Normally becoming CMO of an industry leader is a time of great possibility and heady dreams. But 2020 has been anything but normal.
I joined Reputation.com just as COVID-19 was exploding. As I write this, March feels like a lifetime ago. And we still have a long way to go as our company helps our customers move forward during a time of uncertainty. This year has taught me so many lessons about leadership, team building, and customer centricity; and forced me, among other things, to accept the unknown.
Sudden and Dramatic Change
When Repuation.com announced my appointment on March 11, I was charged with scaling the business and delivering on a newly cemented mission to tie reputation management to the customer experience. I couldn’t wait to strengthen and humanize an already powerful brand. And I had a plan (which comes with the territory of being a Type A personality). I was ready to hit the ground running.
Two days later, everything changed – suddenly and dramatically — when a national emergency was declared while a pandemic raged across the world.
Overnight, my husband and I found ourselves grounded with our two children under the age of five, both of whom had been sent home abruptly from school. The worlds of working and parenting collided. At work, I needed to put my plans on hold. By Day Two on the job, I was attending Zoom conference calls with the Reputation.com management team to address questions that exploded with urgency. How were we going to take care of our people? How were we going to keep our customers, whose businesses were being rocked? What was our game plan to survive and thrive?
Many more questions hit at once from everywhere – through email, texts, phone calls, and Slack messages, each one of them equally urgent — each competing with my role as a mom with children at home. During a “normal” crisis, you expect this organized chaos to take hold for a few days, perhaps a week. But as the pandemic worsened, all of this went on for weeks. I needed to adjust my expectations and try to abate that looming sense of feeling constantly overwhelmed.
It became clear right away that we needed to adapt our entire marketing strategy and rally around our customers – in a personal way. This was not a time for rolling out new products and extolling the latest features of our platform. We needed to show customers that we understood their pain and that we had answers to the problems we knew they were facing. They needed to know that we were in their corner.
I quickly set up daily standing meetings with the marketing team, many of whom I had not even met. I knew we needed to create a rapid-response product to help our customers address the reputation management problems they faced; so we adjusted our messaging and developed a COVID-19 response kit consisting of tools to help our customers tackle challenges such as managing their own customer communications on their Google My Business listings.
Drop What You’re Doing, Now
My request of the team was simple: whatever it is you are doing, drop it and focus on helping us help our customers manage through the immediate crisis. This is not to say that the many elements of our long-term marketing and communications program became less important – but they became less urgent. Some projects would have to wait.
For me, the hardest part of these daily meetings was (and continues to be) having to interact with each other virtually. I am an extrovert. Although I am accustomed to working at home, I value the relationship building that happens through face-to-face interaction, like those informal conversations in the hallway. COVID-19 removed all of those opportunities.
But especially in the early going, having our daily team meetings built a culture from afar: one of transparency, community, accountability, and empowerment. During a crisis, with so many decisions that need to be made, micromanaging other people invites disaster. The meetings made it possible for the team to report to each other the status of our projects, flag stumbling blocks openly and without judgment, and find ways to help each other. We had to be accountable in that way or else we’d fail, and we had to be willing to admit when we needed help reacting to an unprecedented crisis. But after the meetings were done, team members needed to manage themselves and their daily to-do’s with confidence. That’s where the empowerment came into play.
Shifting Gears and a Pivotal Moment
The initial COVID-19 response was an incredible achievement by the entire team. In time, though, we needed to address a need I’d been thinking about all along: getting focused again on our long-term strategy.
It was clear that the fundamental business problem we’ve addressed as a company all along – managing businesses’ digital reputations – had become even more essential during the pandemic. Many companies saw their reputations damaged by their initial reaction to the crisis. The pandemic exposed the need for those businesses to have a systematic approach to ensure up-to-date information across their digital footprint, as well as an active strategy for collecting and acting on feedback. Our mission was as important as ever. We needed to carry on with the job of delivering on it.
A pivotal moment to reassert our strategy occurred in May: our annual Transform event. This event provided a platform for us to articulate our vision for Reputation Experience Management (RXM), which means relying on customer feedback to help your business get found online, get chosen, and get better. To be sure, our customers were still facing enormous challenges related to COVID-19. But we needed to show them that a future awaits, and we needed to show them what that future looks like. So our team once again dropped everything they were doing and rallied around the launch of RXM. Transform was a huge moment for our customers and our employees – that point when we collectively took control of our destinies together.
Since Transform, the world around me remains uncertain, and indeed the future is unknowable, but we’re shifting our focus to telling the story we need to tell and that our customers need to hear. We’ve revamped our website and reinvigorated our thought leadership. We’re still responding to enormous challenges as uncertainty remains. But we’re moving forward. Here three lessons I’ve learned at this point in our journey:
1 Take Care of Your People
Everyone likes to say that their people are their most valuable asset, but COVID-19 has made it clear which companies really believe that. From the start, our CEO, Joe Fuca, told the management team that we would not survive without our people. As we streamlined our business and protected our customer relationships, we also needed to do everything in our power to take care of people at the same time.
Taking care of your people during a global pandemic means more than keeping them onboard. It means looking after them even when you have not had a chance to get to know them that well. The pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of employees at all levels across entire industries. But when coworkers and team members are suffering, they are not necessarily going to tell you. They don’t want to be perceived as complaining and calling attention to themselves. You have to make the first move and ask, simply, “How are you doing?” We spend most of our waking hours with the people we work with. There has to be something more to how we interact with each other than reporting on project status.
If you lead a team, I urge you to take time to do that. You might be surprised what you hear.
Taking care of your people also means uplifting them however you can, whether you’re having a virtual Zoom happy hour or reaching out on Slack with an encouraging word. We can’t do that in person right now, and Zoom is no substitute for a smile and a laugh shared face to face. But even the little gestures go a very long way – because little gestures are all we have right now.
2 Don’t Let a Crisis Dictate Your Strategy
In the early days of the crisis, we needed to adapt our approach to address the near-term needs of our customers, and it was a good thing we did. Our ability to rapidly respond to the myriad of challenges that the pandemic unleashed was a defining moment. But the businesses that weather the storm are already thinking ahead to how they will grow. For us that means staying focused on the future of Reputation Experience Management (RXM) so that all businesses can manage and act on their customers’ feedback in one place.
3 Accept the Unknown
Living with uncertainty is the new reality for all of us. But marketers thrive on plans. We execute on them. And while there are still nights when the uncertainty keeps me awake, I’m learning to let go of what I cannot control. Even as we move forward with our vision for RXM, I keep in mind a little asterisk that says: if something happens, we’ll need to be ready to throw everything out the window again.
And we will be ready to adapt. Again.