By Chip Overbey, Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning, Old Dominion Freight Line
In a recent discussion with fellow business leaders, someone asked: “How is the unprecedented global health crisis changing your customer’s experience with your company?” My answer is; it shouldn’t. When navigating a challenging business cycle, companies and their brands need to remain true to the characteristics and experiences that define them in the minds of their customers and the marketplace. Businesses should resist the temptation to take actions that offer potential short-term gains but also could compromise their long-term reputations.
In fact, during trying times, leadership should focus on actions that bolster their ability to meet customer expectations. Focus on consistently delivering customer experiences that the company and brand promise. At Old Dominion Freight Line, we embrace this approach; it has allowed us to keep our promises during difficult times like a recession or health pandemic, as well as in periods of economic expansion and market growth.
Through the course of nearly nine decades of operation, we’ve learned that a strong, consistent, and reliable brand promise is the cornerstone to enduring through downturns and thriving in upswings. We’ve also learned that it’s essential to do the following:

  • Become your customers’ trusted advisor before challenges arise. Maintaining a consistent brand promise enables you to become a trusted advisor for your customers. You can build a strong relationship by conducting day-to-day business with the ultimate goal of adding true value to your customers’ businesses rather than having a transactional relationship. Be agile, supportive, communicative, and creative to support customers’ needs during a fast-changing and challenging environment. You will build stronger business relationships if you increase your commitment to your customers instead of wavering, particularly during difficult economic times. While it’s never too late to start, it’s increasingly difficult to ask your customer to trust you when they have more to lose, so operating to deliver value and to exceed customer expectations should be something to strive for at all times. If your brand is not considered a trusted advisor before tough times come, then it will be difficult for you to be seen as one during those times.
  • Keep your brand promise. Staying true to your company’s values, purpose, and delivering on your promises will leave a lasting impression with your customers. Operating a business culture that exemplifies your brand promise is an important component of your organization. It’s something that is built over time. If you are not careful, company culture can be sabotaged unintentionally during difficult times. Compromising on what’s true to your brand for short-term gains poses long-term threats and negative consequences once business rebounds. Your stakeholders will notice the inconsistent messaging, too. If you’re not willing to follow through on what you promise in hard times, why should stakeholders continue to partner with you during the good times?
  • Balance short-term decisions with long-term goals. Improving efficiencies within your business is your responsibility as a leader, but so is protecting your brand. Your brand and your value proposition  are what make your customers and prospects walk past your competitors directly to you. When facing a challenging business environment, tough decisions are necessary, but the level of service or the product quality you deliver to your customers should never be compromised. In fact, top-performing companies will often use a downturn to focus on strengthening service levels for their customers. In the end, you will see positive trends in reputation and loyalty in the long run. Reputational damages to your business because of short-term cost savings may not be realized until later down the road. At Old Dominion, we have witnessed this dynamic in the transportation sector during an economic slowdown. We know there is no such thing as “good and cheap.” When you factor in claims, fines, chargebacks, delivery delays, and customer complaints, the “cheap” option likely will cost you quite a bit more long term. It may be tempting to do something “on the cheap” to hold onto business today but consider if that decision aligns with your long term goals. Once the slowdown is over, you may have significantly eroded the loyalty of your customer base. What is your brand reputation worth?
  • Remember your “Why.” Ask yourself, “why am I in business?” People don’t just buy what you do; they buy why and how you do it. You should regularly revisit this question and keep your “why” centered. Take the time during an economic slowdown to revisit the fundamentals of your business and customer service. Capitalize on downtime and identify areas where you can innovate and enhance your customers’ experience. Many household brands and cutting-edge technologies emerged following a downturn. A crisis often reveals vulnerabilities of your business but also can point to ways to improve and grow. So be sure to look for these signals and take appropriate action. You want your customers and employees to believe in your company’s “why.”
Challenging business conditions will test your organization. But customers will find comfort in knowing that companies and brands they relied on before a crisis continue to deliver their expected experience no matter what. In turn, trust is built. Satisfied customers may be more willing to reward reliable partners by maintaining steady business volumes or possibly increasing workflow. In order for them to trust and
believe in your brand, you must first believe and deliver on your promise.

As we’ve seen at Old Dominion Freight Line, staying true to your brand’s promise serves as a beacon for helping to strengthen customer relationships, builds a strong company culture, and steers your business successfully in the long run.
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