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Especially in crisis, empathy reigns

Do companies that do good also do well, even in a pandemic? Just Capital, a nonprofit that assesses and ranks US employers for their business practices, found companies driving positive change on the issues the American public cares about most have continued to outperform the market through the COVID-19 crisis.

The research firm also maintains a corporate response tracker for how the 100 largest US employers treat workers, customers and local communities during the crisis. They believe COVID-19 marks a turning point where companies prioritise good treatment of stakeholders over the needs of shareholders. 

To understand specific steps companies can take to lead with compassion and emerge prosperous on the other side, we spoke with Jeanne Bliss, who has spent more than three decades driving exceptional customer experience as Chief Customer Officer at Land’s End, Coldwell Banker, Allstate and Microsoft. She is also the author of four best-selling books on customer experience and is the co-founder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association.

The founder of advisory firm Customer Bliss, which helps companies define and live the behaviours that create deep customer relationships, she believes the best businesses earn and maintain the trust of their communities through a continued commitment to doing the right thing. 

“The memory of how you conduct yourself now is what will bring people back when this is over,” she says. 

Here are three ways Bliss advises companies to lead right now:

1. Practice fearless listening

Simulate physical office arrangements: Brainstorming and collaboration are critical as we all work remotely. Bliss suggests setting up a ‘digital nerve centre’ to simulate the office environment, using tools like Zoom Room. Teams can go even further with always-open virtual rooms that enable anyone with the link to pop in with questions or contributions. This openness should include senior executives to encourage brainstorming from all levels. 

“This breaks down who is more important than who,” says Bliss. “Giving people a seat at the table, who wouldn’t normally have a seat, will have an energising impact.”

Connect your customers to each other: It’s equally important to provide a way for your customers to connect with each other. Bliss recommends virtual roundtables or invite-only webinars as methods to continue to learn from them while adding value when everyone is limiting activities away from home.

Be mindful of mental health: Discussions about mental health are rare in the corporate world, but employers need to acknowledge many employees are stressed and fearful. Business leaders need to provide a judgment-free zone for employees to connect with one another and share how they are handling mental health. Many companies are now tackling this by bringing on or extending access to employee assistance programs (EAPs). 

2. Extend grace

Examine contract conditions, fees, penalties, and cancellation policies. Evaluate them and adjust as necessary given the current crisis. Know that how you act now will impact the future of your relationships with customers.

Bliss notes people will be vocal about those businesses who did not show humanity during this crisis. 

“Captive loyalty now is not long-term advocacy and admiration later,” she notes.

On the flip side, hotel chains Marriott and Hilton earned goodwill with customers in the US by allowing full cancellations without penalty, extending the offer to their more restrictive prepaid rates. The chains also put a pause on points expiration and extended loyalty status benefits. Both are also donating rooms to healthcare workers.

According to Just Capital, 64% of the companies it tracks are making such accommodations for customers. It is by far the biggest adjustment in response to the crisis, followed by work from home policies for employees. 

When the crisis has passed, the companies we remember with admiration will undoubtedly be rewarded with loyalty.

This is your moment to improve lives, to be remembered with admiration.


3. Communicate hope and optimism

Keep customers and employees up to date on everything you are doing to help: It’s important customers know what you’re doing to solve their problems, and employees know they work for a company they can be proud of. 

“Communication has to be as important as the product,” says Bliss.

Lift up those hardest hits: Similar to points made above, show empathy to those in crisis. Many businesses now are offering extended payment terms and other assistance to their customers. .

Retool your business where you can: Even small businesses can rethink strategies. Bliss shared a story about a Seattle fine dining restaurant that completely overhauled its business into delivering family meals. Locally, we’ve seen many of Melbourne’s and Sydney’s restaurants pivoting to ready-to-cook meal boxes, groceries, house-made bread and other staples. 

Jeanne Bliss offers more examples of companies giving hope to their customers and communities in what she calls a Daily Dose of Optimism on her blog.

For more advice and expert how-tos for leading your businesses or team through COVID-19, check out the ‘Leading through Change’ series

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