Female reading card from mail at home

Why Companies Have a Social Responsibility to Fight the Loneliness Epidemic

*This article was originally published on AdAge March 3, 2020, prior to the widespread recommendation of social distancing and limited in-person interactions.

Initiatives that directly impact mental health and wellbeing also make good business sense.

Facebook’s dating app, co-working spaces, adult dormitories and friendship apps are all positioned as ways for people to create meaningful offline connections. Though critics claim these services may exploit human loneliness for profit, others see them as ways to combat loneliness among adult Americans.

Somewhere between half and three-quarters of Americans report that they’re lonely, and some experts say this trend constitutes an epidemic. Loneliness, closely linked to stress-related illnesses and depression, can hurt our health more than smoking. This problem touches all demographics.

Brands should take their customers’ loneliness as a rallying cry to step up and step into roles that bring more human interaction and caring into the world.

Marketers already know the power of social responsibility efforts; protecting the environment, enhancing diversity and inclusion, fostering philanthropy and more. It seems logical that an initiative that directly impacts our mental health and wellbeing makes a lot of sense for businesses. The majority of Americans interact with at least one business daily—not to mention encountering 4,000 to 10,000 ads every day—so brands hold immense power in turning this tide.

Battling loneliness isn’t impossible. It requires the simple act of caring in action. To do their part in reversing this epidemic, brands must care enough to ensure customers receive the human courtesy of interaction and engagement when they need it.

3 ways brands can combat the loneliness epidemic

To fight the loneliness epidemic, brands should create tactile connections with customers using the following three principles:

Don’t discourage live interactions.* Digital engagement should be a choice rather than the default. Best practices in customer experience dictate that customers should choose their channels, but digital and social media engagements can lack empathy cues that are more obvious during phone and face-to-face conversations. 

Brands should let customers’ needs and desires be the guiding light in triggering voice or in-person interactions. They should also recognize that these interactions present considerable opportunities to create a differentiated customer-service experience while fighting back against loneliness and depression. The sound and cadence of the voice, questions and small talk all give clues into a customer’s mindset that typing won’t translate. These cues allow companies to apply empathy with great skill to resolve issues and make customers feel genuinely supported.

Provide the time and tools that kindness requires. Giving employees permission to be empathetic is as simple as giving them the time and tools they need to put kindness and care into action. Alaska Airlines, for example, encourages employees to engage customers on a human level before taking any other action. To enable that kind of customer care, the airline provides its employees with a “we trust you” toolkit alongside a mobile app that provides options for all sorts of vulnerable moments that customers—and employees— experience. Each interaction is given the time and space necessary to care for the actual human being.

Creating real connections and happiness requires latitude rather than quotas. When brands value quality over quantity in customer interactions, they can add kindness and personal touches to customers’ lives.

Support customers in times of loss and trauma. Many people’s darkest hours come at times when others aren’t present. Think of a son or daughter who calls to disconnect service for a deceased parent’s mobile phone. At that moment, customers typically don’t have another human’s support—except for the telecommunications company representative on the other end of the phone.

Tangibly offering support to customers experiencing life challenges builds an enduring bond that benefits both consumer and brand. When pet retailer Chewy sends sympathy bouquets to customers who have lost an animal companion, for example, those pet owners feel less alone in their grief. Giving that level of care is crucial because 64 percent of consumers want the brands to forge genuine connections with them.

Customer-experience research proves that treating customers as individuals is good for brand health and long-term profitability. Imagine these human intersections with companies becoming intentionally focused on combating loneliness and isolation. When a brand cares enough to use its business for good, it can change the world.

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