Communicating with Customers During Uncertainty

For most business owners, the COVID-19 pandemic has gone from potential threat to current nightmare. Yet many businesses are still not communicating effectively with their customers, clients, or patients.

If you haven’t put together a cohesive crisis communications plan to protect your brand during this uncertain time, now is the time for action.

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about how to put together an effective plan. Here are the foundational elements of a good crisis communications plan to help you get started.

Step 1: Timeliness is everything. The best thing you can do is to communicate with your customers as soon as you’re aware of a threat (such as the coronavirus.) This is best practice in any disruptive or crisis situation. If you were delayed in communicating to your customers it’s ok. Make a note to create a comprehensive crisis management plan when business gets back to “normal.” Don’t delay in communicating with your customers or patients any longer. The sooner they hear from you, the more they will continue to trust and value you.

Step 2: State the problem. In this instance most people already know that COVID-19 is a problem, but they might not be thinking about what that means for their relationship with you. It’s your job to support the people behind the relationships you’ve built in your business. This means it is your responsibility to simply and clearly explain to your customers what the current situation means for your business and how you are going to either a) continue to support your customer through this time; or b) pause regular business activities until it is safe and you are able to serve them.

Step 3: Get specific. Now you need to explain in a simple and relatable way, what you’re doing to respond to this crisis. This is where you want to get as detailed as possible without opening yourself up to risk in your business. Here are some questions you should answer:

  • What measures are in place to keep your customers/clients/patients protected and informed?
  • How will the current situation affect the products or services your customers currently receive?     
    • Your customers need to know if their regular service is being interrupted. And if so, how this affects them financially. For example, if I pay for a monthly service that I cannot receive right now, do you still expect me to pay for this service?
  • If there is currently no change to what you’re providing your customer, let them know that you are monitoring the situation and clearly state how you will notify them of any change.
  • If there is an interruption to your service, clearly tell your customer when they can expect to hear from you with an update. We all understand that this situation is changing every day, your customer doesn’t expect you to have a crystal ball, they just expect you to be honest with them.
  • If you have employees, contractors, or others who contribute to the success of your business tell your customers what you’re doing for these people. Are you supporting them so they can effectively work remotely? Are you offering additional benefits to support their mental health? Let your customers know that you’re not just worried about your bottom line during this crisis, you recognize and care about everyone who contributes to the success of your business during the good times.

Step 4. Communicate on every channel. Crisis communications is different from channel specific marketing. It’s not enough to be posting regular video messages on Instagram assuming that your customers will be taking the time to check in with you there. During an evolving crisis situation, you need to communicate with your audience on every channel you already have established. If you have a website, an email distribution list, 2 social media channels, and a text messaging system that you use to confirm appointments then you need to be sharing the same information on all of those channels. This is not a business as usual situation, do not burden your audience with the responsibility of figuring out where to best get updates from you.

If your regular brand strategy includes communications to your audience from multiple people, for example co-owners, brand spokespeople, or brand ambassadors it is critical that you have a cohesive plan in place to ensure that everyone who communicates on behalf of your brand understands what they need to say, what they must avoid, and where they should be saying it. It’s appropriate to review your brand spokesperson line up and ask certain representatives to pause or adjust their communications to adhere to your crisis communications strategy. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Step 5: Offer additional value wherever you can. Value can obviously mean many things, so think creatively. If you’re a small business, can you lead a Kickstarter campaign to help someone in need? Is there a service or something small you can donate to help someone seriously affected by these events? If you’re a more established business and regularly claim that community involvement is part of your business mission or brand values then now is the time to step up your game. If you can’t demonstrate your commitment when the stakes are high, don’t bother including community values and fundraising efforts in your campaigns when the pandemic is over. Now is the time to practice what you preach (via your brand values and regular marketing) or to revise your message. Your actions now will go a long way in either building your brand value in the long-term or eroding the value of what you’ve already built.

Step 6: Check in with your audience. Finally, don’t forget to be human. Everyone behaves differently during stressful times and I know that a lot of business owners go into problem solving mode. There is a lot to consider and you might be powering through your check list at all hours of the day and night just trying to keep the ship afloat. That’s ok, just be sure to take a moment here and there to pause (for your own health) and check-in with your employees, colleagues, and customers. If you’re a large organization, an email or social media post is fine. A video on your website from a key executive is even better. The same applies for a small business. If you work one on one with people, send them a text or email and let them know they’re not in this alone. At the end of the day, isn’t that what marketing and communications are all about?

