Back to Gartner for Marketers Blog

The COVID-19 Dilemma: Remaining Customer-Centric When Customers Expect Incompatible Pandemic Rules

By Augie Ray | June 15, 2020 | 0 Comments

“The Customer is always right.” As a customer experience (CX) professional, I’ve heard that maxim quite a lot. The well-worn adage has never been entirely correct. The customer can be wrong, and knowing when and how to identify and manage that situation requires brands to recognize the distinction between being customer-centric and customer-subservient. Understanding that difference is vital as you consider the right policies to lure customers back to your business while ensuring the safety of customers and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When I say the customer isn’t always right, I’m not simply talking about the occasional unreasonable or abusive customer but about the fact “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want” (as Steve Jobs is credited with saying). If we acted as if every customer whim is equal, we risk becoming customer-subservient, blindly chasing every consumer impulse. Being customer-centric is a little different–it means making decisions that are in the best interest of your customer.

In normal times, the difference between customer-centric and customer-subservient can seem relatively minor or meaningless, but in times of stress, change, and challenge, the two can be quite different.

Drugstores, Cigarettes and the Difference Between Customer-Subservience and Customer-Centricity

To explore the subservient/centric difference, ask yourself it is customer-subservient or customer-centric for a drugstore chain to sell cigarettes. A drugstore’s customer personas include a person who wants to purchase cigarettes regularly, and when they do, they often add other items to their basket. That there is a market to be served is unquestionable, but should a drugstore committed to the health and well-being of its customers sell “cancer sticks”?

For decades, there was no question. I worked my way through high school in a drugstore run by pharmacists, and I never gave a thought to the number of customers to whom I sold products containing a prominent health warning. But then attitudes began to shift, forcing drugstore executives to reconsider their values, brand, and customer-centricity.

Six years ago, the trend toward tobacco-free pharmacies got a boost when CVS became the first national drugstore chain to drop sales of cigarettes. Some of its competitors haven’t yet followed suit as they struggle to balance profit versus health or, put another way, weighing customer-subservience versus customer-centricity. A customer-subservient approach suggests a drugstore brand must do what the customer wants provided there’s profit to be earned, while a customer-centric mindset considers that “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.”

These are sensitive and important decisions, particularly for corporations with a fiduciary responsibility to shareholders. And, of course, people’s strong emotions over smoking only make these decisions even more difficult. A drugstore may view the decision to carry cigarettes through the lens of profit versus customer health, but customers often line up on starkly different lines, with liberty and personal choice on one side versus the greater good of the community on the other.

COVID-19, Masks, and Social Distancing

Does any of that feel a bit familiar in the COVID-19 era? It does to brands with physical locations struggling to set the right policies as they reopen. On the one side are people who expect brands to have and enforce safe policies during a global health crisis, and on the other are people who oppose wearing masks and social distancing. Whatever your brand decides will be viewed in starkly partisan ways–either as an affront to freedom and individual rights or a deadly capitulation that risks the health and lives of customers and employees.

Navigating this divide during the pandemic is difficult, so some brands try to find the middle. A friend shared an email from her gym that asks “Pro-Mask Members” to “be understanding that a lot of our members don’t feel comfortable wearing them or think that such a requirement is inappropriate for a variety of moral, political, or other reasons. Please be forgiving of these people and do your best to just remain physically distant from them.” And it tells “Anti-Mask Members” who “may be asking what’s in it for you” to wear a mask rather than alienate other guests because, “simply put, the more members that we have, the more we can invest in and improve your clubs.”

At first glance, this sounds reasonable, but is this fair to every customer? To answer this question, we first have to stipulate two points of fact: The first is that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over and remains a significant threat to health and lives, and the second is that the CDC recommends that “Everyone should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public.” In this context, the gym is asking one party to embrace a relatively minor inconvenience that adheres to public health best practices while requesting other customers to risk the lives of themselves and loved ones. With gyms having significant and unique risk factors during a pandemic, this gym’s approach is customer-subservient (trying–and failing–to give everyone what they want) and not customer-centric (providing what is in their members’ best interests).

Unfortunately, much like with other issues that have become highly factional and partisan, there is little middle ground when it comes to COVID-19 policies. Until a vaccine is available, your brand cannot allow customers to do whatever they wish during the pandemic and also protect the health of other customers and employees. Not choosing is choosing. So, how do you make the choice?

