Wednesday | 22 April | 2020
By Anja van den Berg
The coronavirus lockdown has changed even large, more established companies’ stakeholder communication literally overnight.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced South African businesses to maintain and build relationships with consumers when their world was upended. Companies are now facing tension between keeping afloat during a time of unprecedented economic hardship and respecting the threats to life and livelihood that have altered stakeholders’ priorities and preferences.
What can businesses do to strengthen relationships with consumers when the COVID-19 lockdown has minimised or eliminated personal interaction?
Ted Waldron and James Wetherbe have found that five key communication strategies help companies weather crises and preserve their bonds with consumers. They draw on nearly 70 years of combined experience in business practice, research and education.
Waldron is an associate professor of management and Wetherbe is the Richard Schulze Distinguished Professor, both at Texas Tech University’s Rawls College of Business.
The strategies they propose are part of what they call the HEART framework of sustained crisis communication. HEART is an acronym for the following phrases:
Humanise your company
Educate about change
Tackle the future
Let’s briefly unpack the HEART framework:
- Humanise your business
Let customers know that your business understands the dire social circumstances at play and cares about more than merely reaping profit during this difficult time. Empathise with those affected by COVID-19 and spell out the steps you are taking to help customers, employees and other stakeholders. The company’s social media sites and customer mailing lists are ideal vehicles for doing this.
- Educate about the short-term and long-term changes they can expect
Tell customers about all changes to your operation, including new hours, facility closures, staff reductions, customer service availability and ordering options, among others. While you can reference the government regulations that necessitated these changes, it’s far better if you are viewed as being proactive and motivated by your customers’ best interests.
- Assure them that the values of the business will remain intact
Unpack how, despite the upheaval in how you operate, you will continue to provide the things they have come to know and love. Explain why the defining reasons they support your business will endure. If consumers value the impeccable quality of your products or the thoughtful nature of your customer service, tell them how you will maintain those value propositions. Elaborating these points of assurance is vital in reminding consumers that your company’s value proposition transcends the obstacles imposed by this crisis.
- Revolutionise what consumers value about your business
Beyond assuring customers that your company’s existing value propositions will remain the same, tell them what innovations have arisen from dealing with the ongoing pandemic. After all, necessity is the mother of invention. Tell your existing customers how you are serving them in new ways. Reach out to potential customers by offering new products or services that solve a new problem.
- Tackle the future
It’s critical to signal that your company is proactive rather than allowing the situation to engulf your business and its valued customers. Make it evident that your company is well-positioned to maintain its revised business model until things return to normal. Highlight what the company has learned from the experience. Turn these lessons to your clientele’s advantage and tell them how what you’ve learned might improve the way your company operates after the pandemic ends. The temporary improvements that satisfy customers now may become permanent improvements to your company’s business model in the future.
The HEART approach provides guidelines on what to say — and what not to say — to consumers during sustained crises. It works on making current and potential customers aware of your company’s plan for supporting them and providing new value that they might require.
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/04/ensure-that-your-customer-relationships-outlast-coronavirus
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/03/communicating-through-the-coronavirus-crisis
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/02/lead-your-business-through-the-coronavirus-crisis
* All information was correct at the time of publication.