Ashton Media
Marketing & Customer Experience Hub

Customer experience in times of crisis

Khaled Akl

No brand is immune to crisis and having a customer experience crisis management plan has never been more crucial. That’s according to Khaled Akl, Global Vice President Customer Development at Unilever.

Khaled AklAkl, who spoke at the Customer 360 Symposium, specialises in managing customer experience in times of crisis. Based in the Middle East, an area he refers to as “the CNN market” on account of the number of news stories coming out of the region, Akl has experienced first-hand the importance of having a plan in place. During the Arab Spring, under Akl’s watch, Unilever decided to continue operations in Egypt, and suddenly it was not business as usual. Instead, it was very much “business as unusual”.

“During that time, there was no internet connectivity, there were no mobile phones, there wasn’t even satellite TV. Banking systems stopped completely. We’re talking about a country without a government, without a president, without even a constitution. We’re talking about total chaos,” said Akl.

While most of the businesses operating in the region, particularly multinationals, shut down at the behest of global head offices, Unilever bucked the trend. “We decided to manage our customers’ experience, our consumer experience, during the Arab Spring,” said Akl.

Before you write off what Akl shared thinking it has little relevance to the Australian market, he suggests you take note. “Crisis can be security or safety related. It can be business related, economic related, IT related. Anything that can cause business interruption is defined as crisis,” he said. “Whether it’s 9/11 in the US, the bombing in Brussels or what happened in Paris, the whole world is unsafe. Nobody is immune.”

And, as he alarmingly points out, not everybody is equipped to manage crisis. “We usually design our customer experience assuming business as usual, how we handle our customers when everything is stable,” he said.

Based on this experience managing the Unilever business during the Arab Spring, Akl has formulated a five-step model to manage customer experience during uncertain times. He said: “This is real life. I’m talking about things that actually happened. It’s not just a theoretical model  developed by Harvard Businesses School graduates.”

The importance of communication

One of the cornerstone’s of the crisis plan is communication, both internally and with the company’s customers which in Akl’s case was shops and supermarkets such as Tesco. For a multinational company like Unilever with offices across the globe and more than 172,000 employees, communication is no mean feat.

“If you don’t communicate with your customers enough, that’s a mistake. If you don’t communicate with your people enough, that’s a mistake,” said Akl. “The leadership needs to stand up to the situation. If leadership chickens out, that’s a mistake. If you’re leading from the back, that’s a mistake. You need to lead from the front, be with your people, lead by example. Usually during the time of crisis, most businesses will be more concerned about communicating with the outside world than inside the organisation.”
That, Akl believes, is a huge mistake. “You need your people, your troops, to know what is going on,” he said. “You need to inspire them, keep them well briefed. You need to agree to a decision-making process, how to make a decision during the test time and without losing sight of corporate governance as well. Because maybe you have a crisis situation, but tomorrow, it will be business as usual. You don’t want to make any silly mistakes during crisis time then pay the price later.“

An opportunity within the chaos

Resilience and adapting to the situation is also important especially given Akl’s point that there is opportunity within the chaos. “There is a famous saying, ‘Whoever sees blood on the street, it’s their time to make money.’ Every crisis has a silver lining,” he said.

For businesses that get it right, there are rewards to be had such as gaining market share and standing out from the competition. Of course, there is also the danger of looking opportunistic which can be avoided by being authentic. “When your people, your customers, and your consumer see you are authentic, and you’re doing this genuinely, that it’s for a good cause, then they start to reward you massively,” he said. “The main objective was to be there for our people, our customers, serving them, making sure our products are available, that people don’t lose jobs.”

With food products making up almost half of Unilever’s business, the company had a very real purpose within the crisis. “In the time of crisis, food becomes the topmost of priorities,” said Akl. “One of the main reasons we decided to stay in business was simply to make food available for supermarkets and the consumer.”

Still, the logistics of pulling this off meant Akl and Unilever had to change up the way they did business. One of the greatest challenges was money with banks closed and ATMs not working which led to issues from paying employees salaries to selling goods to customers. “There was huge change management associated with this,” said Akl.

Unlikely CX allies

To deliver on your customer experience promise in times of crisis, be prepared to work with some unlikely allies. In Akl’s case, this meant teaming up with the army to bring in shipments of goods after curfew hours. It also meant working closely with Unilever’s competitors.

“You need to rally people with you. This can never be a stand-alone situation. You need to take all the needs and collaborate with competitors. I was in direct contact on a daily basis with Nestle, Proctor and Gamble and other companies.”
Following Akl’s work during the Arab Spring, the Egyptian market won Unilever’s Global Compass Award. The award recognises the best-performing markets within the group based on business metrics such as growth, profitability, and market share. Akl said: “Even during a time of stress, the business managed to deliver and exceed expectations in such an outstanding way. That’s why we got this extremely prestigious award as the best performing business unit globally.”

Mark Abay - Content Director, Ashton Media About Mark Abay - Content Director, Ashton Media
Mark is Content Director at Ashton Media. It's his job to create interesting and engaging conference programs that stretch the thinking of our attendees. Mark works closely with our industry advisors to ensure the conference content is aligned with the needs and interests of our audiences.