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By Jo Causon, CEO, The Institute of Customer Service

The government’s announcement of an easing of lockdown measures marks a move into the next phase of the COVID-19 crisis for many businesses – and brings with it a new set of complex challenges. As I said at the start of the crisis – and it is equally true now – difficult times call for strong leadership. As we tackle the intractable challenges ahead, it is the job of leaders to remain focused – and ensure that in dealing with short-term decisions, they do not lose sight of their long-term purpose.

For those sectors able to re-open, albeit tentatively, an immediate concern is of course how to protect the health and wellbeing of customers and staff. It goes without saying that care must be taken to ensure procedures and building quality are fit for purpose. Leaders must also ensure they are critically assessing their decisions; balancing pressure from stakeholders and investors with the need to act responsibly. How businesses act now will shape how they are viewed by customers and employees far into the future and an ill-thought through, knee-jerk reaction in the face of falling sales could damage long-term loyalty.

This easing of lockdown measures does not mark a ‘return to work’ for much of the nation. Thousands of employees have been working tirelessly for months now from home offices and dining room tables, and leaders must remain focused on engaging and motivating their remote workforce, who will likely be operating under mounting pressure and frustration.

Even when all are able to return safely to the workplace, this long term experiment in working from home will undoubtedly change the landscape of not only office-based working, and leaders will need to consider how to implement new working systems to adapt to the new world. Policies around increased flexible hours (or enforced staggering of hours), remote working options, more frequent communications (delivered remotely) and reduced or more creative ‘office’ space will require significant planning and coordination. Will the old fashioned office space become a series of creative hubs and coffee spaces? Good leaders will be thinking ahead to implement these seamlessly when the time comes.

Now is the time to think hard about what we retain, what we have learnt and what we will reject. How do we want our operating base to work in the future? And what does this mean for our processes, infrastructure and culture – and ultimately the offerings we deliver?

Customers, too, will undoubtedly behave differently as we move through this crisis – and business recovery plans must be flexible enough to adapt in line with changing demand. The key to successfully rebounding will be regaining consumer confidence. This will only be achieved by being acutely attuned to their needs and very clear about our propositions. Now is the time to consider what we will do for customers and what we should stop doing.

It’s more important than ever to communicate effectively with customers, listen to their feedback, be genuine, provide reassurance and constantly relate back to purpose and relevance. The crisis has presented a unique opportunity to reset how we operate – taking stock of what we have learnt, and adapting and innovating in order to create businesses that put the needs of customers and employees at the heart of what they do. In doing so, I believe we can not only successfully recover from this crisis, but build a true service nation that is the envy of the world.

The months and years ahead will present more difficult and complex challenges for leaders and their people, and tough decisions will have to be made. But I am confident that those that remain level-headed, act responsibly by customers and employees and embrace the opportunity to learn and innovate – will prosper.

Jo Causon

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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