Over the last few weeks, I’ve left the cocoon of my home and have ventured out into the world. I’ve flown commercially, stayed in hotels and eaten in restaurants. My most significant ‘ah ha’ moment through those experiences is the realization that a Covid-driven ‘new normal’ won’t become real for consumers until they directly engage with businesses and the community.
To this point, considerations of what the new normal should look like as we work to reopen our economies has been largely theoretical, driven by teams of decision makers gathered together via Zoom or Hangouts. But scenario analysis and what-if planning can only take your business so far. It’s only when consumers begin interacting live and in-person with your business that the true variability and diversity of opinion and behavior becomes evident.
You’ll notice I’m not using the phrase ‘post-Covid world,’ as a vaccine is not yet available and general societal acceptance of increased health risks is still largely in question. We will be living in an uncomfortable, transitional state for some time – likely well into 2021.
As we all grapple with how best to lead our teams through this transitional phase, I want to share some thought-starters for leaders to consider as your business ramps back up during the Covid transition:
• Philosophy: What do you want your business to stand for during the Covid transition? In my travels, I’ve seen a wide variety of approaches, from highly conservative to wildly liberal. From this consumer’s perspective, there is a balance to be struck between the two in which you show your business cares about the health and safety of its customers and desires to get itself and the economy moving again. If your philosophy is too conservative, your business will appear unapproachable and difficult to do business with. Too liberal and you’ll send a strong message that your business doesn’t care about the subset of your customer base who’s opinion bends toward safety and security. Those customers are likely to leave you for other alternatives.
• Communication: Your clients, employees and partners want to know your philosophical stance. They want clarity regarding how they should engage with your business as you begin to reopen. This is all against the backdrop of a very fluid environment of rapidly changing regulations, healthcare advice, and public opinion. I’ve seen businesses communicate with their customer base once or twice since early March and assume that’s enough. My recommendation is to invest in more communication across multiple channels to keep your message fresh and relevant so your customers know what to expect when they interact with you. Remember that your customers need to interpret many different messages from myriad business and government leaders. Yours needs to stand out.
• Agility: In March or April, you probably measured the sentiment of your employees and customers about return-to-work and doing business with you during the Covid transition. While that data may still have some relevance, I’m confident there are many consumers like me who won’t truly know how they will behave until they move from the cloister of their homes and back out into the wild. While it’s a well-known fact that consumers dislike being over-surveyed, this is not the time to pull back on your efforts to seek to understand rapidly-shifting consumer behavior in new and creative ways.
• Employee Engagement: Your employees are humans with the same shifting opinions and emotions regarding what a Covid transition means to them as your consumers. Some of them are scared, some want to move forward like nothing’s happened. While there are a wide range of opinions that exist amongst your staff, they are all emotionally drained and some will exhibit signs of emotional exhaustion. This means the amount of discretionary energy your people have to give your business is low relative to what it would be under normal operating conditions. Your people likely want to work hard and do a good job to keep their jobs, but the distraction of a 24 hour news cycle and the constant threat of a silent killer is weighing heavily on them.
• Policies: Since your employees will not be performing at peak levels during the Covid transition, ensure you’re setting them up for success by creating clear goals and policies. My recent interactions with a national hotel chain and a rental car company put this issue into full view. In both cases, it was clear that management had not carefully thought through the new procedures that were necessary for efficient processing of guest interactions and had left too much decision-making in the hands of very junior staff members with little to no training. This lack of clarity created both customer and employee dissatisfaction that was displayed publicly. The brand damage that results from looking disorganized and sloppy is difficult, if not impossible to repair.
• Technology: I recommend making investments in lightweight, touchless technologies to eliminate direct customer contact whenever possible. For the last few years, I thought that the QR code was dead, but it’s made a surprising resurgence. Another silver lining of the Covid crisis is that the U.S. may finally catch up to the rest of the world in the adoption of tap-and-go payment systems. In traveling across the globe, I find it embarrassing how far behind we are in the use of these technologies.
The next eighteen months will be an incredibly difficult time for all of us. In addition to Covid, we’ll be navigating through a presidential election cycle, economic challenges and continued social unrest brought about by systemic racism and police brutality. To ensure your business is set up for long-term success, focus on the above points will help guide you through the Covid transition.