by increasing revenues, let the business take a momentary back-seat. Take time out to discuss what your Customer (the person) has experienced and how they are feeling. Understand their adaptation and find out how you can assist. Think through how you can support them in a very human, meaningful and unselfish way. 

Our research has shown that what Customers are valuing right now are people who shown some emotional intelligence and are able to communicate with a sense of caring and honesty. Empathy pays relationship dividends in the COVID-19 world. Strategy & Business magazine confirms, ‘In times of crisis, people want to be seen and understood, and they are extremely sensitive to tone and motive’. So, are you trying to reach out or to simply sell them something? Are you coming across as authentic or is it just a self-serving act?

Remember American poet, Maya Angelou’s wise words, I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Make this your mantra for connection, even once this pandemic has passed.

2. Loyalty and promise-keeping are crisis currencies 

Many respondents highlighted the importance of loyalty and promise keeping. They called out instances where promises had been broken and loyalty to suppliers had not been reciprocated. Others told us how suppliers had gone the extra mile and intimated this would not be forgotten going forward. The lesson is that loyalty is often taken for granted, but in crises it becomes, with promise-keeping, an essential currency that forges relationships. 

3. Nothing beats personal contact

Our research highlighted the important role played by salespeople. Respondents told us that their vendor salespeople had been pro-active, had seen disruption coming and had collaborated to ensure orders were placed and executed timeously. In a high-tech world, it is still the ability of a person to anticipate and collaborate that is highly prized. 

4. Communicate with integrity and assurance – hint – it takes a team!

Our research also highlighted the need for Salespeople to work as a united team with their production and distribution people. Not getting back to Customers because we don’t have the exact information about orders breaks down trust and leaves a bitter taste. Nobody expects things to happen flawlessly in times of crisis. What our research has shown however is that Customers expect absolute honesty AND a clear, well informed message.

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The reality is that the integrity in the way we communicate will be remembered long after any crisis has passed. Take time to reflect - was our Customer communication honest and comprehensive? Were there blockages? How could these be overcome? When individuals were uncontactable, was there a backup person? Did information pass seamlessly from Production / Distribution to Customer-facing people and back?

5. Supply chain reliability trumps price (don’t take it for granted!)

Many respondents commented that supply chain reliability was critical in times of crisis. Global trends confirm a shift from reliance on an efficient global supply chain, able to deliver at the least possible cost, to a focus on supply chain localization, valuing reliability and continuity. 

It’s important to ask which parts of our supply chain are vulnerable to disruption? What can be done to balance lowest cost with reliable local supply? How can future supply chain risks be mitigated?  

As much as respondents valued reliability, they confirmed pressure to negotiate lower prices as COVID-19 plays havoc with bottom lines. In times of crisis, survival is paramount. Discuss price honestly, understand opportunities for mutual gain. If you cannot reduce prices, be clear but be careful the market hasn't moved to a lower level. If so, loyalty won’t buy business for ever. 

6. Make sense of the future 

Tools that allow for joint forecasting and sense-making are prized. Respondents noted the need for insightful ways of jointly looking to the future, including the use of adaptive forecasting models incorporating trends and insights. Scenarios and contingency-based planning were also highlighted as important. A key question is - are we equipped and able to have insightful conversations about the future?

7. Take time out for learning

COVID-19 has seen vendor and Customer promises and expectations both met and broken. Respondents indicated that the uncomfortable conversations about collateral damage to relationships was essential. A simple apology was important, but an After-Action-Review was critical. This will not be the last time external business disruption will occur. What have we learnt from this one? What worked / didn't work? What should or could we do differently? Do we have a clear future plan, even if we need to deviate because of contextual differences?

Respondents told us that anticipatory contingency plans were important. Plans don’t have to be inflexible and should incorporate alternatives. Can buffer stock be held? Are loyal Customers prioritised? Are we contactable and responsive 24/7?


There’s an old saying, ‘Never let a crisis go to waste!’ Perhaps we need to turn this crisis into an opportunity to re-establish our relationships with Customers and vendors. Let’s focus and connect with the person behind the position. Let’s talk empathetically about what really matters – the important issues such as caring, reliability, assurance, responsiveness, loyalty and what they mean. Let’s have the conversations about what it takes for two parties working together to build the kind of relationships that deliver success, at both personal and business levels, in an uncertain and volatile world.

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