COVID-19: Eight ways to stay connected with customers
The coronavirus pandemic is throwing up unprecedented challenges for the global retail industry. As dozens of countries implement urgent measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, thousands of businesses supplying non-essential goods are either seeing footfall plummet or are closing their stores to protect customers and workers.
Yet while the immediate focus is on urging people to stay at home, looking after and isolating the sick and ensuring supply lines of essential goods are maintained, retailers of all types continue to have broader and longer-term concerns. Keeping businesses afloat despite the disruption to trade will be important in the medium term to protect jobs, maintain livelihoods and stave off the threat of serious economic collapse.
And whilst people are house-bound for all but essential purposes, demand for goods and services beyond food and household essentials clearly isn’t going to evaporate overnight. People still need to clothe themselves, they still want to be entertained, they will still want to use their time at home productively to tend to their house and garden and so on.
In the digital age, the enforced temporary closure of stores does not mean that commerce has to grind to a halt. Through digital commerce and home deliveries, with appropriate measures being taken, consumer demand can still be met and retail operations can remain in business, protecting jobs. The question is, what is the best way in these difficult times to reach out to customers and let them know you are still there for them?
Here are eight ways to stay close to your customer base in the weeks and months ahead.
Updates on your Website
COVID-19 is front and centre of everyone’s minds at the moment. When customers visit your web store, they will be seeking information about what you are doing in response to the crisis, whether you are still trading, how your ordering and delivery services have been affected and so on. Help your customers out by providing clear, concise, up-to-date information letting them know how they can still shop with you, should they wish to. FAQs make for an ideal format for people looking for specific information, quickly, and are also convenient and straightforward to keep up to date.
In addition, consider opening this up to more general tips and advice - tips for shopping online for people who are more used to going into a store, advice on staying safe if they have to head out, the latest on self-isolating and social distancing. Make sure the information you provide is kept current based on the latest recommendations from the authorities.
There is little doubt that social media is where an overwhelming majority of people are turning for information, communication and social interaction as the crisis progresses. To keep in touch, this is where you should be, to be part of the conversation, to keep your customers up to date with changes in your services, to offer advice and information they might find useful, and to flag up that you are still open for business.
If your business has yet to engage in any meaningful way with social media, now is the time. Think about whether you can deploy some of your employees (who might otherwise face losing their jobs) to focus here.
Video Conferencing & Teleconferencing
Whilst these technologies may not be entirely appropriate in connecting with consumer customers en masse, in B2B they are already proving invaluable in connecting smaller groups and teams by audio and (optional) video. Many of the solutions such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams only require the host to have the application – so participants simply join via the option of a web link or app they can download. And Skype is simple enough to use, with participants and the host requiring the app to be downloaded to their respective device (laptop, tablet, smartphone). There are a great number of other solutions available, including Google Hangouts, Cisco Webex, GoToMeeting, Jabber, and join.me, to name a few.
To maintain a stronger sense of teaming, collaboration and camaraderie – especially during these very testing times – we recommend you use those tools with the video function on. Not only do these tools keep people and teams connected, but they also help promote smarter, more efficient ways of communication and collaboration.
Instant Messaging (IM)
If you have not yet trialled using an instant messaging or ‘live chat’ platform on your website, now may prove a very good time to do so. While maintaining an up-to-date COVID-19 information section on your site will satisfy those looking for quick, convenient answers to their questions, there will be plenty of people seeking the reassurance of direct contact with a real person - especially if they are stuck at home. With stores closed, you could redirect staff resources to providing service via an IM platform, and double up by having them simultaneously engaging with customer queries on social media, too.
Given that an increasing number of high-profile companies are announcing store closures, many people will naturally assume that they are completely closed for business for the duration of the pandemic. A simple way to alert the core of your most regular and loyal customers that you are still there for them is to look at your CRM database for those that have opted in to receiving mobile messages, and send them a text.
Not so long ago, ‘telesales’ was the number one option for retail businesses looking to provide a remote service alternative to their stores. For the reasons outlined under instant messaging, now might be the time for many retailers to rediscover (or experience for the first time) the value of the good old telephone. That direct human touch could be vital for maintaining engagement through long weeks of lockdown. Luckily, with today’s mobile and cloud technology, it has never been easier to set up virtual call centres which can be staffed by your employees working from home using their own phones and laptops.
While we have emphasised above why offering customers person-to-person interaction and service while they are stuck in their homes will be important in the weeks and possibly months ahead, there is an equally good argument for automating some of your IM and even telephone services with AI-powered chatbots. As explained under the rationale for providing an FAQs-style update section on your website throughout the crisis, some of your customers are likely to be looking for quick, convenient access to information about your online services during the crisis, but would prefer to look for it by asking a specific question. Especially if you start to experience spikes in online traffic (and telephone calls), AI technology can help take some of the weight by providing rapid responses to routine questions, freeing your people to focus on more complex queries.
The enforced focus on digital-only commerce can be embraced as an ideal opportunity for many retail businesses to experiment with new technology and channels. Think of it as a chance to get ahead of the curve - because once consumers start to discover new ways to purchase online out of necessity, they sure won’t give up on them when the current situation eases.
One of big candidates for businesses to dip into over the coming weeks is voice commerce - that is, the use of ‘smart assistants’ like Google Home and Amazon Echo/Alexa to make purchases. In some ways, voice commerce represents a significant departure from previous digital channels, notably in the fact that it doesn’t make use of any kind of browser or screen-based application. That requires a rethink in how your product listings are set up, how you optimise for speech rather than text search, how you structure the purchasing journey and so on.
But in other ways, retailers should be looking at voice commerce as no different to when they first had to optimise their e-commerce sites for mobile browsers as well as desktop, or build their first apps - this is technology that is rapidly emerging into mainstream consumer use and which presents a new type of UI businesses will simply have to get to grips with. With in-store operations suspended, there’s no better time to look to new areas like this.
How We Can Help You
Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Wunderman Thompson Commerce is committed to making our far-reaching expertise in digital technology and strategy available to clients to help them rapidly pivot their businesses to meet the challenges ahead. For further advice and guidance, please contact us here.