By John Graham | Sales Column

While our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic is likely just getting started, it has already upended entire industries and modes of business.

How has the marketing and sales world changed? Primarily with customers’ rejection of the century-long proposition that the near-sacred role of marketing and sales is to get them to buy more stuff.

Some companies are listening. They get it: It’s no longer about what customers can do for us by buying our stuff. Now, it’s all about what we can do for them.

Arrogance is out, candor is in. Opinion is out; facts matter. Telling customers what they want to hear so they will take the bait is out; understanding and transparency are in.

Sending customers BS-filled emails expressing concern and understanding during this “uncertain time” isn’t just unacceptable and stupid – it’s a missed opportunity. As difficult as it is to craft meaningful messages in times of crisis, customers respond to those that make a difference in their lives.

What customers are looking for now is understanding and help – not a pat on the head, not incomplete information or promises to get back to “normal” once this has all passed.

Isolated, stressed and frightened by an unseen enemy, customers are looking for those who are prepared to come to their aid, who are on their side. If you want their attention and their business, you’ll need a message that’s clear, compelling and positive.

The good news is that the cadre of companies that get it is growing. Here’s a sampling of companies that are looking inward to find ways to help customers cope with a relentless enemy that would harm their health and safety:

Anton’s Cleaners, New England’s largest dry-cleaning company, took the what-can-we-do-to-help question seriously and came up with an on-target message for the COVID-19 crisis: “We care about your health. Sterilization is a standard part of our cleaning process.”

No coupons, no discounts, no “Offer expires in two days.” Just a simple, direct and factual message that answers the question of why someone should take their clothes to Anton’s: Anton’s sterilizes your clothes. The message neither knocks competitors, nor is it price driven. It highlights an existing benefit. It’s a guess that few Anton’s customer knew their clothes were being sterilized and all of a sudden, it’s a huge deal.

Supermarkets everywhere jumped in with early morning hours for the most vulnerable coronavirus age group, those age 60 and older. Some didn’t stop there. They limited the number of customers in a store the same time, provided wipes, and installed see-through barriers at checkout.

Why does it take something like a whack on the head with a two-by-four to come up with worthwhile ideas like early morning hours for seniors? We talk “customer commitment” to death without having a clue as to what it means.

Cox Communications has increased internet download speeds from 30 MPS to 50 MPS to help improve productivity for at-home workers, while Meero is offering free, large-file transfers to help remote workers. On a similar note, Constant Contact has a free Website Builder Business Plus plan to help small businesses get an ecommerce site up and running.

Allstate’s “Shelter-in-place payback” is returning $600 million in auto insurance premiums  to customers because fewer motorists are driving due to COVID-19, according to the Chicago Tribune. Planet Fitness is offering free online home workouts.

Sure, the cynics may scoff. Sure, these companies want more business. But, so what? These organizations area digging deep to find new and innovative ways to be of help to their customers at a painfully difficult time. All we need now is more like them and we’ll come through this energized and on our feet. •

John Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales strategy consultant and business writer. Contact him at jgraham@grahamcomm.com or johnrgraham.com.