Will your loyal customers still be loyal after the COVID-19 crisis subsides?

Customers are keenly aware of what is and isn’t making headlines with the companies they do business with. Their ongoing loyalty may depend on how you treated your employees during the pandemic.

A company’s brand perception can be greatly impacted by the actions it takes when times aren’t so good. In a recent conversation with customer experience expert, Megan Burns, we discussed brand perception. Ms. Burns stated, “Brand perception is basically how any person anywhere thinks about a company: their reputation, what they stand for, and what they represent. People form their perceptions of a brand based on many things. It might be their personal experience if they’ve done business with the company in the past. Some of it, obviously, will be advertising. Some of it will be things they hear from friends and family. And of course, there are the things they’ve seen and heard in the media. How a company treats its employees contributes to this overall perception of what kind of company it is and what we can expect of them.”

Early in the pandemic, billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban warned companies about sending employees back to work too soon, “How companies respond to that very question is going to define their brand for decades. If you rushed in and somebody got sick, you were that company. If you didn’t take care of your employees or stakeholders and put them first, you were that company.”

The pandemic is providing opportunities for leaders to put their best purpose- and values-driven foot forward and demonstrate why ‘people first’ is a solid business strategy.

Treating Employees Right

There are numerous stories about the good, the bad, and the ugly of how employees are being treated. The good stories (my favorite ones) demonstrate a commitment to ‘people first’ values. At PepsiCo, they are providing extra pay, extra paid sick time, and caregiving benefits. At Ally Financial, as they sent their workforce home, they modified their benefits to prioritize mental and financial wellbeing for all 8,700 employees.

Unfortunately, there are far too many instances where employees feel their safety is compromised, their health is in danger, or their jobs are at risk for fear of retribution. These stories persist across numerous industries from retail to hospitals.

The Age of Transparency

Some may think, ‘customers won’t know’ what is being done or how employees are being treated. In this age of Internet transparency, they will know. Several organizations have created tracking sites to monitor the practices and policies of how companies are treating their stakeholders, especially employees. Just Capital created a site that tracks the actions of America’s largest publicly traded companies and employers. The Better Life Lab from New America is tracking companies that aren’t offering paid sick time. So indeed, customers will know.

Employees First is Good for Business

Does putting employees first hold up in a down economy or during the unknowns of a pandemic? According to new research, companies that prioritize their workers have been significantly outperforming their peers throughout the pandemic crisis, benefiting not just employees but also shareholders.

Ms. Burns commented on the shift in culture to focus on people first. “Changing buying behavior has always been a driver, but even if it wasn’t, from a human perspective it is the right thing to do. I think the moral considerations feel stronger to the executives that I’m talking with now, independent to how it impacts buying behavior. I think that’s a significant shift in the overall business culture.”

Let’s remember that you can’t achieve your business objectives without a strong, healthy workforce. People first is always the right response.