COVID-19: The after economy and developing appropriate responses

Marshall Lager, thought leader, influencer in the CRM/CX world, speaks to the after-economy: What should we be looking for and what we might do. Pay close attention.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

I'm in the midst of revamping a lot of projects and programs -- partially due to the new realities that we will face (though what they are remain to be seen to a large extent), and partially due to some changes I want to make in my business model and my life in general. So, I haven't written much, though you will see something from me very soon, and that will trigger quite a bit of content both here and elsewhere.

Also: China, Iran, and Russia worked together to call out US hypocrisy on BLM protests

In the meantime, I am going to provide a forum for some of the other thought leaders in their respective spaces to give you something to chew over that isn't just fat. Chewing fat is unhealthy, so that isn't a good thing. So, this is the chewing of the good proteins kind of content. And one of the best people I know to provide you with that is Marshall Lager. I'm sure that many of you know him. 

I met this good man when he did a column for CRM Magazine, and I have watched him go on to a career as an analyst for at first Ovum, then G2, and now, as an independent analyst. He is incredibly cogent, bright, and funny, and what he says should be taken seriously, even when you might be laughing. It's not just his voice and style and ability to engage an audience; his content is meaningful. Look, I know I tend to think the best of people and thus wax effusively, but Marshall truly is one of the best writers I've ever known -- and that's for style and content.

So, take heed of what he's saying here. He is speaking to some of the needs and the expectations post-pandemic. It won't be post-COVID for a long time, but we may get it to the point of control, and Marshall is raising, as always, valid and straightforward concerns and some solutions for those concerns, and remains humble.

Take it away, Marshall! And I hope that everybody is staying safe and sane in this time of crisis.

The perpetual uncertainty of this extended wait-and-see pandemic response has really taken its toll on human behavior, and especially on businesses that rely on regular traffic. Health and safety, crowds and protesters, and shortages of goods have to be taken into account every time we want to buy something, to an extent most people in the developed world never thought possible. And it's not even nearly as bad as it could be.

At this point, two months into the first really bad phase of the pandemic (give or take; I'm not sure when this will go live), we appear to lack a cohesive plan. Not the action-stations drill that we executed (poorly) when the virus proved to be more than a minor concern. We need to develop ideas for what various facets of commercial life will look like after we crawl out from our bunkers for good.

This isn't a political column, so I'll refrain from giving my opinion of the response by local and national governments; what I'm looking for isn't something that can be handed down from there anyway, for the most part. Businesses, large and small, have got to look at their operations and figure out how to address the sort of disruption that comes from a lengthy period of time when customers can't do what is customary.

I have to admit that it took me a lot longer than I expected to write this article. Partly, it's because my original motivation came from a more personal place, the same one that most people are in right now. We are waiting to get back to the lives and jobs we remember, but we don't feel there has been much guidance in regard to how or when that will happen. Mostly, it's because I'm not the futurist that some of my colleagues are, and my expertise is more along the lines of assessing customer experience in the moment than in planning its shape for tomorrow.

Some businesses have proposed a few visions of the "new normal" (a phrase many of you have probably come to hate by now) for their post-lockdown operations, and that's at least a start. What we haven't really had yet is a come-together moment to show the public that there is organized thought being given to the issue. Modern economies run on confidence in the system, and we're fresh out.

A large number of industry working groups are devoting real skull-sweat to developing broader solutions to address any future crises; organizations of bakers, emergency services workers, and semiconductor manufacturers (to name just a few) have formed committees to develop appropriate responses. It's those groups who need to better communicate their efforts to the public in order to restore confidence. News isn't traveling quite as fast during the lockdown, and people want to know what to expect once it's safe to congregate in public again. It's great that businesses are considering the everyday experiences of consumers under pressure and finding ways to make the commercial world continue to function for everybody, from individuals to small businesses to mighty conglomerates, but it's not being communicated effectively yet. We need transparency.

We have learned that many of the people who receive minimum wage (or less) are essential workers, to use the current popular term. Economic disease recovery is going to have to include real recognition that these jobs are a true life buoy -- they keep families afloat, provide access to vital goods and services, and prevent financial ruin. They deserve better, and they deserve more, and sooner or later their employers will have to do something about that by redirecting some resources that would normally be taken as profit, turning them into higher pay and better quality of life..

I can already hear your voices from the future, talking about fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders and disproportionate burden on small businesses. Well, if we're trying to sculpt the future, maybe we should consider our history first. If you look at the progression of economic paradigms, there is a steady (if sometimes glacially slow) trend that more opportunity and wealth comes when people have greater access to the profits of enterprise. Mercantilism gave way to open trade; unrestrained capitalism was moderated by anti-monopoly laws and the rise of unions; each time, overall profits improved in step with the human condition.

