Running a small business is a challenge in any circumstance. But weathering a natural disaster that requires you to replace standard operating procedures with emergency improvisations may seem insurmountable.
But small-business owners, by their nature, excel in resourcefulness, generosity and attentiveness to customers. They can overcome lack of electricity, spotty communication services and inaccessible infrastructure to surprise and delight customers.
Solid contingency planning is crucial for any business. But even if you didn’t anticipate and prepare, you can still provide great customer service in a crisis. From those affected by Hurricane Sandy, here are several strategies and tactics for helping customers during a crisis.
1. Provide assistance unrelated to your business. Nick Spanos, CEO of Bapple, a boutique real estate firm in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan, started his company’s back-up generators minutes after the area suffered power outages. The company offered neighbors a place to charge cell phones, connect to the Internet, and even sleep overnight.
Likewise, fishbat, a digital marketing agency in Long Island, opened its space to other local businesses, allowing use of desks, conference rooms and WiFi. The company also launched a “Lend a Fin” campaign to serve as a drop-off point for food donations destined for Long Island Harvest, a hunger relief organization. Writing and scheduling posts and press releases prior to the storm’s arrival allowed the agency to focus on assisting businesses and residents after the storm had passed.
2. Extend your hours. Bapple, traditionally open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., transformed itself into a round-the-clock operation following the storm. Sales agents brought sleeping bags to staff the facility and continued to work throughout the power outage, using flashlights to show properties as needed.
Similarly, Dr. Catrise Austin, owner of New York City Cosmetic and General Dentistry, extended hours and scheduled extra days to make up for missed appointments. Though she and her staff were eager to work immediately after the storm, no one was allowed into the building that houses her office on 57th Street because of its proximity to a partially collapsed crane. During the temporary shutdown, she tapped online communication and scheduling tools to rearrange existing appointments and secure new bookings.
3. Advise customers when business will operate as usual. Online dealer Hyson Music alerted customers to power outages and lack of phone communications at its facilities the day after the storm passed through the area. This division of a 30-year-old music company based in Plainview, New York, didn’t sustain damage from Hurricane Sandy but was nevertheless impacted by its effects.
Uncertainty about the timing for service restoration didn’t deter Hyson’s Vice President Justin Varuzzo from sending an email to customers with outstanding orders. In his message, he noted that the “only functioning form of communication” was email and estimated that the power, phones, and Internet would be back in service by the end of the week.
4. Keep customers updated on order status. Varuzzo of Hyson Music provided general information on order fulfillment timelines and gave customers the option to cancel their orders due to delays. As shipping activities returned to normal, he provided status updates on specific orders.
Similarly, Chad Rubin, managing director of Crucial Vacuum in Little Ferry, New Jersey, orchestrated emails to thousands of e-commerce customers about potential delays when roads leading to its warehouse were flooded.
5. Use all available resources. Both Hyson Music and Crucial Vacuum shifted order fulfillment to alternate sites, which included a separate company-owned facility for Hyson as well as partner suppliers with shipping capabilities and Amazon.com’s fulfillment center for Crucial. Employees at both companies made use of personal cell phones and home Internet connections to relay order information to customers.
Many small businesses relied on social media to communicate with area residents and customers. For example, they promoted the availability of free services and provided business updates via Twitter.
6. Help customers cope with long waits. Richard Shapiro, president of The Center for Client Retention and a Manhattan resident, encourages a friendly, welcoming approach in all circumstances and offers specific tips to engage customers when waits may be long:
Whether it’s during the busiest holidays of the year or just after a crisis, transform potentially long waits in line into memorable customer experiences. Have some of your most welcoming associates offer customers water, a piece of candy, etc. Tell them that you know lines are long, but you appreciate their patience and business. When customers get closer to the register, having the associate lift their head, make eye contact with the next couple of customers in line, and give a quick hello or big smile will go a long way in communicating that special feeling.
From his personal experience as a customer returning to one of his favorite restaurants in New York after the storm, he appreciated waiters and other staff members making an emotional connection with him and his wife. They expressed gladness about their safety through handshakes and hugs. Shapiro recommends connecting with customers as people first, assuring their well being, and, when appropriate, transitioning to business concerns.
Read more posts about coping with disasters.
Julie Rains is a senior writer at Wise Bread, a leading personal finance community dedicated to helping people get the most out of their money. Get daily money tips by following Wise Bread on Facebook or Twitter.
Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images