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What CX Leaders Should Do to Prepare for a Financial Downturn

A customer experience leader looking stressed at his desk

Economic uncertainty is unpredictable. Bill Staikos, who’s led customer and employee experience strategy in the financial services industry for more than 25 years, explains what CX leaders should do as a financial downturn looms.

If we look at Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, in the United States, we see that the first quarter of 2022 decreased by an annual rate of 1.6%. In the second quarter, GDP decreased by 0.9%. Coupled with high inflation and increasing interest rates by the Federal Reserve, it’s no surprise the news cycle is full of reporting on potential rough waters to navigate ahead.

As a leader in customer experience through the Great Recession in 2008 and through the downturn in 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there are a few things CX leaders should be doing now to prepare for a possible recession in 2022 and beyond. I know taking these actions certainly helped me successfully navigate during challenging times of economic uncertainty.

Preparing for a Financial Downturn? 4 Things You Need to Do as a CX Leader

Financial downturns are unpredictable for your business because they’re unpredictable for your customers. Your customers actually expect and need more from you during these periods, and your business has the opportunity to take experiences to the next level, winning trust and fortifying your top and bottom lines.

Here’s the TL;DR if you need it:

  1. Don’t stop listening to customers. Look beyond surveys and include all customer signals. Insights, and speed of insights, are what differentiate companies that emerge from a recession even stronger.
  2. Ask for help. Escalating and asking for help takes courage and is a sign of strong leadership. Don’t let market conditions dictate your actions.
  3. Be proactive. Understand what actions the business is taking in advance of the recession and identify efficiencies aligned to that strategy. Don’t wait to be asked.
  4. Be communicative. With the business, your customers, partners, and shareholders. Now is the time to over-share.

Let’s explore every action you should take to prepare your business and its customer experience program for a financial downturn.

#1. Don’t Stop Listening to Customers

I’ve worked for a number of companies that didn’t want to survey their customers during a recession — they didn’t want to burden them. During the Great Recession and in the middle of the pandemic, this was a real concern for me as a CX leader. I didn’t want to survey an individual asking if they would recommend our company when they might have recently lost their job. As a consumer and as a professional, I appreciate this perspective.

But understanding your customers’ needs is critical in any market environment. Technology that helps your business capture and analyze multiple customer signals, not just surveys, helps your business keep a pulse on the customer, and can drive loyalty and growth through a recession and for many years after.

If you’re focused solely on surveying your customer base, I recommend you explore and onboard new ways to listen to what your customers are saying without having to ask them directly. This can include capturing social media commentary, or transcribing contact center calls to be analyzed for themes and sentiment with text analytics. The key here is to identify all signals and leverage technology to capture and analyze them at scale to create a robust view of your company’s performance against customer expectations.

For example, through the Great Recession, financial services brands who paid the closest attention to distressed customers and helped them maintain stability now have customers for life. This was especially true when I was leading customer experience strategy for a large bank’s mortgage business. During this time, customers were losing their homes. By actively monitoring operational data alongside customer insights, we were able to quickly put processes in place that allowed homeowners to keep their homes and avoid foreclosure, which nobody wanted.

Similarly during the pandemic, companies that actively listened to customers and analyzed their feedback were able to quickly pivot and deliver improved digital experiences. Think of the large retail chains that implemented curbside pickup so customers didn’t have to enter the store. Or the restaurants who quickly started dropping off on your doorstep to avoid close contact between the driver and customer.

#2. Ask for Help

Now is not the time to ‘put your head in the sand’ and wait it out. Ask for help when you need it. In past recessions, I set up a roundtable with colleagues from other companies. We met regularly to discuss what was happening and what we were doing about it.

I not only was able to get some great ideas from peers across industry, but I also provided counsel to colleagues who were in need. The point here is that you should never walk alone. In a recession, this advice is even more critical.

Internally, you should be escalating where you need help. Perhaps it’s more, or different, resources to execute on a project. I know that many employees are afraid to raise their hand and ask for help when the market environment is challenging; however, this shows both courage and strong leadership when you do. Don’t let conditions of the market dictate your actions.

#3. Be Proactive

Your executive team is likely identifying points where they can pivot, and you should as well. This is the time to engage your C-suite on what they’re looking to do to manage through challenging times. Create a few use cases around how you can support the business in achieving their goals. Don’t have access to the C-suite? Engage your direct line manager and ask them to either give you a forum or to escalate the use cases for review by business partners.

Moreover, your C-suite is likely looking for relevant, real-time data on what’s happening in the marketplace. The speed of insight is important, as it helps make the decision-making process faster and more accurate. Lead the creation of an executive dashboard delivered on a cadence they need, highlighting trends in operational, financial, and customer data.

It’s the perfect time to re-engage your partners on CX improvements the team identified but the business never implemented, like a product enhancement. Help your product teams improve in a quantifiable way. Leveraging customer insights, product teams can improve user stories that lead to lower technical debt — and these teams can also use insights to prioritize their backlog, leading to greater throughput and measurement of performance against objectives and key results (OKRs). Business partners would be grateful if you proactively engaged them on these opportunities.

Also, look for efficiencies yourself. Whether identifying where you can rationalize technology that is outdated or underutilized, or removing manual processes, each team can improve. As a leader, you have a fiduciary responsibility to consistently look for opportunities to improve — for the business, customers, partners, and shareholders.

Finally, if you do have outdated or underutilized technology in your tech stack, think about upgrading. If you propose upgrading your tech stack, ensure the return on investment is clear and within a timeframe aligned with the business strategy on managing through the downturn.

#4. Be Communicative

Be communicative with the business. Identify new reporting or insight needs, and democratize those insights so the business can act quickly. During the two recessions I led through, we created new dashboards around customer segments that needed special attention. As market conditions changed quickly, these were invaluable resources for better, faster decision-making.

You should also be actively communicating with your team. Chances are they’re nervous about potential changes. This is when you want to over-share so your team’s morale and motivation remains high. Also, bringing team members into special projects to support the business through a recession is a marker of a healthy and value-adding function.

Communicate regularly with your customers, too. During the pandemic, the company I was working with sent weekly updates out to the entire client base about changes being implemented and what to look out for. Moreover, we identified our most critical clients and held weekly meetings with them in a roundtable fashion.

All of the above sends a clear signal to your customer that you have their best interests at heart. This reminds your customer what a strong partnership you have with them — and they will remember this during the boom times.

Build Out Your CX Strategy Ahead of a Financial Downturn

You can’t predict exactly what will unfold during a financial downturn. But you can prepare your business for one. As a result of running an effective customer experience program throughout turbulent times, you’ll emerge stronger than ever — customer satisfaction and loyalty will be up since customers witnessed firsthand just how much you continually prioritize them.

Data is everywhere, and it’s not getting any simpler to decipher with more touch points across multiple disparate systems. Action-oriented analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) magnify the impact of every customer experience by providing data-driven guidance at critical decision points.

Medallia’s signal capture capabilities and AI technology layer helps turn the exploding volume of customer and product journey data across a multitude of channels into a 360-degree view that drives action to improve experiences.

Interested in learning more? Schedule a meeting with a Medallia Expert to find out how your business can start tapping into real-time interactions to increase revenue, reduce costs, and improve culture.