The Customer Confidential Podcast

What Do You Want to Stand For When This Is All Over?

Rob Markey talks with Bain partner and customer experience expert Maureen Burns about why companies that empathize with customers and listen to employee feedback will emerge stronger from the Covid-19 pandemic.


What Do You Want to Stand For When This Is All Over?

I almost never know where I’m going to be recording the opening lines of the Net Promoter System podcast: Sometimes I’m in a hotel room, sometimes I’m in a client’s echo-filled conference room, with my sport coat draped over my head and the microphone to improve the sound. For this latest podcast, though, I was at home—like everyone else.

Whether we’ve been deeply, personally affected by this pandemic or are simply trying to get ourselves and our loved ones through it, we’re all sharing a version of the same experience. For customer experience professionals, that’s been a new challenge.

My colleague Maureen Burns and I have seen some companies fumble it badly. But many others have tuned into the experience with empathy. They’re creating experiences and offering innovative solutions that are building a deep reservoir of trust and loyalty with customers and employees that will last long after this pandemic is a bad memory.

In this episode, Maureen joined me to talk about what it is that customers and employees really need right now, and how the answer varies by company. And I also asked Maureen for her answers to some of the practical questions that Net Promoter practitioners are asking about soliciting customer feedback at a time like this.

You can listen to my conversation with Maureen on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher or your podcast provider of choice, or through the audio player below. A transcript of our conversation also appears below.

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Maureen Burns: Hi, I’m Maureen Burns, a partner at Bain and Company. I work in the Boston office. I focus on financial services, but look at customer transformations more broadly across industries as well.

Rob Markey: Maureen, welcome to the Net Promoter System Podcast. I really appreciate you taking the time, when you’re super busy with clients, to talk with me.

Maureen Burns: Thanks, Rob. I’m excited to be here, and just forgive any of the background noise. Like everyone else I’m working from home right now and we’ve got some schooling going on upstairs.

Rob Markey: Well, I imagine that’s a challenge for you, like it is for all of us. You have been on the front lines with your clients and you’ve been dealing with a whole bunch of things. You’ve been dealing with the initial response to this crisis, and we’re recording this on April 8th. This is the third or fourth week of work from home for many of us. People in other parts of the world have been doing that longer. You’ve helped people with the crisis response. You’ve helped companies with business continuity issues. You’ve helped them with changing and adapting the way that they collect feedback.

I wanted to start, Maureen, with one of the things that you observed, I thought with a lot of insight. As we moved into this crisis mode, as social distancing and physical distancing became highly prevalent, you observed that people, consumers, employees, were experiencing this as a loss, with grief reactions. Can you talk a little bit about how you saw that?

Maureen Burns: It struck me really early that this really was a loss for many people, and when we started to see things unfold—I’m based in Boston—I had emailed a bunch of my colleagues who are also working moms in Asia to get some thoughts just on what it was like and what lockdown felt like and how they dealt with childcare and things like that. And when I got those emails back, I was just struck by how sobering it was and it felt—I went through my own sense of, I think loss and grief at that moment where I was like, wow, this is really different. This is not going to be like anything we’ve ever experienced.

What struck me is it just felt like there was loneliness and isolation, making do with the new normal. And that what we knew as our old life was going to fundamentally change. And so at that moment, I think it was just a loss of what we knew as normal.

But then you start to play that forward and you think about all of the individual plans and things that people have traditionally had for spring. So you’ve got graduations, you’ve got sports tournaments, you have Easter and Passover and holidays. And all of those things are not going to happen in the way that we’re used to.

And then you put on top of that the loss that is undeniable of physical illness and death. We as a society have never experienced anything close to this.

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Rob Markey: Certainly not our generation, or even in some cases, the generation ahead of ours. One of the things that struck me was the loss of freedom that my kids felt. I watched my daughter, in particular, in college, just really, really upset and almost in denial about how much her school year was changing and the relationships with her friends and the fact that she couldn’t have a social life anymore.

Maureen Burns: And if you think about the stages of grief, we’ve seen all of it. I mean, we’ve seen anger, we see bargaining, we see denial. You know, many people, there was denial that this would be a two-week thing and then we could just go back to normal at first. And now we’re starting to, I think, realize this is going to be much longer than anticipated. And I think you see people processing that at different stages and at different paces.

