Maintaining business standards despite the squeeze

Businesses are faced with a particularly potent set of challenges at the moment. The pandemic’s commercial legacy is a combination of drained coffers, skills shortages, materials shortages, delivery delays, high levels of consumer demand and relatively low tolerance levels. 
On any other day, businesses might be forgiven for being entirely price-focused, working like the clappers to bring in as much money as possible, as quickly as possible to meet any deficit. However, with the added pressure of a cost of living crisis making customers even more discerning, never has it been more important to maintain standards to give your business the best chance of thriving today and into the future. Even so, in many circumstances, standards and service are slipping. 
This article looks at the value of a business’s reputation and why it is among your most valuable assets for surviving inflation and challenges to the global economy.

Cost of living and customer loyalty 

A cost of living crisis is now compounding the post-pandemic situation. It will see customers become more discerning, price-sensitive and even less tolerant of a substandard experience. 
As customers consider where to spend each hard-earned Pound, Euro or Dollar, they will expect value in return. For some, it will be a question of temporarily going without things they would rather keep. 
Earlier this year, Helen Dickinson, the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said: 
“Rising inflation, driven by higher costs of production, higher energy and transport prices, as well as other looming price hikes this spring will mean consumers will have to tighten their purse strings.”
The challenge for businesses is giving customers every reason to prioritise them over others and incentivising those who have to make cuts to return at their earliest convenience.

The customer is always right

As we all know, this statement isn’t entirely true, but the customer is, or should always be, front and centre of a company’s business and marketing strategy. They need to be a priority, and your reputation amongst customers needs to foster loyalty, both for the opportunities for repeat custom and recommendations to others. 
With that in mind, using data to understand the customer remains front of mind for those who have an eye on survival. Marketing Week reported in May that 91% of marketers say they will need to evolve their brand and business model to keep pace with consumers’ new priorities. However, what is particularly challenging for them is that “most UK marketers (59%) are now finding it harder to predict consumer priorities.” They hypothesise that “convenience is the fastest-growing need of consumers, with value for money and environmental impact tied in second place.”
This last matter points to a fundamental need around customer experience, business standards and brand reputation that we can see institutions and businesses falling foul of, left, right and centre. Herein lies the potential for almost irretrievable damage that few companies can afford, but it is also an opportunity to recognise the power of doing the basics well. You can have the most impressive offering in the world, but if you are unreliable, clumsy in your delivery and inconvenient, customers will lose faith. 
In recent years, customer experience has been given increasing attention and recognised for its commercial value. However, when times are tough, it’s easy for it to disappear into the background. 
Some sobering findings from PwC help bring customer experience back into focus include:
  • 73% of customers in the US point to customer experience as an important factor in purchasing decisions, but only 49% of consumers say companies provide a good experience.
  • 43% of consumers would pay more for greater convenience.
  • 42% would pay more for a friendly and welcoming experience.
  • 65% find a positive experience with a brand to be more influential than great advertising.
Another helpful and disturbing piece of information for business leaders is that research shows that while 80% of executives think their business delivers a good user experience, only around 8% of their customers agree.

Business standards matter

We live in an environment where businesses often feel that they need to be innovative and impressive to compete in their market, predicting the arrival of industry disruptors and performing somersaults to impress customers. To some extent, that’s true. However, the most fundamental thing for any organisation is to do the basics incredibly well. It is only on that foundation that we can build anything else, and this is where we see very well established businesses losing perspective.
You only need to look at those trying to go on holiday at the moment to see airlines scrabbling for fares, overselling and then not being able to meet demand. Take EasyJet, for example. No sooner had this half-term begun than they were forced to cancel more than 200 flights, giving a mere two days’ warning to an estimated 6,000 affected passengers. The reasons cited include air traffic control restrictions, runway works and airport handling delays. Clearly, a challenging time for the business, and they are not alone. However, it does somewhat fly in the face of their five customer promises, which include being:
  • Safe and responsible
  • On our customers’ side
  • In it together
  • Always efficient
  • Forward-thinking
They, much like many organisations, have thought about cost first and customer second. While that might have been a reasonable position on day one of the first lockdown, two years on and what looks like a lack of ‘efficiency’ and ‘forward-thinking’ is not earning them any brownie points. They could sink the ship if they’re not careful.
In other instances, we have seen a lack of care leading to far more minor but, nonetheless, undermining errors: spelling mistakes on published adverts, peeling paint on shop fronts, a general lack of customer care, not responding to emails, and delivering a substandard service, product or experience compared to the one that’s advertised.
We see the same issues playing out in politics, to take a different arena entirely. In the UK, we currently have a government that may well be working incredibly hard to deal with the priorities of the day. Still, it’s entirely undermined by a sense of disingenuousness over their personal standards. They may well have done a good job with furlough and the vaccine and may yet do great things regarding the economy, but as things stand, we’re all going to remember that time they all got caught out with too much wine and cheese in the middle of a health crisis.
In short, standards count if you want to survive.

Back to basics

So what is the point we are making? What is the tangible takeaway for businesses and business leaders seeking to survive the ever-evolving squeeze? How can you control costs, maintain your reputation and build your company in this environment? To our mind, it’s a combination of three things:
  • Doing the basics well
  • Understanding what your customers think of you vs what you think they feel about you
  • Creating a clear strategy for a positive customer experience
At gigCMO, we are in the business of helping companies to grow. In times of difficulty or when you can see challenges on the horizon, there is a need for self-reflection, returning to the basics and reviewing strategies and processes to ensure they are relevant and working. However, that can often feel at odds with a situation where you simply want to plug the proverbial holes in the ship and not invest time elsewhere. 
Suppose you can see your sales pipeline drying up. Suppose you can see the complaints rolling in. Or even if you can see that business has slowed. Take the time to understand why and ensure you’re moving forward in a manner informed by knowledge rather than guesswork or panic. It doesn’t need to be a crisis management situation - it can be about taking the time to make sure your approach is still working for the current and evolving market.
Our approach is always strategic and informed, leveraging data and market research and understanding your organisation and its capabilities to navigate forwards with a sustainable strategy driven by the bottom line. Sometimes that means going back to basics and making sure that the things you have built your company on are still the things that you are doing exceptionally well.
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