To build customer loyalty during COVID-19, maximize interactions between transactions.

Apr 2, 2020

Most brands are experts at driving transactions. From years of experience, they know how to nudge a customer down the sales funnel with a well-timed discount offer or well-placed retargeted ad. However, these techniques are not as effective during the COVID-19 crisis. To develop a true relationship with a consumer, brands will need to look beyond the point of sale (POS) to focus on the moments of engagement captured through the likes of social media interactions, feedback loops, customer service moments, content sharing, video connections and more.

One reason interacting at just the POS is not enough, is simply that transactions are fewer and further between during this time. With unemployment rates in the double digits, many customers simply do not have the discretionary funds they did before the pandemic. Those who are still employed may feel anxiety about their financial security, as well as their emotional wellbeing. These feelings of stress and anxiety pose another challenge for brands during the pandemic. Customers may re-evaluate their routines, which in essence is evaluating who they’re loyal to. This may be driven by safety, convenience, online presence, etc. An economic recession always breaks old habits and remakes them anew. Layer on a health crisis like COVID-19, and the threats to long-term loyalty skyrockets.

To weather the storm, your brand should address these emotions, not avoid them. Pivot your experience to create a human connection, not just a transactional one. Address customers’ concerns and current situation through authentic engagement and meaningful interactions, and you’ll build loyalty that will have lasting impressions, long after COVID-19 passes. This pivot is key for most brands’ post-pandemic revival.

Three ways to drive emotional loyalty between the transaction

Three main emotions drive customer loyalty: the need for a habitual routine, a desire for status and feelings of reciprocity. As mentioned above, a crisis-situation will most always disrupt consumer’s habits, and it usually makes customers care less about status and exclusivity, too.

That makes the notion of reciprocity ever so important. Customers right now are highly emotional and want to feel valued and heard by the brands they choose to engage and interact with. They want brands to reflect their own values and priorities, and they may even want the ability to contribute to a greater cause. This is one reason that socially conscious brands like Everlane and Patagonia took off after the last recession: They gave customers good reasons to stick around even during tough times.

Keep these principles in mind as you brainstorm ways to engage customers in between transactions during and after the pandemic.

1. Add value with non-sales content. Right now, customers are dealing with a lot of new experiences, such as working from home, wearing facemasks outside and cooking healthy meals for their families with limited supplies. Build a stronger emotional connection with customers by serving up content that supports these sometimes difficult activities. For example, Best Buy offered tips for setting up a home office rather than pushing computer sales. Share your helpful content via email, on social media or anywhere else you connect with your customers.

2. Make your policies flexible. At a time when many people are struggling, offering customers wiggle room on return policies and other rules can surprise and delight — and convince customers that your brand is a keeper. For example, Marriott paused points expiration for its Bonvoy loyalty program, as well as adjusting the hotel chain’s cancellation policy to be more flexible during the pandemic. Announcing policy changes is also a good excuse to reach out to customers without pushing a sale.

3. Find ways to give back to your community. Supporting causes bigger than your company is a key element of reciprocity. For example, shoe brand Tom’s, a pioneer in this space, is donating one-third of its net profits to organizations on the front lines of the pandemic. You do not have to donate cash; in fact, the contribution might be more impactful if it is tailored to your business and its products or services. For example, several restaurant chains including Chipotle have donated free food to healthcare workers.

Address emotions in the present, but plan for the future

The instability and uncertainty we all feel today won’t last forever. However, brands that respond empathetically and effectively to customers’ emotions during this crisis will be best positioned to weather the storm. Old habits are broken during a recession — but new habits are also established. And, those who keep customers engaged between transactions, building valuable emotional loyalty, will become part of those new habits as they form. In order for brands to truly understand customer’s emotional drivers, you should look into tools like Kobie’s Emotional Loyalty Scoring (ELS®) to help re-segment and decipher customer reactions to messaging, benefits and offers.