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The recent outbreak of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has introduced many unique challenges that businesses have never been faced with before. Management teams are having to deal with multiple issues, ranging from health and safety, customer satisfaction, cash management, government support, future pipelines and adjusting to the new world of remote working.

Many have had to undergo a quick upgrade, creating new digital channels for purchase and delivery, and/or have changed their business practices to adhere to new social distancing rules. On top of all of this, they have had to actively manage their brand presence and identity within the market to maintain a sense of trust and confidence amongst their customers during the pandemic.

All industries have been impacted, with some businesses seeing a steep drop in demand, coming to a complete halt. This is an unprecedented crisis for many to deal with. After experiencing the first shock wave, management teams are now focusing on reopening the business and are seeking ways to secure the financial health of their company, whilst keeping employees on board. This has resulted in the complete renewal of existing business models and supporting operating models.

With this type of crisis occurring across the globe, leaders have an opportunity to enhance and strengthen their brand strategy and truly put their customers at the heart of the business. The most suitable and effective way of approaching this complex situation is from a customer perspective. How do customers want to engage with brands during and after COVID-19, and how can we – as a business – best adapt to this?

Below you'll find our practical advice, opinion and perspectives on how you can not only survive as a business during this global pandemic, but how you can leverage these challenging times to protect and strengthen your brand, increase consumer confidence and improve customer satisfaction.

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  Key takeaways :

  • Now is the time to go back to the basics of customer experience (CX) and to strengthen your customer-centric strategy in line with KPMG's Six Pillars of Customer Experience Excellence (CEE).
  • It is critical to establish a solid connection between your brand purpose and your updated CX strategy.
  • A sustainable CX strategy in a post-COVID-19 world can only exist when your CX and branding initiatives are supported by a well-balanced budget and a relevant product portfolio.

How do I reset my 'customer first' agenda?

As this crisis continues to unfold across the world, having an appropriate plan of action and customer experience (CX) strategy can help your business navigate through these challenging times. There are several initiatives that you can proactively implement and we recommend using KPMG's Six Pillars of Customer Experience Excellence (CEE) to help guide you on your path of customer-centricity during the pandemic.

KPMG's Six Pillars show there is a hierarchy to achieving CEE; without these fundamental basics, your business will struggle to deliver excellent customer experience, whilst maintaining customer satisfaction. During the times of COVID-19 it is essential to go back to the basics to review and reinvent your CX strategy now and for the future. Some of these pillars have become increasingly more important across key sectors dealing with the pandemic. For example: 

Resolution
– is critical, as many consumers who have been faced with forced holiday cancellations are urgently seeking refunds from airlines, travel companies and hotels; 

Empathy – is essential during such trying times as many consumers are not only faced with job losses, but they are faced with challenges that they have never had to encounter before: such as deferring repayments on their mortgage, waiting for access to healthcare and waiting in line to purchase essential items such as groceries.

In the most recent 2019 CEE study within the Netherlands, two pillars were identified as key drivers of high CX: Personalisation and Empathy. Traditionally, these two pillars provide clear guidance on how to create the ultimate customer experience from the customer's perspective. However, due to COVID-19 we have seen that this thinking has now shifted as customers are increasingly prioritising on hygiene factors, which include Integrity and Empathy. At the heart of an organisation's response to these turbulent times needs to be human connection, along with trust and empathy acting as its corner stones. To build these genuine relationships during such uncertain times, companies will have to ensure they address each of The Six Pillars, in order to deliver meaningful experiences where they connect on an emotive level with the customer.

Customer experience performance

KPMG's Six Pillars of Customer Experience Excellence

Integrity

Integrity as a pillar has always been a strong foundation to CX, however, during COVID-19 we believe that how a company acts in the midst of a crisis will strongly influence whether their customers are likely to trust and/or continue purchasing from them now and into the future. Organisations that focus on investing in ethical and trust-building behaviours are more likely to connect emotionally with their customers, providing invaluable support and securing long-term loyalty during such difficult times. Building these relationships with your customers and engendering trust now during the height of the pandemic, will not only help you strengthen your CX, but it will also help protect the business and lay the seeds for future growth post-pandemic.

Resolution

Traditional 'bricks and mortar' companies such as museums and theatres, that rely on foot traffic and attendance from customers, have shown true resilience in their ability to quickly adapt their offerings to the new world. The Rijksmuseum is offering digital tours and video series of their favourite works of art. Similarly, The Deutsches Theatre has begun performing in an underground car park where attendees can remain in their cars so they don't break any social distancing rules. These types of industries are trying to survive the pandemic by rapidly pivoting their business models so they can continue keeping customers engaged and connected to the brand.

