Heroes and Zeroes: How Organizations are Treating Customers and Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Photo by Pille-Riin Priske on Unsplash

By Dave Fish, Michelle Tunney, and Landry Chopin

With unemployment predicted to reach 30% caused by a pandemic of truly biblical proportions, panicked human beings are drawn to their basic instincts of fight or flight instincts. Stand for what’s right or retreat to what is easy. This instinct translates into the leadership of governments, non-profits, and for-profit organizations. The response by organizations have been varied as it relates to CX and EX. 

Author Robert McKee I think best sums it up the current state of affairs…

“True character is revealed in the choices a human being makes under pressure. The greater the pressure, the deeper the revelation, the truer the choice to the character’s essential nature”

Over the past few days and weeks, we have seen the true nature of many has been revealed. Some are surprises, most are not. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly as to how companies treat both their employees (EX) and customers (CX) during this global crisis.

We Do Need Another Hero

Sticking to their brand principles, Disney has prioritized guest health over profits. As an early mover closing parks and resorts before most states had even issued stay at home recommendations (much less shelter in place orders) the company is also readily refunding the costs of unused vacation pre-paids, such as resort reservation costs, prepaid meals, and special event tickets. The Disney Vacation Club has also proactively refunded any points scheduled for use during the closure period, which has now been extended to indefinite duration. The CEO and other top execs are foregoing salary this year as the corporation seeks to keep customers and employee’s whole, as much as possible. Email communication from the company has highlighted that they want to help their guests get through this hard time without having to call to cancel plans and request refunds. The proactivity and integrity are very much on-brand with the Disney resort experience.

Global retailing juggernaut Walmart has announced over $25 million in grants to frontline responders. As the world’s largest grocery store, they are relied upon by their 265 million customers who visit weekly to stay open and in-stock for their communities. Walmart has kept to its everyday low price (EDLP) policy and they also used their buying influence to ensure suppliers keep their prices from inflating due to increased demand. They have deployed social distancing floor decals in their store, provider “elder hours” to help older customers shop first, closed stores at night for thorough disinfecting, provides wipes and sprayers for carts and now are checking employee temperature every day as they report to work and making gloves and gloves available to associates who request them.

Amazon has delayed delivery of non-essential products, prioritizing products essential to health and wellness, such as medical supplies and household staples which are very important for homebound customers and those at greater risk of exposure in public markets.

Others are helping folks out financially by providing relief and avoiding defaults. For example, ToyotaFinancials Servicesis offering payment relief, lease-end support for current customers and 90 day payment deferrals for new customers. Hyundai, GM, Nissan, Chrysler, and Ford are also digging in with their own approaches to soften the financial blow and reduce defaults.

Most Internet Service Providers (Comcast, Cox, Verizon, etc.) have removed data caps and increased speeds for customers during this crisis since most customers are at home and the Internet is the primary avenue for work, education, entertainment, and social interaction during shelter-in-place orders. We live in incredible times when some of our most fundamental needs can now be satisfied by virtue of our ISPs.

In fact, most of the nation’s largest companies are reacting in a pro-social and responsible manner. JustCapital.com provides a great wrap up of exactly what they nations “top 100 largest public employers” are doing for both their customers and employees.

Source: Justcapital.com as of March 19,2020

The Ugly

On the flip side, we have seen some poor choices made by organizations in the context of this disaster. 

For example, many were critical of the Florida’s state government for being slow to close beaches to spring break revelers, potentially making a bad situation worse. Understandably the Florida economy (and especially the beach cities) are heavily dependent on tourism dollars. However, putting money over health may cost many people their jobs in the future and sadly for some, it will cost their lives. There is data to indicate that this decision may have also contributed to accelerating the spread of the disease across the nation as spring breakers return back home.

Hobby Lobby probably also did itself no favors, having reputedly have retaliated against its employees for speaking out it policies and staying open during epidemic. While closing down, there are documented cases that indicate the store continues to defy state-mandated lockdowns by reopening stores, unnecessarily endangering both customers and employees…and well apparently just breaking the law. While people do need toilet paper and food, Styrofoam shapes, hope chests, and pre-made birdhouses are not business-critical items. This PR will not help them when the dust settles.

While Amazon is trying to do the right thing by its customers, it looks like some of their employees have a different point of view. As of March 31st Whole Foods workers have walked out and demonstrating over lack of personal protection in the workplace. To make the PR mess a bit worse, the organizer of an Amazon warehouse walkout was fired. To some this validates Amazon as a great place to shop…but a horrible place to work. These incidents are not going to help them shake that reputation.

Likewise Instacart’s workers felt the company’s response to their safety concerns may have been a bit tone-deaf as a growing number of their workers are getting sick or risk of getting sick. Some of their workers are saying the company hasn’t done enough to safeguard them against the illness, prompting a walkout. Being ‘gig’ workers Instacart workforce are not afforded insurance and so getting infected makes them particularly susceptible to devastating economic and health consequences. They are demanding “hazard pay”, a minimum tip amount, and two weeks sick leave. So far, some of the demands have been made…but workers are still striking.

Another perhaps well-intentioned mishap is when Yelp and GoFundme started to auto-enrolling businesses into a compulsory fundraising campaign. While the intent is laudatory; trying to help local businesses being devasted by the effects of COVID-19, the execution was poor in that it did so by making participation compulsory for those same ravaged businesses and making opting out very difficult. A good idea poorly executed.

The Pivot

Some companies were able to adapt to the new situation; both keeping their employees…well …employed and helping to do social good in the fight against the virus. This obviously is the best solution…to find the white space and adapt quickly to new circumstances.

Ford, GM, GE, 3M, Chrysler and others quickly moved on the opportunity to manufacture Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs) like masks and respirators to supply front line medical professionals with necessary gear to continue safely treating patients.

Ever shrewd marketers, Hyundai dusted off their “Assurance Job Loss Protection” guaranteeing up to six months of payments for a new vehicle in the event buyers lose their job due to COVID-19. This creates peace of mind for new buyers and pulls forward sales that people might have put off until after the dust settled.

Anheuser-Busch is making and donating hand sanitizer, relying on the Red Cross to direct donations to reach front-line medical professionals where the need is greatest. According to the New York Post, “The sanitizer was shown in containers similar to those usually holding its beers — which also include Michelob Ultra, Stella Artois and Hoegaarden — and the tagline, “It’s in all our hands to make a difference.”

Making a Difference…Locally

You don’t have be as large as Amazon, Walmart, GM or 3M to make a difference. Just like every long journey begins with one step, every big and enduring change starts with just a few good people doing the right thing. 

You can see it right here in my local community in sunny Northwest Arkansas. For example, tiny distillery Fox Trail has quickly changed from making high octane booze to life-saving hand and surface sanitizer. Tiny Trash Creamery has been sponsoring free ice cream (at responsible social distancing) in exchange for donations which are donated to local charities battling the COVID – 19 epidemic.

Hang in There

It is comforting to see so many companies stepping up in these hard times. As a CX practitioner it’s wise to make the right decisions today for customers and employees versus ones based purely on economic gains or losses. It’s painful but customers AND employees will remember what you did (or didn’t do) when they really needed you. This is the very definition of how to create customers and employees for life.

The good news is everyone can do something and do it now. The other good news is that there will be an end to this pandemic. Judgment day will be here and you should ask yourself; will your company be judged a Hero or a Zero?

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