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Businesses Must Communicate with Customers, Regardless of Open Status

Businesses Must Communicate with Customers, Regardless of Open Status

Sarah Steimer

illustration of shrugging masked woman in front of covid sign

As states phase in—or out—of their reopening plans, customers require unambiguous and frequent information from businesses

Inviting customers to your store, restaurant or salon during the pandemic is no longer as easy as flinging your doors open and encouraging visitors to pop in and say hello, à la the morning village scene in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” There are new rules for guests to follow, cleaning schedules to adhere to and pickup options to proffer. As states and regions open, close and reopen again, the key to good customer service—and likely your business’ survival—is clear communication.

To build the best communication strategy for your business, consider the five Ws and one H: who, what, where, when, why and how.

“[Be] very proactive with very clear education,” says Karen Albritton, partner at Thinc Strategy, a business management consulting company. “Tell me what I might not know.”

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Who

“[A relevant communication plan] starts with really understanding the customer and understanding who is likely to want to come back right now,” Albritton says.

Your customers may seek different levels of interaction from your business, regardless of which reopening phase your region is in. For example, some people may be comfortable visiting a sporting goods store and letting an employee fit them for a new pair of shoes, while some would prefer limited face-to-face time and still others would rather order online and pick up their products curbside. 

“Make sure you’re communicating that these are the different options you have, because different customers are going to have different levels of comfortability,” says Deana Thornton, director of commerce marketing at Mailchimp.

What

Once you determine your audience, consider what information you need to communicate. For Albritton, this comes down to two points: reassurance and recruitment.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘We’re open and we’ve got it. We’ve got certain new policies and procedures that we’re adhering to,’” Albritton says. “But the other thing is, you’ve got to make people want to come back because … you’re going to give them a great experience or a great product.”

Yes, you need to talk up the coronavirus-prevention steps you’re taking, but don’t forget to simply promote your products or services. A hair salon should explain its precautions to its clientele: only one customer in the shop at a time, the chairs are wiped down between services, no blow dryers will be used. But the offerings—perhaps a summer-ready cut and color—are what compel people to frequent your business.

Where

Plaster your plans far and wide: email, social media, company website and store signage—anywhere you would typically communicate is where this information should be available. But also think about where customers go to learn about your store. You may need to update your Yelp or Google business page with new hours.

Again, use the answer to your “who” to inform where to communicate. Thornton says established businesses with a robust email list should send reopening or closing information via email notifications. Businesses that launched more recently should use social media and other digital advertising avenues, she says. But don’t forget more traditional approaches such as signage on your storefront—customers exhausted by branded emails may not have noticed your digital reopening announcement, but they might be more likely to spot a banner hung above your door.

No matter where you choose to communicate, it shouldn’t be a slog for curious customers to learn your reopening plans, new hours and what rules they should follow in store. Think of it as shortening the funnel to a sale: A customer shouldn’t have to dive deeply into your website and social media pages to learn how to visit your business.

“Put the most important information front and center,” Thornton says. “For those that need additional information, you’re providing the click-through to a landing page … for more insight in terms of what the new rules and regulations are for your business. But it’s important to keep it very simple, keep it concise, really focus on what’s most important to your customer.”

Rather than include a laundry list of reopening rules as a multi-post Instagram story, offer a straightforward communication on the social platform that you plan to reopen on a particular date, then urge users to visit your website for further details.

When

Don’t wait to share your reopening plans until the day your doors burst open. Most states have guidance for when different businesses may reopen (or to what extent), as well as predictions for when the state may enter such a phase.

Start sharing your plans for these phases before you get there. For example, a restaurant currently offering outdoor dining can promote that service while also updating patrons on their indoor dining plans for when that option becomes available. Of course, be sure to also remind folks of pickup and delivery services.

Because some states and regions have had to roll back their phased reopening plans, Albritton says the best communication strategy boils down to frequency. “That’s going to be a challenge for some businesses who may not be as accustomed to continuing that conversation as frequently as they’ll need to now,” she says.

Continuous engagement also breeds transparency—a must if your business is forced to close because an employee tests positive for COVID-19. Keep the communication open and honest, no matter the news.

Why

Regular and omnichannel communication nurtures trust in customers, which is central to their loyalty.

“In today’s day and age, especially within the pandemic, continuing to market yourself is very, very important,” Thornton says. “Then when you do reopen, you are still able to drive visibility, drive traffic to your store and start to drive an increase in sales.”

Thornton emphasizes the need for engagement so that customers are ready and willing to visit your business when you get the OK to reopen. She points to Mailchimp’s motto of “Listen hard, change fast,” as a guiding principle for businesses during the pandemic. If customers seem hesitant to visit in person, bolster your pickup options. If they seem excited and willing to cross your threshold, be clear and direct with your in-store rules.

How

Interacting with the world can be a fraught experience during a pandemic, so it’s worth taking a careful look at how you talk to customers. Some may be turned off by an abundance of feigned glee, and some may need a bit of hand-holding to wrap their heads around expectations. The “how” is about your communications approach and finesse.

“This has been a very trying time because lives have been, in some cases, flipped upside down,” Thornton says. “You want to make sure that you have the right tone, but you also do want to keep it a little upbeat and positive because we all are aware that we’re within a pandemic, but sometimes people are looking to have that escape and return to some normalcy.”

This is also an opportunity to think creatively on how to deliver your message. If you only want a few people in your shop at a time, speak about your reservation service in a way that conveys thoughtfulness and exclusivity. If your store offers contactless pickup, provide a short video on your social channels of where a customer should stand to avoid contact. A multimedia approach can be a problem-solver.

Sarah Steimer is managing editor of Marketing News. She may be reached at ssteimer@ama.org or on Twitter at @sarah_steimer.