May 8, 2020

Customer empathy the key in troubled times

Learning what people really need is essential, and not just during a lockdown  – the key is empathy.

Looking back over the past couple of months, we can see how dramatically Covid-19 has affected us. Whether it’s in our careers, businesses, or personal lives, we all have been affected in one way or another.

In the business world, many industries have suffered from the pandemic. The food and beverage sector has been particularly hard hit: many operators have had to close, while many others have turned to delivery services just to keep a bit of cash flow coming in.

But innovation never stops, and it’s happening even more during this perilous time. As humans, we’re not only good at adapting to change, we fight strongly to rise above it. This is what happened for the food truck-turned-restaurant, Guerrilla Tacos in Los Angeles.

Many businesses are suddenly facing the severe challenge posed by Covid-19 lockdowns, so we don’t necessarily have any “best practice” case studies that we can adapt yet. But we can learn from the cases we’ve seen so far.

Let’s take a closer look at the tactics used by Guerrilla Tacos.

You may be familiar with this story because it has hit the news with its “emergency taco kit” home deliveries.

Like many restaurants in Los Angeles, Guerrilla Tacos temporarily closed due to the pandemic. But that didn’t stop its managers from getting creative with the remaining supplies they had on hand. They reached out to all their social media fans and spoke to them in order to understand their situation and needs.

The insight they gained was extremely useful, as most of their customers and social media fans expressed similar needs for large, bulk deliveries. On top of that, they even shared their concerns over toilet paper.

This inspired Guerrilla Tacos to developed its emergency taco kits. Valued at about US$150, each kit consists of all the ingredients needed to make your own tacos at home, as well as other emergency supplies such as toilet paper and eggs. Guerrilla Tacos developed a new way to serve its customers’ shopping needs and also keep its business afloat.

The case study above may focus mainly on the business management side, but as individuals, we can still guide our development by applying similar tactics in our jobs and careers.

Here are some lessons we can take away from Guerrilla Tacos:

Empathize with the customers we’re serving, and also tap into the audience that is following our business on social media.

The first thing the Guerrilla Tacos team did was call their customers and online fans, and speak to them about how they were coping in lockdown and what they needed. Empathy was an important step to gaining this understanding.

In a similar manner, we must figure out how we can reach out to our current customers and understand their current needs. With that said, your customers don’t necessarily need to be external ones, but also those you work within the organization. This is useful in understanding our own people and colleagues, and how to serve them so that we can drive our organizations forward.

Innovation can come in many different ways, so don’t restrict yourself to how change affects your business.

Like any other restaurant, Guerrilla Tacos had to close during the lockdown, but this didn’t stop it from finding other, creative ways to serve customers. They began with empathy to kick-start their innovation process.

In the context of Design Thinking from the Stanford, innovation is a circular process. We end up having to go back and forth as change is happening constantly. Additionally, customers continue to evolve and change their purchasing habits. What we can offer today may no longer be useful to them tomorrow; therefore, the cycle of innovations rotates back. This is the same for our organizations too.

Change the way of working and utilize what you have.

Another great lesson from Guerrilla Tacos was that it optimized its existing inventory, a lot of it perishable foods. The emergency taco kit was an example of flipping the pricing and product strategy. The restaurant used both creativity and logic in answering the needs of its people while still saving costs and keeping the business afloat.

We are all still learning during this pandemic. Much like Guerrilla Tacos, we can turn our own businesses around through customer empathy and understanding their needs at this difficult time. It is time for us to discover our opportunity to transform our careers and our organizations.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC – Southeast Asia’s Lifelong Learning Center. She can be reached by email at Explore and experience our lifelong learning ecosystem today at