How you help customers handle a crisis can determine whether they continue to do business with you in the future.
These are unpredictable times, and there is no single right answer to where the future will take us or how to get there. But one thing is certain: in a crisis, companies need to focus on answering the question: “How can I do right by my customers?”
In 2009, when I first joined Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), the country was in the midst of the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Fewer people could afford to study, and the university had missed enrollment targets by almost 40%. We had to cut back in some areas, but what made SNHU’s story different was that we also looked for new opportunities. And we did it with a sense of urgency.
We opted for a student-as-customer focused approach, providing scholarships to reduce cost and increase demand. We also quickly developed online education options at a time when there were no large non-profit online players yet and some academic circles even frowned upon it. We took a calculated risk by investing in programs and staff for the online division and by dramatically increasing our marketing budget. As a result, by 2010, we had more than doubled our freshman intake for the traditional market and the online division was off to a great start – it has grown 40x since then. We found a true opportunity in the middle of a crisis when our peers were contracting, and it went on to become one great growth stories in higher education.
The health and economic crises we’re going through today are of an entirely new magnitude, but the same principles apply. Focus on doing right by your customers, and they will have a stronger chance of coming through the crisis in a better state—and so will you.
Asking yourself these questions may help you to figure out what you can and should be doing to support your customers in the weeks and months ahead.
Focus on doing right by your customers, and they will have a stronger chance of coming through the crisis in a better state—and so will you.
How can we help customers affected by this crisis?
Everyone is making sacrifices for the greater good right now, and companies that have made a promise to support their customers’ success need to step up and help them get through this crisis. It’s also the right thing to do for your company because how you help customers handle a crisis can determine whether they continue to do business with you in the future.
Your company mission is your guiding rail, pointing you in the right direction when you make key decisions. This is true during normal times, and it’s especially true during a crisis. Revisit your mission. What do you help people do? How can you help them continue to do it under these extraordinary circumstances?
Let’s consider an example.
There are more than 6 million adult students in the United States – that’s 35% of the total student population enrolled in higher education. For the adult students who are parents, out of work, or working from home without access to childcare, how could schools help them during our current crisis? These students are under incredible stress and dealing with multiple serious issues. Educational entities need to empathetic and could demonstrate it with additional flexibility on assignments and deadlines or special considerations around tuition payments.
For the traditional college student who was removed from campus to prevent the spread of coronavirus, schools should also consider increased flexibility as courses are moved online. While the rapid shift to remote teaching may not bring with it the quality of a well-designed, intentionally online class, students will accept that for a period of time as it will help them progress toward a degree. However, they will not react well to not getting a refund for their prepaid room and board.
To make it right, schools should look to their mission and, if they are truly committed to supporting their students, consider reimbursing them or giving them a credit. Some, of course, are much better positioned to handle this financially. For others, it will be tough. But if they choose to act in a way that aligns with a student-focused mission, they will do it, because what’s most important is to keep those students whole and help them cope with a situation that is entirely outside their control. This type of customer-centric action may also influence whether the student remains at the school next year (critical to revenue), or even go so far as to sway their level of loyalty and involvement both as an undergrad and alumnus.
Revisit your mission. What do you help people do? How can you help them continue to do it under these extraordinary circumstances?
How should we prioritize the customers to focus on?
Going the extra mile for your customers usually comes at a cost, and you may need to make some hard decisions about where to allocate those resources during a crisis. While you want to serve every customer to the best of your ability, if resources are limited, you’ll have to set priorities. Who among your customer base represents the most value? How does that value change when you look at the customer base today versus the potential for growth in the future?
At the same time, when you choose to prioritize a customer segment, you need to make sure that you treat every customer in that segment equally. Examples include schools with a common affiliation, retailers owned by the same parent company, or technology businesses that run an industry consortium together. Word travels fast, so when they are so closely connected, if you extend special privileges to one, be prepared to extend them to the rest of the network.
How can we support our employees so that they can serve our customers well?
