Customer Loyalty, Meet a Pandemic?


Things have gone a little crazy in our lives, leaving many of us confused, stressed and anxious. I had intended to use this month’s blog to better explain my preachy style last month and how planning could have helped you if it had been done better prior to the epidemic. But over the past month I have come to realize there is a bigger issue you need to deal with right now. I mean, today!

How we deal with people, and more specifically employees and customers, may have an unintended impact on our businesses: a hit to customer loyalty. Customer loyalty can take years to understand and even more time to gain loyal clients. Yet one simple mistake can take it all away. I have provided many such examples over the years in my blogs. This is a difficult issue that has no right answers, but our reality is filled with bad answers to choose from. The truth is the answers are probably different for each of you. In all cases, it is going to come down to deeply understanding who your clients are and how your process/systems work. Starting right now may help, but hopefully you already had a good handle on what motivates your clients going into this mess we call COVID-19.

If you did have a good handle on your customer’s motivations than you probably have spent the past several weeks developing plans to modify your operations to ensure you do not harm customer loyalty. Most of you have some strict governmental guidelines you are being asked to follow. In the worst cases you are being asked to move forward with, at best vague guideline, and you are on your own. While you should worry whether Congress will protect you if you get sued by a customer or employee because of your actions, you may wind up considering that a minor problem for your business success. If your reputation takes a hit, that will become your significant issue.

Even if you did not have a good handle on your customer’s motivations prior to the virus causing problems, there are things you need to consider as you move forward. While there are many things you obviously need to be worrying about right now, customer loyalty should be near the top. Let us start with some basics.

Like me, many of you have received e-mails from various vendors assuring you of how they are responding to COVID-19. Did they comfort you at all? Did you read them? Some of them? Did they seem canned and unemotional? Did they further or add to your loyalty to that vendor? I suspect that most went unread, perhaps started pissing you off, and certainly did not make you more loyal. Yet, I have not seen a single e-mail from any of the local vendors I utilize about what measures they plan to take to keep me safe as they ask me to return to their business. That would be greatly appreciated and improve my loyalty. Which are you doing? Telling people that you care is different than showing that you care.

I did appreciate those vendors who I had reservations with that reached out to me quickly with how they were going to handle the situation. Many either already had, or implemented, processes and systems that made refunds and/or rescheduling quite simple. Some processes, like concert reservations, were automatic without my intervention. I will certainly remember all of them by returning. I also have come to appreciate several who have made exceptions to their policies during these times. But I can say with certainty that I will not return to any that made that process difficult or unpleasant in any way.

How did you handle cancellations and how are you going to handle them as things open up? If someone had a reservation and you are now open, but they cancel because they are uncomfortable will you give them a full refund? What if they are elderly or have a health issue that compromises them? If your clientele is largely young you may have a different answer than otherwise. However, what if one of those young people that come into your establishment gets sick as a result and gives it to their 80-year-old grandmother who dies? Forget about lawsuits, what if they make a stink about it in the news? Human nature is to blame others not to take blame.

How are you going to handle masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, social distancing and general cleanliness? Are you going to make all employees wear masks and/or gloves? What if you don’t and an employee feels uncomfortable? What if they make a big deal out of it and it goes public? What if you leave it to employees and that causes conflict that impacts the customer in some negative way? What requirements are you going to put on customers?

The answers may seem straight forward, but I also suspect that if I did a poll, I would get several quite different “straight forward” answers. If you do business in an area where people shun protective gear you may hurt yourself by requiring something, even if it seems right. If you do business across several regions you may need policies that vary based on the local clientele.

CostCo recently announced that all customers must wear masks until further notice. Where I live many people said they just won’t go to CostCo. Will they ever return? In other places I am sure people are cheering on CostCo. I care for my 100-year-old mother. As a result, I feel uncomfortable in establishments that have not established policies requiring protection. I have already determined that I will not be back to a few places once this all calms down. How many of your customers feel that way because of something you said or did?

While I do not have any “straight forward” answers, I want you to think about everything you plan to do and what impact it may have, ultimately, on customer loyalty. Changing a process to help in one area could impact other processes down the line negatively. Changing a policy could have a major impact on employees and/or customers that could negatively impact customer loyalty. Not following governmental guidelines could have disastrous impacts. Following their “suggestions” on the other hand could also have negative consequences.

So, what should you do? There are no good answers for every situation, but there are smart actions you can take now to help ensure good outcomes. Your challenge this month is to move cautiously as you navigate the COVID-19 pandemic waters. Don’t just jump in with two feet, think as much through as you possibly can. Develop a plan for gradual return to a new unknown normal. Be prepared for the future.

We can help, reach out!

Mitchell Bolnick – The Excel Consulting Group