A New Model for Business in a Post-COVID World

We need to look no further than our own emails to see how the coronavirus outbreak has upended our daily lives. Empathetic messages from CEOs and brands quickly flooded our inboxes, but companies and their leaders continue to struggle with how best to communicate with their customers during this time. An ever-increasing number of prescriptive pieces—such as McKinsey’s leader’s guide and Fast Company’s article on how leaders should communicate during a crisis—have detailed some best practices that leaders should take: Put your people first, be transparent, communicate simply. Yet, to me, an important step remains: How do we take these words off the page and genuinely—truly—connect with our customers?

I believe the most powerful thing we, as business leaders and human beings, can do is to invest in the things that matter most—our relationships. So, it is encouraging that COVID-19 has brought new public attention to the value of genuine human relationships. This refocus on relationship-building has many organizations rapidly moving toward a future where companies see beyond transactions to connection—a shift I wholeheartedly welcome.

At 1-800-Flowers, it has long been our mission to help people express themselves and nurture their relationships. Given the context of the current crisis, we’re working toward strengthening these guiding principles to better serve our customers through what I’ve coined as “engagement commerce.”

When I started my first flower shop in 1976, it was more than just a place of business. It served as the center of a community—a place where employees and customers traded stories, checked in on each other and offered advice. The customers of our first shop didn’t come for a one-off transaction; they were our neighbors and the kind of people who asked you to hold their dry cleaning while they ran across the street for a cup of coffee. These first customers would even give us their opinions on new floral arrangements we designed. The line between customer and employee was truly ambiguous, as each saw the other as an integral thread within the fabric of a community.

More than 40 years later, many business executives and consumers are craving this type of personal relationship—and hope to mimic it through new technologies. Engagement commerce, to put it simply, is finding ways to use the latest in technology to facilitate genuine engagement like we—and so many other small businesses—had back in the old shop.

Engagement commerce means serving your customers as well as connecting with them in all aspects of their lives—not in a Big Brother-dystopian future manner, but by keeping lines of communication open and actively interacting with your clients. We want to stimulate exchanges of ideas and sentiments—between our customers and us, between them and the important people in their lives—and invite them to participate in ways that they find interesting. We are revitalizing our expressions exchange, using the digital tools at our disposal, such as AI or voice recognition, to complete orders.

Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve begun writing a weekly Sunday letter to our 1-800-Flowers customers to offer observations and pieces of advice. We’ve asked members of our community to share their stories of friends and family on the front lines battling this crisis, as well as for our customers to share their gratitude toward local heroes who inspire them. We hope all of these efforts to connect with our clients demonstrate that we desire more than just a one-time transaction with them; we want to begin a conversation that will deepen and evolve over the many celebrations and milestones in their lives.

Other retailers can try stimulating the exchange of ideas and sentiments with customers. Invite them to participate in ways they find interesting. Change your thinking from “customer acquisition” instead to “relationship acquisition.”

One of the only bright spots from this terrible pandemic is that it has served as an opportunity for companies to reprioritize how they engage with customers. Forty years ago, we had intimate in-person relationships with 40 customers; now, we’re working to recreate those relationships with 40 million customers. The challenge, and opportunity, of engagement commerce is in deploying technology that can keep that same commitment we made so many years ago: to creatively engage customers in genuine and impactful ways.

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