Employee wellbeing is critical to your ability to support customers. If they are worried about whether they’ll still have a job next week, you can’t expect them to be productive and focused on the task at hand. In the absence of information, people’s minds go to the worst-case scenario, so communicate honestly, authentically and with empathy. Let them know how their jobs will be affected and how you are planning to support them. But it’s also important to show them how they can continue to support the company’s mission and your customers. Make it a rallying cry to get the whole team together. How can you make customers’ lives better? What will inspire your employees to go above and beyond?
Remember that communication goes both ways. Don’t just broadcast the plan: invite employees to be part of the solution. Describe the problem you need to solve, provide a framework and invite people to contribute. Engage and energize them. In every company I’ve ever run, the great ideas have come from employees, not from me.
“Leaders instill in their people a hope for success and a belief in themselves.” – Unknown
What data do I have to help me make these decisions?
Throughout my career, I have always tried to communicate honestly, transparently and authentically with everybody. To be able to do that, I needed to listen to the data, even if I didn’t have all the data I wanted, and even if the data I had wasn’t telling me what I wanted to hear.
It’s useful to aim for a state of “productive paranoia” during a crisis. You don’t want to be paralyzed by fear, but you need to be able to see the business clearly, recognize when something is wrong and address it right away. That’s true for the smaller challenges that businesses face and it’s even more important when the challenge reaches the magnitude of a pandemic. Listen to the data. Don’t push it aside. I can tell you from my own experience—and I’ve done this more times than I care to admit—the outcomes are far worse when you try to ignore what the data is telling you or delay acting on it.
In the LLR portfolio, where I coach companies as a Senior Operating Advisor, one innovative use of data right now is in developing a list of leading indicators on where one’s target market is headed. Think about what data could give you a sense of how opportunities will shift for your business. Trend data about the financial health of your target markets if public, for example, or hits to your website and what visitors are reading. For a subscription business, are leads progressing through your pipeline at the same rate as last year? Are you losing customers at different rates within certain cohorts? Developing these indicators is a great opportunity to engage other creative minds in your organization for ideas.
The outcomes are far worse when you try to ignore what the data is telling you or delay acting on it.
Where is our company most at risk?
As quickly as you can during a crisis, get a feel for the top line: what’s going to happen, when, what does that curve look like, and what you can do today to prepare. Other questions to consider:
- If it looks like there’s going to be a 20% reduction in revenue, how long will that last?
- What’s your expense plan for that?
- Where else can you gain incremental capital?
- And how do I mitigate the impact on the customer and the employees?
- Where can you make cuts or furlough people and still potentially bring them back?
- How do you make sure that you keep those people whole?
Create plans for three different scenarios: best case, worst case and downright ugly. And do it today. Don’t wait for the experts to tell you what to do. The experts are all saying different things. Those carefully constructed models are all pointing in different directions. Ultimately, no one knows where this crisis will take us over the next few months. Build those plans now so that whatever happens, you’re ready to put something in motion right away.
Where will our company see growth opportunities?
As much as it’s important to understand the risks, it’s equally important to keep an eye on the opportunities to become stronger and more resilient as an organization.
For us at SNHU in 2009 that was the case. The recession turned into the catalyst that shook us out of complacency and motivated us to make significant changes, including transforming our online learning division and committing to a unique, laser focus on the customer (the students). More than that, it really helped to change the culture and encouraged us to become braver and more decisive. While they are painful experiences to go through, crisis points like these were instrumental in turning SNHU into the success story it is today.
No one can call the crisis we’re going through good in any way, but it will force some companies to break through and find the impetus to change, and that is a good thing. People will have to become more inventive and innovative just to get through this, and companies of all types will make big changes and come out stronger for it.
The  recession turned into the catalyst that shook us out of complacency and motivated us to make significant changes…
Here’s the bottom line.
Everyone from police officers to teachers to grocery store staff is showing extraordinary bravery and community spirit on a personal level right now. Everywhere you look, people are going out of their way to help others. Businesses need to model that behavior. Determine what you can feasibly do to support your most valuable customers and align your entire organization around that mission. Be prepared with multiple scenarios, use data to help drive your decisions, rally your employees and communicate frequently and honestly, and be open to new, innovative ideas to help support your customers and company through this crisis. It’s the best way to protect their future and that of your own company.