Closeup of a hand on a laptop with digital icons floating up from the keyboard
iStock/Chainarong Prasertthai

The COVID-19 crisis didn’t just change the world. It changed people. And people, for better or for worse, are the customers at the heart of any business.

From Apple and Amazon to Google and The Walt Disney Company, successful companies that prioritized building great customer experiences emerged as industry champions over time. When asked about online retail giant Amazon’s dominance today, Jeff Bezos remarked that “obsessive customer focus is by far the most protective of Day 1 vitality.”

But the uncertainty of a post-pandemic future, tainted by the worst global economic recession since World War II, means customers today are no longer the same people they were a year ago. Prolonged fears of infection and mortality, social isolation, blurred work-life boundaries, rising unemployment, and financial difficulties due to the pandemic have made them tired, stressed, worried, and bored—even depressed.

These behavioral shifts are significantly reshaping customer experience journeys in ways that are forcing companies to sink or swim. But as the Chinese word weiji expresses, crisis can also represent opportunity. Reconfiguring sales and marketing strategies, operational processes, and organizational resources to quickly adapt to the evolving consumer can significantly help your business succeed in the new normal and beyond.

A Customer-First Company Begins with Every Employee

Successful companies know that implementing customer service excellence across all levels of an organization can significantly lower costs, increase productivity, and improve revenues. What’s more, putting customers first organically creates transformative benefits that support survival strategies. Whether you’re a budding business owner or a long-time employee, customer experience starts with you and what you can bring to the table.

And now, more than ever, you need to bring it to the table.

In a TechCrunch Disrupt panel about reinventing sales teams in 2020, Jill Rowley, growth strategist and startup advisor of Stage 2 Capital, said that successful sales today require a go-to-market approach that understands how different business divisions shape the customer experience journey.

“It’s not just sales that’s doing the selling anymore,” says Rowley. “This is about bringing together other resources within your organization and looking at it all from the customer’s perspective.”

Brands that have excellent customer service generate 5.7 times more revenue than competitors. Maintaining best practices with customer service insights in mind can help future-proof business development strategies in a post-pandemic world.

As an employee, this means re-examining your leg of the customer journey and asking whether or not it can be improved. It may already be good—but could it be better? If you’re in marketing, does your content really attend to your target population’s needs? What about now, during COVID-19? If you’re in sales, how are you changing your product and your pitch to accommodate changing circumstances?

Optimizing customer experience is the name of the game.

Go Digital, Or Go Broke

The home is becoming the epicenter of work, leisure, shopping, and education. That means convenient digital spaces like social media, e-commerce platforms, and mobile apps have replaced traditional brick-and-mortar channels. As a result, data has become a key resource and advantage in the COVID-19 age of IT, where almost all sales are funneled through contactless digital self-service platforms.

Seventy percent of buyers in a recent McKinsey & Company survey said that they now prefer digital interactions with most sales closed via video conferencing and live chats instead of traditional phone calls.

Far from yesterday’s smooth-talking hard seller, tomorrow’s salesperson will need to be data- and tech-savvy across multiple digital communication channels—no longer focused on the sale, but on the buyer. They’ll need to serve as an interpreter of information and as a purchase advisor for customers, who now have unprecedented access to data.

Big data, tooling, and analytics have become high-value assets. These can help businesses identify SWOT points, digitize and automate process and service improvements, and create first-mover advantages based on insights from real-time data.

Marketing and sales strategies can also be made more relevant and effective using customer insights gathered from digital surveys, social media polls, and online support channels. Advanced analytics can also strategically drive targeted sales.

If you’re not yet familiar with digital marketing tools, start with Google Analytics, Data Studio, and . . . well, everything else in Google Workspace. While there are more powerful options for large companies (like Tableau), Google’s suite is enough to familiarize yourself with the language and concepts necessary to digitalize your marketing.

Safe Retailing Trumps Fast Retailing

Health and supply chain safety have become top priorities for customers, who are becoming more discerning and demanding about what they buy and who they buy from. As consumers resume out-of-home activities, rules and regulations on visiting shared public spaces will also impact buying habits and selling strategies.

To support sales, businesses will need to build on customer trust and brand loyalty. They can do this by providing transparency on- and offline, introducing process and service improvements, and communicating brand messages that soothe pandemic anxieties. Some Chinese brands like HEMA—Alibaba’s chain of grocery retailers—responded to COVID-19 health concerns early on by sharing where their products come from and how purchases are safely delivered.

If you own a small business or work for a company without an online store, delivery options, or contactless payment, now is the time to set all that up.  

Purpose-Driven Branding

In these uncertain and difficult times, people crave connection, security, and reassurance. Brand authenticity and empathy are crucial for effectively engaging customers, who have become more critical about whether businesses deliver on their values.

Leaving a meaningful impact through honest advertising may not directly translate into sales, but it builds lasting brand equity over time. Content overload has become a real problem in today’s information-saturated age. Faced with repetitive brand messaging across multiple channels, customers are looking for content that is personal, positive, and purposeful.

Conversion is where things get tricky, as Tech Crunch Extra Crunch panelist Brian Ascher, a partner at Venrock, observed. “Among 31 SaaS companies who responded to our survey, converting interest into tangible action is where the problem is. Folks are showing interest—it’s just hard to get them into the buying cycle.”

Rather than focusing on new sales, companies can optimize growth by focusing on existing customers. Data from Salesforce reveals that attracting new customers is 6 to 7 times more expensive than retaining an existing one, and increasing customer retention by just 10% is enough to boost company value by 30%. Repeat customers also spend 67% more than new customers, and 65% of new business comes from referrals.

So if corona has hit your business hard, consider solidifying your current customer base before shifting focus to attracting new customers. Revisit your mission, vision, and values, and consider how they’re being communicated to your customers. You can’t grow if every sales lead disappears the next buying cycle.

When the pandemic ends, customers will remember you based on how well you treat them.  Finding your competitive advantage by differentiating on customer experience will be the only way to win.