Open, honest communication is vital, says Jo Causon chief executive of The Institute of Customer Service

One only needs to read the news headlines to understand the enormous blow the coronavirus pandemic has served to the travel industry. Businesses in all corners of the sector are facing extraordinary challenges. Uncertainty looms over when international borders will open, and if health fears will affect people’s willingness to travel – and it is unclear when, if ever, things will return to anything resembling pre–Covid-19 levels of business.

With the impact of the crisis likely to be felt for many years, if not decades, to come – the travel industry needs to be prepared for more turbulent times ahead. But, it is in testing times when the true strength of a business comes to the fore. How organisations respond will be remembered by customers and employees long into the future – and when we emerge from this, those organisations that have done the right thing, and connected with customers in an authentic way, will be rewarded with ongoing loyalty.

Right now, many across the sector are dealing with the mammoth challenge of trying to support their customers, whilst also safeguarding the future of their business. Frustrated customers are trying to get in touch with under-pressure call centres, and customer service teams are navigating how to respond quickly and explain complex business policies, particularly surrounding refunds.

The key to all of this is communication. Those businesses that have maintained clear messages – demonstrating an effective balance between short-term responsiveness and long-term goals – have been met with support and understanding. For me, this is about proactive communication and taking responsibility. It is also about trying to give the customer choice wherever possible. If you are asking your customers to accept refund credit notes rather than immediate cash refunds, for example, explain why and think about how to ensure the customer feels protected with this option.

Giving the customer some choice on this matter builds longer-term loyalty and enhances the brand.  Honest, human communication surrounding the challenges you are facing will be better received than corporate statements, the dreaded “computer says no”, and the constant balance between short-term and long-term survival.

One thing this crisis has clearly shown is the crucial role our service nation plays in our economy and society. Within the travel industry, this role is likely to be thrust even further into the spotlight in the coming months – as the expectations of businesses to protect the health and safety of their customers becomes paramount. It remains to be seen what social distancing measures will mean for travel – but it is reasoned to believe that customers will be looking to brands for more than simple advice to wash their hands. They will expect, and demand, their providers to take the necessary steps to keep them safe. Leaders must ensure their teams are prepared, and armed with all of the relevant training and information they need to manage this challenge.

Finally – it is crucial that businesses take stock of the significant learnings from the past few months, and consider how these can be taken forward – not only in the turbulent months ahead, but long into the future. They must remain agile, adjust expectations and think of innovative ways to help employees and customers through this crisis. The fight is far from over, and more difficult decisions will have to be made – but those that prioritise their service offering, and maintain a laser-sharp focus on their purpose, communicate proactively and with authenticity – will be in the best position to rebound.