How Are Your Buyers Reacting to COVID-19?

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Our thoughts, plus a plan to help you hear directly from your buyers—

Searching for a way to think about how COVID-19 is affecting marketing, I turned to one of my favorite books – Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. Although Kahneman is a psychologist, he won his Nobel for his breakthrough work in economics. If you’re surprised that psychology and economics are interrelated, I assure you that we see that connection in every buying decision we study.I scanned Kahneman’s book for a quote that would help explain how people think during a crisis and found this one:

“Whenever you are conscious, and perhaps even when you are not, multiple computations are
going on in your brain, which maintain and update current answers to key questions: Is anything
new going on? Is there a threat? Are things going well?”

It’s easy to see that people across the globe are now receiving urgent, hourly updates from their brains with answers like this — “Yes, something new is going on, yes, this is a threat," and, "No, things are not going well.

For sales and marketing professionals, this crisis is driving the need to engage with buyers who are distracted by decisions that range from the mundane (where to get more toilet paper) to excruciating (how to protect families, friends and businesses from this threat)?

I’m writing to share our thoughts. Then, I’ll tell you what we’ve decided to do so you can hear directly from your buyers.

Is that an earthquake?
I grew up in California where earthquakes were common. Every so often, someone would say, “Hey, we’re having an earthquake.” We’d look up, notice the light swinging ever so slightly, and go right back to whatever we were doing.

When news about the virus first appeared, this was the way most people’s brains were providing updates. They scanned available data, saw no one near who was sick, and said, “Don’t worry, it’s a new form of the flu.

I was concerned since early March, but first realized that this was a big deal when SXSW was cancelled. Other conferences quickly followed suit, triggering a flurry of marketing emails that basically said, “Our annual conference is now a virtual event.” This was likely the right plan, but few communications acknowledged that this changed the value immensely, or to notice that other sales and marketing touch-points needed revision. Just last week, a salesperson from one very large conference followed up with me as a potential sponsor — using the same messaging and marketing pitch as he’d sent when the conference was live.

My guess is that the email was written long before and delivered automatically, but that’s no excuse. When a crisis affects our customers, we need to prove that we’re empathetic human beings, adjusting plans and messages to address the new reality.


This is a major quake, and no one knows when the shaking will stop
I knew in an instant that it was the biggest earthquake I had ever experienced. The time was just before 5:00p.m. on Tuesday, October 17, 1989. A taxi had dropped me at the San Francisco airport, about two hours before my flight to Atlanta where I was scheduled to speak the next day.

Within a few minutes, as thousands of fans were settling in to watch Game 3 of the World Series at nearby Candlestick Park, a fault in the Santa Cruz mountains slipped, triggering a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that killed 63 people and caused a portion of the Oakland Bay Bridge to collapse.

One moment I was checking in for my flight and the next I was on the ground with shattered glass and broken ceiling tiles all around me. It wasn’t long before we were told that the airport was closed indefinitely, and everyone was directed outside.

I never imagined that I’d get to Atlanta in time for my talk the next day, or how two companies would quickly adapt to customer needs and make that possible.


Hertz discards their playbook to serve their customers
As I exited the airport terminal, I noticed someone I met at the technology conference I had just attended in San Jose. Happy to see a familiar face, we became instant best friends and decided to walk down the ramp to the Hertz office, hoping to get some information or a way out of the mess we were in.

The staff at the Hertz counter began their interactions right on script – “Sorry, our computers are down, do you have a reservation?” I couldn’t believe my ears, because none of us knew we were going to be stranded by an earthquake and it was abundantly clear that the people who had reservations weren’t flying into the airport that night. Your computers are down, what’s wrong with using paper to record the customer’s details?

Facing down a huge crowd of customers who were extremely vocal about what should be done, the Hertz staff eventually started renting the cars.

In hindsight, I’m sure there was nothing in the Hertz training manual that would have prepared these employees to get up off the floor after a major earthquake and rent cars to whomever shows up. These staffers were completely isolated and had no way to communicate with their management. They were without electrical power, computers or telephones, just like their customers.

But the Hertz employees had the resources to make things better for their customers, and that’s what they did.


Delta airlines breaks every rule in the book to get us out of there
I emerged from the Hertz office shortly after 9:00 PM with keys to a van, which I had chosen instead of a car in case I had to sleep there overnight. I knew the San Jose conference attendees had booked all available hotel rooms and from what I could hear on the radio, the freeways were mostly impassible and the Bay Area was without power.

Scanning the crowd for my friend from the conference, he appeared out of nowhere, urging me to follow him to a bus that was supposedly taking people to board a flight to Seattle. I followed him in disbelief, taking my hard-won Hertz contract and keys with me just in case.

Incredibly, the bus was real and quickly delivered a random group of 40 volunteers to the airport tarmac. By then it was pitch dark, there were no lights anywhere and I could just make out that I was about to board a Delta 747. The crew was unfazed when I told them that my ticket was for a United flight to Atlanta, saying that they only needed my name so that they would have a manifest.

If you check Wikipedia, you’ll see that the SF airport didn’t reopen until the day after this earthquake. We will never know who rewrote the Delta playbook to fly that plane full of non-revenue passengers from a closed airport just hours after a major earthquake. No engineer could have possibly inspected the runway for cracks, we were experiencing intermittent aftershocks, and I can’t imagine who was in the tower to handle air traffic control.

The closing chapter in this story can only be attributed to insanely good luck, because as we were approaching Seattle, I told a flight attendant that I was supposed to be in Atlanta the next morning. She said that Atlanta was this plane’s next stop and that I should stay on board.

I arrived at my original destination just in time to get to my hotel, take a quick shower, and deliver my
talk on time.


We are all in this together, our plan to help
When it became clear that the COVID-19 crisis was shifting the foundation for every marketer’s 2020 plans, we started looking at our resources to see what would be helpful.

Hertz and Delta had the benefit of being face-to-face with their customers after that earthquake, which is why their needs were so clear. But most sales and marketing professionals are hunkered down at home. Without customer input, there is only guesswork, and that’s risky.

So we have decided to make our online training course, the Buyer Persona Masterclass, available at no cost for people who register by the end of April. The course thoroughly explains everything you need to do to find people to interview, conduct interviews by phone to understand their needs, and analyze the transcripts for patterns.

Don’t worry if it’s too chaotic to listen to the workshop modules while you’re working from home. Once you register, there is no time limit on attending the class.

Some of you may have participated in the Masterclass many years ago, in which case you might want to attend again – we completely revised the course in the Spring of 2019. The latest version has been updated to include new templates and answer the questions posed by hundreds of previous attendees.

To learn more about the Masterclass and register without cost, please visit us here and enter PositiveAction in the shopping cart at checkout. Just note that we cannot make the Certification available for this offer, as there is considerable manual effort involved in reviewing your assessments.

It’s not easy to get your footing so you can stay focused while the earth is shaking, and your buyers are
the only experts you should trust to guide your decisions. We invite you to follow us on Twitter
@buyerpersona or Facebook. We will continue to provide updates and announce any other resources
that might be helpful.

Stay safe!

Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey

Topics: business planning, buyer insights, competitive marketing, competitive strategy, marketing strategy

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