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Love the One You’re With: Customer Retention in Times of Crisis Part 1

During blue-sky seasons, businesses tend to measure success by the bottom line and lead gen. But in moments of crisis, KPIs for success – like everything else – have to change. While the bottom line will always be the bottom line and customer acquisition is always important, brands should consider significantly ramping up their efforts around customer retention during tougher times. The reasons for doing so are not only good, but also plenty.

Even in the best circumstances, attracting new customers is five times more expensive than retaining existing ones and only more so during a crisis.

The truth is that customers who were buying and doing nothing before COVID-19 will likely continue along the path of nada, whether for fear or for lack of financial resources. And customers who were buying and doing before the pandemic are holding fast to the brands and relationships they already know – because familiarity offers a sense of comfort, safety and control that’s hard to come by in hard times.

Believe it or not, this is good news for brands. Because your customers are likely to stick with you during a crisis, you have the opportunity to find ways to serve them even better and to galvanize their loyalty. This approach isn’t just a means of surviving, it can also lead to thriving: According to a Harvard Business School study, increasing your customer retention rates by just 5% can increase profits anywhere from 25% to 95% – making this effort worthwhile amid COVID-19 and beyond it.

In this two-part series, we offer four ways to help increase customer retention for your brand. Here’s a look at the first two.

1. Contextualize the Crisis

Even in a global pandemic, the target is where everything begins and ends. So, you’ll want to ruminate on what your target is going through. The fact that COVID-19 affects every member of your target audience and the world (including your household) should give you a leg up on contextualizing what role your brand plays in the lives of your target right now. Some questions to consider:

  • How have your target’s hopes and fears changed – and how does that affect how you serve them?
  • Do they expect more or less from you as a result, and in what ways?
  • Are your products essential to them right now? If so, which of your products and services are likely to be most meaningful to them?
  • If your offerings are less (or not at all) essential, how can your brand remain relevant? How can you lean into inspiring, entertaining or encouraging them, providing good information or teaching them something?

Next, you’ll want to map answers to those questions back to your company’s current capabilities and operations.

Chances are your resources – staffing levels, production, and delivery mechanisms and timeframes – are different. Once you’ve considered the impact of those shifts on what’s most meaningful to your target in this moment, you’ll be able to find ways to meet your customers’ expectations, develop an effective communications strategy around how you’re serving them and determine the appropriate touchpoints for getting the word out.

Here are a few examples of how various organizations are serving and reaching out to customers in a COVID-19 context:

– Hospitality has been hard hit, with hotels largely shuttering and many restaurants doing the same. But plenty of dining spots had processes in place for pickup or delivery via online ordering. Because customers haven’t stopped craving their favorite foods amid COVID-19, restaurants further streamlined those processes and adapted operations to address health and safety, e.g., contactless transactions during drive-through, pickup and delivery. Restaurants have not only communicated key messages continuously via email newsletters and social, they’ve introduced LTO meals and deals as well as unique add-ons like fresh, specialty and staple grocery items; meal kit bundles; or margaritas to go to serve their customers in new and creative ways.

– Museums and tourist attractions cannot fulfill customer longings curbside, but they can provide unique experiences couch-side thanks to platforms like YouTube, Facebook Live and Instagram TV. The Shedd Aquarium is providing field trips and tours, some led by penguins Wellington, Annie and Edward. And in a Wild West-style move to keep interest in its destination alive during COVID-19 closures, The National Cowboy Museum has entrusted its head of security and social neophyte, Tim, with its Twitter account. His at-first clumsy and ongoingly friendly, folksy and earnest approach to stoking cowboy-related curiosity has been a been a big hit as well as an unexpected source of delight and comfort amid the pandemic.

– Nonprofits, the fitness sector, financial services, insurance companies and mental health organizations are also finding ways to serve customers and clients, offering planning tools, resources, free and upgraded subscriptions and more to help people cope with current conditions, e.g., online sessions with counselors and complimentary consultations with financial planners. Insurance companies are also providing useful content and tips, e.g., helping business owners streamline operations, facilitate closures safely, host remote meetings, maintain connections among stakeholders and manage cash flow. Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin Area, for example, closed its doors but opened up digital resources for Club kids and introduced Club on the Go™ kits for weekly curbside pickup across the city, complete with snacks and academic and extracurricular activities.

2. Be Proactive and Honest in What You Say and Do

Proactive measures and good communication are always paramount, especially during a crisis. Once you’ve determined the best way to serve customers in what feels like the worst moments, you’ll want to communicate clearly, as early and often as needed, and with compassion. If you do this, customers will believe your brand has their best interests at heart – making it easier for them to accept and adjust to any changes that are less than ideal.

Take care not to overpromise, and leave plenty of room for future adjustments given that further changes are inevitable.

There are a lot of brands that have done a great job on these fronts during COVID-19, particularly grocery chains, including: H-E-B in Texas, Hy-Vee in the Midwest and Publix in the Southeast.

Some of the critical adjustments they’ve made have included (with variations within each, of course):

  • Adjusting and reducing store hours. This allocates more time for restocking and preventative sanitation efforts, ultimately creating a better, safer in-store experience for shoppers. It also gives employees the space they need to take care of themselves and in turn provide quality customer service.
  • Waiving fees for curbside pickup and delivery and instituting contact-free processes. These initiatives help prevent overcrowding at stores as well as diminish risks for shoppers and staff as groceries are transferred from carts to cars to doorsteps.
  • Amending the overall shopping experience. Grocers have made the shopping process smoother and safer for customers and employees by introducing sanitization practices at store entrances and adding clear visuals and directionals throughout aisles and checkout lanes (e.g., floor decals, plexiglass shields and more).
  • Making special efforts to serve seniors. Stores have earmarked specific shopping hours to help protect the at-risk over-60 crowd as they shop, giving them early morning access after sanitizing and restocking.
  • Limiting purchase quantities on popular products. This demonstrates care for all customers and helps prevent hoarding, making it possible for those who cannot afford to buy in bulk to get some of the supplies they need.
  • Updating their processes and policies based on evolving government mandates and learnings along the way.
  • Communicating all of the above on their website – as well as through media relations – to maximize awareness.

Many other essential businesses have gone the extra mile to make customers feel safe and well-served during COVID-19 – with updated in-store operations, upgraded online ordering, expanded delivery options, and adjusted curbside pickup and drive-through protocol, as well as forging partnerships with third parties for delivery and farmers and specialty vendors for supplies.

Proactive and honest communication around these pandemic-driven initiatives has reinforced care and concern for customers, and in turn, has helped to strengthen confidence in brands.

Our next post will explore the last two steps that help you better serve and retain customers amid crises like COVID-19.



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