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Marketing lessons I have learned while dealing with customers during the 1st month of Covid -19

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

It´s been a bit more than a month already since we were required by Spanish authorities to go into confinement as part of the plan to stop spreading COVID - 19 among the population.

As of this post, I deal with marketing related efforts in one of the largest gym related organizations of the Spanish market. Before going into the actual lessons I have learned, let me give you some context of the business and what were our main "marketing related" decisions at the time.

Business context

  • The main characteristic of a gym related business is that we, although it may seem obvious to some of you, make most of our money from a recurring monthly fee paid by customers.

  • We provide a full range of fitness related activities including strength training areas, cardio equipment, swimming pool and a wide portfolio of classes. We look to provide a lot of value for a very reasonable price.

  • As a result, we have several customer segments as this model is appealing to students, families and senior citizens all the same.

Main Marketing Decisions

Once we foresaw that we would eventually be required to close down the gym, we had to be quick with regards of how we were going to face this unprecedented situation.

Again, I am not saying we made the right or the wrong choices, since only time will be able to tell. The following is just a description of the decisions that were made from a marketing perspective:

  • The first decision, which from our point of view was obvious, was to stop charging any type of membership fee to our customers. Our reasoning was "If we cannot offer our service, we cannot charge them anything." A few weeks later, the Spanish government ordered a similar measure to businesses who live of recurring revenues like we do.

  • We reinforced all areas related to customer service. If all of our gyms were to eventually close down, we needed to make sure there were resources dealing with customer request that were going to come through the available channels. During uncertain times, customers needed us to be available to solve their doubts and concerns. In our case, the channels for "customer service" related request were Facebook and email.

  • From a product perspective, we decided to offer a wide variety of classes through our YouTube channel. Our brand purpose is to provide "sport for everyone," so we looked to provide a free sport oriented solution during these critical times for anybody in the world that needed it and after all of this is over, we will return to generating business. This was a general practice across the industry but in our case, we decided it to offer it without asking for anything in return.

  • Personally, and although I was not fully responsible for designing any product /service offering, I also believed critical to offer activities mothers & fathers could enjoy with their children. We have a big clientele of families in our gyms, and their main "pain point" was "What do I do with my children at home all day?" so we offered them a solution through a specific activity for families with small kids.

  • We even got suggestions from customers to rent them some of our pieces of equipment, particularly bikes and treadmills, but our decision was not to do so.

  • We stopped all of our paid media advertising. Our focus, more than ever, was on our existing customers rather than attracting new ones, so it made little sense to keep paying for advertising even if that means having to start our efforts from scratch once we decide to invest again.

  • Analytics. This was critical from two angles. First, we looked into our customer base and tried to identify patterns among those who chose to remain as customers and those asking for their membership to be canceled. Secondly, we monitored closely everything that we published on YouTube. Reach, engagement, demographics, etc. We looked at each type of class we offered. It was the perfect opportunity to test this as an option to be included within our service offering.

Main lessons I have learned so far

Obviously, this is an ongoing process and only years will give me perspective to really appreciate what this situation taught me. However, I do believe there are lessons that I will keep present during my career as a marketer from now on:

  • Be quick to answer customer request - It was funny because at the time, I was reading the book "Unconscious Branding" by Douglas Van Praet (which I recommend to anyone interested in marketing, by the way) and one of the many things that stuck with me was that in the digital landscape, given the lack of face to face contact with customers, "speed" was recognized as a very powerful source of generating trust. After these few weeks of answering customer emails every day from 8.00 AM to 9 PM, I could not agree with more with this statement. Keep in mind that, in our case, customers fill out a contact form through the web site and these then come in through our email inbox. I generally try not to let more than 15 -30 minutes pass before providing an answer to any customer. What I have seen is that even those that are most worried or even mad show a lot of appreciation for getting a prompt answer and even if they are requesting a refund (which has more value than one could think of given the economic situation we are going through) their tone changes dramatically. It helps ease their tension as they see that someone is actually dealing with their problem.

  • Show empathy - I once read in Tony Hsieh´s book (Founder of Zappos), "Delivering Happiness," that they did not give sales reps at Zappos any type of script to follow when dealing with customers. Each customer has their own story, circumstances, etc. Understanding the context of the situation, adapting to it and giving customers as much of tailored response as possible, helps provide a positive customer experience. Obviously, customer request end up falling within certain categories and ultimately the same "type" of responses are given. However even if you are giving a similar responses to different customers, adding a simple sentence like "I really hope that things work out" to someone who just lost their job and is looking to cancel their membership, adds a bit of humanity to the interaction. In return, this provides a positive memory in the customer´s mind and if the day comes when they want to sign up for a gym again, you have good chances of being on the top of the list.

  • Problem solving attitude - This probably should go without saying but it is critical to be willing to go the extra mile. People are concerned so even if you have to temporarily avoid some internal processes in order to provide a solution, do it. In the case of the gym industry, most request were from people looking to cancel their membership. Yes, this is a huge blow to the business, but people, once they have made a decision, will hardly consider changing their mind in the short term. Give them a solution and customers will appreciate you for it.

Again, all of the above must understood within the frame that the more the personalized the interaction, the better. People like to feel unique and their concerns, are in some occasions, the "only thing in the world," so they will feel better once they see someone has listened is trying to take care of the situation.

For instance, I had many email exchanges with a customer that had to move back to Australia (her home country) due to the COVID -19 crisis. We took a long time to give her a final solution but the fact that she noticed someone being on top of the issue was enough for her and to keep things in a more relaxed state.

Always be willing to "leave the door open"

One final thought before wrapping up this post. If a customer has made the decision to stop paying their membership fee, don´t make it impossible for them to do so.

On the contrary, always show them a way out. It is fine to offer them a final promotion to prevent them from cancelling the subscription, but always show them they could potentially execute on their decision:

  • People like to make their own choices. If they notice an attempt from us to force them on the opposite direction of their decision, it simply will not work.

  • Make a positive final impression. Again, if the customer´s final memory is a negative one, they will probably not be willing to consider coming back once this situation is over.

  • This is the ultimate proof to the customer that you have considered their request and are willing to let them go, which again, is critical to generate trust.

While this may be all for the moment, I obviously look forward to update this post many times in the upcoming months us everyday something new happens that leads me to learn new things that I hope to share with you through this blog.

Keep safe


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