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The Economy Sucks Right Now. Make Sure Your CX Doesn't.

April 28, 2023

cx during a recession

Everyone’s been whispering that dreaded word - recession -  for at least a year. And now that we’ve experienced the second-largest U.S. bank failure in recent history with Silicon Valley Bank’s (SVB) collapse, many aren’t bothering to whisper anymore. It’s all a bit too 2008.

The trepidation is tangible. In a survey run by Nielsen IQ, 62% of global respondents feel like they’re living in a recession now, and 48% of these consumers expect this economic downturn to last for a year or more. 

Consumers and investors are afraid and so they’re both risk-averse; in a word, that’s how we got SVB’s demise. Whether you’re in B2B or B2C, you’ll have to adapt to this changing consumer mindset in order to survive.

What you'll learn in this article:

  • How to show your leadership team the value of excellent customer experience
  • Pitfalls every CX leader should avoid when resources are scarce
  • Tactical do's and don't's of CX during economic hardship
  • Real examples of what I did during the 2008 recession while I was CCO at Oracle

I’ve been through a couple recessions, and I’ve learned valuable lessons along the way. At the time of the dot-com recession and the 2008 recession, I worked for Oracle. I was their Chief Customer Officer (CCO) for 11 years. 

During these time periods when your customers are either hurting or afraid, customer experience becomes more important than ever.

But let me be candid with you. All too often, when things get bad, customer experience (CX) ends up on the chopping block instead because a lot of businesses see CX as discretionary. They don’t see how CX directly – day in and day out – affects revenue and product. Tough times mean the focus centers on what it takes to make the next big sale and get the product out the door.

I’m here to tell all you CX leaders that you can prove CX’s importance and drive impact during this scary period. However, we should talk about the right ways and the wrong ways to go about this.

How to prove CX matters

As I mentioned above, companies carry a misconception that CX is discretionary. You have to acknowledge that mindset and actively counter it. And when I say actively, I do mean act. 

Be practical. Lose the fervor

We love to philosophize, don’t we? Especially when it comes to understanding why people act the ways they do. Customer experience fits well into this mold, but spending time socializing your ideas, processes, and principles will only reaffirm to decision-makers that CX is soft and fuzzy, and thus discretionary during economic hardships. 

You need to start asking yourself: how do I actually impact the bottom line? 

Play out the worst-case scenario

During past recessions, I forced myself to imagine the worst-case scenario. I’m not always a pessimist, for the record, but during times of abundance, it’s easy to be distracted by the possibilities you could chase. If you consider having limited resources before things become scarce, it will force you to zero in on the ways your team drives the most impact.

And if you focus on those influential tactics sooner rather than later, it’s more likely that the worst-case scenario won’t come to pass. 

To go through this exercise, ask yourself these questions:

  • If I had half of my people, what would we focus on and accomplish?
  • If I had a two-person team, what would be our primary goals?
  • Heaven forbid, what if it was just me?

Terrifying questions to consider, but this exercise forces you to be clear-eyed about what truly matters to the business because of the (imagined) pressure of being the sole CX provider. And what truly matters is not theorizing and adhering to principles. It’s how you as CX leaders drive impact through programs that already exist, and even more rudimentarily, how you personally show your influence through your own interactions with customers. 

Yes, you can make a difference to the top and bottom lines. 

You should be helping marketing with demand gen. You should be helping the sales team. You should be helping the product team understand the needs of the customers. You can integrate yourself into these teams and identify the areas where you can show off clout through your client relationships. This was my strategy during the 2008 recession and it served my team well, but more on that later.

Engage yourself and your people this way. It’s not only important for your company; it’s highly fulfilling on a personal level.

I’ll argue all day that CX is not discretionary, but the unfortunate truth is that many throughout the business world have this mindset, and it’s difficult to change. That’s why rather than formulating a clever argument from your pedestal of CX theory, you should instead bring the naysayers numbers that showcase your worth.

