Business owners with products and services that align with customers’ needs fare best in the marketplace. But customer needs are ever-changing. What once was seen as a big deal may be ineffective today. Years back, motel owners boasted of “air conditioning” and “colored TV.” Those no longer stand as competitive advantages. Today, society’s behavior and therefore marketplace needs are likely to be significantly and immediately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Old habits and preferences will be changed as consumers look to protect themselves and reduce costs in a recessionary environment. There will be winners and losers because of these changes.

Some industry segments may see smaller adaptational changes while some segments will face major transformational changes. For example, a lawn mowing service does not involve much personal contact and people will still need to have their lawns mowed. But anything related to crowds, like restaurants and theme parks, can expect major disruption, at least for several years until vaccination is available and herd immunity in the population has reduced the risk significantly.

What Are Your Customers’ Needs Today?

Some needs are common to almost everyone today (e.g., to shave personal costs given lost income and declines in the stock market; to live as normally as possible even when quarantined; to work from home despite the presence of children who require attention, to avoid virus contamination). Other needs are unique to the business and its customer base: Patients for a dentist, for example, will have different needs and expectations, vis-à-vis dental treatment, versus the customers of a landscape designer.

Business owners who have adapted how they operate in recognition of broad communal needs include a restaurant in Minnesota that gives away a roll of toilet paper with every take-out order; grocery stores that have set aside early hours for seniors to allow them to shop while maintaining social distancing; businesses that now allow pre-ordering with pickup or delivery; a realtor that has begun asking people to don plastic gloves as they walk through an open house and toss them upon leaving; churches that have moved services outside so parishioners can maintain social distancing. Many business owners are moving more business online with ordering and payment at a website; this requires scrutiny over payment details and a clear and generous return policy to entice buyers who are no longer able to touch, feel and try on the merchandise.

Each business is navigating a way to stay open by being sensitive to customer needs, an effort that should get them good press for their actions. Other ideas offered for consideration by business owners looking to address customers’ needs could include locating YouTube videos suited for children that might entertain them, while their parents work, and also be educational; for example, a hardware store owner who posts a video showing how to make a bird feeder out of ordinary household materials, a bakery showing how bread is made or a retailer showing how to sew.

Customer Needs Evolve: So How Do Business Owners Stay Current?

So what about the unique and evolving needs of a customer base?

As mentioned, some industry segments must look for transformational changes for survival.  One way business owners can keep abreast, and gain insight to spark innovation, is by asking customers. Calling a handful of the best and asking them to be part of an advisory board, queried regularly, is a good start. Capturing input should be easy on customers and could be done via conference calls, Google Hangouts, FaceBook Groups, an email-based poll, a “send us your suggestions” link added to the website, or by providing them pre-stamped postcards on which to pen suggestions as they think of them. Business owners could institute a call-in opportunity by setting aside two hours when customers call in. Customers can be advised of this via direct mail, email, or by phone. Business owners might want to try it with a portion of their customer base first to test results and reactions.

Because people are often unable to voice needs when first asked, business owners might try helping customers identify unmet needs by hosting roundtable discussions. This could be done via various virtual meeting platforms including Zoom, Skype or Google Hangouts. Business owners themselves could facilitate the conversation.

Other sources that business owners could access for an understanding of current customer needs include trade associations and suppliers. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that anywhere money exchanges hands, the information does also. This means regulatory or licensing operations can be added to the list of places where unmet or evolving customer needs can be captured. And of course, business owners will want to ask their own customers for information about what the competition is doing, given that customers may have current experience with other suppliers.

Business owners need to make their best predictions on how people’s lives are being impacted by the pandemic and what new needs are going to be created as a result. Your business's capabilities and strengths can be measured against these new needs in order to determine your strategy.

Even if the business owner is not able to meet all of its customer's needs, customers are apt to appreciate the effort undertaken and the sincere attempt to meet needs. Such empathy often produces long-lasting customer loyalty.

Business owners are encouraged to review their operations for changes they could make to meet customers’ needs, incur their loyalty, and, hopefully, their continued business. SCORE mentors can help. They possess skills to help business owners conduct such a review and draft ideas for taking action. Such reviews should happen now and throughout the life of the business as customer needs continuously evolve.

Funded, in part, through a Cooperative Agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration. All opinions, and/or recommendations expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SBA.