By Steve Wunker
This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker’s piece for Forbes
In the current reality of coronavirus, most companies don’t have the time or resources to come up with a brand-new product or create an innovation incubator. Luckily, innovation doesn’t require a stroke of genius, endless time, or unlimited funds.
If you have a deep understanding of your customer relationships and priorities, you’ve already taken the first step toward weathering the storm. Using the tools they already have, businesses should critically evaluate the actions they can take now that will set them up to thrive later. Here are six ways that businesses of all sizes are innovating through this crisis:
1. Delight customers with Costovation
Costovation is innovation that cuts costs while exceeding customer expectations. For those of us who aren’t Amazon (or Zoom, for that matter), cutting costs while keeping customers interested is critical right now. Staring down indefinite store closures and a whole lot of future food waste, vegetarian fast food chain Clover did just that. The company repurposed the ingredients it normally uses to make hot sandwiches into boxes of assorted fruits, vegetables, and other supplies. Customers went home with a load of healthy options for their families, and Clover turned its waste into a product of its own.
2. Band together with others
Personnel shifts are happening on two extremes: companies like Domino’s are looking to hire 10,000 people to keep up with demand, while airlines and hotels like Marriott are laying off tens of thousands. In China, we saw more than 40 companies band together and create an exchange to combat this trend. A group of hotels, restaurants, and cinema chains that had all taken a significant economic hit shared a large proportion of their staff with Hema, a supermarket chain owned by Alibaba that desperately needed help meeting demand for deliveries. While the ratio of employees needed to employees lost is not even, innovative strategies like this could help slow the bleeding.
3. Keep your customers loyal
Why bother driving to your family-owned health food store when you could order what you need online on Amazon Prime? Customer loyalty. Keeping customers close is always critical, but it’s especially so when everyone else is offering convenience, job security is low, and spenders are holding on tighter to their wallets. Small businesses in particular need to deeply understand their customer bases. One local grocery store in a Western Massachusetts college town, Wild Oats, has leveraged its insight partly via new store hours. Each day, the first two hours upon opening are reserved for senior shoppers only, who make up a significant percentage of the store’s customers now that all the college students have scattered home.
4. Spot re-prioritized Jobs to be Done
The coronavirus has reshuffled priorities and made some customer Jobs to be Done more important than before. Keep my kids entertained is one that’s taken on quite a new level of importance while trying to occupy them in the background of a company-wide Zoom meeting. Companies like Audible recognized that priority shift early and are adjusting offerings to reflect the most urgent needs of the moment. Recently, the company announced the launch of Audible stories, which allows anyone anywhere to listen to over 200 children’s stories for free. As a bonus, parents can feel good about how their kids are spending their time (an audio book beats hours of television!).
5. Adjust to new consumer habits
It’s hard to stay six feet away from other people in a crowded supermarket. Chains including Walmart, Kroger, Whole Foods, and Carrefour are doubling down on their curbside pickup offerings, and countless other companies are investing in or just beginning delivery. Meanwhile, eat-in restaurants have been turned upside-down as their main draw—the experience and the atmosphere of dining out—is no longer an option. Innovation needed! Earl’s, a popular spot with locations throughout Canada and the US now offers grocery delivery and pick up. Options include fully prepared meals, do-it-yourself packages to make at home, and grocery collections like the Pantry Pack (essentials like olive oil and dried pasta) or the Produce Pack (fresh fruits and vegetables).
6. Rethink Customer Experience
The entire concept of customer experience is changing dramatically in the coronavirus world. It’s not a small undertaking for restaurants, hotels, and other experience-driven businesses to completely rethink how they’re delivering their services, but a creative Vermont corner store is proving it can be done. The Old Brick Store has started offering daily rundowns on social media of in-stock produce, hosting virtual pizza nights on Fridays, and curating collections of products for pickup like “virtual happy hour kits.” The café/country store hybrid has positioned itself as the go-to spot in town, and while posting a list of available produce every day might take some effort on the Brick Store’s part, it’s definitely easy on the customer.
While we won’t be living between house and car and working from our couches forever, the convenience of pickup, online, and remote alternatives is powerful. Business owners might realize that a fully remote workforce means less overhead, and home buyers might decide that on-demand virtual tours are a better option than crowded open houses. All companies should be thinking critically about which of their customers’ newly adopted habits might stick in the long run. Using the information you have about your customers’ priorities and needs, a little creativity and a lot of flexibility will go a long way toward making innovation happen.
Kayla Servin provided editorial support to this post.
Click for a series of working papers on managing a business through the coronavirus crisis.