November 07, 2012

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, email inboxes all over the East Coast have been overwhelmed by businesses, organizations, and local authorities looking to “get it right” with their disaster communication. Customers are having fees waived and getting their commutes strategized.  Businesses are reaching out to help the communities where they operate.  All in all, there’s a lot of care and concern coming from all directions.


But that begs the question:  What do customers want to hear in the wake of a disaster like this?


When it comes to the businesses and organizations they interact with every day, some play a bigger part in people’s lives than others.  Those affected expect one thing from their favorite online clothing retailers, and something else from companies that provide cold, hard necessities like transit authorities or the power company. It stands to reason that for the former, customers want a little more compassion and love in the way they frame their communication ….from the latter: a few more answers.


Who needed to communicate with facts


With city services, customers want to hear accurate information in a timely manner. There is no relationship to be nurtured, no personalized notes—just straightforward information for the commuter who wanted to know if he’d be able to get to work on Monday, and maybe have a hot shower on the way.


MTA:  They concentrated on letting commuters know exactly when they would be able to travel on various lines.  Their communications were to the point.  Just the facts.  No fluff.


“It’s my goal that every day, we’re going to bring back more and more service. We will be having service into Penn Station on the Main Line, the Ronkonkoma Line, we also have service continuing from Brooklyn to Jamaica as well. And finally, on the Port Washington Line, we’re going to have service from Great Neck into Penn Station” – MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota


How did they do:  They gave the customers exactly what they wanted: the facts, in bucket-loads, leading the media to describe their efforts as “heroic”. The MTA message reads as a checklist of improving services. Where vague assertions were made, such as “It’s my goal…to bring back more and more service”, these were followed by evidence that made them seem credible.


ConEd:  Assured customers they were working tirelessly, tried to manage expectations, and attempted to give accurate timing on when power would be restored.


“Con Edison today will begin the process of restoring power to mid- and Lower Manhattan following repairs to its East 14th Street substation. We will continue working through the weekend reinforcing our underground systems and repowering critical transmission lines needed for reliability.” – Con Edison Statement


How did they do:  No matter how much information you give, when it comes to one of the necessities of modern life it is never enough. Framing doesn’t help either.  Customers really don’t care that you are “working through the weekend” when they are sitting in darkness. Even though Con Ed tried to limit expectations as early as possible, telling customers in areas with overhead lines that restoration of power “could take at least a week”, this didn’t stop them being roundly slammed by the media for their tardiness. NY Governor Cuomo summed these towering expectations up on Monday, saying that “people should be getting information… I think that utility companies have not performed adequately”.


Who needed to communicate with compassion


Retailers and service providers play a much bigger role in the personal side of people’s lives.  People chose to have a relationship with these companies—to buy their shoes from them or to insure their homes and cars through them.  Now, they’re in this together.  Customers expect a more personalized approach to what is, at its core, a very personal situation.


Birchbox:  A subscription based grooming products company gave customers more than the very standard “our shipping will be delayed” email.


“We are so thankful to have you as a customer and look forward to getting back up and running so we can deliver on our service promise to you.” – Birchbox Customer Team


How did they do:  Birchbox, might have pushed the envelope of credibility by writing to every one of their customers telling them how thankful they were to have them, but this was balanced by a strong and successful human tone to their messaging.  When they went on to say that staffers who were able were “working from home” to continue to provide service throughout the blackout, they made their business personal.


Geico: Many feel like insurance companies are always looking for ways to avoid payouts, or drag out claims. Geico got an early jump on this natural disaster.


“We realize our most important responsibility to our policyholders following a loss is to ensure the claim settlement process is quick and easy. We are busy preparing to do just that; teams of


GEICO claim adjusters have deployed along the projected storm path, and they will remain in affected areas until they have resolved every hurricane-related claim.” – Tony Nicely, Geico Chairman


How did they do:  By letting customers know they were ready and waiting to go above and beyond in helping submit their claims, they positioned themselves as a company to rely on.  They had already taken actions to make the lives of those affected easier—even before the storm hit.  While all insurance companies could have been taking similar actions, talking about it made all the difference.  They had every customers’ back, and they let them know it.


JetBlue:  Not only did the airline assure customers how much they personally felt for those affected, they brought the message back home by letting them know JetBlue was caring for their employees first.


“Our hearts go out to the millions affected by this far-reaching devastation…Within JetBlue, we are supporting the crewmembers who have lost everything through our own internal fund first, in order to keep the public funds dedicated to our communities at large.” – Dave Barger, JetBlue President and CEO


How did they do:  JetBlue opened with a line so emotive it might have made customers’ skeptic nerve twitch–and in any other situation it would likely be seen as “too much”.  But here, it works.  When they say they will divert funds to look after their own team members, people hear, “We’re a responsible and caring company doing the right thing.”


In a Natural Disaster like Hurricane Sandy, the kind of service you deliver and the types of products you provide help dictate how you should communicate. Retailers and businesses in crowded marketplaces—those who must actively compete for customer loyalty—need to reinforce their relationships with those customers.  On the other hand, companies and organizations providing commodities are expected to provide answers and information quickly, efficiently, and frequently, because there’s nothing worse than being left in the dark.

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