Rob Markey: Maureen, most of our clients have gone through the initial stages of crisis response. I know some of your clients accelerated down a path towards work from home in areas and functions that they never imagined they could do. Can you describe examples of what you’ve seen?

Maureen Burns: Yeah, I think if you think about the typical office jobs, I mean, no one, no one expected that we could even move those kinds of employees at the scale that we have. Right? And that has been done pretty quickly. You think about moving schooling online. The latest that I’ve seen is contact centers. So places that have relied for a long time on having individuals together for the safety and security of information that they have, to be able to coach and train them, are suddenly looking at a lot of the barriers and the rules that they’ve put in place and saying, “You know what? In this environment, we can get rid of a lot of those.”

And so I think that we’re seeing a lot of flexibility and creativity that’s probably leading to better work situations for a lot of people. And so my hope coming out of this is actually that we can help accelerate a transformation that’s going to lead to a better way of working for lots of folks.

Rob Markey: Necessity is often the mother of invention, and in this case maybe necessity is creating an acceleration of a trend that had already started, but that many companies had resisted over concerns about information security, compliance, the ability to monitor and observe employees, and even the community that’s created inside of an organization with relationships among colleagues.

Maureen Burns: I think that people are looking at everything and willing to say, “Well, what’s the best we can do in this current situation?” We’ve seen how people have gotten creative about trying to keep employees connected. You know, we’re looking at doing virtual huddles and things like that. These tools already existed, but I think we’re now seeing them used in a new and bigger way.

Rob Markey: Now, one of the things that we got a lot of questions about was whether or not to just completely turn off Net Promoter and other types of customer feedback. And in fact, most of my clients, most of the companies that approached us, were engaged in some debate, where there was a faction within an organization that said, “Absolutely, we should shut down all customer feedback.”

My instinct has been just the opposite of that where we’re in such a weird, strange environment and we’re doing things on the fly to adapt to it, it’s more important than ever to keep your finger on the pulse of customer feedback.

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Maureen Burns: Absolutely. This was the question I think you and I both got the most in the first few days. And I think it all came from a good place. You know, people don’t want to burden customers at a time like this, but if you think about it, now more than ever, I think what used to be routine transactions are now suddenly super emotional.

And so they’re wanting to give you feedback about how that went. And they also have more time, frankly. I mean, people will take it for granted, but you know, when people are at home, they just have more time to give you feedback. And we’ve seen that they’re doing it. You know, I haven’t seen response rates dip at all.

If anything, I’ve seen them go up with a lot of my clients. We always say, and you’re the one that taught me, you know, “Ask for feedback in a way that’s not going to burden customers.” And we’ve seen nothing about this that suggests that customers see it as a burden. If anything, they really want to engage and they want to help companies get better.

The other thing I would say is, employees right now, most of the feedback when it’s actually about individual employees is so positive. And that’s really powerful for those folks that are on the front line, especially those folks that are physically on the front line, to see that feedback directly and hear the kind of difference that they’re making for customers every day.

Rob Markey: It’s interesting, you and I have been looking at feedback from our various clients. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that the vast majority of feedback coming from customers is very positive.

People are grateful that these companies continue to serve them. They are grateful to the individual employees who are serving them. I think it’s super beneficial for employees to hear that positive reinforcement.

Maureen Burns: I’ve seen some verbatims that are striking just in terms of the emotion and the gratitude that customers have for employees right now. I think as a society, our concern for frontline employees has rapidly increased. And I think that’s a good thing coming out of this.

If you think about it, a lot of these employees have traditionally been treated pretty poorly by customers. And I think if this is a moment where we understand that those folks coming to work every day at banks, at grocery stores, are really essential, that’s a good thing, and those employees should hear directly from customers.

Rob Markey: One thing that has become apparent to me is that this state of physical distancing, the restrictions on travel and face-to-face interaction, they’re not going to end as quickly as maybe we imagined when this started.

What do you think the world looks like for the next, I don’t know, two, four, six months? How do you imagine this playing out?

