- Small businesses should communicate early and often with their key consumers throughout a crisis using language that is clear, thoughtful and informational.
- Communicate with your customers on the platforms they are already using, like social media for frequent communication, and temporary webpages or banners for formal communication.
- Engage customers by only communicating information that is relevant to them.
Regardless of what region or industry your business is in, COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus, has undoubtedly affected you and your consumers. As a small business owner, it is important to understand how your consumers are being impacted and how to best communicate with them during this unprecedented time.
We reached out to small business owners and communication experts to learn what communication strategies can help your business reach consumers, and what communications you should avoid altogether. If you have advice on how to best communicate with customers, join the conversation on the business.com community. Share how you're communicating with your customers and what techniques others can adopt for their business.
How to communicate with customers during the coronavirus
Communicating with customers during the coronavirus outbreak is a delicate process that you must handle carefully. The virus has impacted many businesses and consumers, and you want to adequately address that as thoughtfully and as soon as possible.
When we consulted Jennifer Lee Magas, vice president of Magas Media Consultants LLC and clinical associate professor of public relations at Pace University, she said that small businesses should communicate early and often with their key constituencies throughout a crisis, even if they're still trying to understand the extent of the problem themselves. Be honest and open to maintain credibility.
"The best thing companies can do is to communicate with all stakeholders by using clear, compassionate and timely messages," Magas told business.com. "The first step is to create a coronavirus crisis team, which should meet and give regular updates to key constituencies, such as customers. Make sure that you utilize the proper channels to address these audiences, and speak in words and terms that each specific audience understands."
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How often should you communicate?
When communicating with your audience, it is important that you don't overdo it. Effective communication involves knowing the preferred frequency and type of communication your customers want. Since individuals' inboxes are being inundated with communication related to COVID-19, Steve Ryan, founder and CEO of digital marketing agency RyTech LLC, said that companies should be thoughtful, strategic, and fluid in their messaging while remaining on brand.
Your frequency will depend on your business. Communicate major announcements and business changes that will directly affect your consumers, but leave out information that is irrelevant to them.
"If you're a B2B business that is working from home and all other operations are normal, it is unlikely that you need to send formalized mass email communication regularly to share that information," said Ryan. "If you're a retail storefront that has shuttered, you likely previously communicated reduced hours, then needed to communicate that your store was no longer open, and now need to share how your customers can continue to support you."
If you have no major announcements and are keeping communication frequency consistent with your regular scheduling, your messaging may need to become more informational and supportive. If your goal is to regularly check in with customers, consider leveraging social media channels for interim communication.
Which platforms should you use to communicate with customers?
Your mode of communication with your customers will likely be online, since many consumers are practicing social distancing. The platforms you use to communicate will vary, depending on what platforms you already use and what information you are trying to convey. If you are switching to virtual services or need to face-to-face communication with clients, you can use video conferencing services.
- Regular or frequent communications: Since your customer base is likely still using the same platforms they used before the outbreak (e.g., social media, email, mobile, blog or website), these will be the best avenues to reach them. For regular updates and consistent communication, utilize your social media accounts instead of interruptive platforms like promotional emails and mobile push notifications.
- Formal or urgent communications: Tim Cameron-Kitchen, founder of digital marketing agency Exposure Ninja, recommends small businesses create a temporary webpage, web banner or blog post to announce formal actions they are taking. For urgent messaging, Ryan recommends leveraging email and text distribution lists. If your business hours are impacted, update online sources like Google My Business listings to keep your customers informed.
- Tracking customer communications: It is important to keep track of your customer communications to ensure that your messaging is consistent and on brand. Several remote and virtual solutions can be used to track customer communications. For example, businesses can use Voice over Internet Protocol for their phone systems to continue answering phones and making outgoing client calls. For mass email access that allows you to track opens, clicks, and unsubscribes, you can use email marketing services like Constant Contact or Mailchimp.
What should you say to your customers?
Since your customers are being inundated with news about the coronavirus, they are likely growing numb to excessive emails and irrelevant posts. Only send pertinent messaging that is relevant to them, and be as transparent and clear as possible.
Magas said organizations can communicate with their customers through the following interactions:
- Show concern and empathy.
