In a single week in March, everyone had to learn to survive in a completely new way. “Ten years of change in one week” was how the New York Times characterised the way the Coronavirus pandemic has swept through society.
Wherever you find yourself and your business, your relationship with your customers will have changed. Here’s our take on it, in webinar and essay format…
What might happen next?
You’re probably inundated or incredibly quiet.
Selling more than you can handle and worrying about the quality of the customer experience, or over-servicing the few customers you have left.
Perhaps you are completely shuttered because your government has mandated that you close.
In all three scenarios, you need to know… what might happen next?
It’s impossible to know for sure.
As business leaders we are engaged in the act of positioning our companies and teams for the future, and yet challenged by the fact that there’s no possible way to know what that looks like.
As the celebrated investor Howard Marks commented yesterday “This is the paradox we must deal with.”
In an attempt to be relatively well-armed against the paradox, I took a deep dive into some of the best articles out there now, as well as the current research. I also looked back to thoughtful books on us as humans. There’s a bibliography at the end of this article if you want more.
Having assimilated a lot of information, it seems to me that the ‘recovery’ is likely to be characterized by waves of false starts.
Things will be unlocked in areas only to be quickly relocked. Periodic lockdowns and restrictions of movement will be common and sudden.
As Faisal Islam described it on BBC Radio 4’s World at One yesterday, a recovery that’s “not binary.”
Until there is a vaccine in place as well as widespread testing, things will be uncertain.
Ed Yong says in The Atlantic, “Communities could relax restrictions gradually, and see if the virus remains at a simmer or returns to a boil. When the virus returns, political leaders should be able to make more informed decisions about which levers to flip.”
This all sounds very sensible and very planned (the simple flipping of levers no less) but the reality for us, as humans and customers, will be unreliable and unsettling.
We will all be faced with new events and new experiences and will react differently. Given that, “the emotional brain responds to an event more quickly than the thinking brain.” as Daniel Goleman has written, it may well be that humanity’s response to these events is less rational than we might otherwise expect.
There will be fear amongst those who have not had Coronavirus in their families or households, and a likely semi-reclusive approach – certainly a very tentative one – as things unfold.
The Times has reported that many more people are obeying the lockdown (certainly in the UK) than the government ever modelled. Conversely therefore, getting people to leave their homes might be one of the big unforeseen challenges.
There will be concern amongst those who have had the virus, as well as those living with those who have, about how long it takes to be truly not-infectious. And how long one is really immune for, if at all.
For the older people in our communities, it’s likely they will go from being some of the most out-going and social beings – spending on restaurants, holidays, socialising – to a much more in-home existence.
Combining all of the above; the resulting changes in behavior we can expect to see mean that I subscribe wholeheartedly to Azeem Azhar’s view that we are likely to see a recovery that fundamentally changes our economy and even our society.
Azhar explains that this recovery will need to be plotted against three axes, not just two.
Instead of plotting just Time on the X axis, and the Economy on the Y axis, Azhar suggests a third Z axis, economic structure, needs to come into play. His fantastic article for Exponential View is well worth a read for more on this.
What will it mean for ‘normal’ habits and behaviors?
Continued social distancing will reduce the enjoyment we can experience in socialising and entertainment.
Meals, theatres, gatherings, shopping, travelling – will all look very different and for a significant time period. If social distancing means theatres open with every other seat empty for example, how long before we stop going because it’s too quiet?
Even the likely widespread use of masks in public will be startling, alienating.. sad.
I’m seeing a lot of articles and commentary about “bridging the gap until we bounce back.”
I applaud these but I’m not sure they are fully switched on to the ramifications of the change that’s happening.
In her book covering the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, Laura Spinney persuasively shows how the Spanish flu was as important as the two world wars in the creation of the modern world. She clearly shows that it disrupted and most often permanently altered, politics, race relations, family structures, medicine, religion, the arts and more.
And yet we continue to focus solely on the bridge and the V-shaped recovery.
The Atlantic reports, “We have to build companies a time machine,” Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan, told me. He isn’t talking about the H. G. Wells contraption. He’s referring to anything—including grants, cheap loans, and debt relief—that would allow companies to shift their expenses to the future.
