As a business and program development executive, my job is to source and qualify interesting, complex challenges where we can apply design thinking by using a team of deeply experienced practitioners. Companies call on us to help them solve these thorny challenges, and over the years, this has given us a view into various businesses and industry verticals. Many are bracing, hard, for the next 30-60 days. COVID-19 changed everything, virtually overnight. Businesses are hyper-focused on the safety of their employees, their work environments, and precious customers who have suddenly shifted priorities.
Lately, I’ve been conflicted over the traditional rules of selling. What I mean is that it seems like a dangerous temptation to think sell-sell-sell during a global pandemic. This by no means reduces the importance of remaining solvent, particularly for industries like restaurants and retail that are feeling the crush of this crisis. But looking at the situation, I realized that there’s an alternative in today’s climate. At EPAM Continuum, we call it empathy.
At some point, we’ll look back at this uncertain moment. We’ll see who got stuck by trying to push widgets (perhaps at a discount) to fill orders this quarter or next, but ultimately got left behind. We’ll also recognize those who truly understood their customers’ vulnerable present, took a deep breath, and—through empathetic listening and observation—transformed their businesses to become more customer- and employee-centric for years to come.
Netflix is a compelling point of reference here. During the 2008 financial crisis, they doubled down on streaming by offering unlimited access to its growing library of content in addition to their disc-delivery service. By listening to subscribers, and designing package options that they yearned for (matched with stellar customer service), Netflix blasted forward, gaining three million subscribers in 2009. Today, with the quarantine making watch parties impossible, they launched Netflix Party. The free extension allows socially distanced streamers to sync with friends and family no matter if they’re in another room or another side of the country. It also has a chat feature. My own teenagers, who have become power users, are reporting it’s a hit. Netflix recently reported a record-setting 16 million new subscribers in the first quarter of 2020.
Leading with empathy—and that should not be confused with crafting an image of empathy in TV commercials—has the potential to elevate a brand now and capture market share later. Here are some recent moves toward greater customer empathy:
• Retailer H&M, who experienced a 49% sales drop in March, activated their social channels to amplify the messages of health and safety on behalf of global aid organizations. They also donated clothing and materials to hospital workers in need and made a sizeable donation to the World Health Organization.
• LinkedIn opened 16 learning courses related to working remotely for free in response to the new realities of work-life.
• Keen Footwear announced a donation of 100,000 pairs of shoes to front line workers and their families who are at home during the crisis.
• Volante Farms, a 100-year-old family-operated grocery store in Needham, Massachusetts, made a voluntary choice to transition to 100% curbside-only pick up to ensure the safety of their employees and customers.
Entities, large and small, are saying: “We’re listening. We care. Here’s how we’re changing to help you.” In many ways, they’re engaging in design-led thinking. They understand that their core offering may be temporarily less relevant than before, and cannot afford indifference to the suffering that’s seized our current environment. They’re betting on a brighter future and are eager to play a role in getting there.
I’m extremely proud that our own company, in the heat of this crisis, spun up the design of GENTL Mask, an open source solution for manufacturers to address the current shortage of protective masks for healthcare providers. “Good Enough, Not Too Late [GENTL] has been the guiding principle of a lot of our decisions here,” says my colleague Duncan Freake, explaining both the project’s ethos and name. “We set out to design something that would really provide meaningful protection and not take months to develop or be based on equipment that would not be set up until June.” And when we received numerous inquiries from people who wanted to sew their own cloth GENTL Masks, we responded by creating a set of easy-to-follow instructions.
Our team of designers has several other crisis-related projects underway. (See, for instance, the prototypes we created to improve handwashing, and the DIY version of it you can do with your children). About these talented designers, a group that works through the fog of uncertainty every day, I’ve never been conflicted. At all.
Decades of experience informs us that empathic design will create the future people actually want—faster and more efficiently than just about any other way. There’s never been a shortage of challenges to be solved through empathy and design thinking. COVID-19 has had a multiplier effect that has touched every business and industry. As we transition to the next phase of the crisis, reopening business safely for employees and customers alike, I’m encouraged by what lies ahead.