Strong Customer Relationships Are The Key To Protecting Your Business

It doesn't matter which technological advancements are taking us into the future, our physical and mental survival still boils down to our humanity.

What’s been clearly highlighted during the waves of lockdowns is our deep dependence on social interaction and community. It’s what makes us human.

It doesn’t matter what age group you talk to, one of the toughest aspects is the physical isolation.

From young children missing their pre-school playmates, to the elderly feeling not only isolated but scared of catching the virus. And all they want is someone to hug.

We are social beings. Think of your happiest moments in life - they always involve other people, sharing common goals, interests, and aspirations.

While more and more, we’ve gravitated to technology to speed up our communications with people. And now very efficient at exchanging information on the fly.

In our minds, we think we’re still connecting emotionally, and maintaining relationships, by posting on social media.

But the average Facebook user in 2020 apparently has 155 friends, which as we know can include a fair percentage of long-forgotten classmates, and obscure connections you’ve never actually met in person!

So do you think they’re all close, trusting relationships? Or have we traded quality for quantity?

Have we sacrificed richer, more intimate language, with subtle meaning and nuances, for the fast, but blunt instruments of acronyms and emojis?

Big questions, that have suddenly been answered for us by nature, on an epic, global scale.

Lockdowns have given us a sharp, timely reminder of our primal need for truly meaningful connection - to be part of a caring community.

Where our EQ, has had to be quickly ramped-up, to cope with reading vocal tone and body language via Zoom and FaceTime type of platforms.

BTW our brains are also being rapidly rewired during this time, to adapt to screen-life, social distancing, long queues, masks, dodging people at the park on a ‘relaxing’ walk. The list goes on.

All those tiny details of lockdown life have accumulated in our heads, and won’t be going away in a hurry, even as restrictions are eased.

Because they’ve been around long enough to be become ingrained as new thought-patterns and habits.

And one of the major reasons for lockdown-fatigue and mental health issues is that our brains hate breaking old habits. They will resist, and use up a lot of energy in the process, because re-thinking everything you do is tiring.

The role of business in our life is no different. Because business is life - it’s about meeting people’s needs.

So how do you protect your business in this stressful, new environment?

It’s about forming a stronger, emotional relationship with your customers - as a community.

Which may at first sound like Covid-Kumbaya, but genuinely humanising your touchpoints is a critical key to survival.

So many of us have actually forgotten the art of listening, and having real conversations. Instead we’ve become lazy, and quite frankly arrogant. We think we know enough and are content to just make assumptions. But that’s more like being a dictator.

We’ve ditched human interaction for bots, and we’ve become so reliant on big data, thinking that gives us all the answers.

Now data is really important, in fact I’ll share an example shortly of how valuable it can be, so I’m not discrediting it. But it mainly gives you a picture of the past, not how you should navigate your future path through the chaos.

Ultimately, it’s customers that control your future. They’re the ones who decide if you’re relevant to their needs, as they tighten their belts and choose necessity over discretionary.

They’ll support a business that understands them, empathises, and makes them feel valued. The successful business of tomorrow will demonstrate they care. About their staff, the environment, the community, and of course their customers.

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 64% of consumers identified as belief-driven buyers. They will choose or avoid a brand, based on its stand on societal issues.

In the new-normal I believe that number will sky-rocket. Which helps explain why so often now, what might start as a small grass-roots movement, will often influence business to adopt more ethical, community-minded practices.

Issues such as sustainability, animal rights, LGBTQ, MeToo, and BLM.

It seems that all of a sudden people are getting it. They always cared, but now it’s become urgent. They’ve been shocked, shaken to their core, with a profound impact on their life moving forward.

Before Covid-19 many businesses, although being aware, would say… “yes I’d like to get involved, do more for the environment, make a stand, have a purpose beyond making money”. But it never seemed a priority, so kept going on as usual.

They might ‘green-wash’ or ‘woke-wash’ their marketing, which is even worse. Claiming to care, but not changing anything below the surface.  But people see through that.

So harsh as it might sound, it has actually taken the pandemic to break the cycle - to make us stop, and think about what really matters. Re-evaluation is now a major consumer trend, applying to all aspects of their life.

Humanising your business isn’t new. Again, it was talked about, but often just one of those buzz words that sound good in the boardroom, but have no real traction in the real world. But it’s a sure bet that those that don’t do it for real, will fall by the way-side.

Smart businesses will start connecting on that human level - those that don’t will stand out for the wrong reasons.

For example, if you had to close your business at the beginning of the lockdown, your customers have changed in those 6 weeks or so. They may seem normal on the surface, but as I said earlier, all our minds, have been rewired into new paths – both positively and negatively.

Emotionally, many have been on rollercoaster journeys, and their needs may have changed. Some have had to pull their horns in financially, or some have discovered, and even enjoyed learning to do things differently with what they have on hand.

Research shows that many people are now preferring to work from home because it gives them more time for family, less time commuting, and considerable cost-savings in transport, lunches and so on.

When business owners re-open their doors, they assume, or maybe just hope their old customers will come back. And many of them will. But people will also be looking at your business through fresh eyes. And if you haven’t evolved with them, the sad reality is that you’ll get left behind.