“My local burrito shop, which used to be a thriving business, could go belly-up any day now,” Wolfers said. “But in the post-coronavirus world, it should be a thriving business again. What that burrito business needs is what every business needs right now—a time machine to go from the present pandemic to the future.”
Looking at the situation dispassionately, (well, as dispassionately as I can, given that I love a burrito) I feel like the very thing needed to control the virus – the slow unlocking – is the thing that will challenge the gap-bridging and time-machining.
If we are not all ‘back’ and contributing to society at exactly the same time, we have to expect that the shape and style of business that thrives will be starkly different.
There simply won’t be enough customers for all the old businesses to succeed. I doubt a single one of us will walk back into the businesses we left. for myriad reasons.
I’m immediately thinking of discretionary purchases – both B2C and B2B – where we meet en masse. Coffee shops, cinemas, co-working spaces, theatres, expos, conferences, museums and many more.
Will things go niche (just the absolute best experiential coffee people will make a diversion for?), or will they go mainstream (one huge generic coffee brand for all comers?) to cater for this change?
Will we really fly to meetings like we used to, now climate damage is reversing and we’ve proved video meetings can work for so many scenarios?
Especially given airports will take even longer to transit with coronavirus screening likely to be mandatory to contain further international spread.
Conferences are in this boat too – so many of them are predicated on socialising in close proximity. One can imagine easily a situation where content and sharing TED style formats, with a small real-life audience and a larger remote one – will triumph over the larger, more packed mega-conferences.
Many people will have invested in their inner lives, homes, hobbies and gardens – and when they have spent money in these ways, it is unlikely they will just turn them off.
Many will end up having home exercise equipment, more cooking utensil and skills.
Anecdotally, GAK, a fab music shop near our office in Brighton, is constantly selling out of stock online of keyboards, guitars and other instruments as people pick up old skillsets and learn new ones.
An hour outside to exercise every day is something very few of us used to find time for. But once it is limited to just that hour and the scarcity value makes it precious, people are doing it more. (As psychologist Robert Cialdini noted, humans place a higher value on an object that is scarce, and a lower value on those that are in abundance.)
I have never seen so many people on my running route as I have this week. Maybe people will realize they like it.
Perhaps many people will not retreat from these changes, even once society’s opened up more.
What will it mean for customer experience? How can we prepare our businesses for the times that are to come?
We can prepare by buckling up.
Things will be turbulent and weird.
We are living through the dichotomy so beautifully laid out by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, “There is no such thing as a normal economy until we contain the virus. But if we can’t contain the virus quickly, we might not have anything normal to return to.”
Anyone who has visited a supermarket in the past month will have experienced the dystopian scene of fearful glances, designated standing areas and unspeaking, shuffling queues.
So much of our societies’ leisure time was bound up in group activities, the ongoing waves of echoes and social distancing mean that both the reality and any actual enjoyment of these things will not return in the same way.
So it’s time to buckle up for a bumpy ride. And time to be as creative as possible.
How can you exchange the assets of your company, your goods, your services, your people, your culture and your style for money in this new world?
As the grimly-named Reverend William Sloane Coffin said “Courage is a crucial virtue. Will we be scared to death, or scared to life?”
Buckle your company up for the ride, accept it’s going to be scary and let that fear drive you to do business in new ways.
We can prepare by not expecting things to snap back to normal.
“History and societies do not crawl. They make jumps. They go from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between. Yet we (and historians) like to believe in the predictable, small incremental progression.”
This memorable quote is from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. A book where he does actually predict that the international travel and general ‘closeness’ wrought by globalisation breeds the ideal conditions for just such a pandemic as Covid-19.
This is one of those jumps. One of those fractures. It will not return to how it was. It’s a permanent faultline, a switching of the points.
As Azeem Azhar has commented, “The recovery will take a different path of the ones we have had previously.”
This was echoed by another favourite of mine, Howard Marks who I quoted in the introduction. He provides some of the most balanced and sage advice around.
