Points of View

Enterprises must get creative with experience strategy to survive COVID-19

Mar 30, 2020 Emily Coates

Now that COVID-19 has been officially declared a global pandemic and its effects are reaching an undeniable scope worldwide, we are seeing quick and drastic changes to the way people are living their lives and how the pandemic affects business. With quarantines and “social distancing” practices becoming commonplace, enterprise leaders need to adapt to this new way of life as well, re-thinking many traditional models and protocols.


HFS recently sat in on an Execs in the Know Webinar featuring major industry players to listen to their solutions and gain insights on what some companies are already doing for their customer experience sectors to stay ahead of the virus. According to these experts, to combat faltering markets in the face of COVID-19, enterprise leaders need to remain fluid and prepared to adapt to this unsure and ever-changing situation, innovative with technology and talent to adapt to new ways of conducting business, and honest and transparent with both customers and employees.


In an ever-changing corporate climate, adaptability and agility are more vital than ever


The explosion of COVID-19 has ushered in a high-stress, high-stakes era that is difficult to plan for. Many are finding that current business continuity plans (BCPs) in place only have solutions for geographic or channel-focused emergencies, and don’t account for an emergency on the enormous scale we’re experiencing, which affects multiple aspects of operations. In retail, businesses are seeing a steady drop in in-store traffic, and, conversely, a dramatic increase in online traffic. Because this fluctuation is unpredictable, you must be adaptable. Changes can happen overnight, and subsequent planning around COVID-19 changes requires adapting in real-time. There is no detailed guide for responding to these changes; the only wrong answer is not to respond at all. Any retailer or business needs to be thinking about how its customers and employees are experiencing the changes.


Innovation and problem solving, if implemented intelligently, could save the day


Because COVID-19 is presenting a new situation to work around, executive heads will need to rely on innovation to strategize BCPs effectively. Using a variety of resources and channels and finding new ways to link them together is a great place to start, as relying on only one support strategy can cause trouble if it becomes overloaded. Utilize your workforce, diversify various channels of support across your workforce network, and leverage your employees’ talents. Keep in mind your employees’ well-being and how you can keep them safe, both as they attend to personal needs and while doing their jobs. This consideration is forcing a shift in focus from customers to employees as companies look for solutions to these new problems. Taking advantage of the diversity of your workforce, distributing workloads, and allowing as much work from home as possible is an approach many executive leads are taking.


A key to innovation is learning to be strategic about priorities. For example, the travel website TravelZoo is reducing its customer service call volume by prioritizing its queue according to travel dates; agents help customers who are traveling in the immediate future as soon as possible but ask those who aren’t traveling for another eight weeks or so to wait in line for assistance. This strategy allows for a balance between efficiency and urgency. Another solution we’ve seen, especially in the tech industry, is higher use of gig work to reduce the per-person work volume.


Some companies are using this time as an opportunity to look ahead, and they are beginning discussions of expanding self-service options for customers to reduce the workload on employees. Many are exploring virtual solutions, like Nordstrom; the clothing retailer is experimenting with virtual online styling as a substitution for the in-store service currently offered.


One truth remains the same: transparency and honesty must prevail


The absolute most important strategy to implement during this pandemic is communication. As company leaders, your employees are looking to you for guidance, and it is your responsibility to demonstrate leadership with clear, transparent communication.


Risk-reduction plans should be a focus for company heads, as well as risk-management strategies if an employee contracts COVID-19. A hot topic of discussion is on self-quarantine and whether or not employers should mandate it to employees. In regards to this, companies like Microsoft and TravelZoo believe the decision should be offered and left up to the employees themselves, as they know what is best for personal situations. This is an opportunity to offer the support and tools employees need, such as paid sick leave, working from home, and frequent check-ins.


Additionally, transparency and honesty apply to customers. As businesses make changes in operations in response to COVID-19, customers need to be informed as straightforwardly and as clearly as possible. Many companies are using emails to notify these changes to their customers and making alterations to their websites with clear information about any changes. Be purposeful; customers want to know what you’re doing and how these changes impact them. This honesty is especially critical for foodservice executives. A predominant customer concern is for the safety of their food: people handling product shipments, cooking their food, and delivering or serving it. Customers want to know—and they should know—if it’s safe to use your services. It is time for complete transparency and nothing less.


The Bottom Line: The impacts of COVID-19 require strategic and innovative planning as well as clear, open communication on every level in a company- and outside too.


The consensus among health professionals seems to be that depending on worldwide responses, the best-case scenario has us looking at a couple of months of mass social distancing and quarantine. The worst-case scenario suggests it could closer to a year. At any rate, companies that hope to weather the storm and possibly find useful innovations to their customer service models should keep the warnings in mind and remain vigilant, fluid, and open with their intentions as they move forward.