Even better than numbers: Actions speak louder than words. Bring the haters a client who turned into a volunteer brand advocate thanks to your mindful CX skill and nurturing.

Wondering what that specifically means when it comes to CX? Let’s start with what you don’t want to do.

What not to do

Let me share common mistakes I see fellow CX professionals make. The first one may surprise you. 

Journey mapping: where productivity goes to die

Is journey mapping helpful? Sure. Is it something you should spend precious time and resources on during a time when driving tangible business results is integral to success? No. 

This is just one example of a process or CX principle that you need to let go of. By the time you’re finished, you have no immediate impact to show for your journey map. Steer clear of this one. 

If you’re finding this a hard process to relinquish, try building an ongoing journey map as you actively engage with customers, but this process has very little value during difficult times.

For the love of your job, don't set aside journey-mapping time in a challenging economic environment.

And please don’t engage others in the company who are feeling the same stresses and pressures to affect the business differently.

The next common mistake?

Don't fall prey to infighting

I see CX leaders consumed by clamoring over resources for their strategies: a bigger team, a better budget, more cross-functional support. I get it, but please stop.

Rather than spinning your wheels over what you could accomplish with more, focus on what you can accomplish now with what you have. If you’ve practiced the “worst-case scenario” exercise, you’ll probably be pretty good at this. Again, you ought to be the one approaching other teams and offering your guidance and support to empower them. Focus on a very small number of programs that will make a real difference. 

Now that we’ve gone over what not to do, let’s home in on your most important tasks. 

What you should do

Practicality is your friend during difficult economic times. Take action and start creating results that matter with these steps.

  • Cultivate executive sponsorship. Go all the way to the top. Encourage your executive team to build and maintain key customer relationships. This creates empathy for what customers are feeling and experiencing, which can now be shared from the top down. It also capitalizes on your most potent weapon: company leadership.
  • Re-examine how your top accounts are managed. Give special attention to how resources are distributed across lines of business for those accounts. This is, of course, easiest if you have direct influence over account management. If you don’t, at least help the sales team identify and draw on crucial resources.
  • Build a “Top Ten” program. This identifies the most crucial challenges that affect a lot of your customers. Then you can communicate and rectify the root causes of those issues. You have to be systematic, forward, and highly collaborative, but the payoff will be enormous.
  • Seek out brand advocates. Which global brands would have the biggest impact on the perception of your brand, your marketability, and your future sales? If they’re a current customer, great! If not, now you have a prospect to aim for. To make these companies loyal brand advocates, apply programs to respond to their input, ensure top-notch communication, and help them achieve business outcomes. Like any worthwhile relationship, you need to show them you care deeply for them and that you’ll always have their back.

Note: If you're in B2C, this mindset works for influencers as well.

I’m sure some of these seem obvious, and that’s the point.

Don't reinvent the wheel

Especially when there’s a scarcity of resources and people, you have to double down on the tactical. Soon you’ll be driving impact in ways the business appreciates. It’s obviously appealing to be very “strategic,” but strong tactics always win the day.

How to keep up with an ever-changing customer mindset

A unique challenge CX leaders face during these times is keeping up with the mindset of customers. As the stock market rollercoasters up and down, so too do your customers and their concerns, fears, and goals for the week, month, quarter, and year.

There’s no perfect way to keep pace with clients. I’ve found success with these methods tried during past recessions. 

  • Engage your executives on multiple fronts. Get leadership engaged beyond executive sponsorship. Make it easy for them by providing the structure and data they need to be successful and efficient in every single customer interaction. As the rest of the organization observes how the executives actively help customers be more successful, that mindset becomes infectious. You can’t go wrong with this approach. 

    Revision: You can go a little bit wrong. Some executives simply won’t have the appetite or mindset to engage with customers. It’s a calculated risk you have to take, but in my experience, the advantages are overwhelming.

