"G-R-O-W-T-H": a simple, six-letter word that has become remarkably difficult to say in recent weeks.
For years, "growth" had been on the lips of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, journalists, and economists across the business world. A proxy for progress. An indicator of ingenuity. The ultimate sign of success.
And then, the world changed.
The uncertainty that has enveloped our communities and economies has jolted all of us into a new reality. And in this new environment, growth is a tough topic to broach.
While a few companies are experiencing accelerated growth as a result of dramatic shifts in consumer behavior, most are facing significant challenges. And it is survival, not growth, that is the word of the day.
When urgently switching focus to strategies for survival, as many businesses are now having to do, it's easy to become absorbed in short-term thinking and to forget the fact that the decisions made in the midst of a crisis can have lasting effects — positive or negative — on the path back to growth. Budgets need to be cut. Ads need to be paused. Forecasts need to be adjusted.
Amidst the fog, many businesses can lose sight of their greatest source of direction when navigating times of uncertainty: the customer.
Finding Focus Amidst the Fog
During times of crisis, the stakes are raised, and customers feel the impact of their experience with a business more acutely than during normal times. They remember the companies they heard from too often — and those they didn't hear from enough. They remember the interactions that felt empathetic — and those that didn't. And they remember the actions that truly provided help when it was needed the most.
Companies that solve for their customers during times of crisis can foster deep levels of loyalty that will live long into the future and help them swiftly return to growth once conditions improve.
In fact, during the recession of 2007-09, companies that prioritized customer experience delivered three times the shareholder return of those that didn't.
Image 1: Comparison of total shareholder returns for customer experience leaders and customer experience laggards, source: Forrester Customer Experience Performance Index (2007–09), via McKinsey & Company
That is why it is so important that sales, marketing, and service teams in particular fight the forces dragging them in the direction of quick fixes and short-term solutions and firmly focus on the customer amidst the fog of crisis. This isn't only the right thing to do, it's the most effective way to protect key business metrics in a sustainable way, for the long term, through times good and bad.
Selling for Today and Tomorrow
When growth stagnates, sales teams are naturally inclined towards ramping up outreach to prospects in the hope of quickly closing new deals. But this is counterproductive. During a time of economic uncertainty, prospects are likely to be reducing budgets and taking a more cautious approach to purchase decisions, making them less likely to respond positively to cold emails and calls.
According to research from HubSpot, sales teams increased their email outreach by 23% as the COVID-19 crisis took hold, but saw a 27% decline in the average response rate to those emails.
Instead of increasing outreach, sales teams should instead sharpen their focus on the immediate needs of their prospects, explore solutions in a collaborative manner, and strive to build relationships that'll last.
Where possible, businesses should update their automated emails to ensure they're empathetic, re-evaluate their target markets based on which segments and industries have been most impacted by the crisis, and adjust their forecasts to reflect the challenging economic conditions — a move that can help to relieve salespeople of the sense of urgent pressure that pushes them towards short-term solutions.
Adopting this approach can help sales teams to close more deals in the immediate future, but more significantly, it can serve as a powerful display of empathy and understanding that helps set up new business relationships for long-term success.
Marketing that Matters for the Moment
Marketing teams face challenges of their own during a crisis. Many of the campaigns, creative concepts, and communications plans that were mapped out during times of growth will be irrelevant at best, and tone-deaf at worst, during a time of economic hardship.
As difficult as it is to postpone or scrap well-thought-out marketing plans, not doing so could alienate audiences and do irreparable damage to customer relationships that have been years in the making.
In the face of uncertainty, there should be one question guiding all marketing decisions: how can we help, right now?
For some teams, that could mean reducing the volume of emails and content that are sent out into the world.
For others, it could mean creating brand new resources — such as educational courses or virtual event programs — that offer unique value and speak to the immediate needs of their audiences. And as is the case for salespeople, marketers should adjust the tone of their messaging to ensure that empathy is at the center of every touchpoint with the customer.
At its core, good marketing is always about providing value to audiences. Teams that successfully adapt their strategies to add value in a moment of crisis reassure their customers that they are committed to helping them, no matter the circumstances. And that's a message that can foster deeper levels of trust, which will be key to reigniting growth post-crisis.
Service That Can Sustain the Strain of a Crisis
When uncertain times strike, many companies experience sudden spikes in customer queries, which can put a major strain on service teams. While the natural temptation may be to try to increase effort and working hours to manage the higher volume, this could lead to employee burnout, a lower-quality of service, and longer-than-expected wait times for customers. A more sustainable approach is needed to solve for the customer.
Businesses should consider investing in a chatbot, which will allow customers to self-serve and get quick answers to common questions, while also freeing up staff to spend more time working on more complex queries. Service and marketing teams should also work together to create relevant educational content that proactively addresses anticipated customer issues.
Businesses that successfully adopt new sustainable service strategies during a crisis will be well-placed to support their customers through the period of uncertainty, and significantly, will have established new scalable processes to support renewed growth in the future.
Grow Better: a Message for These Times
During times of crisis, growth often grinds to a halt. But as most businesses will attest, growth is never a straight line. For individuals, companies, and economies alike, the journey is littered with setbacks, misplaced bets, false starts, and a whole host of unforeseen events.
There is no foolproof playbook for the unprecedented situation now facing businesses across the world, and there is no guaranteed fast-track back to growth. Some companies will pivot to a new model that sets them up for renewed long-term success. Others will double-down on their existing strategies and white-knuckle their way through the coming months. Others will have to make some agonizing decisions to survive.
It's easy to feel pessimistic at a time like this, but in the face of undeniable uncertainty, I am fiercely optimistic that the customer-centric values that got businesses to where they were before the present crisis are ultimately what will get them through it.
By drawing closer to customers and placing them at the center of every decision across sales, marketing, and service, businesses give themselves their best chance of successfully navigating these uncharted waters. Not only that, they also position themselves for renewed growth as the economy stabilizes and new opportunities emerge.
At HubSpot, we've long thought that this is the best way to grow, and we have encapsulated it in our mission: to help millions of organizations grow better. It's a way that doesn't sacrifice customer experience for short-term gains. A way that calls on businesses to do the right thing, even when it's hard. A way that builds the armor needed to weather the storms when they inevitably come.
So just as it has felt difficult to talk about growth in recent weeks, it has felt energizing and empowering to talk about growing better. It's a philosophy that was built for these times.
Take a look at Adapt 2020: An Education Series to learn more about the shifts you need to make to build a marketing strategy for today's unique situation, and tomorrow's new economy.
Originally published Apr 27, 2020 7:00:00 AM, updated June 14 2021