I believe that we're due for another round of changes. Salaries for exempt employees have kept up with the cost of living, more or less; wages for non-exempt workers are not even close, and it's those essential hourly workers who are receiving much praise but little actual support. We prefer to do business with companies that share our values, right? Well, one of my values is knowing when extracting profit is not as important as taking care of the people who earn it, and giving them a reason to want the company to succeed.

Less confrontationally stated, executives and shareholders should have the enlightened self-interest to realize that improving wage-earners' situations improves employee loyalty, strengthens brand expression, and leads to continued success in the long run. The unfortunate image of workers who can barely support themselves, let alone a family, despite holding a full-time job and possibly a side job as well, has to change. Imagine how effective such a shift in prosperity and respect could be in motivating workers, not just because they need their jobs, but because they are proud of those jobs and can look at their paychecks without worrying about which bills they will and won't pay this month.

Earlier, I said this was the first really bad phase of the pandemic, and I meant it. I'm no epidemiologist, but some things follow a pattern, and the spread of disease is one that history allows us to track. Whether we're talking about the Black Death, typhoid, the flu of 1918 (which wasn't from Spain), or our new friend the coronavirus, care must be taken after the first round of outbreaks or there will be a second, often much larger one. Reopening society too soon might force us right back into isolation. That's going to be the first test of what we've learned. Will we return to lockdown with ease, or will we stumble again as we switch directions?

Here's something to think about regarding our eventual recovery from and adjustment to the pandemic: For years, we have been watching and lamenting the decline of bricks-and-mortar shopping as e-commerce has supplanted it. Yet the very thing driving the economy down, and the thing which has consumers most desperate to return to normal, is the inability of local, physical businesses to operate normally. Nobody is allowed to congregate at shops, but everybody wants to, and businesses are suffering -- especially small businesses. We get a different experience from local SMBs than we do from national chains, and it's what we seem to want, so that's the dollar they should chase

The emergency situation in retail does have at least one good side to it -- businesses such as grocery markets, department stores, and restaurants are our laboratories for developing effective coping strategies. When all the shops enforce social distancing and better hygienic behavior, it becomes the new mode of operation. This ties back into better pay and conditions for workers -- too many people treat workers with disrespect and even hostility because they believe wearing a name tag makes them powerless and disposable. An empowered workforce doesn't have to take that abuse, and it's more likely that patrons will have friends and family (even themselves) in similar dignified positions, creating empathy.

We can hope that businesses (and consumers) will know how to adapt once we start to work our way out without losing too many steps. Hope is not certainty. The less we prepare for what's to come, the more gaffes we'll make when it arrives. We need a clear and manageable crisis model for B2B and B2C before we're caught with our pants down again, and -- here's the important part -- the transparency to communicate it to the public in advance so we know what to expect. Businesses are so afraid of small losses in valuation that they don't manage consumer expectations, resulting in huge losses in valuation when things get bad. Be proactive, get the word out that you're monitoring a situation and are making plans to cope with what comes from it. This is not showing weakness or eroding confidence, it is leadership, and leadership strengthens brands.

Something as simple as Green - Yellow - Red statuses with attendant precautions would be a good start. Any protocol put in place will have to be mandatory, and if you aren't willing to follow company rules you can't do business there. We don't have a problem with No Shirt - No Shoes - No Service, so how hard can it be to add masks to the mix? Custom-printed paper face masks could be new merch for your brand.

A better understanding of which roles are essential on-site, and which are remote work-friendly, will also aid clarity -- and if businesses aren't able for some reason to provide higher general wages to the essential workers, they can at least institute generous hazard pay when we reach our next time of need. Government needs to do its part in making lengthy lockdowns less onerous for business owners as well. Leadership is about more than getting us through the current crisis; it's also about preparing us to tackle the next one.

Thank you, Marshall! As always, your writing is great. 

ANNOUNCEMENT: The CRM Watchlist 2021 is now re-opening for registration. I had to make some changes to the questionnaire, and that took some time given the change in how impact is going to be "measured" going forward. So, even if you have registered, I will need you to re-register. Please send me an email at paul-greenberg3@the56groiup.com and ask for the registration form. The registration period and even to some extent the questionnaire submission period has been extended. Thanks for your patience. Because it is late, if I feel that we have an insufficient number of registrations by a certain date, I will suspend the Watchlist for this year and pick it up next year. I hope that isn't the case, but it would be certainly understandable.

Have a great one and be safe.

Editorial standards