Develop customer relationships that outlast a pandemic

Wednesday, 19 August 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Do not take potential customers for granted; that is especially important amidst this economic downturn


The COVID-19 pandemic created a lot of uncertainties to virtually all business entities across the globe within a very short period of time. Six months since the World’s Heath Organisation declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, only a handful of countries have successfully managed the situation and fortunately we are one of them. Nevertheless, as a nation although we have the best of intentions to overcome this misery, there are many interdependent factors that hinder our progression. 

One may think of producing an innovative product which can be exported but finding a suitable foreign buyer can be a difficult task due to the nature of this global crisis. Imports are restricted and owing to the challenges faced by the logistic industry getting down raw materials on time is a problem to schedule production lines and delivery dates.

The limitations in disposable income is yet another serious factor many individuals are faced with. Overall, customer sentiments have drastically changed after the pandemic, creating a lot of uncertainties in their usual behaviours. Hence, businesses at present are faced with a considerable amount of tension in generating sales during a period of economic hardships that have altered consumer priorities and preferences. 

In such a volatile environment having a customer footfall to your outlet itself is the greatest achievement. There is a belief that ‘50% of the monies which is spent on advertising is a waste. The whole problem is its practical difficulty to assess and quantify which 50% goes as the waste’. This in a way gives us some kind of an indication.

Assume a scenario where your customer visits your business entity, as a result of brand awareness created through advertising. If a sale is not done or a memorable impression is not created about your product and the entity, the balance 50% will also be in vain. Moreover, it perhaps can be an opportunity lost forever to build a business relationship with the customer. Therefore, in the current environment every act performed along with the customer has to be done in a thoughtful manner in order to build, grow and strengthen relationships. Let us see how such points of interactions are presently managed with COVID-19 by the service providers.

Almost all entities are now providing hands free wash basins along with soap dispensers. Assure that this equipment is steadily fixed and functions smoothly. Provide tissue boxes to dry one’s hands and a garbage bin as well to put the trash. Take precautions with the wastewater draining lines. In some places we have observed that the waste water is just drained out to the ground or pavement. This may create safety hazards to passing pedestrians. Never do things for the sake of doing. Understand the real purpose of the action and carry out all tasks with foresight so that customers will have a positive impression of the service provider and meaningful relationships will be developed between the customer and the entity. 

The security officer is the first ‘human touch point’ in most organisations. They are now equipped with thermometers and sanitiser cans. They should understand that it is not an ‘extra power’ vested upon them to identify COVID-19 infectious patients on the spot. Instead, remind them to be gentle when pointing the equipment at the customer forehead. Having checked the body temperature, it is a responsibility on the part of the security officer to show the reading to the customer. 

Moreover, the thermometer needs not necessarily be pointed at customers’ forehead to check the body temperature. Even by directing on customer’s wrist a reading can be obtained. Virtually all customers do now carry their own preferred sanitiser brand bottle with them. Some may like to use their own brand which they have got used to. It should be allowed rather than security by force trying to spray what he carries in his hand to the customer’s arms. 

There are customers who would prefer to insert the credit card on their own to the point of sales terminal unit at the counter. This should be allowed by the cashier. In a way these acts are positive indicators since they reveal the extent to which the public has now become aware of the importance of cautiousness amidst this pandemic. 

The customers’ most crucial point of interaction within the premises is ‘the service provider’. In the current era, customers are more sensitive about his choices and investments. Therefore, at every point of interaction the customer should feel that he or she is truly cared for. In order to develop a meaningful relationship with the customer, the service provider must consciously demonstrate the fact that; 

1.It is a ‘safe space’ for the customer to visit without any kind of ‘fear psychosis’ about the virus: This can be widely observed when you visit entities that enforce social distancing through distanced seating arrangements and marked positions for queues. In addition, often we can notice gathering customer information, displaying guidelines, introduction of protected see through counters and sanitising service tables.

2.Customers can get quick solutions for their requirements with the least amount of time spent in the premises: I recently observed this at Commercial Bank, Borella branch. The security lady, who is outsourced, performing the ‘queue master’ role, gently directing the customers who are standing in the queue for deposits of cash to the ATM machine and educating them on how to perform the transaction. 

3.Readiness to deliver the solution ‘next time’ to customer at his place of convenience: When there was a minor adjustment that had to be done to a readymade jewellery item, which I purchased from Vogue Jewellers, the sales person agreed to personally deliver the finished item home on the same evening without me going to the shop again to collect it.

4.Pre-prepared to serve the customer at the exact time slot given to him: My dentist gave me an appointment for a consultation. I was taken in sharp on time and he kept his total focus towards me right through for an hour without any kind of distraction. I truly felt very comfortable with his examination. At the end of the treatment the doctor informed me that now he sees only a half the patients than usual because his main concern is protecting the best interest of the patient’s health. Therefore, his staff now needs more time to sanitise his surgery fully every interval between consultation of each patient.

5.Willingness to serve the customer by stretching to the fullest capacity: Alertness to solve the customer’s requirement fully with the aim that ‘it is not over until it is over’. Having purchased a furniture product by me, my experience was that the salesman right through was doing the needed follow-up with me until his team delivered the product home and did the installation. Subsequently he visited home to ensure that everything is done to my perfect satisfaction. 