He rarely writes posts on his website (and he rather endearingly calls them “memos” rather than posts) but when he does put pen to paper, it is exceptionally shrewd. As he said earlier this month, “The world will be back to normal someday, although it seems unlikely to end up unchanged.”
It won’t be worse, but it will be different. If we can accept this, we can act sooner to find new and innovative ways to do business and to offer value.
If you are waiting around for things to recover back to “how it was before” you could be waiting a long time. My view is, if that happens – great – you know how to do that already. You’ll have no problem snapping back.
But what if it doesn’t? How long can you wait? How much cash are you burning, and where are your customers going to have their needs fulfilled. Even if the actions you take now feel temporary and bootstrapped, make them anyway and learn along the way.
I loved this homepage strapline for the global gym chain Barry’s Bootcamp: “OK We’re rolling with this”. With no physical locations, no gyms, no equipment, none of the in-person, loud-music nightclub feeling to trade from, they’ve pivoted their entire business online in just a few weeks.
If things “snap back” they’re already ready.
But if they don’t, or if that takes years and not months, they’re learning a new model and taking their soul and spirit to their customers. They’ve bought in a ton of stock to sell online, and they are helping customers build home gyms. They are learning as they go.
We can prepare by looking at the way customers are likely to behave
For the first time in thousands of years, we’re all in pretty much the same boat. We can all share this experience.
It’s much easier to put yourself in your customer’s shoes, both in their home and work lives.
What are they feeling? What are they scared of? What is their company going through? How can you help? (this help might be very tangential – can you reimagine what you do for a whole new purpose?)
Instead of looking at what you sell, and what customers might like to buy, try instead to understand what jobs they want done.
This idea comes from Clayton M Christensen in his book on Innovation “Competing Against Luck.” It feels like video conferencing software companies and supermarkets are pretty lucky right now. They’ve accidentally enjoyed a revenue bonanza and found themselves in the right place at the right time.
But it’s how they innovate will help them keep customers long term. And that innovation, argues Christensen, comes from understanding the jobs customers have to get done right now.
Just a few thoughts from the top of my head are that, right now, they probably want to:
- Reduce their fear
- Prepare to tackle illness
- Get things delivered
- Keep well – physically and emotionally
- Keep busy – learn new skills and hobbies
- Show compassion and help communities
- Support local companies
Consider – what do customers need to achieve in this new environment? And can you offer services that cater to this? Can you reframe your market or your buyers?
One of the major keys to your survival will be how you can keep pace with evolving customer habits as the manifold waves of recovery batter us all.
We can prepare by giving a more understanding customer experience
Easy to say, hard to do. Put your customers first – whatever they need. Don’t put them first if they buy something, put them first in terms of whatever you can do to ensure their survival. Be a model for your customers, be a leader.
Some customers will be run off their feet.
Some customers will be struggling to stay afloat, or potentially even temporarily shuttered.
At both ends of the spectrum there will be things you can do to help. Can you offer more wraparound/outsourced type services to customers who are buckling under the pressure of huge volume?
Can you offer payment holidays or discounts for customers who are struggling?
Even small things like ensuring people know how to get hold of you with changing hours, or communicating well enough no-one makes a wasted trip. This bakery for example is being open and clear about its trading situation and gives daily updates on Instagram:
Seek in this crisis to be the definition of service – the true meaning of it. Do everything in your power to help your customers succeed. If they come out of the pandemic in good shape, so will you.
Can you offer mentoring, content, free training, additional skills coverage? Can you turn your hand to a different output, even temporarily, that can help?
People will struggle with the change and transition – how can your team or company help?
Justin Reich, an assistant professor at MIT and the director of the Teaching Systems Lab said. “If you are going online, the number one question is not: ‘What tech to use to teach online?’ It should be: ‘How will you support your most struggling students?’”
Lego is making 13,000 face visors a day for the Danish healthcare system for example.
These stories travel, and they build loyalty and support through word of mouth. Now is the time to understand what society needs from the physical and intellectual assets you’ve built, not just how you can serve the markets you are used to serving.