Maureen Burns: You gave me a tough one today! You know, it’s hard to say. What we do know is that there’s going to continue to be a set of businesses through this time that are going to be essential. And I think that those businesses need to keep getting customer feedback and need to think about how they can continuously improve and act on that feedback so that they can avoid bad experiences for customers.

I think there’s a set of businesses where people want to engage with them, but it’s just really hard to right now. So retailers, restaurants, you know, people want to be back to that normal lifestyle, but I don’t think it’s going to happen in the next few months. And so for those brands, finding smart ways to engage with customers is really important.

We’ve all seen the work-from-home Zoom outfit emails by now. We’ve seen lots of emails about, you know, having better office spaces and we can help you make your office more cozy. I think customers are looking for hope and looking for a little bit of fun at a time like this, but it’s got to be in the right tone and it’s got to be in the context of a really tough situation for most people.

Rob Markey: One of the things we didn’t talk a lot about is the dialogue with employees that can be so important to adapting to an environment like this. I know that in some of our clients, they basically shut down huddles. They stopped employee pulse checks and things like that. What’s your advice to people related to that?

Maureen Burns: I was really sad to see folks that would actually shut down employee feedback right now. I can’t imagine a time where it’s more important. Now, look, I think huddles right now are difficult on the front line, but if you can do them virtually, I think it’s really important to keep up that dialogue and give employees the ability to learn from each other and actually voice issues to their supervisors.

But employee feedback to me seems like it’s more essential than ever. I think it’s really hard for leaders to know what it feels like to be on the front line right now. And it’s only through hearing the voice of the employee, listening to what they’re saying, looking at the verbatims, that I think you can get a flavor for how the decisions that you’re making, many of which I think seem super logical and right in the moment, when they trickle down and hit the front line, may not seem as logical. And so I think that feedback is really critical. It also gets you the ability to get on top of issues. We’ve seen employee issues, Amazon in particular, in a way that we typically haven’t seen. And so really understanding what those concerns are and getting ahead of them, I think is more important than ever.

Rob Markey: So I want to wrap up, Maureen, by summarizing what I think we’ve talked about in terms of the advice we are giving our clients and others in this moment.

I think the first piece of advice is, everything you do, every communication you have, every operation, every policy has to be done in a genuine and empathetic way. And that’s not always easy.

Maureen Burns: You can’t be tone deaf. The future of brands will be won and lost right now. And so, doing one thing that’s completely tone deaf can have a huge impact.

Rob Markey: Second one is, every message that we deliver through marketing, through servicing in our voice response systems, like everything, needs to be reexamined and reviewed for that degree of empathy, recognition of the current environment. And because things change day to day, week to week, that review actually needs to be kind of continuous.

Maureen Burns: You’ve got to review all of your communications and be really clear, telling customers what you do know and what you don’t know.

Customers don’t expect full visibility from anyone right now, but they would love to be guided through something and know that you’re on top of it. And as soon as you know, you’re going to tell them.

Rob Markey: People’s credibility depends on acknowledging what they know and what they don’t know. Being overly confident or waiting too long to communicate can often backfire on you.

The third thing is keeping an eye pointed outwards, keeping your finger on the pulse of the environment. What are the messages that customers are receiving from others? And what’s the context we’re operating in? I know you and I traded messages about a company that sent out a promotional email about prom dresses in a sale on prom dresses, which just did not feel right. The more frequent thing is, like, for a while, every email started with, “These are unprecedented times. We’re doing everything we can to protect the health of customers and employees, blah, blah, blah.”

Maureen Burns: My heart broke for every 16- and 17-year-old girl that got that email. But I hear you. And the abundance of caution words are ones that I really would love to never hear again. But I think that’s true. And I think it’s really important to, one, not be super repetitive and not sending the same messaging at the same moment. Which is hard, right? ‘Cause even in, you know, in different geographies with multinational companies that are at different stages and even in the US, different states are at different stages. So you have to be really careful about making sure that when you think about your full customer base, the messages you’re sending are going to resonate at the moment in time that they’re in. But it’s really critical to get that right.

