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How to Keep Customers Close in the Age of Social Distancing

By: Jenney Loutfi

In this new global economy, companies are making noticeable efforts, through their marketing campaigns, to promote their products, build their brand image, and increase brand equity. Many companies are now shifting to a customer experience-centric managing approach which involves maximizing a client’s long-term value via relationship-centric methods. Recognizing the lifetime value of a customer is a cost-effective way for companies to penetrate and grow in today’s challenging and competitive markets. When companies primarily focus on customer relationship management, they will maintain existing customers, attract new ones, and build a mutual trust relationship, which in return will increase income and profit margins.

The COVID-19 crisis has altered the financial world which has impacted many companies. The nature of the pandemic and the eliminating factor of human interactions, especially for customer-centric businesses, has led to a change in the clients’ preferences, and thus a change in customer service altogether.

Adapting to a new environment isn’t a choice, it’s imperative. The changes are not only touching our personal and professional lives, but they are also affecting businesses that, in spite of their exerted efforts, are still suffering. Many businesses are now facing economic distress and are not generating enough cash flow to maintain the minimum needed to cover business operation costs. This new reality is especially affecting small and medium-sized businesses that are striving to maintain customer relationships because of the consequences of social distancing.

An important framework that businesses can follow to overcome any type of crisis and ensure stronger and more active bonds with their customers is the “HEART” framework. This framework informs the customers of the company’s new plans and of the ways the company can still provide value in a new and yet diverse context. It consists of five crucial strategies that help businesses to successfully communicate with their customers in times of crisis.

Humanize Your Company

Show appreciation and compassion to the consumers as well as to the workers, employees, and third parties who keep the business running during a pandemic. Try to use an effective means of communication to convey your message. For example, use social media platforms and newsletter emails to inform customers about the measures that you are taking to help your employees, clients, and everyone who is concerned with the day to day operations. The measures could be anything that allows the organization to show its humanitarian side. CIBC chooses to do that by deferring mortgage installments, providing relief on loans and credit card payments, supporting the Canadian government programs for individuals as well as businesses. Furthermore, CIBC has especially focused on assisting seniors and people with disabilities. What really matters, at the end of the day, is the value you provide to your customers and how genuine and real your company feels to them. A clear and honest message demonstrating your appreciation shows them the human side of your company.

Educate About Change

Let your customers know about the changes in your organization through its operations management strategies. Things like new operating schedules, including new hours and available stores, reduction in personnel, changes in the availability of customer support, the processing of online orders along with any other relevant change in your company. Many recognized companies had to handle the drastic change in their operations management, and they relied heavily on an online presence to ensure the safety of employees and customers in order to maintain profitable levels of operations.

In mid-March, Adidas Canada among many other retail stores announced the closure of all of its stores and shifted operations exclusively to online orders while offering free shipping with an extended return policy to maintain and satisfy its customers. Moreover, Starbucks Canada closed some of its coffee shops, but selected drive-thru locations remained open for customers. Starbucks also increased its online presence, on food delivery applications such as DoorDash, to maintain a certain level of customer satisfaction.

Assure Stability

Achieving economic stability for your business in this pandemic is arduous, nevertheless, businesses systematically need to assure their customer the stability of their values. This can be well achieved through a synergetic approach, with the employees and management all working towards maintaining the common values that are appreciated and loved by the consumers.

Management needs to carefully articulate the ways they would do that. Sometimes, it may even be by partnering with your organization’s competitors for the greater good. This is what happened for Sanofi and GSK, two competing vaccine manufacturers who pooled resources together from their headquarters that are located in the United Kingdom and France to fight the coronavirus setting aside all their differences. This brings confidence to consumers, seeing an organization rubbing off competitive rivalries, and working on their values to provide high-quality medicines and vaccines.

Looking at another case, Concordia University chooses to stick to its values of offering quality education. The university, instead of taking a defensive stand and postponing classes, offered online classes and online tests for the students who didn’t have the luxury of time to postpone their semester. For an organization to take such a stance, they need to be clear on the values and have the commitment to maintain them through these unprecedented times.

When customers realize the efforts that the organizations are making to provide them with services and products that are still in alignment with the unchanged organization’s values despite the changing reality, customers will appreciate the organization more and will choose it over other competitors that may look insincere during all these changes.

Revolutionize Your Offerings

Let the actions of your company speak to the customers and show them that your company will find new ways to offer its goods and services even through difficult situations. Steve Jobs once said - “Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not as a threat”. Organizations have an immense opportunity, on hand, to establish a deep relationship with their consumers by making the most out of the pandemic.

Ford’s CEO announced that the company will be helping healthcare professionals, during the COVID-19 crisis, by producing new innovative types of face masks that will keep them safe from contamination. This is possible because of their special design that covers the whole face and includes a tube attached to a pump with the purpose of filtering the air from all types of contaminants. This original mask will include the same filter they use in the manufacturing of their car seats. Moreover, Ford will also produce a new type of reusable uniform, for healthcare workers, that is made from the same material that is used in their production of airbags. Ford thus has successfully used both materials and technologies used in car manufacturing to help the common cause of fighting the spread of the virus and consequently maintaining the safety and wellbeing of its employees, community, and the population as a whole.

Looking at another example, the leading alcohol manufacturer in the world, Ab InBev, is harnessing its key ingredient, alcohol, by producing hand sanitizers. This ties in well with one of its values: bringing people together for a better world.

Tackle the future

Make sure to always compare and contrast the results of your organization’s work, from the moment you have changed your operations until a scheduled time in the future, to review the changes that have happened within the daily operations and how well your organization has adjusted to these changes.

The last step of the HEART framework is for your organization to take a step back and assess the situation from an outside perspective. The management needs to understand how this new process has changed the organization altogether and learn from the good and the bad. In the past two months, organizations have taken various routes to sustain and strive for their businesses. The bar chart below shows, in percentages, the many methods that were adopted by organizations in the United States of America during the coronavirus crisis. The highest percentage, which is 63%, is for organizations that are working towards customer accommodation to stay afloat, in these times of crisis, which can be quite understandable. Customer accommodation can be viewed as an umbrella term that includes customer relationship management, customer service, customer satisfaction to name a few, which is all related to what we were discussing, at the beginning of this article, about marketing measurements and extents. Another high percentage, 54%, the work-from-home method is being used by organizations to give their consumers an uninterrupted service.

Organizations have a unique opportunity on hand, the methods being used now could be adopted as the standard operating procedures for the future. The work-from-home method has been widely accepted and has shown an insignificant decline in the output of the workers. Organizations can take that a step further and encourage workers to continue working from home as this could help firms in cutting down fixed office costs as space requirements would significantly go down. It is debated that this practice would diminish the social aspect and in the long run, be counterproductive. However, there could be plenty of ways around it, for example, days can be assigned when certain divisions of the organization come in for work while the other divisions are working from home on that same day. Moving forward, this would help organizations lower their fixed costs and increase their net income from this new measure that is caused by this new reality that we live in.

In these unprecedented times, businesses need to adapt to this new reality by striving to mitigate the harmful consequences of this unpredictable situation. All businesses need to concentrate on getting closer to their customers and keeping them well informed about their changes. Most importantly, organizations need to demonstrate to their customers that they will get out of this crisis, and perhaps other future crises, stronger than before and with a better understanding of how to handle extremely challenging situations and still be able to provide quality service and products. The use of new adaptable practices, to maintain the same values that came to be known and loved by customers, will portray future success for every business. Any organization that gives its HEART to its customer will definitely see the positive impacts on its business in times of crisis and in the long run.


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