Businesses from all sectors have to be agile and ready to respond, not only to changing consumer demands, but also to new social norms. For example, movie theatres such as Pathé are offering online streaming services and supermarkets are opening their stores earlier for the elderly. All of these measures are changing the way we interact with our customers and how we manage to deliver ongoing products and services. Adapting your customer service strategies and adopting a proactive approach to communication is critical during times like these, as the customer does not always know what to expect from the brand and when or how their problem will be resolved.

Expectations & Personalisation

With this pandemic, customer expectations have shifted towards the world of online and home deliveries. Moving quickly to digital and remote channels that support front-office functions, will be critical for the survival of most companies. Applying different types of analytics to predict, drive and influence customer (interaction) needs, will provide the insights needed to increase customer satisfaction levels. By using an integrated data-driven platform you can better manage customer expectations, whilst meeting their personal needs to create memorable experiences. Both have an immense influence on the customer journey, on future customer behaviour and on customer loyalty.

As a rapidly scalable and omni-channel service solution, KPMG has combined its expertise in CX, technology and operational service delivery to create a rapidly deployable, highly resilient Virtual Contact Centre (VCC) named Connected Interactions. Tried and tested in crisis situations, this service can help your customers reach you by using a set of integrated interaction channels, thus maintaining customer satisfaction and regulatory compliance.

To complement your digital service solution, there should be an integrated and efficient home-delivery system. With the majority of people working from home and spending increasing hours inside, the world of home delivery is ruling the economy. If you can't alter how your products and services are delivered throughout the customer journey, your business will struggle to keep up.

Transform your digital marketing approach to connect in a more personalised way with your customers. With more consumers spending time at home, people are more likely to browse and buy online, however, their shopping habits are changing as they need to actively look online for products they want to buy from the brands that they know. Investing in your digital appearance through multiple channels will help to improve the customer experience, especially as people are spending an increasing amount of hours indoors. Being creative in how you connect with your customers will be critical to maintaining and building customer relationships. Brands such as Heineken utilise multiple channels, including TV, websites and social media to quickly build strong and trusting relationships with their customers. Similarly, within a '1.5 metres' economy, customers are having to change the way they purchase groceries, coffee and toiletries with queues of people forming down the street. This is an untapped opportunity to create new meaningful moments with idle customers waiting to make some of their essential purchases for the week.

There is a significant lack of trust and confidence within the market as consumers are demanding clarity from brands about their purchasing rights, and are only making precautionary purchases. In order to address these changing consumer behaviours, and to continue meeting customer expectations, consider leveraging your current workforce and re-skilling them to assist with increasing customer concerns. The travel industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and companies such as TravelPerk have successfully re-trained their sales team into customer support roles to assist with the overwhelming number of customer tickets and calls.

Time & Effort

Prioritisation triage and rapid responsiveness is critical when addressing customer needs, especially during the pandemic when customers are panic buying and reducing luxury purchases. Your ability to respond to increasing customer demands also has a fundamental impact on the reputation of the organisation. To offer fast support to a large group of businesses, ABN AMRO is getting on the front foot and are offering (as a default) the deferral of payments to their Commercial Banking clients, meaning that their clients do not need to go to the effort of contacting ABN AMRO in order to defer their payments.

To ensure that you are delivering a seamless customer experience where customer demands are met efficiently, consolidating efforts and activities across key groups within the supply chain will be essential. For example, Hema are responding to customer requests by changing their retail stores into distribution centers, ensuring priority items are available and online orders are delivered on time.

To make it easier and to reduce the effort for customers to access their regular services, online platforms such as Zoom have propelled into the market with over 300 million daily participants as recorded in April 2020. These types of communication platforms have helped organisations pivot into the digital world of delivery, increasing the accessibility of services such as medical appointments, fitness classes and house viewings.

Empathy

For all communication and marketing expressions  empathy is key. Openly communicate to your community your awareness of the situation and how you are coping and responding to COVID-19. It is best to show empathy and to be open and honest with your customers about the business, as you will need to manage their expectations given the changing circumstances. Brands that communicate how they can actually help the consumer, have been shown to have greater potential of building stronger long-term brand power within the market. Variety stores such as Hema have chosen to form an emotive relationship with their viewers having recently released their 'light' campaign. This commercial creates an encouraging and confident tone throughout, as they show that even under these circumstances, there are positive aspects to life to look out for and that, as a brand, they are there to support their customers throughout every single moment. In a similar move, grocery retailers such as Albert Heijn chose to change the traditional commercial approach to their Easter campaign and adopted a more softer setting that reflected the new 'working from home' lifestyle. The type of connection they formed with their viewers showed that Albert Heijn understood and empathised with their customers on their new way of everyday life.

