Do companies that “do good” also do well, even in a pandemic? Just Capital, a nonprofit that assesses and ranks U.S. employers for their business practices, found companies driving positive change on the issues the American public cares about most have continued to outperform the market through the COVID-19 crisis.
The research firm also maintains a corporate response tracker for how the 100 largest U.S. employers treat workers, customers, and local communities during the crisis. They believe COVID-19 marks a “turning point” where companies prioritize good treatment of stakeholders over the needs of shareholders.
To understand specific steps companies can take to lead with compassion and emerge prosperous on the other side, we spoke with Jeanne Bliss, who has spent more than three decades driving exceptional customer experience as Chief Customer Officer at Land’s End, Coldwell Banker, Allstate, and Microsoft. She is also the author of four best-selling books on customer experience and is the co-founder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association.
The founder of advisory firm Customer Bliss, which helps companies define and live the behaviors that create deep customer relationships, she believes the best businesses earn and maintain the trust of their communities through a continued commitment to doing the right thing. "The memory of how you conduct yourself now is what will bring people back when this is over," she says.
Here are three ways Bliss advises companies to lead right now:
Simulate physical office arrangements. Brainstorming and collaboration are critical as we all work remotely. Bliss suggests setting up a “digital nerve center” to simulate the office environment, using tools like Zoom Room. Teams can go even further with always-open virtual rooms that enable anyone with the link to pop in with questions or contributions. This openness should include senior executives to encourage brainstorming from all levels. “This breaks down who is more important than who,” says Bliss. “Giving people a seat at the table, who wouldn’t normally have a seat, will have an energizing impact.”
Connect your customers to each other. It’s equally important to provide a way for your customers to connect with each other. Bliss recommends virtual roundtables or invite-only webinars as methods to continue to learn from them while adding value when everyone is limiting activities away from home.
Be mindful of mental health. Discussions about mental health are rare in the corporate world, but employers need to acknowledge many employees are stressed and fearful. Business leaders need to provide a judgment-free zone for employees to connect with one another and share how they are handling mental health. Many companies are now expanding benefits to tackle this. For example, Starbucks’ healthcare programs now include 20 annual sessions with a therapist for employees and their families. In a different vein, the CMO of Talkdesk, a cloud-based contact center provider, recently led her entire marketing team through a virtual meditation.
Examine contract conditions, fees, penalties, and cancellation policies. Evaluate them and adjust as necessary given the current crisis. Know that how you act now will impact the future of your relationships with customers.
Bliss notes people will be vocal about those businesses who did not show humanity during this crisis. “Captive loyalty now is not long-term advocacy and admiration later.”
Case in point: this east coast chain of fitness clubs endured bad publicity and a class action lawsuit for continuing to charge members during the shutdown while providing no way for customers to contact the company for redress.
On the flip side, hotel chains Marriott and Hilton earned goodwill with customers by allowing full cancellations without penalty, extending the offer to their more restrictive prepaid rates. The chains also put a pause on points expiration and extended loyalty status benefits. Both are also donating rooms to healthcare workers.
According to Just Capital, 64% of the companies it tracks are making such accommodations for customers. It is by far the biggest adjustment in response to the crisis, followed by work from home policies for employees.
When the crisis has passed, the companies we remember with admiration will undoubtedly be rewarded with loyalty.
“This is your moment to improve lives, to be remembered with admiration.”
Keep customers and employees up to date on everything you are doing to help. It’s important customers know what you’re doing to solve their problems, and employees know they work for a company they can be proud of. “Communication has to be as important as the product,” says Bliss.
Lift up those hardest hit. Similar to points made above, show empathy to those who the brunt of a crisis. A few examples: AT&T is giving three free months of service for its FirstNet first responder network service to every doctor and nurse in America; Waste Management, in addition to indefinitely guaranteeing a 40-hour paid workweek for all employees, is committing to one month of free service for its small business customers.
Retool your business where you can. Even small businesses can rethink strategies. Bliss shared a story about a Seattle fine dining restaurant, Canlis, which completely overhauled its business into delivering family meals. Its website explains, “Fine dining is not what Seattle needs right now. Times are changing and so are we.”
Bliss offers more examples of companies giving hope to their customers and communities in what she calls a Daily Dose of Optimism on her blog.
Our Leading Through Change series provides thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis.