The spread of COVID-19 reminds us how our wellbeing is interconnected, and the flurry of heart-warming responses people have exhibited in the face of this crisis reveals our tremendous willingness and ability to help one another. These truths will persist when life goes back to normal.
Leaders can run better organizations by creating conditions that allow customers to be more helpful. When service provision is a true partnership and customers are pitching in, employees are more productive, service outcomes are improved, and experiences are enhanced for everyone involved.
There are three barriers that can prevent us from productively engaging:
1) not being able to help,
2) not knowing how to help, and,
3) not believing our help is important.
Organizations that have succeeded in helping their customers be more helpful have found ways to overcome all three barriers. For example, cinemas have identified a concrete, helpful customer behavior—silencing phones before the movie begins. A simple reminder that demonstrates why it matters to everyone in the theater is all it has taken to practically eliminate interruptions during movies. Another success is how airlines have trained us all to take part in cleaning the plane before landing. During the final approach, a flight attendant asks over the P.A. that we pass our trash and unused items to a crew member in the aisle. On some flights, this message additionally describes a tight upcoming turnaround, and how passengers can help the cleaning crew achieve an on-time departure for the next flight. In both cases, we gladly do our part.
When the rationale for customers to help seems mostly about enhancing profitability, the request to lend a hand can feel disingenuous, and in some cases, can lead to behaviors that run counter to the organization’s objectives. But when it’s clear that our engagement is broadly helpful—to ourselves and to others—most people are delighted to engage.
By identifying concrete ways in which customers can be helpful, providing clear instructions about what they can do, and designing transparency into why their partnership will make a positive difference for everyone involved, business leaders can improve interactions among their customers and employees, and help us all achieve better things together.
The coronavirus challenge demands an organization-wide, honest conversation that enables truth to speak to power about the corporate response to the challenge. Think of it as a new strategic initiative facing huge execution challenges. These require senior management to get the best information they can about their customers, and it requires trust and commitment. That comes about when everyone in the organization knows that management wants to hear from product or service consumers to execution that might include their own leadership.
The coronavirus challenge, like any crisis, provides senior management a huge opportunity to develop a trust-based culture rapidly or, conversely, if not handled with an organization-wide honest conversation, to undermine their ability to develop a trust-based culture for years to come.