April 8, 2020 | Point of View

As customer interactions go virtual, being 'human' is more important than ever

Your buyers don’t have time to decipher business jargon or time to waste on low-value work. Here are the ways I’ve seen this work.

The rapidity with which the COVID-19 situation unfolded has required companies to focus on employees and operations. Understandable. Couple that with the impact to everyone’s personal lives—including the distractions that come with being 100% remote—and it has been hard to return to our day jobs. But as the shock wears off, we’ll need to turn our attention back to customers. As we do, certain questions start to cross our minds: Do we try to return to business as usual? How do we acknowledge the crisis without looking like we’re trying to capitalize on it? And what is the right amount of communication? The answer comes down to a tried-and-true principle: being authentic, values-based, and human with your customers. Now it just comes with a twist: doing so remotely and digitally. 

I’ve seen companies already doing this well. When Pulse Boxing and Fitness, an independent local gym in my neighborhood, chose to close its doors, it immediately created a YouTube live channel with on-demand classes and graciously loaned its equipment to members – helping us maintain fitness goals during quarantine. And e-learning companies have provided parents (turned teachers) like me the tools they need to begin to educate and support their kids from home. Both of these companies acted selflessly and immediately in hopes of making this time easier, but they have also secured a set of thankful and loyal customers. 

Businesses need to move quickly to establish productive, authentic, and virtual customer interactions like these that accentuate their values. And what worked last year may not work right now. If you’re like me, you’re probably tired of being bombarded by organizations and people you’ve never heard of or haven’t done business with in years.

The bottom line: The new normal requires every interaction provide value and be in tune with your customers’ current needs because your buyers don’t have time to decipher business jargon or time to waste on low-value work. Here are the ways I’ve seen this work.

Be a partner, not a salesperson

Just as our businesses have changed, so have our customers’, and they’re still trying to get their arms around what the “new normal” looks like. And, it changes hourly. Interacting as if nothing has changed is going to come off as tone deaf. 

This is the time to remain true to your values as you interact with customers. While we’re all feeling pressure to try to get our operations back to normal, set aside that goal to sell. Simply check in on how clients are coping, personally and professionally. Be willing to listen. Focus on how you can work through this and thrive together. If an interaction doesn’t offer clear value, it will be deprioritized – and quickly. As you listen, think about what you can do to add value. Maybe it’s as simple as facilitating an introduction to an expert, a peer, or even another one of your customers who is facing similar challenges. 

It also remains important to understand your customers and think through how your organization’s products and services can meet needs. In fact,  it’s more important than ever to be the reliable, trusted partner that your customers can turn to for solutions that address their unique issues—because unlike an unknown vendor, you have the context of their business and the relationship to back it up. And, when you have done this right, you will find your best customers turning to you and asking how they can help you too. 

Embrace the concept of a minimum viable product (MVP)

In the past, everyone wanted the best, sleekest, most innovative solutions, believing that something had to be perfect to produce the greatest value. That viewpoint has changed – in a hurry. Responding to the crisis has required people to shed the concept of perfection in favor of speed to value. 

The good news is that, by and large, this is working. We’ve seen companies across many sectors quickly figure out how to connect virtually with customers and constituents in ways they did not before: A medical practice standing up telemedicine capabilities in mere weeks. A bank standing up a new loan program within a few days’ time.  A county government office conducting virtual inspections of construction projects. These efforts may not have been perfect out of the gate, but they didn’t need to be. They needed to meet new needs in the moment, and now those organizations can improve upon them.

Businesses have been talking for years about becoming more agile. That’s exactly what they have done out of necessity over the past weeks. Let’s embrace that and build it into the new normal as we move beyond the immediate challenge. 

Humanize your communications and build a sense of community

We are adapting to and making the most of virtual working, but that isn’t to say that we don’t miss the benefits of in-person connections. This environment requires us to be more conscious about the tone of our messages, along with clarity and brevity. Clients have limited time and they can’t weed through the noise to understand the value. Ditch the PowerPoint and jargon, and approach conversations like you are talking to a friend.

We also must use technology to keep our communities connected and thriving. For example, a partner of mine and fellow CMO quickly spun up a virtual weekly “coffee talk” to share ideas and collaborate on common issues. At West Monroe, our leaders are bringing together like-minded groups of executives , brainstorming about how to tackle new and ever-changing challenges (e.g., making their remote workforce successful and secure). 

As we do this, we need to make sure these events emphasize two-way communication – one of the most valuable qualities of a community. For instance, ask clients what they want to hear about so they can drive the agenda, and make the time to participate in such events when you are invited to do so. I’ve found these opportunities enormously helpful for establishing a sense of normalcy when so many other things around us are disrupted. 

In a virtual world, humanize

We are all in this together, so it befits us to approach our customer interactions with an enhanced sense of mutual support and community. Those are qualities that earn trust and extend relationships in good times and, even more, in difficult times. When the dust settles, we will all remember which companies served us well in our time of need – and which did not. Those that have always been authentic and empathetic are going to be successful because they will take time to understand their customers and spend the time to hone the proper digital tools to achieve this empathy. 

Amid this uncertainty and new world of virtual connections, character is accentuated. How we interact needs to be more humane than ever. Those who act with grace, humility, and integrity today will be rewarded down the road.

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