Rob Markey: The broader context to think about is, there are waves of furloughs and layoffs coursing through the economy. Your messaging and your interaction with customers needs to be sensitive to the fact that you don’t know the state that they’re in. You don’t know, for any individual, what has just happened or what is about to happen in their life.

Maureen Burns: I think that a lot of the brands have not built that into their plan yet. And so it’s going to be something that’s going to be increasingly real for, unfortunately, a lot of customers. And so being sensitive to that will be increasingly important over the next few weeks, especially.

Rob Markey: The fourth piece of advice here is that it’s necessary to sustain the dialogue with both customers and employees. So turning off feedback is exactly the wrong thing to do, even if it feels instinctively like what you should do. But maybe instead change what you ask and change the way you ask for it.

Maureen Burns: I think you need feedback now more than ever. It definitely has to strike the right tone. So what we’ve been advising folks is just change the upfront messaging, acknowledging the current situation.

And I’ve found actually our typical Net Promoter Survey works quite well. The verbatims are really rich. People are taking time to give you very specific, actionable feedback in those verbatims, and the key is making sure that people carve out the time to read them.

And you know, I’ve seen some clients get really creative about this. They’ve got some employees that are working from home and are less utilized than before. They’re putting them on responding to verbatims, doing follow-up calls.

So I would just suggest get really creative with the system right now and make sure you’re leveraging it to get all the value out of it that you can.

Rob Markey: Kind of point five of our advice is, you need to anticipate the longer haul here. This is going to last longer than maybe we had originally thought. And so the initial set of things that we did around business continuity, those are necessary but insufficient for surviving the long haul here.

And maybe you can talk a little bit about some of the implications of that.

Maureen Burns: I think we’re seeing a lot of customers switch to digital. There’s been lots of companies and industries where they’ve been trying to get customers to move to digital servicing for years. People are doing it out of necessity now. How do you invest now to make sure that’s not just crisis behavior and you can help customers start to migrate there for the longer term?

Rob Markey: You need to be thinking about improving digital interactions, improving the effectiveness and efficiency of work from home. You need to be reexamining processes and policies around compliance, around compensation, around performance measurement. Because in this new environment, it’s just not the same as it was before the current set of restrictions.

Maureen Burns: There is a chance here to break glass, which is kind of exciting. Some of these long-held beliefs about the way things needed to be, people are willing to question. And so I think finding those areas and trying to make a positive out of this is key right now.

Rob Markey: That’s a really good thing to highlight. One of the things that I see is companies not only doing things with work from home and policies around compliance and performance measurement, but also things like, they’re taking advantage of this situation to clear out their product portfolios of products that they were trying to sunset.

And it’s like, well, now’s the time to get rid of all that complexity, especially in situations where we just don’t have the staff, because a lot of people have been put on furlough.

Maureen Burns: There has never been more of an opportunity for a big reset. And it is my hope that people do use this time to really think strategically about, "What do you want to be to your customers and your employees when this is all over? And how do you start to lay the foundation to be able to do that?”

Rob Markey: Maureen, I know that your time is precious. You’ve got clients waiting for you. So I’m going to end on that note. I think that’s a sort of hopeful note and a topic that maybe you and I can address a little bit more in a future discussion—how do you flick on the high beams? How do you plan for the longer term and take advantage of maybe the silver lining in this big cloud to emerge stronger than you entered? Thank you for taking the time.

I hope this conversation with my colleague Maureen Burns is giving you some ideas about how to get through this crisis and to begin anticipating the world beyond it. Now, we’re recording this and publishing it at a particularly bleak time, but many of the principles for dealing with this moment are timeless.

In any case, I just want to note something that you no doubt already know. At some point this is going to end. And when it does, it’s going to be more important than ever that your organization have energetic, enthusiastic and creative employees, the kind of employees who are self-directing and self-correcting, because you will still have customers whose needs you must anticipate and meet and whose loyalty you must earn.

From my home to yours, I wish all of you the very best. I’m Rob Markey, and this has been the Net Promoter System Podcast, a production of Bain & Company. Stay home and stay safe.

Net Promoter System®, Net Promoter Score®, Net Promoter® and NPS® are registered trademarks of Bain & Company, Inc., Fred Reichheld, and Satmetrix Systems, Inc.


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