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Customer communication is vital right now, but it has to be done right and you need to tread carefully when using your customer database. The efforts I’ve seen lately are a real mixed bag: Groupon and others continue to send out discount vouchers for paddleboards and pubs – wishful thinking and annoying! Sainsbury's sent well-meaning COVID-19 messages targeting some customers, but the words used reminded them they were ‘vulnerable’ and left people wondering about oversharing of their medical records. Tesco regularly emails their long-term loyal delivery customers but, as delivery demand exploded, they said nothing to them; they’ve barely updated their delivery page despite showing zero slots available and simply left these customers out in the cold.

Banks are suddenly in the spotlight as people have financial issues and extra needs: some such as Leeds Building Society and Australasian ANZ bank have prominently put their CEO’s name in a personal note on their customer emails. NatWest pushed out a detailed CEO note on Twitter and web updates (where you also see their 24-hour NHS-staff finance helpline) while competitors such as Lloyds, Metrobank and Barclays have changed less, posting useful but emotionless general updates (and Barclaycard recently sent four separate paper marketing mailshots to different people in our house, where two of the five of us are already customers). Some gyms and other facilities are continuing to charge customers despite being shut. But many companies are doing it well: for example, ALDI is reassuring customers not just about supply but also about how they help their staff, from safety measures to increased wages and sick pay. Gumtree is promoting online tutors. True Start coffee now invites their mailing list to join a virtual house party with all their homeworking staff at 11 am each day and donate coffee to a keyworker for every person joining.

In crafting customer messages we need to be hyper-aware of the wider environment: your customers may well be reading sites like didtheyhelp.com which are springing up to log what businesses do at the moment, ranking them as ‘heroes’ (making donations, re-purposing resources, offering free food to keyworkers, etc. ). And it’s also logging all the ‘zeroes’ (for forcing ill staff to work or staying open while putting staff at risk) – so don’t be in your customers’ minds for the wrong reasons.

So, what five things should brands be doing to use data wisely in customer communications?

  1. Do personalise and target communications, but be extra careful with sensitive data.
  2. Think ‘what’s in it for me’ (the customer). Prioritise their likely concerns such as how you’re helping keep staff safe and your continuity of service.
  3. If there are temporary closures of sites, layoffs or other interruptions then be factual, brief and honest, and put your leaders visibly out front. Conversely with positive news – if your business is helping the wider community somehow, you may want to briefly thank your staff, but leave it at that.
  4. Avoid adding to the noise: only speak up when you feel you need to, and keep it brief.
  5. Get someone outside your team to sense-check any communication to avoid inadvertently creating other issues.