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Corporate Empathy or Apathy: getting the message right in lockdown

By Alan Wilson - Posted on 27 May 2020

Many businesses have changed their advertising to reflect Covid-19 and our changing circumstances as a result. Here, Professor Alan Wilson looks at how messages have changed - and if actions speak louder than words.

As the UK population has been confined to their houses during lockdown, television viewing has grown dramatically with the number of people watching live broadcasts increasing by 17 percent. The BBC alone saw viewer numbers increase by 23 percent across its platforms in the first three weeks of lockdown. On the commercial channels, advertisers have attempted to empathise with their stay at home audience by including images of staff and customers using video platforms such as Skype and Zoom. We are seeing banks, retailers, broadband and mobile phone suppliers using self – filmed material from staff and customers in their own homes extoling the virtues of their products or their focus on still being there to serve their customers. Messages relating to stay at home (or is it alert!), maintain 2 metres or stay safe have been incorporated into the creative content of these advertisements. This empathy is aimed at showing that the companies understand what their customers are going through and are demonstrating their care and compassion.

However, this message does not always reflect the actions of these same companies. Some retailers are focusing on advertising and sales but are providing limited customer service support. Customers are being left with incomplete or non-existent orders and unreachable call centre staff. E-mails are left unanswered and requests for refunds or replacements are stalled with customers being told to wait until after lockdown ends. Alternatively, they are told to accept a credit note rather than a refund in order to keep the organisation solvent.

Some airlines and travel companies have ignored their legal obligation to refund cancelled holidays and flights. Some banks have been slow to process the government loans to small businesses. White goods and furniture retailers have encouraged customers to accept open-ended delivery times.

Certainly, it is understandable that things are difficult for every organisation during this crisis, but it is at a time like this that customer communications are more important than anything else. Customers who may be stuck at home or in quarantine want to be kept informed, know that someone is there to answer their queries and address their concerns. Modern technology enables calls, emails and social media to be answered from anywhere including employees’ homes, so there is no excuse.

If that customer support is not delivered when the customer expects it, the empathetic advertisements don’t ring true. Consistency of message and service delivery is critical to any brand and no amount of cosying up to customers in advertisements will work if the customer experience is cold, remote and uncaring. People will remember what they experienced during this difficult time, so companies need to demonstrate authenticity in their advertising messages, otherwise customers may simply "Zoom off" to the competition.

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