Coronavirus Panel: Opportunity to Show Courage, Leadership and Creativity

By now most of us have begin feeling the impact of the coronavirus pandemic – either directly or indirectly.  Almost every sporting league is shut down.  School systems and universities are closing as well, opting for online classes instead.  And many of the conferences I was planning on attending over the next several months have been canceled, with a growing number of them going virtual.

Coronavirus Outbreak Response

It’s times like these where we look for people and organizations we can trust.  Where out-of-the-box thinking can really help make a scary/dangerous situation feel more manageable.  And even though it appears like we’re going to be in a tough situation for the foreseeable future with the virus, this also is a moment that reveals who we are, and who we can trust when the chips are down.  So me and my fellow CRM Playaz Paul Greenberg and Brian Solis decided to do an episode discussing some of the things we’ve seen people and companies in the CRM industry in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Below is an edited transcript of a portion of our conversation.  To see the full conversation watch the video or click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.

Paul Greenberg: Sometimes out of crises like these, you take a different approach and the approach kind of works so you just keep doing it. For example, if you think about it, most of the… I don’t want to call it creativity, but most of the change in direction is towards how to make something virtual. That’s what’s been going on with our world.

For example, these conferences have been canceled, but like say, the Salesforce Analysts Conference is postponed, but Adobe is canceled, but Adobe is also doing a part of it online. PegaWorld has canceled the live conference, but June 2nd will be an online conference. There’s a lot of TBD, Oracle, the way they’ve handled it is, they’re co-locating MBX MCX with OpenWorld in September.

Every Company Responds Differently to Coronavirus

Every company has a slightly different direction, but the interesting aspect is, if you take it as a whole, you’d start looking and say, at least from, again, from the lens of the tech world because that’s the world we live in so much, Zoho has every employee of the company working remote.

Salesforce has as many as humanly possible should work remote at least till the end of the month. Meaning work remote, be online tends to be the way we’ve addressed the crisis, which is how you address the equivalent of protecting yourself optimally by self-quarantining, which is somewhat what this really is to some extent, but still get things done.

Now, the interesting question is, what levels of productivity are going to occur? Is it a fair question? No, because the nerves over the actual Coronavirus are enough to reduce productivity, even if you’re doing it online. So, you can’t really fully take it as a perfect example of how this works. But people may say, you know what, “The amount of cost it saves us in a conference is enormous.” You lose something obviously when it’s not in person, you lose a lot, but the way the world works is one of these things may emerge from that as something that becomes just practice, as opposed to, response in a crisis.

A New Generation of Leadership

Brian Solis: I wonder how much of this is going to inspire a new generation of proactive leadership as well. For example, Marc Benioff was one of the voices encouraging… First, they started with the Washington office and then started to expand the idea of people working from home from March. And that also seemed to stick with other organizations promoting the same ideas.

But I think about, just taking a step back from the disease itself and just looking at information online and how connected we are and how much our new sources or information sources have changed, how much our first degree of networks have changed, especially since 2016. The digital trust or trust in a digital era, I should say, has become paramount. I don’t know, what I do see a lack of is leadership, and I think it’s this opportunity… And look, it’s not prescribed for any particular role to be that leader, it’s open for anyone.

I think here, for example, Paul, your article’s super helpful. That’s leadership in a time of just chaos. If you think about what people are constantly refreshing some of their tabs all day long as they’re just looking for information that helps them feel better or at ease or some kind of direction or some kind of virtual hug, if you will. In the absence of that leadership, we get a lot of things that aren’t necessarily healthy or productive. And so it’s not just the tools or the digital tools, but it’s also the emotional and the intellectual leadership that I think is necessary in times like this.

A Way to Take the High Road

Small Business Trends: Yeah, I would say even in a different way, but definitely a form of leadership, and I think a form of needed leadership because there’s always this human instinct for some to try to take as much advantage as possible of a bad situation. You saw on Amazon where all these third party sellers are marking up, like Purell, it’s almost like it turned into gold overnight. And what was a five buck item, is now a hundred dollar item.