We can prepare by valuing speed over precision
I referred at the start of this article to the paradox that we need to act on a future about which we have no information. Now more than ever this is true. “Understanding how to act under conditions of incomplete information is the highest and most urgent human pursuit.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
In this environment, getting something out that’s useful, that helps and that sells to sustain you and your customers – and then iterating on the fly- is what works.
In Black Swan, Taleb urges us to “Tinker as much as possible.” If you are struggling for ideas, ask everyone in your team. As Syed has shown in Rebel Ideas recently, different types of hierarchy and status can affect the way that information flows in a group.
He says “…At most meetings then, [and one imagines Zoom magnifies this problem hugely – Ed] communication is dysfunctional. Many people are silent. Status rigs the discourse. People don’t want to say what they think but what they think the leader wants to hear. And they fail to share crucial information because they don’t realise other people lack it.”
Open that up and get ideas on the table, and get moving today!
In Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address, facing the Great Depression, he not only famously said that ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself,’ he followed it up with: “This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.”
Remove any barriers to access to your products and services. Reduce friction, unblock the funnel that connects your prospects and your company.
Look at your data. What’s changing? Who are the old buyers, have you got any unusual new customers or new requests, is there a market there you can serve?
Help out with any kind of shortage. Help customers get the most out of your product. Now’s the time to invest in that online training material.
Take this example from Verizon recently: “We are waiving all late fees and suspending terminations for nonpayment in order to keep our small business, enterprise, and residential consumers running. For our wireless consumers, we have automatically increased data limits by 15 gigabytes per month. You don’t need to apply. We just give them more. We’re also prioritizing data and communication of first responders and hospitals” Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg
If it was hard to do business with you in last month’s world, multiply that by 10 now.
We can prepare by measuring success differently.
Norms of growth, norms of success will be different.
Not your regular P&L but retention, reach, access, influence, share of ear not just share of wallet, community, care and kindness. Those will be the measures of 2020 and beyond.
If the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility is right in the figures they just released, a 3-month lockdown will cause a 35% plunge in output in the second quarter.) And this from a statistics body who normally forecast contractions of 0.35%, not 35%!)
Unless you’re in one of the hottest industries now, success may have to look different to you for the coming few quarters and that’s okay.
Recast it now and make peace with it. You might have to do some new things, some things that make you nervous or at which you have no experience.
Things like giving away IP, and content of real value. Giving distressed or vulnerable customers payment holidays or discounts. Completely changing the way you communicate with customers and staff to ensure their mental wellbeing.
In summary, life will change. It will be hard if you don’t go with that change. It will be different but it can also be better.
As Taleb says in Black Swan, “We grossly overestimate the length of the effect of misfortune on our lives. You think that the loss of your fortune or current position will be devastating, but you are probably wrong. More likely, you will adapt to anything, as you probably did after past misfortunes”
Try as hard as you can to be of service. Tinker. Roll with the punches.
There will be a new normal and it will be as good and bad as the old normal but in different ways. It will be busy, it will be fun but I find the V-shaped theory, where one assumes a rapid bounce back to normality, entirely unlikely without a major structural shift across everything we know.
The very best of luck, and I hope in some small way this assimilation of content has helped you as you ponder what’s to come.
Bibliography & Reading List
We write book reviews on our blog each month, highlighting our top quotes and takeaways from each. If we’ve reviewed the book in question, the link will take you to it.
Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Blue Ocean Shift: Beyond Competing – Proven Steps to Inspire Confidence and Seize New Growth– W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant – W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne
Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice – Clayton M Christensen
Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ – Daniel Goleman
Grit: Why Passion and Resilience are the Secrets to Success – Angela Duckworth
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion – Robert Cialdini
Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World – Laura Spinney
Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives – Richard Wiseman
Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking – Matthew Syed
Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action – Simon Sinek
Articles, blogs & posts
The Atlantic: The 4 Rules of Pandemic Economics by Derek Thompson
The Atlantic: Our Pandemic Summer by Ed Yong
Exponential View: For Startups, Relevance Matters by Azeem Azhar
The Harvard Business Review: 4 Behaviors That Help Leaders Manage a Crisis by Chris Nichols, Shoma Chatterjee Hayden and Chris Trendler