Which, by-the-way, also highlights the great risks taken by businesses that don’t stay in touch with customers during, or just generally post-lockdown. Even just to say hi, how are you doing?  Or here’s what we’re doing behind the scenes, to make improvements as we emerge.

Long-lasting impressions of people are often formed in pressure situations – whether it’s people you know – or a business.

Customers of course want to get back to some level of normality. But they’ll become more discerning about who is safe, who can they trust, where do they spend their money?

The only way you’re going to know what’s the right direction, is to talk to customers.

It’s up to you to understand what their evolving needs and wants are, and not just make assumptions. Especially if you’re basing those on what you thought you knew pre-Covid.

That’s the key to future-proofing business. Not just in the short-term - but long-term when any number of local and global events, plus normal evolution will fundamentally change your customers’ world.

But there’s a caveat. Customers don’t know what they’ll want tomorrow. That’s your job!

And the good news is that a deep understanding of people, and the context of your business and category in their life, contain the clues to future success. If you know how to look for them.

People can tell you what they currently think and how they feel. What their frustrations are, and what irritates them about products and services they use in their everyday life.

Do they absolutely love your offering, or do they just put up with you as a ‘near enough is good enough’ solution? If you disappeared overnight, what would they use instead? That’s a great question to ask them.

Who are your hidden competitors ready to take your customers into the future, beyond just your laundry list of features? They maybe disruptors from outside your category, who see you as low-hanging fruit.

There’s a well-known strategy of Jobs To Be Done, which is basically about finding the real needs behind the purchase.

The popular example is buying a drill. I need a ¼ inch hole, and why do I need a hole ? So I can hang an artwork on the wall, and why do I want an artwork? Because I want to decorate my house, fulfil a childhood dream, express my taste, impress friends, and so on.

People don’t care about your drill unless they’re a gadget-geek. They only care about the job it does for them, which could actually be an intense emotional motivation. But when your messaging is only about hardware tech, it’s not engaging with them at a human level.

But you wouldn’t know unless you drill down (pardon the pun), and ask them.

All this might seem a bit abstract when it comes to you running say, a local café.

But it’s the effect these social changes have on our emotions that play a significant role in how you operate and present your business. Let’s take the café example, to use the information we currently have, and then explore opportunities.

Now that retail data from lockdowns has become more available, there’s no surprise that as we’re spent more time indoors, we forked out more money on items to make our homes more comfortable.

And that includes a surge in coffee machine sales - those that relied on their caffeine fix on the way to the office needed an alternative.

Now as a café owner your first reaction will naturally be panic - thinking customers will now save the $5 or more daily and just make it themselves. Especially if they choose to stay working from home.

But when you look at their primal, emotional needs, like being social for example, you can start to think creatively about the opportunities.

Don’t think inwards and see only lost sales. Think outwards about how you might take your brand experience to them, and stay relevant in their life.

And it’s not just about online and home deliveries. That’s not really innovation, just the entry ticket to even be in the game. There’s no point of difference when everyone’s doing it. You’re back to where you started, in the pack with the rest.

So here’s an idea, instead of just giving them their morning coffee…make it your café at their place. And we’ve just hashed out a few other ideas, like give classes on becoming a rock-star home barista, sell the beans and accessories. Form a coffee community that meets up, so they have an escape from the home office.

Have competitions for new coffee and pastry recipes. Home-cooking also boomed during lockdown. Serve the winners at a Saturday morning event at your café, make them part of the regular menu, named after the winner - that will also stimulate traffic during the week.

What the home coffee machine can’t do is provide a social chat, so work with it. You have the venue, bring people together with a common interest.

Now what will happen, rather than them going onto your review site and saying something nice about your coffee just the once, you’ve created a community. That regularly chats about you, and all the fun things you’re doing.

Remembering social-media strategies are an essential part of future-proofing, for all those reasons. I guarantee, if you think about it, you could come up with piles of ideas.

The point is, you can’t just assume that what worked for you in the past is going to keep doing it for you in the future.

You have to look deeper and ask your customers for insights into the big questions like where do I fit in someone’s life?  What sort of experience can I offer? What kind of relationship do we both want, how can I evolve to keep the relationship fresh? How do I offer something different to my competitors?

If that sounds more like dating advice, even the last bit about competitors, it’s no coincidence. And in my experience customers will tell you honestly and directly what they need from you.

Because a business built to survive into the future has a strong foundation of relationships.

Not just transactions, and treating people like stats on a KPI spreadsheet. It’s connecting with your customer community, having regular conversations about their life, making continuous improvements based on their feedback.

Anyone can copy your catalogue and undercut your pricing for short-term growth. What they can’t easily disrupt is the relationship built on trust. Which has to be earned and can’t be bought.

Whatever the future holds, the takeaway from Covid-19 is that it’s not about technology.

That’s just a tool to enable your operations, marketing, and relationship management.

Whether you survive and thrive as a business, depends on how you perform as a human.

This article first appeared in Stuff.co.nz Prosper section as a two part feature.  You can view Part One here, and here's the link to Part Two 

Hungry for more? Marketing = Customers + Heart is your road map to building your growth strategy.

Marketing = Customers + Heart by Judy & Eriks Celmins

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