Customer experience has become one of the most important ways companies can stand out from the crowd—and also one of the most confounding issues. Yet B2B companies still struggle to understand how consumer trends are driving expectations.

The idea that needs are static can hinder any company from delivering quality CX to its customers. Solving this problem becomes even more critical as companies are considering how to recover from the global disruption of the COVID pandemic.

The needs and wants of customers have shifted dramatically in the couple of months, and companies that continue to move forward in the same old ways will struggle for quite some time.

I recently had a chance to discuss customer experience (CX) best-practices at length with a network of top enterprise leaders. They offered some great insights.

Here are four ways B2B companies can provide helpful, impactful, and timely CX during the crisis.

1. Anticipate needs

Companies with robust customer experience programs have likely gathered customer information in Q4 2019, but those reports may as well be turned into bird-cage liners now. To create meaningful programs that will drive positive CX, companies need to relearn the shifting needs of their customers.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused virtually everyone to reconsider their needs. Once people began worrying they wouldn't have enough food, the frills and perks of traditional CX programs suddenly became uninteresting and even frivolous.

Companies should focus on solving problems for customers; otherwise, they risk coming off as insincere if perceived as shamelessly promoting their product.

Listening is the key. Understanding how to address customer priorities has to come from a place of empathy with a bias toward how you can be helpful to your customers. Listening and building with that empathy will let organizations provide products and services that genuinely serve customers' needs and generate goodwill without coming across as tone deaf or uncaring.

2. Take relevant action

One of the CX leaders I recently spoke with shared that their company is overhauling their relationship surveys at the moment. Their standard question set felt inconsiderate and less relevant to building and maintaining current customer relationships under the circumstances.

Most leading companies are no doubt considering the same thing, whether that means changing the language of surveys, altering the questions, or pausing them altogether.

Relevance is crucial at any time to successful customer experience programs, because it touches on the two primary elements at play: First, the efforts have to be aligned with business strategies and pursue the best interests of the company; second, the elements of the program have to be meaningful in the moment and in the overall context.

Taking care of customers while looking after the business goals can be a tricky line to draw. A CX leader should build programs beginning with the business strategy and determining what is important to long-term success—even if it means rethinking valuable data sources like relationship surveys.

The more organizations can internally align on goals, the easier it is to drive momentum with stakeholders and take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

3. Be timely

In a typical business year, going to the leadership team in May with a recommendation based on January or February data would be reasonable. Now, you risk being considered out of touch and irrelevant, and incapable of running an agile, flexible feedback program.

When faced with shifting priorities and evolving needs, timely outputs are every bit as important as timely inputs.

The same is true with consumers: They are not likely to react well to outdated and immaterial CX efforts. Timeliness shows customers you respect their reality, which is more relevant than ever in this emotionally loaded environment. Companies should be taking this opportunity to follow up with people quickly, introducing meaningful solutions, and showing their appreciation more than ever before.

Customers can be moved to action by notifications, outreach efforts, and programs that are not only relevant but also timely. Companies that demonstrate the ability to connect and quickly communicate in the everchanging landscape will be rewarded with loyalty.

4. Connect on an individual level

Companies can't begin to build CX programs without understanding that we are all riding out the same storm in different boats. Finding ways to cope during a crisis is a task that looks different for everyone, so connecting on a personal level is more important than ever.

What is happening in the world is a tragedy for many, a struggle for others, and an inconvenience for some, but it strips us all down to an understanding of the need to connect. Most of us have never gone through anything that has upended our lives quite like the pandemic, and it is putting us in a place where we can have a truly beneficial impact on lives by simply reaching out.

CX leaders can drive business objectives, anticipate the needs of customers, and deliver more humanity by giving support teams much more flexibility to simply connect. We should start all of our CX conversations by asking after the wellbeing of the people on the other side of the connection.

Customer experience is a vital tool in an age when enterprises struggle to differentiate, but leaders in the space often need to reduce people to measurements and study the numbers to determine success. Companies cannot meet their business objectives unless they are connecting with their customers.

* * *

As we begin to rebuild, the improved customer experience will be essential to helping companies and customers at the same time. The pandemic has shattered or shifted many of the long-held assumptions about what customers need, but it's a time when B2B CX can thrive because, at the core, it's about connecting with individuals.

More Resources on Improving Customer Experience

How to Achieve Loyalty & Growth Through Customer Experience Excellence

Marketing and CX During a National Emergency: Getting Real About Customer-Centricity

What Makes Customer Experience: Jeannie Walters on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

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image of Christine Rimer

Christine Rimer is vice-president of customer experience and advocacy at online survey tool SurveyMonkey.

LinkedIn: Christine Rimer