I think I saw where Amazon de-listed over 500,000 items from third party sellers who were gouging people basically, taking advantage of the fear that you guys are talking about. I felt that, first of all, it was necessary and it’s unfortunate that was necessary because all these folks are doing is making some short term profits that’s going to cost them their business in the long-term. Because who in their right mind is going to want to do business with folks who are going to gouge them at a time like this?

And so, when you have a company like Amazon who… they get a lot of flack for stuff that they don’t do right, but I thought that was really a big step, because once again, they’re still looking out for customers. But they’re also making sure that they hold accountable these folks that are their partners, which are the third party sellers. If companies don’t take those kinds of steps, then where does that whole idea of trust, where does it go? Because if you can’t trust people when the chips are down, forget it. You can’t trust them at any time.

A Need to Feel Better

Paul Greenberg: The funny thing about these kinds of crises are, aside from all the panic mongering and gouging is, your point Brian, people want information to feel better, but it also needs to be of course, from that standpoint, information that helps them deal with what they’re going through. Meaning, it also has to be accurate enough so that there’s a practice once they get it. And when you’re dealing with these, the price gouger types, and then you see Amazon take an action like that.

Or you’re dealing with Facebook giving a World Health Organization unlimited ad credits so they can put out information throughout Facebook giving them platform. And at the same time, starting to cut people out who are trying to do bad… And then you think about how often Facebook and Amazon are attacked by everybody, sometimes for good reason. You realize how complex people and institutions are.

They’re not black and white. And in these situations, the good side may show, the bad side may show, but something that’s unexpected by the people who are kind of typing everybody into that black and white category, they’ll show one way or the other. Who’s more reviled in this world than Facebook at this point when it comes to a 10 company? And yet they’re doing all the right things now.

A Chance to Help in Crisis

But there’s also misinterpretation. Like one of the things that struck me when I was putting together the article, and this really struck me weirdly, even though the guy was well intentioned. Forbes did an article on Zoho offering their remotely, I think it’s 11 remote work product solution free to people till July 1st. The way he described it really kind of irked me even though I know he meant well, he said, “Zoho sensing an opportunity.” That was the way he put it.

And I realized, God, this guy… he admires the company, but he doesn’t understand that company in the slightest. [Zoho], didn’t do it to upsell them when the time comes July 1st because people are going to be dependent. It has nothing to do with why Zoho did that. Zoho did it because they actually care about the species. They care about people. They care about making it right.

An Opportunity Missed

Small Business Trends: He should have said, Zoho saw an opportunity to help.

Paul Greenberg: Yeah, and he didn’t.

Brian Solis: But that comes back to your point in terms of the media’s intention behind a lot of this information. Sometimes you jump on a story so quick to drive views that you don’t think about the deeper meaning of this, because actually that is part of the story, what you just said Paul.

Which is, what if what we spotlighted wasn’t just about the ability to get access to technology that would allow you to work remotely and it’s free for the next few months, but that companies are taking a leadership position and standing in the line with a purpose that matters.

A Search for Information During Coronavirus Scare

I think, at the end of the day, when we search for information and we’re looking to feel better or get guidance or find some ease or at least some peace or direction, what if we also aligned with organizations because there was purpose? And I think this is all starting to kind of, in their own weird ways show us that there has to be more than all of the things that… we run pretty fast and there has to be more than just features and speed and views and clicks and market share.

That this is a society and in many cases a digital society that is sort of working in these blurred lines between virtual and reality. That comes back again to that leadership, comes back to that humanity, comes back to that sense of purpose. And if we’re going to share stories, let’s share the story, take the time to find… In Zoho’s case the real core of the story is a company that’s actually trying to do good in the world.

