Around the world, large companies are taking steps to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Luxury goods manufacturer LVMH, for example is using its production capability to produce hand sanitiser, while fast-fashion giant H&M is helping to make protective equipment for hospitals.
These are big-name companies with capacity and resources at their disposal. But the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent social distancing and lockdown present a dilemma for owners of smaller businesses: how do you effectively engage with customers at this time? And how can you do right by your customers?
DO offer cancellations and refunds to the best of your ability
Even if you have a policy that expressly states that all sales are final, recognise that we are in extenuating circumstances and err on the side of generosity, especially if products haven’t been used or services rendered.
PR agent Nicola Russill-Roy typically works with clients on a monthly retainer basis at her company Propose PR based in Kent.
“I have one client whose business has been deeply affected by COVID-19 and there is little benefit for her company to getting PR coverage,” she says. “She insisted on paying me still even though she doesn't need my services right now, but I didn't want her to pay the full monthly fee so I proposed a new payment structure instead.”
The client now pays half of the monthly retainer fee with payments set up over a longer period. “This is freeing up some budget she had already allocated for PR to me to use in other areas of her business,” Russill-Roy explains. “She has been hugely appreciative and we’ll re-start her PR campaign later in the summer.”
Similarly, Andrew Maff is a digital marketing consultant who works with several recruitment agencies that have scaled back as a result of the crisis.
“The job market is a big question mark," he says. “So to help our clients do whatever they can to make it through this, we’ve had to be creative."
"For example, while we didn't give outright refunds, we basically offered a hold," he explains. “Most of our clients have a minimum of a six-month contract. We volunteered to hold the monthly payments for up to 90 days, and then re-evaluate."
"We did have two clients start in March and we voided those contracts, saying we'd revisit in the next few months. For clients who paid us already, we stopped working for the time being and will use the funds as a pre-payment for future services," Maff says.
DO send a small gift or coupon to make their immediate situation easier
If your product or service correlates to pandemic-related needs, consider providing something for free or at a discount. While this strategy could be an upsell opportunity, this isn’t the goal. You can show your customers that you’re thinking about their well-being by sending a food delivery, a subscription, or even a simple handwritten card.
Lisa Barrington, an employee engagement strategist, realised that her clients could use her advice as they switch to new work-from-home roles. She responded by developing and delivering pro-bono webinars as well as free, downloadable videos and resources. The response was positive.
"People wrote on my LinkedIn to thank me for the resources on my website, and one of my students who'd never worked from home before commented that he really appreciated and found the videos useful," Barrington says.
DON'T be tone-deaf in person, on the phone, or online
Expect that COVID-19 is preoccupying everyone's thoughts and be careful not to act as if it’s business as usual. It could read as if you’re not taking the situation seriously or you’re judging your customers’ choices.
Try keeping a softer, more sensitive tone to your communication and ask your marketing colleagues for input regarding whether you've struck an appropriate tone. You might also want to test drive your communication with a few trusted clients and tweak it based on their feedback.
Or consider, too, that some customers will respond well if you show decisive action in a crisis. When the UK Government initially shut down hospitality businesses, gyms, and theatres, many were quick to innovate with new ways for their customers to still tap into their services.
The Hive, a yoga studio based in Bath, switched quickly to live-streaming its weekly schedule of classes. Hive's "We have a plan" messaging kept customers updated, reassured, and excited about the changes, which co-founder Lucy Stone says has been well-received.
“We’ve now doubled the number of classes we offer to around 40 live-streamed classes every week,” she says.
DON'T bombard them with product offers that don't meet crisis-related needs
You may be thinking of products and services to map to customers' needs, but this is not an appropriate time to do so. Even if your offering is critical, don’t use COVID-19 solely as an opportunity to drum up new business.
Instead, approach your interactions with the greater good in mind. Ask yourself: "What does the community need right now that we can provide?"
It’s a good time to solicit ideas from your various teams and encourage innovation at all levels of your organisation, regardless of how long employees have been with you.
Daniel Santos, the CEO of university admissions advisory company Prepory, noticed immediately that as students were no longer going to school, they were not having as much access to advisors as before.
“Our programming has always been remote and we’d already built a video-based option, so we decided to offer free advising services to students,” Santos says.
DON'T hold them to arrangements that go against government recommendations
If your business relies on face-to-face interaction, your customers will be unable to use your services while the UK remains in lockdown.
Instead, you could invite customers to use prepaid products or services, purchase new ones for use once the environment has stabilised, or devise novel solutions that minimise face-to-face contact.
This is the approach interior designer Benji Lewis has taken in response to COVID-19 with the launch of a new service Zoom That Room. "COVID-19 has been limiting for so many entrepreneurs and has negatively impacted on so many careers and incomes,” he says. “I've had to think outside the box in order to keep business going during lockdown, whilst taking the government's restrictions into consideration.
"As people are spending more time in their homes, I've seen a growing appetite for interior design, and have since started up Zoom That Room,” he says. “It's an 'open to all' service via a video communications platform that allows customers to dial in, show me their room, and receive immediate expert advice on how to tweak things.”
The service has been taken up by existing clients and new customers. “Ultimately, the client can enjoy modifying their rooms via proposals that I make, whilst abiding by government restrictions,” Lewis says. “Not only this, but through video you’re able to enjoy a face-to-face interaction, albeit one that is remote."
These are strange and troubling times, and no one is immune to the crisis’ negative effects. By showing your customers you’re in this together, you can help them survive now and preserve your relationship in the long-term.