For Experience-driven Brands, Now’s the Time to Adapt to Thrive in a Post-COVID-19 Reality

Anyone can look around today and see that the world is a far different place now than it was before COVID-19. So much about how companies manage and operate has changed — probably forever. Nowhere is this more evident than among industries and companies that rely heavily, if not exclusively, on frontline employees to drive the customer experience. These experience-driven brands depend on face-to-face interaction to deliver experiences that won’t just create revenue in the short term but will increase customer lifetime value — again and again.

These are the kinds of organizations that, especially today, need to start preparing to reopen and accelerate employee performance in what surely will be a new world of heightened consumer expectations. Businesses in the hardest-hit industries can start laying the groundwork now and take positive, meaningful steps to begin rehabilitating and rebuilding their frontline for the road ahead.

Who are we talking about? Three of the industries most impacted by the current pandemic are hotels, restaurants, and retailers (especially retailers that rely on brick-and-mortar storefronts). All three are experience-driven industries. As the challenges of today’s realities subside, companies in these industries will race toward recovery. They’ll begin taking all of the steps necessary to achieve a new normal and succeed under new market conditions. After all, these industries have been forced to lay off or put on leave millions of employees.

The Harris Poll reports that just over 1 in 5 Americans say they’ll stay in a hotel within a month of the COVID-19 curve flattening. It will take six months after the curve flattens before the number of visitors will reach 60%, according to the poll.

Restaurants have, meanwhile, laid off over 3 million people so far, and 42 states have banned dine-in service — nearly a knockout blow to the industry. Yes, many are adapting by increasing takeout and curbside service. But for most, that can’t equal the revenue they were generating when customers were coming in, sitting down, and interacting with restaurant staff.

A survey of 4,000 members of the National Restaurant Association found:

  • 54% of restaurant operators have switched to off-premises service only
  • 70% have had to lay off employees and reduce the number of hours worked; roughly half of those expect more layoffs and hourly reductions by the end of April
  • 14% have either permanently closed or anticipate closing within 30 days

Retailers, meanwhile, are facing an even more daunting and uniquely industry-fracturing situation: They’re either struggling to keep up with demand during this time of sheltering in place or being mandated to close temporarily.

“COVID-19 has hit the retail industry unevenly,” Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation, wrote on April 15. “This is a market of haves and have-nots. The haves are the stores that remain open with lines out the doors to buy daily necessities, while the have-nots are the stores that have closed and are taking the brunt of the impact of the pandemic.”

The U.S. Census Bureau said on April 20 that overall retail sales during March were down 8.7% seasonally adjusted from February and down 6.2% unadjusted year over year. The monthly drop is the largest ever recorded, exceeding a 4.3% decline in November 2008 during the Great Recession.

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When multi-unit brands reopen their physical doors, many may need to quickly onboard a sudden rush of new employees to meet new business needs or replace employees who don’t return. And just as following other downturns, a large number of people will be working in unfamiliar roles. Perhaps most importantly, every single one of their employees will need to quickly get up to speed on who’s doing what, and what the absolutely certain-to-come new processes will require of them.

Adapting to this new reality is going to require effective and engaging communications simply to get a business going again — let alone nurture it to thrive. The key is to be sure you’re supporting frontline employees with the best communications possible through a time that will continue to be precarious — even unknown — for businesses and their workforce. Flexible organizations that are quick to adapt and invest in their people will be ready to accelerate performance and meet the new, intensified expectations of employees and customers.

Frontline-dependent companies need to be equipped now with tools to quickly and efficiently mobilize their customer-facing workforces so they’re prepared to swiftly and effectively return to increased productivity. They’ll need to act with maximum efficiency and engagement when the time comes. That’s the first critical step toward successfully linking the employee and customer experiences. How? By giving every employee — those still on the job, those furloughed, and those yet to be hired — the information, inspiration, and insights that will help them achieve new standards of success.

Here are four back-to-business tactics that are critical for any organization — but especially customer-experience brands — and that each demand the right communications to be successful:

  1. Expedite team recruitment and scale up frontline workforces when it’s time by effectively re-engaging furloughed employees and driving vetted referrals when they’re needed most.
  2. Accelerate frontline onboarding with behavior-change campaigns that have been set to run on autopilot, and reinforce training with micro-communications and ongoing support.
  3. Empower managers to assign tasks that will optimize the in-location experience and reintroduce the brand to consumers with evolved expectations when the time arrives.
  4. Capture insights with pulse surveys on topics such as willingness to return to work and roadblocks to returning to work. Why? To know the workforce better and optimize team productivity, satisfaction, and retention.

This is the only way experience-based brands will come out ahead after the pandemic recedes. The winners can start now to drive greater frontline performance later by applying communication that will empower employees, and influence and inspire the usually underserved frontline workforce in ways they find meaningful, rather than merely tolerate.

Jordan Ekers is Co-founder and Chief Customer Officer of Nudge Rewards, a leading communications platform for frontline employees. He’s worked with many of North America’s leading retail, foodservice, and hospitality brands to design transformative approaches for executing the brand promise and empowering frontline teams. Jordan has been a speaker and conference chair at major industry events, such as NRF’s Big Show and the Future Stores series, as well as a guest on BNN Bloomberg.

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