For the communication of more practical information, consider communicating information about how your customers can continue purchasing from you. With the sharp decrease in consumer confidence and consumer spending, reassuring your customers about the status of your business will help to build a trusting relationship between you and the consumer during a turbulent time.


But first and foremost, and something that applies to all of the above: don't forget about your team culture, environment and employee well-being. Care for your employees' experiences as you do for your customers' experiences – their physical and mental wellbeing should be at the core of all crisis actions undertaken. Very similar to The Six Pillars in this time of crisis, Integrity and Empathy are key in leading your team. Put yourself in your employees' shoes and think about their needs. Even though you might lack perfect information, they will value regular communication with updates. Trust is the basis of all human relationships, and in the case of a business, this starts with the employee. Be transparent and honest towards your people. In addition, empower employees – especially now – to inspire them and show them you trust them too. Facilitate trainings and role extensions to make sure your employees are able to live up to the changed circumstances and are able to stay connected to the customer in an appropriate way. But most of all, be there for them – be compassionate and show you care. Pursue personalised approaches to help your employees staying sane, set up communication platforms to make sure they stay connected and consider a back-up operational plan to show their safety and health are key priorities.

How do I manage all of this as a business?

KPMG has an extensive range of capabilities, expertise and resources that can assist you on this journey of developing your CX and employee experience (EX) strategy in alignment with The Six Pillars and the changing economic landscape. We adopt a proactive and data-driven approach and utilise our customer journey mapping tools and Voice of the Customer Technology, KPMG CX Cloud, to assist in the transformation of your customer experiences – now and in a post-COVID-19 world. This is supported by our CX Economics assessment, which aligns overall investments and costs within the business to the customer journey and customer satisfaction.

kpmg-six-pillars-part1
kpmg-six-pillars-part1

KPMG's Six Pillars applied for EX (Employee Experience)

How can I ensure that my brand survives COVID-19?

Branding and marketing in times of crisis – although a natural reflex is to stop investing, firms should choose the opposite path: increase investments. At the core of the relationship between a brand and customer lies the condition to meet a certain need. The three fundamental aspects of a brand (relevance, differentiation and availability) make sure this relationship gets fulfilled:

  1. Relevance: the combination of fulfilling the needs of the customer and the emotional connection the customer feels with the brand.
  2. Differentiation: the combination of noticeable differences compared to alternatives/others and the extent to which the brand is trendsetting in its category. 
  3. Availability: the extent to which a brand comes to the attention of customers (both mentally and physically) when they consider purchases in the respective category.

Hence, a continuation of investments in these fundaments is needed to keep the brand – and overall business – intact. History teaches us that an increment in branding on the long-term strengthens a firms chance for survival and success. Recent examples show how this strategy may pay off:

  1. McDonald's has taken an educational angle by releasing a video that shows a rap on how a safe working environment is created in their restaurants.
  2. PostNL has been proactively putting their employees in the spotlight, as they increase their commitment to delivering packaged goods to customers during the pandemic.
  3. A true brand expression comes from KLM, which started the YouTube series 'Holland at Home', bringing the travel experience to their customers on the couch.
  4. LinkedIn, on the other hand, has started a campaign in which they offer several LinkedIn Learning paths for free to the community in order to help them develop entirely new skills to navigate through the new normal.

With the above in mind, the continuation of your brand and marketing investments does not necessarily mean continuing with your current campaigns. Some companies have produced non COVID-19 related campaigns, (Persil, new campaign: tag de vlek), others have addressed the current situation more explicitly showing that they are still there for the customer (e.g. Kruidvat) and some have taken the approach of trying to influence behavioural change in the consumer (e.g. 'stay home' public campaigns). Telling your customer what to do and providing recommendations might work on the short-term, however research shows that for the long-haul these types of directives are usually less effective for driving sustainable changed behaviour. As people have the need to feel in control, they may have a tendency to adopt the exact opposite behaviour to what is requested of them. Hence, some alternative persuasion tactics for your campaigns are set out below for your consideration:

  1. Highlighting a gap to trigger a feeling of disconnect between a person's thoughts and behaviour.
  2. Asking a question so that the listener has to formulate an opinion which increases buy-in.
  3. Reduce the ask by breaking it into smaller parts, just like how the Dutch government has been doing through weekly or bi-weekly press conference updates.

