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3 Principles to Guide Initial Customer Communications During COVID-19

Even though conditions are changing rapidly, three operating principles can help brands communicate effectively in this phase of the crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic represents a world-wide crisis that impacts all of humanity. We will be sharing a range of practices and principles for communicating effectively during the various stages of this event, from crisis communications that cover basic services, policy adjustments and consumer relief, to the later stages of recovery when communications emerge from a crisis-focus yet are still constrained, and eventually a future state where buying patterns and consumer attitudes are likely to have shifted to a “new normal” for business as usual.

One overarching and guiding thesis is that “we’re in this together.”  An event of this magnitude that impacts so much of humanity so profoundly so quickly warrants collective action. In the current environment, increased demand for goods, services, and support mechanisms that can cater to the home environment will be a priority. There will also be increased demand for information for “what’s going on” and “what’s happening next” to address and alleviate anxiety and uncertainty. Also, given the widespread and increasing mandate to shelter-in-place and work from home, there will be an increased demand for stationary diversions.

With that context as a backdrop, three key themes are emerging for how to approach your communications with customers during this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Assurance and expertise

Now is the time to leverage, and communicate, your enterprise’s unique expertise to provide guidance to your consumers. Communicate a plan for your enterprise and suggest your considered guidance for consumers. For example, if your company is a brokerage firm, discuss your understanding of past pandemics, impact on the markets and ultimate resolution to give context and reassurance of your expertise and perspective.

Trust-centric emotional language is important during this time, especially language that conveys the emotions of Gratitude and Safety. Safety-oriented phrases such as  “We’re here for you” are effective at activating trust-centric language and, despite recent widespread use, the emotion, sentiment and approach is still very much on-point during this phase of the crisis. Having said that though, customers have been inundated by assurance messages in the initial wave of communications and brands need to quickly evolve to an “assurance +” approach.

2. Preparedness

Describe what you are doing within your enterprise to deal with the acute phases of the crisis and what you are doing for the long term. Despite the consistent drumbeat of changes and unknowns, your firm can lead by example through frequent communication as you anticipate future phases of the crisis and the steps you are taking to be prepared now. 

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For example, Nordstrom, the luxury retailer, sent an email on March 7, from the CEO and Chief Brand Officer outlining key practices: “Our stores are cleaned and sanitized daily as part of our normal course of business. Over the past few weeks we’ve increased the frequency and extent of those cleanings…” Having sent this email relatively early in the outbreak in the U.S., the retailer is able to listen and respond with more preparedness communications with each passing day. This crisis is ongoing and activating this principle is not a point-in-time exercise – it will require ongoing and dynamic communication of practices.

3. Accommodation

Consumers are having to change their lifestyles so enterprises will need to rapidly evolve and accommodate to the new normal as well. Describe new service and support capabilities to facilitate the “shelter in place” environment, travel restrictions and other operating changes. Delta Airlines sent an email (the second or third from the CEO providing updates) that outlined how they are continuing to adapt their policies. They stated that “As the situation evolves, your flexibility when traveling remains our focus. To that extent we’ve simplified our waivers for making changes…”

The next phase

Over the coming three-to-six months there will be growing appreciation for the home/ hearth, preparedness, and having goods on reserve – people are acutely aware of not wanting “to be caught unprepared again.” This phase will usher in exploration of home-based capabilities and services as well as exploration of new sources of information and content. Adopting even more of a customer-centric approach to communications in this phase of crisis communications will enable flexible, faster and more empathetic messaging with all stakeholders.