6.Committed to honour the promise: I decided to hire services of an Interior Designer, Abhisheka Welivitigoda at Creative Living, recommended to me by a property developer. At the very outset itself I told him that I am a demanding customer. Moreover, I emphasised the fact that owing to COVID-19 this project had got delayed considerably. I informed him that I cannot drag it anymore and go through further stress with this task. Hence, I will offer the job to him provided he is punctual, submit me with comprehensive details of the items and a firm action plan. I made him aware of fulfilling all these requirements in ‘the first instance itself’ so that I can make a prompt decision whether I am going to hire his services or not. All interactions I have had so far with him honoured his promise, leading me to build trust in him and build a relationship.

Case 1 – Live up to your promises

We all are aware there is a scarcity in the market place for household electrical goods as imports of such items are now restricted to our country. Recently a friend of mine had ordered a well-known branded electric oven from its authorised merchant. This was done with the intention of gifting the item to his wife as a surprise to startup a cottage industry to generate an income during this time. 

My friend was assured of the availability of stocks, by the merchant, at the agent’s main warehouse and the delivery was promised on the following day for which he then immediately made the payment in full. Although he was anxiously waiting to fulfil his wish, the item had not reached him for three days. When he asked about the undue delay, he was told that the merchant had a difficulty in releasing the item from the agent’s warehouse owing to some internal regulation that had arisen owing to the restriction of the imports. He was also told that, at the time of placing the order although the system indicated the availability of stocks, a decision taken subsequently is now delaying the delivery process. 

Furthermore, the merchant had said that they are trying their level best to get the delivery arranged as soon as possible though a definite date cannot be promised. However, my friend has used his influence with the top management of the agent and the delivery was arranged within a few days’ time. By the time he received the goods, owing to the agony he had to go through, the excitement of receiving the oven and making it a surprise gift to his wife had drastically diminished already. 

My friend was sharing this experience with a lot of animosity asking me the question, “Why is it that these vendors cannot honour their promises, especially at times like this where customers are going through a lot of stress, anxiety and yet giving business to outlets?” 

Learning outcome: Giving a ‘promise’ is the easiest thing.  ‘Delivering’ is the challenging task particularly during a crisis. Therefore, pay more emphasis on the aspect of ‘ability to deliver’ prior to giving a promise to the customer.  In tough market conditions customers investing in your product is the greatest sales victory. However, realise the fact that nothing is over until it is over. Your own internal mishaps or justification on inabilities to deliver are never a valid excuse for your failure to honour the promise. Without giving vague answers always be precise with the customer. Process fine-tuning and having internal system working effectively is the sole responsibility of the entity. In a crisis situation never carry out a sale just to fulfil a grid or to achieve targeted figures. Always realise the fact that the end of a successful sale should be the beginning of a long-term relationship.

Case 2 – Capitalise on opportunities immediately

My mother-in-law complained about an acute spine arch and she was of the firm belief that her bed mattress was the cause for the problem. As the first course of action we decided to change her mattress immediately. Having had a positive experience with Hants, a brand of mattress manufacturer, my immediate response aimed to find out from them whether they could fulfil our requirement urgently. 

It was around 2 p.m. when I contacted one of their Sales Persons – Anusha Gunasekara – to see whether she could arrange a delivery of a mattress on the same day evening. I knew it was a too much of a demand to be fulfilled in such a short period of time. However, her response was positive. She assured me that, having coordinated with the delivery team who are in the field, she would make the necessary arrangements. In a few minutes, she confirmed that the needed product would be delivered to my residence before 6:30 p.m. 

She sent me details about the mattress, its discounted price and in whose favour the cheque should be written, via WhatsApp.  As promised the item was delivered around 6 p.m. She gave me a follow-up call on the following day to clarify about the service rendered by them. Having commended their service, I asked what made her to close a sale and fulfil my requirement within such a short period of time.

Her response was: “In these tough times we are on our toes to grab opportunities to serve customers. I always believe that if I drag, without immediately fulfilling a customer requirement, somebody else will grab that opportunity. When I understood your urgent requirement, I was very keen to deliver the goods on the same day. If I did not agree to close the sale at that moment of time, I knew I was giving you an opportunity to browse the market for other brands. Who knows in the process you may have settled for another product resulting with us losing the sale altogether? Therefore, these days closing a sale then and there by stretching ourselves to the fullest is so crucial for us.”

Learning outcome: Opportunities come very fast and they disappear even faster if you do not take advantage of them. If you truly have a ‘will to serve’ the customer you also find a ‘definite way’ of serving customer’s requirements. Every time you refuse to fulfil a customer requirement, you are giving a free invitation card for him to visit your competitor.

During tough market conditions demonstrate your sense of belonging to the entity more than ever before. Try to understand what ‘Extra Value Proposition’ (EVP) you can entice customers with. Is it the ‘speed of the transaction’, ‘price competitiveness’ or the ‘extra effort you put in providing customer convenience’? Understand that a little initiative on your part to exceed customer expectations can go a long way in developing meaningful relationships with customers.  


Do not take potential customers for granted; that is especially important amidst this economic downturn. In tough times nothing moves easily. However, if you look at things with a ‘positive frame of mind’ working under pressure can be considered a pleasure.

Think of ways and means of creating long-term relationships with the customer. In the process understand how well you could stretch to the maximum. The transactions done with the customers should go beyond a mere sale. Realise the fact that successful closure of a sale is the beginning of a relationship. Such relationships maintained for a long period of time will help build trust towards the entity.

(The writer is a sought-after ‘service excellence’ specialist in Sri Lanka. Over the last 25 years he has conducted nearly 3,000 inspirational and educational programs for over 750 organisations in 11 countries. His work can be seen at

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