Connecting with Customers in a COVID-era Buyer’s Journey

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels

For most of the past year, the basic fabric of daily life has been affected by our fight with COVID-19. As the pandemic continues unabated in the United States, people are left with all kinds of questions. “How soon can life return to normal? Should life return to normal, if normal led us here? What would a healthier normal look like? What can I do about where we are right now? How can I keep my loved ones safe as schools and workplaces begin to reopen?” Believe it or not, these questions all correlate to today’s buyer’s journey.

These questions don’t have easy answers. They certainly don’t have answers that many local businesses are going to solve. But what your business can do is meet people where they are, addressing their current needs in a direct, confident, comforting way. This is going to be the foreseeable future of marketing.

Companies responded quickly to the “new normal”. And those responses were pretty overwrought. As early as April, supercuts about how “Every Covid-19 Commercial is Exactly the Same” started going viral. The first one or two felt earnest. But after that, they started running the gamut from “panicked” to “flakey”.

Things are different now. We’ve settled in, and we’ve had a chance to catch our breaths. And now we can see that there’s a better way to handle this—acknowledge the realities of our customers’ situation by meeting their needs. You don’t even have to pay lip service to why those needs exist. You just have to meet people where they are.

Let’s take a look at what that looks like, at each stage of the buyer’s journey.

Stage 1: Interest

The first stage of the buyer’s journey is interest. Here, they’ve become aware of a need, or a want. They don’t know the specifics yet, or where they want to purchase. This is where advertising and awareness come in. From social media to your web content to traditional ad venues, the way you present yourself and talk about your product matters here.

One of the biggest things you can do right now is to let your customers know that you’re ready to let them shop however they feel most comfortable.

Let’s take a look at an example: Say you’re on Google, searching for sporting gear, and you get a result for DICK’S Sporting Goods. Right there in the title of their pages, instead of saying “DICK’S Sporting Goods,” it says “Curbside Pickup Available at DICK’S”:

It doesn’t say why. There’s no “in these uncertain times” caterwauling. It’s just, “Curbside pickup available at DICK’S” It’s up to the reader to interpret that as, “Hey, if you want to get a basketball without being trapped in the bicycle aisle while someone who’s got the sniffles, we’ve got you covered.” And they don’t have to wonder! They don’t have to dig for policies or hours. It’s just right there in the title of the page itself.

Stage 2: Consideration

In the next phase of the buyer’s journey, the customer knows what they want, but they’re still sorting through the details. They’ve put some research into products and brands, done a little browsing online for comparison. But they’re ready for more. This is where educational content comes in handy—not just for getting customers into your funnel, but for establishing yourself as a trusted and useful voice in your niche.

At this point in the journey, the customer would normally go talk to a sales associate, or try to get hands-on experience with a product in the store. But of course, that’s not as appealing an option these days. So how do you meet them where they are?

Eureka! Camping has one solution. Their Tent Finder page is an interactive Q&A that guides users through a set of questions about their camping needs, before making a recommendation. Prospective customers answer questions about the kind of camping they’re most likely to do, the seasons and weather they’ll be camping in, how many people will be sleeping in the tent, and more. At the end, they’re given a lineup of three choices. This narrows the options down a lot, making the process less intimidating. At the same time, it gives them more choices than just a yes-or-no decision on one product recommendation.

It isn’t the same thing as the expertise of an employee at an outdoor outfitter. But it’s a good stand-in, and it lets the company talk about their products, on their own terms, on their digital real estate.

Stage 3: Purchase

The next stage of the buyer’s journey is the purchase. This is a crucial moment for you, and an emotionally-charged moment for them. You’ve got to illustrate to them what it’s like to work with you. You’ve got to put aside last-minute concerns and fears and convince them that your company is the best one to look out for them. So how can you do that?

One great example is Ford’s “Ford Promise”. It’s a direct response to pandemic-related uncertainty. When you buy or lease an eligible Ford vehicle through Ford Motor Credit, a year-long window begins.  If you experience financial hardship due to loss of employment during that year, you can return the vehicle.

That’s an incredibly reassuring offer. In the last month or so, unemployment has fallen some, but jobs remain far below what they were before the pandemic started, and the memory of April’s 14.7% unemployment rate isn’t going to leave our cultural consciousness anytime soon. Having that safety net is a great way to help people feel secure in their decision—and to put their last fears on hold and make a purchase.

Stage 4: Post-Purchase

Of course, your obligation to the customer doesn’t end with a purchase. They’ve decided to trust you. What you do with that trust determines not just their future purchases, but what they tell their friends, family, and co-workers about you. Your actions from here can either create a fan, or a case of buyer’s remorse. How are you going to deliver?

Hackensack Meridian Health is a healthcare network that has 17 hospitals and 500 other care centers throughout the state of New Jersey. Among their value propositions are a single integrated healthcare network intended to deliver more patient-centered care, and an emphasis on preventative care.

So once someone has gone to an HMH facility, they’re brought into an ecosystem that encompasses everything from walk-in clinics to rehab centers. But what keeps them there? The same thing that keeps anyone loyal to a company: Feeling cared for.

Hackensack Meridian Health has created an entire COVID-19 learning center with up-to-date information to help their members stay informed on how their services are evolving alongside the virus. When you visit, their automated chat immediately pops up asking if you have any questions, and relays recent headlines from the day’s COVID-19 news:

But even if you don’t click on the chat bot, you’re still taken to a page full of tips on returning to care, reasons not to delay treatment, and procedures they’re taking to protect their clients. You’ll also see information on testing, visitation guidelines, and research—including research on recovering COVID-19 patients, and HMH’s role in vaccine research.

There’s also information on how COVID-19 has affected each area of care. In some cases, like behavioral health, it means an increased telehealth program. In other cases, it may just include info on basic precautions and reasons that delayed treatment can lead to worse issues.

But in every case, they empower their client base to make informed decisions with the absolute latest research and information.

Partners on the Journey

Coming through for your customers is about more than somber piano solos in your advertising. It means thinking critically about what their needs are, and responding to those needs with empathy.

That may sound like a tall order, but since we’re all in the same boat right now, you can easily reframe it to, “What do I need right now? How do I want a business to treat me in the midst of all this?

When people are met with genuine caring, they recognize that—and they respond to it. You can enjoy the knowledge that you’ve genuinely helped the people who were counting on you, and know that you’ve built trust and relationships that will keep people coming back long after “crisis mode” is over.