COVID-19 and the Customer-Subservient vs. Customer-Centric Choice

It is probably obvious that I have a strong opinion that brands should bias toward protecting customers during the pandemic. In general, it is customer- and employee-centric to require masks, social distancing, and safe behaviors; and it is customer-subservient to permit a few customers to risk the health of many others. That said, it is evident (even to me) this isn’t so cut-and-dried a decision. Depending on your brand’s categories, locations, and customers, it may be possible to reach a different conclusion for your particular situation. To make the decision, you should consider:

  • How might customer attitudes change in the coming months, and may that impact what they think about our brand’s decision today? Right now, in many parts of the country, it is easy for people to think of COVID-19 as an issue somewhere else–Wuhan, Spain, Italy, or New York City–and not in their neighborhood where they see all the anxiety, inconvenience and economic damage but none of the suffering or health risks. But, that may change should the virus spread–in fact, we’ve seen evidence that people’s attitudes shift when someone they know becomes infected. So, how might opinions shift in a place like Arizona if current trends continue? The state is seeing a rapid rise in cases, and while the government seeks to assure citizens about hospital capacity, others are sounding the alarm. Companies operating in Arizona may face swift changes in attitudes and expectations if hospitals hit capacity, people are unable to receive treatment, and healthcare workers start suffering as they did in NYC two months ago. How will your brand look if it sets looser policies and then needs to backtrack to match evolving customer expectations?
  • How do you serve the needs of the greatest number of customers? It’s smart to evaluate what your customers really want. Don’t be moved by the loudest voices, but make sure your decisions don’t appease a small minority while alienating the lion’s share of your customer base. In fact, in a recent qualitative study, Gartner found that the vast majority of consumers expect staff at brand-operated premises to enforce health and safety protocols like social distancing, mask-wearing, and temperature checks. Perhaps your brand has a huge portion of customers that demand no safety precautions, in which case it is customer-centric to have more lax policies. But most brands serve customers across a broad spectrum of COVID-19 attitudes, and they must set policies not to appease the most vocal but the most voices.
  • What risks–reputation, legal, and financial–is your brand willing to accept? The risks of stringent safety requirements are more immediate–customers can be angered and take their business elsewhere (now and in the future). The risks of permitting more customer choice while in your store are less immediate but may be greater in the long-run. If an outbreak is traced to your location or event, will that affect people’s attitudes about your brand and willingness to consider? (It has already happened.) If an employee becomes ill because your company failed to set policies that protect workers, what are the potential ramifications? (This has happened, too.) If contact tracing leads a customer to become aware they became infected due to your brand’s lax policies, what reputation and legal risks does that entail? Every brand must answer these questions for themselves and may come to different conclusions.
  • Are you prepared to enforce rules? Not setting any rules is easy–you can simply return to “business as usual.” But choosing to adopt safer policies requires effort: You must set and communicate policies, train staff on new procedures, including how to deal with sensitive customer interactions, and most importantly, require your employees to enforce those rules. The worst-case scenario brands face is having strict policies but failing to act on them. If your brand promotes safe policies, such as requiring customers to wear masks, but fails to monitor customers as they enter your store, you risk a lose-lose situation that alienates everyone. Customers allowed to enter and then asked to leave will be offended, and customers who counted on your brand to offer a safe environment will feel your brand failed to honor its promise. Set your policies and consider what is necessary to support employees who must enforce those policies.
  • Are there potential accommodations? There may be little middle ground, but creative approaches may be possible. A gym might have days of the week dedicated to those who choose to wear no masks while reserving other days of the week only for those who will keep masks on. A retailer might require masks but offer to do the shopping for customers who refuse to wear a mask. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but with effort and careful planning, you may find ways to meet most expectations.

Each brand must come to its own decision based on the customers it serves, the communities in which it operates, its values and purpose, and the unique challenges and opportunities in its category. The thing that is important is to make a conclusive and clear decision, identify and mitigate the risks, consider what is required to properly execute and enforce your pandemic policies, and communicate clearly with employees and customers.

Whether your company chooses to be customer-subservient or customer-centric is up to you. Listen to what customers say they want today, but never forget “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” Be cautious not to react merely to your company’s current financial difficulties and customers’ most immediate attitudes, but consider how customers and employees may view your 2020 actions in 2021. Make the decision you’ll be proud of in 2021 no matter what happens in 2020, and you’ll make the right decision for your unique circumstance. (Personally, I’d rather explain why my brand was cautious about protecting the health of workers and customers rather than apologize for lax policies that harmed people, but maybe that’s just me.)

Leave a Comment