Lessons from lockdown: how firms should communicate with their customers going forward

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Lockdown restrictions might be starting to ease, but we’ve not yet entered a new normal. Rather, we’re still trying to work out what the new normal looks like. With the fear of a second wave keeping customers away from bricks-and-mortar shops, it’s clear that trying to go back to the way things were pre-coronavirus is not a possibility. So obviously a lot of that retail activity will now happen online, and businesses will have to adapt.

But it’s not just retail that needs to move online – services do too. Essential services like banking, paying energy bills, council tax and so on will all need to be done digitally. We’re lucky in the UK because a lot of these services are already able to be done virtually. But in some countries they still require a trip to the bank or post office. This will change, though it will require a big cultural shift. It’s a question of changing habits. Once customers discover they have an appetite for the virtual world with all its convenience, that will drive businesses to provide more services online.

Getting the comms right

In the B2B world, we’ve all embraced Zoom, Google Hangouts, and all the messaging apps, but in the B2C world, companies are struggling to find the right approach. Which is why a lot of consumers are still bombarded by marketing emails and irrelevant newsletters. It’s not enough to simply go digital – you have to carve out an effective communication strategy too.

Some things are best avoided. The hard sell. Constant spamming. Irrelevant marketing. The newsletter blast. There was a lot of noise in the digital space before the coronavirus crisis, but now there will be even more because a lot of businesses will be doing the same thing. If you want to be heard, it’s vital to cut through the noise and establish one-to-one communication with customers. The after-sales customer care, and allowing customers to get answers to their questions at any hour of the day will make or break a lot of businesses.

Enter messaging

This is where messaging apps can help. With many call centres closed, customers are increasingly talking to businesses through messaging apps. A lot of companies are integrating messaging as part of their communication strategy, but with no clear direction – it’s a bit like the Wild West. As time goes on, those that do get it right will have an advantage over their rivals. This is what will drive loyalty, engagement and reengagement, and ultimately ensure a steady flow of sales. If you can’t meet your customers face-to-face, you need to meet them by personalising their experience with you. How better to do that than with a one-to-one channel like messaging?

Messaging has other advantages, too. Because the platform is encrypted, it’s more secure. Most customers don’t pay any attention to their data security online – it’s sad, but true. But that could change very soon. Once they communicate online more, with more transactions and customer care conversations done online, and more of their personal data at risk, they will start taking data security more seriously. I wouldn’t be comfortable knowing that someone has access to all that information. So I think data security will finally get the attention it deserves. It will be more important than ever that brands make sure their technology is secure.

Adjusting to something like the new normal

I’ve always considered the UK to be leading the way in Europe for e-commerce, so I was a bit surprised that some companies are not investing more in digital. Of course, the pandemic has hampered some companies’ efforts – you can’t expect them to develop technology at the same speed under lockdown. So it could be that as things open up, more businesses become more active in the online space. At least I hope so.

If they fail to recognise that this is a need, they will have a problem. The next six months will be very telling.

The issue isn’t unique to the UK. In fact, it’s worse elsewhere in Europe. Some companies in France and Italy are trying to get people back into bricks-and-mortar shops, and they’re hoping to get back to the same level of activity as before lockdown. It’s very worrying.

Businesses would be better off adapting to the new circumstances, and spotting the opportunities. Because there are always opportunities, even in a crisis. One of them is the chance to embrace technology, which has to become part of the strategy. In most cases, it already is. But the fact that social distancing is here to stay will affect bricks-and-mortar shops. These retailers should be looking at increasing their online activity. That doesn’t mean just having a website. It means engaging with your customer database – and how you conduct that communication is critical. It needs to happen in the right way if you want your business to grow.

With more noise in the digital space, being heard will be harder than ever. If you can’t cut through it, your customers will desert you because someone else will lend them a more attentive ear. In an age characterised by uncertainty, that’s one thing we can know for sure.

Cristina Constandache, chief revenue officer at Rakuten Viber

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