The global pandemic combined with self-isolation and economic uncertainty is changing the way people consume products and services – possibly forever. Businesses will become irrelevant to their customer base if they fail to understand the changing behaviours and priorities brought about by the pandemic. Understanding the customer's new world has never been more critical. Mid-market businesses need to use this time to assess whether they have the right business intelligence and engagement tools to understand and meet their customers' changing needs.
The latest IBR data shows that 40.8% of global respondents have started to plan for the customers and markets they will prioritise in preparation for recovery. Meanwhile, 40.7% of global respondents said they'd started to plan what products or services that they will prioritise with 27.4% of businesses reporting they would need to make fundamental changes to what they take to market. Furthermore, over 35% of companies said they would need to make changes to more contractual flexibility in delivering products or services to customers' following the COVID crisis.
Audit your customer analytics
Agility is essential in a rapidly moving commercial landscape, and the right data analytics can give you a real-time overview of what is going on among your customers when activity picks up. Do you have an adequate array of tools to help you quickly get a handle on customer dynamics?
There are plenty of tools to consider in the mix, such as natural language processing and machine learning that can assess sentiment in recording calls with your customers and identify key themes and trends. Another is social media monitoring which can help you measure customer sentiment. Meanwhile, transactions and personal data analysis – particularly in the financial services – can alert you if customers are in a high-risk category following income drops or a sudden increase in expenditure, or are otherwise vulnerable.
Communicate with your customers and anticipate their changing needs
While analytics provide broad insight, customer communication remains more valuable than ever from both a basic survival and future trends perspective.
Ian Pascoe, CEO and managing partner at Grant Thornton Thailand, says: "Working much closer with your customers is critical. Engagement is vitally important. You've got to over-communicate and not hide things. Really engage with clients/customers and if there is a problem come out and say, 'There is a problem, but we are working on a plan'."
Beyond the firefighting element, use all engagement channels to measure the mood of customers and understand the issues they face. They can also provide an opportunity to offer solutions and showcase the brand. Pascoe says: "It is about looking at new ways of doing things and making sure that your name is still out there, so it doesn't disappear."
The decline of physical meetings presents challenges to relationships. However, alternative interactions such as video calling, prove to have benefits of their own and with people spending less time travelling there is more time to make those calls. Pascoe says: "When you're talking to clients in their homes, it's almost a better more personal relationship you're building. And now that people are used to and increasingly expect to see people on video, you're able to potentially offer a better service because you can bring relevant people in from anywhere in the world."
Improve digital engagement with consumers
Communications need to work particularly hard in the retail sector. Before COVID-19, you could walk into shops and have a strong sense of branding and see the display.
Pallavi Bakhru, chartered accountant at Grant Thornton India in New Delhi, says: "The whole customer experience set one shop apart from another, but in a time like this when everybody's probably shopping online, how you talk to your customers, how you communicate, what messaging you're giving out, has suddenly become a differentiator."
People around the world are turning to technology at a very rapid rate. That is providing new opportunities for those that have a robust online presence. Bakhru says: "Things that we would have done probably five years down the road, we're doing them today. I think it's also because everybody suddenly started feeling that technology is your interface with the world."
"People traditionally in India, were used to going to the market and buying their groceries, they didn't typically go online, but it's changed. In just these few months of the pandemic, people are now buying their groceries online because they're scared of stepping out of homes. So more businesses are now coming onto a platform."
Use digital channels to access customers beyond your borders
The geographical constraints for professional services have blurred now that the widespread adoption of digital enables more cross border advice and consultancy.
Bakhru says: "That geographical line that we all had for services, where you felt that the person should sit across from you in person and talk, all that is changing. There is going to be a larger market for service providers. If you are an architect, for example, you could advise on design to anybody, in any part of the world, and for clients, there'll be more competitive services available. Suddenly, talent will become a premium; as a customer, you'll go to the best or the most affordable available."
Don't ignore the value of reputations
While many businesses are focused on survival, resilience and recovery cannot be built on poor reputations. Fair treatment of staff, suppliers as well as good sustainability and environmental policies – at this time and in the future – will matter to customers.
Tony Markwell, managing partner private advisory Grant Thornton Australia, says: "When you have a recession, people fall back to staples, they'll fall back to things that are locally sourced and sustainable. If you're in a business that's not in that field, you have to say, 'I need to have an alternative plan to get into that field,' or shift in the market to make it clear to customers that I have local suppliers, or that my products aren't something to be feared."
The track ahead is overshadowed with uncertainty, and businesses need to retune their customer strategies and operations to meet the conditions. Against a backdrop of ever-changing economic and societal norms, understanding what your customers are doing and feeling – and why – has never been more important. Businesses need to know where their customer opportunities are and, once understood, be ready to engage with clarity and purpose. They will need to receive as well as they broadcast; to listen as well as they speak.
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