  • Make sales and marketing your new best friends. Don’t ever forget: at the end of the day, your job is to help them sell, market, and promote the brand – and to make your company’s employees increasingly attuned to customers. The more you sync customer engagement with employee engagement, the more effective and efficient your company will be in harnessing the power of your customers, the most important asset you have.
  • Forget about trying to change the culture of your organization. Don’t get me wrong. This is possible in certain companies, but it’s usually a long and rocky road. You don’t have time to manifest a new culture when too many external forces are already bringing pressure to the organization to show fast results. In any event, culture change is not just hard; it can be entirely counterproductive, at least in the short-term. And right now, the short-term is where we live.

Ready for an anecdote or two? As someone who has spent decades in the CX space, let me share a few tidbits.

Storytime: lessons from Oracle

As I mentioned earlier, I was the CCO at Oracle for 11 years. One of the biggest lessons I learned in this role was one that I freely admit I should’ve learned sooner.

Build street cred with your sales team

Engage with the sales team early and often. Don’t just ask them for their feedback or for access to their customers, but immerse yourself into the team, the process, and the challenges. And don’t focus on sales leadership. This is more of a grassroots effort, where the sales actually are. Helping the sales team sell is the single most important thing you can do.

This might sound like a tall order. It is! To make things easier, focus on one specific product, customer segment, or sales rep at a time. 

This reminds me of a story from those days. 

A successful experiment

During the 2008 recession, we invested in a new, experimental function in CX. Before this, our particular team focused on customer marketing, but we rethought that engine and concocted a new way to create brand advocates for our most critical products. These products were the ones that were truly defining the company’s strategy, the ones for which we had very public competitive pressures and new products that were highly strategic for the future of the company. 

To do this, we used a variety of tactics I mentioned above, like re-examining the top accounts and cultivating strong relationships with sales, marketing, and product.

We then split this small team into two mirrored functions:

  1. The product-focused section learned everything there was to know about specific products, early adopters, and key customers, and exactly which product attributes were the most important strategically.
  2. The customer-focused team members  recruited brand advocates, managed customer relationships, optimized engagement, and fulfilled customer reference needs. 

People thought we were nuts

“What does product focus have to do with customer focus?” people would ask me. “Lots of different parts of the organization spend all day, every day, on products. Shouldn’t you be entirely dedicated to clients and prospects?”

Lucky for us, the experiment paid off. It turns out the convergence of a product mindset and a customer mindset spun gold, especially in a very product-centric company. With this strategy, we maintained a laser focus on the most important customers, for the most important products, and did so with agility and knowledge that became the envy of the company. We were able to make a substantial impact on customers by adopting our most strategic product and fostering their advocacy of our brand.

My biggest advice: jump in

You can’t press the same agenda you were pursuing before. Everything has shifted. Attention spans are shorter. What worked two years ago no longer applies. You need to constantly rethink how you and your team can advance the goals of the company. Think tactics – not strategy. How can you contribute to the next important deal? How can you help get the next new product built or the new feature released? 

The worst thing you can do during economic hardships is pretend like nothing is changing.

Don’t stay stagnant, and whatever you do, don’t fall back on principles. Ask yourself “What difference can I make?” and take action. You might be surprised by just how big of an impact you – and CX – can have during difficult economic times.

This post is part of G2’s Industry Insights series. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official stance of G2 or its staff.

customer advocacy software
Give your customers a platform

Good CX inspires brand love. Set up a brand advocacy program. Customer advocacy software makes it easy for both parties!

customer advocacy software
Give your customers a platform

Good CX inspires brand love. Set up a brand advocacy program. Customer advocacy software makes it easy for both parties!

The Economy Sucks Right Now. Make Sure Your CX Doesn't. If your customer experience remains unchanged during economic hardships, you're set up for failure. Learn how to adapt from former Oracle CCO Jeb Dasteel.
Jeb Dasteel Jeb operates Dasteel Consulting, focusing on advising CX leaders, and is a founder of the Experience Alliance, a CX/EM collaborative working group. Jeb served as the global Chief Customer Officer for Oracle from early 2008 to September 2019.

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