I’m doing something a little differently to conclude today’s post. I’ve included a few micro case studies on businesses that have done a good job communicating during this evolving crisis, and those who have disappointed. I want to hear your thoughts as well. Leave a comment below.

Gold Star crisis communication examples:

Paga Gino’s has done a great job throughout the evolving pandemic and I admit I was impressed. They demonstrated that they’ve done the groundwork to understand the risk to their business, as well as put themselves in the shoes of consumers to consider what they might be worrying about as the situation progressed. Papa Gino’s was one of the first businesses I heard from in my inbox which says a lot, and they’ve kept me posted ever since. Key messages include “extra precautions we’re taking in our business right now (early days,) to “we’re in this together” (last week.)

Their communications prove that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to do a good job making an impact with your audience. Sometimes you just have to show up early and prove to your followers that you care about them as much as you care about your business.

Southwest Airlines gets a gold star in my book, too. I had a vacation planned in April and I received an email from Southwest last week letting me know that my trip could be impacted and if so they will cancel my flight and issue a refund for the trip. I don’t know what they’ve done to help customers with more immediate flights, but this simple email from them helped to reassure me during a stressful time. I don’t have to worry that wait times are 72 minutes (like for my resort) because they’ve already reassured me that they’ve thought ahead, and I’m protected. I feel more comfortable knowing the rest will work itself out.

If there was a crisis comms equivalent for an attendance award, these brands would get it:

My physician’s office. I won’t name them out of respect, but my doctor’s office is affiliated with a big hospital chain. I heard from Papa Gino’s three times before I heard anything from my primary care doctor. And once I did hear from my doctor it was pretty disappointing. Someone had clearly copy and pasted the latest CDC guidelines into an email and then blasted that out to patients. There was no reassurance from their office that they were here to help me should someone in my family get sick during this scary time. Everyone on the internet was already reminding me to wash my hands, I expected something more from the physician I trust to care for my health.  

A popular lifestyle brand I admire(d.) I won’t throw them under the bus but suffice it to say I was really disappointed to see that what I thought was a really great, up and coming lifestyle brand committed to empowering people to live their best lives, doesn’t know branding or their followers as well as they claim. Why am I disappointed? I have received multiple sales and promotional emails from them but I’ve yet to receive a simple email with any words of thanks or encouragement. They are publishing some “inspirational” content on specific social media channels, but this is not enough (see Step 4.) If I have to track you down on a specific social media channel to figure out what you’re doing for customers during this crisis, then you’ve let me down. The pandemic is not an opportunity to grow your engagement on a specific platform, it’s an opportunity to show your followers what your brand really stands for. And this brand let me down, hard.

These businesses get an “F”:

My local wellness provider. I have been going to the same massage provider for over 5 years. I’ve never been disappointed with the service there until now. They have failed to do every step I outlined above, and it’s been a huge disappointment. The only update I received from them is the outgoing message they recorded when I called them, followed by the automated text they sent in response to my voicemail. I expect more from a business dedicated to the health and wellness of their clients.

My local hair salon. This one pains me; I’ve been going to the same salon for 8 years and I have spent a lot of my hard earned cash there to get the “city salon in the suburbs experience.” I had an appointment coming up and I wondered if they were still open because there were mixed reports in my area. I checked on their website, nada. I thought about calling them, but honestly, how many providers do I have time to chase down right now? Finally, I received a text for them the day before my scheduled appointment letting me know they were closing. There is a lot they could have done here to let me know they think about their clients’ needs when things are difficult, but they fell short.

If you’ve read this post and realize that you still have a lot of work to do, don’t worry, it’s not too late to turn things around for your business and brand. The worst thing you can do now is nothing. Wherever you are in communicating about your business and your brand right now, identify one more thing you can do to offer extra value for your audience during these uncertain times, and implement that next thing. Over time, the little things will add up and your audience will remember how you’ve helped them through this time, no matter how small.

Looking for some more support? I’m here to help you navigate this confusing time in your business. Contact me for a complimentary consult and get your most pressing questions answered today.  

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *