This blog post was written in concert with my colleague Valerie King, Content Writer, Marketing & Industry Engagement, Gongos, Inc.
Years ago, a colleague worked for a company whose customer base was largely made up of senior citizens. They would frequently call the customer service center, and the company noticed a puzzling pattern—often, customers didn’t seem to have any true product-based assistance needs. So, what did they really want?
Over time, what was happening became clear: these customers weren’t calling to obtain assistance, they were calling simply to have someone to talk to. They were lonely.
Acknowledging this, the company took measures to evolve its approaches to customer service. Call representatives were still trained on how to be most efficient in everyday transactions, but in these instances, they were encouraged to focus on customers’ ongoing issue—their loneliness. It meant providing a true human-to-human experience—even if it took an hour.
But this is not just a story about the elderly. The generation set to take over in spending power by 2020—millennials—is actually one of the loneliest. Seemingly, this paradox has nothing to do with brands—but empathic brands are distinguishing themselves by becoming facilitators of relationships with their customers.
Why connection matters to businesses
Long before a mysterious virus entered our lives, we were in the midst of a more hidden, but still ominous epidemic of loneliness. It has been growing for generations, and today, exacerbated by lockdowns and social distancing, loneliness has exploded in scope: nearly half of us say we’re lonelier than ever before.
Scientists who study human behavior have long known the high costs of loneliness. It can have the same long-term physical outcomes on health as smoking regularly, it weakens the immune system, and can be linked to heart disease and stroke. Loneliness changes how and why people make decisions, potentially inducing a spiral of negative emotions.
Businesses must recognize that loneliness is a central part of their customers’—and employees’—lives, and that finding human ways to connect is imperative. From an ethical standpoint, helping bridge the gap between isolation and belonging is an act of humanity. It tackles a widespread sense of hardship at a time when more than half of consumers expect brands to act socially responsibly. As for the business case, companies that genuinely connect do better. In fact, consumers are 57 percent more likely to develop loyalty toward brands that demonstrate human connection.
People are keeping a close eye on who is offering empathetic, meaningful solutions—and who’s just acting the part. The companies that put people before profits and form reciprocal relationships are the ones that will come out of this critical moment ahead. Those that do the opposite stand to lose the trust of most (71 percent) forever. Below, we’ve highlighted three ways to cultivate genuine engagement that nourishes people’s growing need for truer connection.
Building reciprocal human connections
How do businesses build meaningful human connections? By enabling employees to do the right thing—solving instead of selling, as Edelman puts it—even if that means upending business as usual, or taking approaches that at first seem counterintuitive or inefficient.
Connect in meaningful ways
There’s a physiological aspect to connection. In the absence of physical contact, people produce less of the mood-boosting hormone oxytocin. Companies can’t fix this, but they can offer people emotional contact and support. As research psychologist Adam Grant points out, “[Fighting loneliness] doesn’t require a long interaction… Forty seconds of interaction—a positive, caring interaction—has measurable impacts.”
Companies Getting It Right:
For years, Zappos has been using the humble telephone to wow customers with genuine, highly personal human connection. During the Covid-19 crisis, Zappos proved the value of those connections goes beyond products—by taking their top-tier customer service to new heights with the “Customer Service Anything Hotline.” Need a movie recommendation or help finding groceries? Call Zappos. Just need someone to talk to? They’re there.
Help people find purpose
Science tells us that cultivating a sense of personal meaning can fight feelings of isolation, anxiety, and stress—all of which are running especially high right now. This doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, just personally fulfilling—from making one’s family happy, to expressing creativity, to performing acts of kindness. During this trying time, businesses are helping customers find and focus on a sense of purpose in countless ways.
Companies Getting It Right:
Brands like Hilton, Ikea, and Disney have all made public their iconic recipes to bring a bit of happiness to isolated individuals. Language learning app Babbel has made its lessons free for all U.S. students through mid-June. And grocery delivery service FreshDirect is helping people practice remote acts of kindness by donating one pantry meal to families in need for every meal delivery purchased.
Empathize and adjust in the moment
In today’s uncertain and fluid climate, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate needs from day to day. But one thing that is clear: smart businesses understand they can’t treat people the same way they did pre-pandemic, so they’re reinventing their approaches.
Companies Getting It Right:
Alcohol delivery app Drizly, for instance, has recognized that “those who have (or are at risk for) an unhealthy relationship with alcohol are facing increased challenges.” Its response: to go out of its way not to sell to vulnerable customers. Drizly is providing access to a resource offering mental health assistance, and will help vulnerable customers disable their accounts.
Dare to make a difference
The human craving for connection isn’t at all new, nor the upward trend in feelings of isolation. But with much of the world sacrificing togetherness in the name of safety, both have reached new heights.
Amid two epidemics—Covid-19 and loneliness—brands absent of a heart that lacks true human touch will fall short. Those that choose interaction over transaction will make a meaningful difference in people’s lives and rise up.
Research shows that how well brands respond to this crisis will have a huge impact on consumers’ likelihood to buy from them in the future—65 percent of people say so. And one in three individuals have already convinced others to stop using a brand they felt was not acting appropriately.
These findings point to the important truth that people and profit are inextricably linked. Doing the right thing is always in the business interest—especially during this time of turbulence—and helping lower the sense of loneliness felt by humankind is a critical part of that equation. Brands that build belonging will simultaneously build loyalty and longevity.