Have you ever interrupted something you do automatically to really think about it? Take running. Most people can do it naturally, until they start thinking about their feet; that’s when their rhythm falters and they stumble. It’s the same sense of awkwardness musicians feel when they stop to think about the notes they’re playing, or 16-year-olds when they’re behind the wheel of a car for the first time. 

That happens because controlled thinking and automatic thinking are two different processes. We move through tasks that require conscious thought slowly, awkwardly, unsure of ourselves. If we practice a skill often enough, though, it enters the “automatic thinking” part of our brain and becomes so natural that we can devote our conscious thoughts to something else entirely — as anyone who’s ever daydreamed while driving can tell you. 

Customer service during COVID-19 feels like interrupting an automatic process to really think about it. The scheduled routines we used to rely on don’t exist anymore. The language we use feels awkward, and our natural understanding of our customer base falters. And while that feels uncomfortable, these periods of conscious processing are the same ones that lead to new insight and growth. They’re the times when we realize we’ve been missing a note or might have better results if we adjust our stride. 

This is your time to challenge what you think you know about your audience and really listen to them. Where are they mentally? What kind of interactions do they need? What adjustments can your brand make to meet them where they are? Here are 5 truths and tips to guide you as you explore these questions:  

1. Consistency Is Key 

The Truth: First, challenging what you know about your customers doesn’t mean you have to drop every assumption. You can still assume that customer satisfaction is inextricably linked to what McKinsey & Company calls the 3 C’s: consistency, consistency, consistency. If you have key information to share with your customers, make sure the information is up to date and consistent across every channel. 

For example, a member of our social media team noticed earlier this week that she had no way of knowing whether her favorite restaurant was actually serving food — the restaurant’s hours of operation were different across their website, social channels, and Yelp. With everything changing so fast, it’s easy to forget about all the methods customers use to find the products and services they need and meet them with the right information. 

The Tip: Search for your brand online and make a list of where and how it shows up on the first two pages of the search results. Hop into Google Analytics and look at your referral websites and social channels, adding to your list as needed. Finally, navigate to Behavior > Site Content and view your top landing pages. 

You now have your list of customer touchpoints. Bookmark that list on your browser, and go through the entire list whenever you have an update for your customers. Leverage tools like Buffer (social media scheduling) or BrightLocal (local listing automation) to make the process more streamlined. 

Then look at your top landing pages to make sure there’s a clear and logical path to the information your customers need. This is where a sticky header or another element that stays consistent across your site can be worth its weight in gold. 

2. You Have Data Available 

The Truth: We’re now a month and a half into quarantine. Exhausting though it may be, we also have actual customer data available to us now. That puts us in a more powerful position than we were at the start of the crisis, when we could only speculate. 

The Tip: Use all of the information that’s at your disposal to run savvier promotions and start swinging back toward normalcy.

While your own website data is your best guide, there are also lots of publicly-available insights about shopping and search behavior. Google Trends has collated some useful information about Coronavirus search trends, and Pinterest has a brilliant guide about what people have been searching for on Pinterest throughout the COVID crisis. 

3. Time Changes Everything 

The Truth: In the same guide from Pinterest, there’s a chart outlining the different phases of customer behavior throughout the COVID crisis: 

This tracks with what we’re seeing too. A month and a half ago, brands were terrified to broach the subject of COVID-19 because they didn’t want to capitalize on something so sensitive. Marketing articles (including one of ours) advised businesses to focus on optimizing the old instead of producing new content, and to hold off on running promotions lest they seem tone-deaf. 

While that advice was wholly appropriate for Phases 1 and 2, we’re moving into Phase 3 now. During Phase 3 we’re living with this, we’re talking about it, and we’re keeping ourselves entertained. Forms of escapism that may have been considered frivolous or tone-deaf at the start of the crisis are now vital to our collective mental health. And we’re beginning to plan for the time when this will all be over. 

The Tip: It’s no longer tone-deaf to run promotions or act like everything is normal; it’s actually helpful. Your customers want to plan for the future, treat themselves in the moment, or find levity and humor in their surroundings. Give them a way to do that! 

4. Meaningful Engagement = Meaningful Results 

The Truth: In the least surprising news of the day, social media use has spiked across every platform since the start of the crisis and app use is up 20%. We might be physically distant, but online we’re more engaged with each other than ever. 

The Tip: Allow your brand to use social media as a person would (within reason, obviously — there’s no need to share every opinion under the sun). Don’t treat posting like it’s homework. Do create a schedule for yourself to build momentum, aiming to get to the point where you can check in casually with your followers throughout the day. 

When you view social media as an enjoyable outlet for you and your brand, you’re more likely to pick up your phone whenever you have an insight you know your audience will love. You can form meaningful connections within the communities that are important to your audience. And you’ll be ready for action when anything newsworthy, meme-worthy, or significant happens. Magical things can emerge in those unscheduled spaces.

5. You Can Make a Difference 

The Truth: One of the best parts of having a business is that you have a platform and an audience.  Your brand has a voice, and you can use it to help people in subtle ways. That’s a huge privilege! 

The Tip: You’re under no obligation to use your business as a vehicle for positive change — but if you’re like most people, you’ll want to anyway. This doesn’t mean you have to do more than what’s realistic for your business, though. You don’t need to donate money if it’s going to be a rough year, and you don’t need to treat your blog like it’s the New York Times. All you need to do is not contribute junk.

Don’t spread misinformation or conspiracy theories. Without reinforcing fear and uncertainty, validate your customers’ feelings and let them know they’re not alone. Read the room and give customers what they need in the moment. If they want to talk about COVID-19, talk about it! If they just want to shop or look at something beautiful or laugh at a stupid video, give them the chance to do that instead. 

We can all get hypnotized by our automatic processes, and pattern interruptions like quarantine force us to consciously think. Let that become a good thing for your business. Listen to your customers and learn how to respond to their changing needs at a moment’s notice, and then go and knock Phase 3 out of the park!