It is important to keep in mind that branding is more than marketing and campaigns. In times of crisis, the pillar of Integrity is a key foundation to solid and strong customer experiences. Companies might have to reconsider their purpose and positioning in order to (re)gain the trust and loyalty from their customers that they require. This might trigger the need to revise a company's full business model, which includes a broader transformation to adapt effectively and exactly where needed. More importantly, you need to adapt quickly, and make sure the value drivers perform in-sync and are closely connected throughout the business. This could mean a transformation in customer service or restructuring distribution channels, instead of changing your marketing budget or campaign.A brand is the sum of all these customer touchpoints. Once you realise that this period requires you to reinvent your business, it is critical to     establish a solid connection between brand purpose and an updated CX, to make sure you deliver upon your promises. The combination of     connected customer touchpoints and in-sync performance in line with purpose is needed to build a strong brand and strong business performance.     KPMG has developed a 9 Levers-of-Value Fast Track scrum process for this. This approach implements requested real-time changes in a time     window of 4 to 6 weeks because in order to survive and thrive as a business you need to make smart decisions quickly and effectively.

How can you prepare your customer and branding strategies for a post-COVID-19 world?

You want to ensure your business not only survives this pandemic, but continues to thrive in a post COVID-19 world. Now is the time to improve your resilience and plan your comeback strategy. Use your lessons learned to start building your long-term growth plan and business model. Will you introduce new methods of delivery? How will your supply chain be impacted? How will you adhere to social distancing rules? If you are in a customer-facing industry, this will be crucial for you, as a post-COVID-19 world may still consist of social distancing rules. You may need to consider changing the physical layout of your store, however maintaining customer-centricity will be key to re-building and maintaining your customer base. Smaller retailers who don't have e-commerce platforms and/or rely on foot traffic are already shifting the customer experience and are offering private appointments to shop in store.

Look at your target market and your local communities – what do they need? How else can you support them? Can you completely re-imagine your value chain to deliver essential goods that are needed by your customers? Some of the big brands out there are proactively responding to this pandemic by not only delivering essential goods to communities, but they are also using it as an opportunity to build their brand power by tapping into their CSR initiatives. Brands such as Gap, Zara and Giorgio Armani are just a few that have modified their production lines to produce face masks and scrubs for medical staff. Distilleries such as Bavaria and Auping, and beauty brands such as the L'Oreal Group and LVMH, have also optimised their supply chain to produce much needed hand sanitizers. Similarly, hotel chains such as Accor Hotels have opened up their hotels for health care workers, and governments are working with specific hotel groups to house victims of domestic abuse. This may be seen as a very opportunistic and profitable move for these companies, but by responding in this way they have propelled themselves into the spotlight and shaped their brand image to reflect one of global solidarity.

Building and implementing a digital transformation strategy is essential to developing a sustainable future-proof customer experience. No one knows how long this economic crisis will last, so it is best to prepare your business to potentially survive in a world of where social distancing and digital rules. Gyms and fitness companies such David Lloyd and F45 are going through their own rapid digital transformations, having quickly moved towards the world of online delivery. They are now offering group classes, personal training and coaching all through online apps and social media platforms. The arts industry has also been significantly impacted by the virus, with many shows being cancelled until the foreseeable future. This, however, has not stopped businesses from adapting to the new norm. Museums such as Rome's Vatican Museum and the Paris' Louvre are moving online, offering virtual tours of their collections. Concert venues across Europe such as Vienna's State Opera and Berlin's Philharmonie are streaming classical orchestras and operas for free online.

Look for partnerships and alliances that will help propel you back into the playing field. Identify those organisations out there that complement or balance out your value chain. Finding these joint opportunities will be extremely valuable when you are looking to pick up business again. This may include running joint tenders, sharing the costs of production or launching a new innovative solution. This form of collaboration will help you tackle some of the future challenges you might be faced with in a post-COVID-19 world. Developing the right strategic partnerships will help you build your brand within the market, bringing back a sense of trust and confidence that has been lost amongst consumers during the times of the pandemic.

Looking forward, a sustainable customer experience in a post-COVID-19 world can only exist when such strategic initiatives are supported by a well-balanced budget and a relevant product portfolio. KPMG can assist in your portfolio rationalisation by integrating front-office functions as one (Marketing, Sales and Customer Service) and supporting the effective assessment and realisation of costs associated to your customer journey, now and into the future. This will assist in setting up your business for a strong future growth plan. In addition, understanding the influencers behind customer decision-making behaviours is more critical now than ever to deliver the right experience at the right value. This might mean a reconsideration of investments and a revision of operating costs to deliver a newly defined customer journey that aligns to social distancing and digital rules. Understanding your CX Economics and the overall economic curve will be key to this process of balancing customer expectations against operating costs. Question yourself on how you can optimise CX by cutting costs where possible, without under-delivering on customer expectations.KPMG's CX Economics assessment can facilitate such fact-based decision-making that favours both the customer, your brand and business, to ride out and flourish during and post these uncertain times.

More information

If you are interested in learning more and would like to reach out to the Customer & Brand Advisory team at KPMG Netherlands, please contact Edgar Molenaars.

For further information on how your business can combat COVID-19, you can check out additional KPMG insights here.