Customer journey management, from journey mapping to journey orchestration, is based on the idea that if you understand your customers—their needs, their preferences, their behaviors—you can create a consistently positive customer experience for them.

At the same time, however, your efforts are not selfless: You seek to provide a positive customer experience because it drives things like repeat purchases, positive sentiment, and long-term loyalty.

But what happens when there is a major crisis, such as a once-in-a-century pandemic that affects hundreds of millions around the world?

Focusing on your customers under these circumstances can't be about maximizing customer lifetime value. Instead, it needs to be about seeing how you can support them through the crisis.

Indeed, it's time to get real about customer centricity.

The Constant Even in Uncertain Times

As the world responds to the COVID-19 outbreak, every organization faces existential questions about how they might weather not only the immediate changes required to stem the wider spread of the virus but also the ensuing economic fallout.

In the process of answering those questions, organizations have the opportunity to go beyond lip service and use the deep understanding they have of their customers to help customers in meaningful ways.

Aside from being the right thing to do, the proactive steps you take to help your customers in a time of upheaval will gain trust and build relationships.

Customer experience has always mattered, and the principles defining good or bad customer experience haven't changed in light of the recent crisis: They've just been brought into stark relief.

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all response to exceptional circumstances. Each company will have to figure out for itself what its customers need at this moment and how specifically the company can respond. Fortunately, you should already have plenty of customer data, and you should have been using that data to understand your customers in normal times.

Three Customer-Centric Questions You Should Be Asking and Answering

Now, to really show up for your customers, you need to use that data and that understanding to answer the following questions.

1. How is this crisis affecting my customers?

Although everyone has been touched by the COVID-19 outbreak, it has affected different businesses in different ways. Any kind of business that relies on foot traffic or in-person interactions—from restaurants and bars to hotels, brick-and-mortar retail, and the travel industry more broadly—has taken a serious hit. In turn, there have been repercussions for businesses that serve those companies.

Other businesses have had to adjust to their entire team's working remotely, which poses a host of technical, operational, and managerial challenges. Others still may have had to lay off or furlough staff or reduce their hours; as a result, they continue to serve their customers—but with fewer resources.

Dive into your customer data to see what it can tell you about the specific challenges your customers are facing. Naturally, you won't be able to address all those challenges, and that leads to the next question.

2. How specifically can we help?

If you serve the events industry, there is nothing you can do to make in-person events possible at the moment. So what can you do?

Well, do you have customers on 30-day payment terms? Bump it out to 90 days to give them some breathing room, and re-evaluate circumstances at the end of those three months.

Do you offer limited free trials of your product? Remove the limits for now.

Do you charge by the seat for your software? Offer unlimited seats for companies that now have their entire workforce working remotely.

You know your customers and you know your business. And, frankly, you might be suffering as well. So, you'll have to strike a balance between what would most benefit your customers and what you can reasonably sustain.

That said, every opportunity you have to help represents an opportunity to demonstrate your customer centricity. That effort won't be forgotten; in fact, in fact will matter a great deal once this crisis has passed. That leads us to our final question.

3. Can the help you offer customers now become your new standard operating procedure?

Your customers, like you, are figuring out how to adjust to a new reality. Even those who haven't felt the impacts of the crisis as acutely are still trying to navigate a new set of experiences, including experiences with your brand. Face-to-face interactions are giving way to digital ones, and where customers used to interact with a person, now they're likely interacting with a website, chat, or other digital interface.

Some of the changes we're making as a society in response to the COVID-19 outbreak are going to have lasting power beyond the point when the virus is finally contained. Wider conversations about the newfound viability of distributed workforces or an acceleration of digital transformation are already happening across all industries.

As a good business citizen, explore ways you can help your customers adjust to the new ways we interact with each other—both now and as we emerge from the current crisis.

After all, the help you offer to your customers is certainly needed now more than it was before the outbreak began, but it will likely still be needed after the health crisis abates, as the world finds its footing.

What would it take to make today's selfless gesture of support simply a feature of your business? If customers find it valuable, what would you have to change about your current operations to keep it going?

Putting it another way, once you've reset customer expectations by helping them out, what will be the cost of returning to the old way of doing business?

* * *

As everyone adjusts to a "new normal," some of those new realities are markedly more difficult than others. By using data to uncover the problems your customers are facing and determining how you can specifically help them, you demonstrate your customer centricity and shared commitment to success.

The path to meaningful change is yours to chart, but asking the above questions will help you understand where you can make the most difference and how you can adjust your business in the short- and long-term.

Customer centricity has always been the key to meaningful customer experience, but brands now have the opportunity to demonstrate it in a way that goes well beyond the bottom line.

More Resources on Customer Centricity

Five Steps to Becoming a More Customer-Centric Company

Creating a Culture of Customer Centricity: SAP's Chief Digital Marketing Officer Mika Yamamoto on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

Three Steps to Designing a Customer-Centric Organization

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image of Mark Smith

Mark Smith is president of Kitewheel, a company that orchestrates real-time personalized journey management using current marketing and advertising technology.

LinkedIn: Mark Smith