A Closer Look at the Implications

Small Business Trends: Let’s talk about some of the implications for the industry here. One of the immediate ones is, man, I hope these online events are better than previous online events have been. Because if you’ve got to substitute face to face for online, there could be a lot of stuff lost.

And let’s face it, when people are not in a physical location for two or three days, they still have multiple options for their attention to go a number of ways. So, how should CRM industry online events change to make sure that they capture people’s attention at least as much as it can be when compared to when they’re physically in one location and you have them right then and there?

A Need for Engagement

Paul Greenberg: Well, I’ll tell you one thing. Remember years ago when Lithium used to do the Lithosphere thing? Like Michael Wu at the time. When he was there and then some of us were on and so on. They were great. You know why they were great? It’s because the one thing that I think Lithium truly understood back then was online engagement was amped up.

Meaning it wasn’t just speeches. It was interaction. And it was a lot of interaction. They were encouraging the audience to interact. And some of the speeches including mine, happened to have been taped in advance. I wasn’t really going to respond directly to anybody. But we had a plan. For example, the way we planned that one. I guaranteed them an hour online after my speech where I come back. I get online and communicate with people.

While that was the awkward, to some degree, the reality was it was smart. And it had engaged people. Because it always had interaction. For example, you think about Adobe. Adobe is taking the biggest risk of all of the online ones so far. Which is they’re actually going to do keynotes online. Four or five of them. And the strength of that is… and kudos to Adobe to even make the effort to do it. The scary part is they’re really easy to zone out of when you’re not there.

An Effort to Drum Up Interest

They’re doing snacks too. Which is going to be really interesting. If they pull that one. But what would be the way for Adobe to handle it well? Yeah, make them keynotes but shorten them. And communicate with the audience who’s listening as more of it than… give a 20 minute keynote. And then talk to your audience and let them talk to you. Get to meet them.

That’s how you do it, man. You’ve got to increase the… You’ve got to seriously amp up communication with the audience. And I think you’ll be able to maintain attention because… to your point Brent, you just do a keynote without a live audience. Not in person. It’s going to be really easy to get up and go eat lunch in the middle of it. So, you know what and honestly? If it’s not that good, that’s exactly what I’ll do. But it’s not just me. I think it’s with anyone.

A Way to Increase Communication During Coronavirus Outbreak

Just increase the level of communication, don’t treat it as if it’s just a reproduction online of what it was. You do that you’re dead, you’re just finished, you’re going to just depress people. Even if it was the best speech ever, because it doesn’t have bodies, it doesn’t have language that you can read in between. Even if you can see it, it’s just flat on a screen. So, that would be my thought anyway.

Brian Solis: Any vendor, especially since the number of them hosting or shifting to virtual conferences is exponentially growing here as time goes on, is to take that word to heart. And experience is as we’ve discussed before. An emotional reaction to a moment.

A Technique for Avoiding Distraction

And especially if you are going right to the forum. Where most people in that forum are going to have multiple tabs open anyway. And multitasking plus this and everything else that could lead to a distraction or cause a distraction. You have to think about experience in a new paradigm. I use that word lightly. But in a new venue where attention is already pulled away from you.

And it comes back to CRM and customer engagement in general. Our employee engagement is how do you break through that fourth wall? That digital fourth wall and connect with somebody in a very human and engaging way. So, format’s part of it. If you think about the live TV reproductions of plays and movies. Like for example, Greece. I think they just did recently and The Little Mermaid.

A Peak Behind the Scenes

They changed sort of that live portion of it to be much more engaging. For the shorter attention span theaterers, as we call it. Or they show you what’s happening behind the scenes. So that you kind of get a feel like you’re getting in there. And Paul, like you talked about. Sort of creating opportunities to talk with people outside of the presentation. And so, it’s not replicating the live traditional conference. It’s actually creating a live digital experience that there is no real playbook yet. And so, it’s an opportunity to sort of create it as you go.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

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Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.