Empty high street during lockdown

Why you should focus on customer needs

In a confused and uncertain situation your customers’ priorities will change. What they value – the things they need – will be different, as they adapt to new circumstances. In this situation it’s important to meet those needs, in order to maintain (or build) strong relationships. This is why you should focus on customer needs.

But in these new circumstances it’s not easy to do that, as your customers find themselves facing new challenges. Whether you sell to consumers or businesses, your customers are adapting to a new way of living and a new way of doing business. They might stop buying. This is why it’s important to understand your customers’ needs, in these new circumstances.

If you can identify why your customers have stopped buying your products and services, you can adapt and develop an appropriate response. Their decision will probably be triggered by one of these four scenarios:

It is not needed

Your customers may have stopped buying your products or services because they can’t use them. Luggage, travel insurance and swimwear are all examples of products and services that have seen a significant drop in sales. If people can’t go on holiday, they don’t need to buy these things. If you supply these products or services, that is a problem.

In a situation where your market has disappeared, almost over night, your options are limited. There is no customer need. One solution is to look for a new market, a market that has a need that can be met by your existing products and services. The alternative is to do something new – something different. Sell new products. Deliver new services. One characteristic of Covid-19 crisis has been manufactures switching production to hand sanitiser or PPE equipment. This has been a temporary move, to support the community rather than for commercial gain, but it has demonstrated the potential flexibility.

(It’s important to remember that this situation is temporary. Most, if not all, markets that have closed will reopen. They will undoubtedly be different, and possibly smaller, but the need for your services will return.)


It is not accessible

Some customers want to buy your products or services, but can’t get access to them. Movement restrictions and social distancing rules have prevented customers form visiting restaurants, hair salons and gyms. There is a need for what you are selling – the demand – remains, but customers lack access.

In this situation you need to find new routes to market, to fulfil that need. Restaurants have started to do take away meals. (Many wholesalers that did sell into these restaurants have started to offer home deliveries to consumers, to try and make up for the drop in commercial business.) Gyms and personal trainers have moved into the digital world and are delivering their classes online.

The risk of failing to do this is that your competitors will. Even in situations where companies are delivering online services for free, they may not be generating revenue, but they are fulfilling the customer’s need. Maintaining that customer relationship will make it easier to start selling their services again, when the restrictions are lifted.

It is not available

The early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis were highlighted by a lack of availability. Customers wanted products, but they weren’t on the shelf. Hand sanitiser, toilet roll and dried pasta were the focus of panic-buying in UK supermarkets. Bread makers, disposable gloves and tinned soup were popular items online.

For these business lack of availability was a good sign. They had sold out. But for some companies a lack of availability has been due to logistical challenges and production problems, often as a result of staff illness. In this situation a lack of availability merely led to lost sales.

A situation where there is a lack of availability opens the door for your competitors. If your products or services aren’t available, your customers may well choose an alternative. A survey by McKinsey found that 16% of customers had changed their primary grocery store during the Covid-19 pandemic, and 65% of them intended to continue shopping there. If lack of availability is the reason your customers aren’t buying, it’s important to identify the cause and – more importantly – the solution.

It is not a priority

In this period of uncertainty, some customers have stopped buying certain products and services. They are simply not important at the moment. These customer have other priorities. They are focusing on the challenge they face today or this week. Anything that doesn’t address that challenge is not relevant. Sales of clothing and domestic appliances have dropped significantly. For businesses, recruitment has seen the sharpest drop since 2009.

In this situation there is a need, but it’s not a priority. Customers are interested in buying… but not now. Businesses need to remain visible and relevant, but in a way that customers feel is appropriate. A Trust Barometer Special Report in March by PR firm Edelman found that customers didn’t want to be “sold to”. But they still want – and need – to buy. The potential is there. Consumer research from PwC in March 2020 indicated that almost 20% of consumers felt they would be “better off” in the coming months.

So businesses need to find a way to maintain a presence in the lives of their customers, whether they are at home or in the workplace. If you can achieve this delicate balancing act, you will be perfectly positioned to respond when your customers’ priorities change and they want to buy.


The role of your brand

Whichever scenario reflects the behaviour of your customers, your brand can help you to meet the challenge. When you understand what your customers’ needs are, you can exploit all the tools your brand provides to demonstrate how your products or services are relevant to them.

It is not needed: If you have been forced to find new customers in new markets, your brand identity will raise your profile in print and online. A clear proposition will help you to make an impact. (You need to be sure you update your proposition, so it is relevant to this new market, not the old market that has disappeared.)

It is not accessible: If you have been forced to find new ways to deliver your products and services, your brand can explain to your customers how, when and where to buy them. The elements of your brand identity will help you to bring consistency to new communication channels.

It is not available: If your customers can’t buy your products or services when they want them, your brand can help you to maintain – or repair – your relationship. A clear set of brand values should guide your behaviour, and help you to deliver a brand experience that builds customer loyalty – even in a crisis.

It is not a priority: If your products and services aren’t relevant to your customers at the moment, your brand strategy will provide a frame work for change. It will give you all the insight you need to adapt your products and services to meet your customers’ changing priorities.


Be prepared for change

Changing customer behaviour, triggered by the impact of Covid-19, is why you need to focus on customer needs. Things are different now, and as we move forward they will continue to change. Your customers’ priorities and preferences will evolve. So the products and services you offer, and how you deliver them, will need to evolve too. If you know what’s important, you can adapt. Your brand provides the framework you need to assess that, so that you can overcome any barriers between you and your customers.


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