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Most organizations have spent many years, lots of man hours and tons of money in their efforts to get to know their customers. And then came the Coronavirus, and it may seem like all the rules of customer engagement have gone out the window.

Today’s customer is in some regards a very different creature from the ones that organizations had gotten to know in the past. Which begs the question, ‘Is it time to redo your customer personas?’

In simple terms, a customer persona is “a fictional archetype that describes the ideal customer or client. It includes buying traits — attitudes, concerns and buying criteria that drive customers to choose a particular vendor that will solve their problem,” explains Janice Litvin, a consultant and speaker on employee engagement and wellness practices based in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Adding to that, “customer personas involve descriptions of key traits of a customer base, for example, what their personal motivations and preferences are. Customer personas are not to be confused with solely identifying segments of your market based on geography and other demographic details,” said Rob Catalano, chief engagement officer at WorkTango, a workforce consulting firm in Toronto.

But with social distancing and stay-at-home practices still driving customer behavior in many states, some organizations are now assessing how they need to engage customers differently.

“The biggest challenge is finding a way to deliver the same warm, welcoming guest experience that was offered before the pandemic when you have to do it in a social distance setting,” explains Laurie Guest, president of Guest Enterprises Inc., a consultant in DeKalb, Ill. who teaches business leaders and teams how to attract and keep new customers.

“Smart business leaders were constantly examining their customer personas even before the pandemic, so it makes sense that they should do so now,” Guest stressed. “The things your customer cares about, where they hang out, whom they associate with and what’s important to them — those are all moving targets. What can’t change is our dedication to bringing our guests the best customer experience we possibly can, even — and maybe especially — during challenging times.”

Fear and Anxiety Are Now Driving Forces

Perhaps the most important message for organizations is that customers are dealing with a lot of fear and anxiety right now. Countless studies reveal that many consumers are afraid of the impacts of limited income. They are afraid of job insecurity. They are afraid of their heath vulnerability. They are afraid of other citizens that don’t practice social distancing and other safety precautions. And most importantly, they are afraid of a future that is completely unpredictable. A good customer engagement program now means helping to calm fear and provide comfort.

“I believe COVID-19 will completely change customer experience strategies,” Catalano said. “Organizations should at least question their current personas and not assume that they are still relevant. At a time when customers are facing pressures socially, mentally, financially or physically … it is important to revisit and modify if needed.”

A good rule of thumb would be to put the “person” back in “persona.”

“Historically, businesses have been focused on data-driven results, as well they should have. But at this time, businesses really need to focus squarely on how to make customers feel comfortable and safe when shopping at their establishment, in person or online,” Litvin said.

To do so, Litvin says “customer service is going to have to be the best it has ever been, filled with more empathy and flexibility. ‘Bending the rules’ is going to have to be the motto going forward if companies want to compete. Making the customer happy has got to be forefront in the minds of the customer service professionals. Ask for, and listen, to customer feedback.”

“Companies that truly care for and treat employees very well will deliver the best customer service experience because their employees will be intrinsically motivated to care. They will take pride in their organization which is aligned to the needs of the customer. And those employees will be aligned to the mission and purpose of the company,” Litvin said.

With Adversity Comes Opportunity

So what does all this mean in terms of changes to customer engagement practices? COVID-19 is dramatically changing the customer experience at all levels, Catalano explained.

“This is evident from my personal experience as a customer, and supporting our customers at WorkTango,” Catalano said. “For example, related to consumer habits and spending, early-on during the pandemic, we saw decreases in the demand for our platform given that our HR customer was focused on their employee-base and handling personnel decisions around remote work and any financial strain or growth as a result of COVID-19. That has changed dramatically, and demand for our platform is now the highest it’s ever been, as companies need to understand the needs of employees in a remote-work environment and amidst a lot of organizational change.”

To take advantage of potential opportunity, Catalano says “My recommendation for organizations is to start with a retrospective of understanding the current experience of their customers and really peel back the layers of how their customers will be impacted through analyzing and discussing recent changes. The most important thing to do is listen. Only then, will companies be able to assess if their current experiences will meet changing customer’s needs or whether they must be adjusted.”

Education and technology will become major pillars of the strategy change, Catalano believes.

“For many consumers that are used to specific experiences, for example, wait in line at a bank to pay a bill, that experience may not be available to them.  Companies must educate and make it simple for consumers to have their needs met. Technology and innovation will also be required — and current technology investments and structures may not support the current environment. That all being said, I think it will spark innovation in many organizations that we’re already starting to see,” Catalano said.

New Rules for a ‘New Normalcy’

As much as technology and training have a role to play, many experts believe the biggest changes must be cultural.

For starters, “Don’t allow your staff to adopt an ‘arm’s length’ communication style,” Guest cautioned. “Just because we are standing with a piece of Plexiglas between us and masks stop our smiles from showing, your staff can still provide a great experience with the warmth of their words.”

Organizations also need to give extra attention to any change in their routine, and explain those changes to customers in advance, Guest said. And “when a customer chooses to engage with your team, it means they picked you over your competition. Shower them with appreciation, and mean it. Appreciation goes a long way in achieving repeat business.”

All of the sources interviewed for this article stressed that top customer engagement practices will distinguish top organizations now.

“It’s impossible to predict what the future will look like because we aren’t yet through this far enough to get a clear picture of the other side,” Guest said. “Just like after 9/11, we eventually jumped on airplanes again. But the experience has never been the same. When the 2008 housing crisis hit, most of us were affected in some way and, although we got back to some kind of normal, the banking industry is forever changed. That’s what I believe will happen now. The days of shaking hands in business situations may be gone forever. Gathering a large group to sit hip-to-hip in a meeting room is years away, in my opinion.” 

“What that means is that all of us who are directly impacted by social setting changes will need to adapt to new ways of service. One certain outcome is that words will have even more of an impact than ever before. If we become long-term mask wearers who are required to stay 6 feet apart with barriers between us, then we must smile with our eyes and choose words that connect. Long before this crisis hit, I was teaching how the power of words can create great service experiences. What mattered before, has now become critical: the talent to talk,” Guest said.