- Share a statement of commitment from the organization. (For example, CEOs can create a video or written statement that lists the steps the organization is taking to maintain business continuity while protecting employees and customers.)
- Share steps the business is taking to focus on customers' needs. (For example, Stop and Shop modified its store hours so senior citizens can shop two hours before everyone else and purchase much-needed items that consistently sell out.)
- Help customers when possible. (For example, Airlines such as Delta and JetBlue have waived cancellation and change fees to help travelers modify their travel plans.)
- Share the time and date of your next scheduled update.
In terms of regular posts and ongoing communication, Cameron-Kitchen advised small business owners to think about the specific topics that your audience is concerned with right now, such as well-being or remote work.
"This will differ depending on your industry and the nature of your business," said Cameron-Kitchen. "For example, travel businesses may need to address cancellation policies while providing virtual travel content, while hairdressers may need to announce store closures and make video tutorials to explain at-home fixes for hair."
If you are experiencing hardship, like temporary business closure, Ryan said to communicate to your customers by telling them what they can do to support you during this time, such as buying gift cards, rescheduling appointments, writing positive reviews, purchasing products online, commenting on social media posts, or telling friends about your store or service.
What should you avoid saying to customers?
You don't want to provide irrelevant business details to your customers, and you don't want to be overly promotional or salesy during this time. Cameron-Kitchen said businesses can still promote online shopping, virtual services and digital products, as long as their messaging angle is helpful and promoted sensitively.
Cameron-Kitchen said businesses should avoid the following communication:
- Stating personal opinions or political beliefs
- Sharing information from unreliable sources
- Spreading myths or scare stories
- Speaking about the coronavirus too much, especially if it's not relative to your business
- Promising a new opening date
It is also important that you don't share any personal medical information about your employees, as this could result in legal violations.
Which companies are communicating effectively during the coronavirus?
There are several companies that have mastered effective communication during the coronavirus pandemic. Some businesses have temporarily closed their doors, some have switched to virtual services, and some have even transitioned their products or services to better aid their communities. Here are a few examples.
- Amtrak: Public transportation can be a breeding ground for germs, so Amtrak is taking extra precautions to ensure its riders are staying safe and healthy. It released a public statement that not only advised travelers on health and safety but also provided details about the sanitation measures it is taking. Amtrak also communicated that it is waiving change fees on all existing or new reservations made before April 30, 2020.
- Bauer: Some companies, like Bauer, are switching gears altogether. Due to the change in supply and demand, Bauer has shifted from selling hockey equipment to making medical gear. The hockey manufacturing company decided to use its resources to help those in the medical field by producing face shields. It has taken to platforms like Twitter to spread the good word, and more than 100,000 units have already been ordered. If the demand for your product or service has diminished, follow in Bauer's footsteps and communicate what resources you still have available.
- Become: Become is an online platform that small and midsize businesses can use to find funding solutions. The impact of the coronavirus has led many businesses to seek additional funding. Become is using its expert knowledge to help. It posted a banner on its homepage to redirect readers to an up-to-date news blog about business funding and the coronavirus outbreak. Its daily updates summarize the current funding and financial relief options, as they are changing daily.
- DoorDash: This food delivery service started a global initiative by creating the trending hashtag #OpenForDelivery. Since DoorDash is a mobile app, it makes sense to reach its audience where they are – on their phones. DoorDash took to social media channels like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to remind consumers that local restaurants are still open for delivery, even if their dining rooms are temporarily shuttered.
- Marriott: The travel and hospitality industries have been hit especially hard during the coronavirus outbreak, and Marriott has provided news updates to assuage consumers' worries. In addition to the updated news section on its website, the president and CEO, Arne Sorenson, released a message to Marriott guests that was informational and heartfelt, assuring guests of the steps that Marriott is taking to keep guest safety top of mind.
"Crises such as COVID-19 can be defining moments for an organization's reputation and often strike when a company seems least prepared," said Magas. "Often, companies and organizations are judged not on the good work that they do, but how they deal with things when they go wrong. It is vital to maintain open, honest communication with your stakeholders, particularly your customers, to weather the next few weeks of uncertainty."