No question these are strange times and we’re going through uncharted waters. While no one can predict day to what will happen, there still are steps local businesses can take to keep serving their customers and clients…and maintain relationships.
Social distancing, while no doubt good for public health, is bad for local businesses. Foot traffic has dropped steeply since the coronavirus outbreak as more and more customers stay home and self-quarantine.
Many business owners are worried that the impact of COVID-19 will be deeper and more long-lasting than anticipated. As a result, merchants in every industry are looking for ways to keep their customers during the coronavirus lockdown. Here are some tips to keep your employees and customers engaged from a distance.
If you’ve noticed a drop in patrons, you’re not alone. According to the NFIB Research Center, nearly one-quarter of small business owners say the coronavirus outbreak is negatively impacting them in the form of slower sales (42%), supply chain disruptions (39%) and sick employees (4%). However, in our digital world, there are plenty of ways to stay connected to your customers through this pandemic and keep your business going through it.
Here are a few smart strategies for brick-and-mortar businesses looking to keep their audience engaged and in the loop, even if they’re self-quarantined or avoiding public places.
The situation is evolving rapidly, and no one is quite sure what news each day will bring. Customers can empathize with merchants facing a crisis, as long as you communicate with them properly.
Let your customers know if you’re closing your doors, changing your hours and what steps you’re taking to keep your employees and work environment safe and clean. If your store is closing, notify your customers on your social media channels, through email and on your website. If your store is staying open, describe the steps you’re taking to mitigate risk.
Beyond letting customers know the logistics of your approach, give them a way to stay connected. Customers spending more time at home will still need to shop for things. Direct consumers to your e-commerce store, take orders over social media and be prepared for more people to view your website than in previous months.
Gift cards provide you with an immediate infusion of cash and guarantee that a customer will return to your business in the future. At restaurants, where margins are already notoriously thin, gift cards can help you stay afloat until the crisis passes.
For example, customers in Seattle are going out of their way to make sure local cafes, bars, and eateries don’t go under, and gift cards provide an easy way to keep cash flow moving. Offer an e-gift card program to reduce the risk of human contact, or work with a third-party delivery partner like Uber Eats to accept their gift cards at your location.
Recognize that most consumers are craving entertainment while being quarantined at home.
Go digital with your services to continue to provide access to your customers who are sitting at home, wishing they could support your business. Tutors, personal trainers and even therapists are making themselves available virtually. Use a free tool like Google Hangouts, Skype or Zoom to offer your services remotely.
If you’re in a service vertical that doesn’t lend itself to live videos, consider starting a Vimeo channel that allows customers to pay for videos with commonly requested information. For instance, an accountant can post a video detailing how to start a tax return (using a free tool like Loom to record their screen) and share it to their email list. A salon owner can post a video showing how to do in-home root touch-ups for customers that dye their hair. You may not be able to charge as much as your regular services, but it at least helps with cash flow in the meantime.
For some merchants, the biggest pain point has come from canceled events. “Our business is turning six years old this summer and we were looking forward to planning our party, and now, so quickly, a wrench got thrown into that,” one business owner said.
Recognize that most consumers are craving entertainment while being quarantined at home. They are quickly going to get bored.
This is where Facebook Live or Instagram Live can come in handy. If you had a store opening, product launch or anniversary celebration planned, move it to one of the live streaming social media channels. It’s a great way to keep your customers engaged and build goodwill, as well as to sell your products. Offer a special discount code to the first 100 people who stream your live event, or create an “exclusive” behind the scenes look at a new product to customers on your email list. Get creative with how you can make customers still feel invested in your brand and engaged with your content from a distance.
Now is a good time to entice long-term purchases with discounts. If it aligns with your business model, encourage customers to lock in a one-year membership now at a cheaper rate. Gyms can offer a discount for memberships starting after the virus has passed.
If you have a retail store, consider offering free or discounted shipping for online orders. Help other small businesses in your area by offering a 10% discount if a customer brings in a recent receipt from another small merchant (other than your competitors).
Send an email to your customers and post signage in your store to assure them that you’re doing everything you can to protect their health when they visit your store. Share any increased cleaning, disinfecting and hygiene protocols you’re following, and let them know that you are enforcing self-quarantine among any employees who might be experiencing symptoms. If you are altering your hours or closing your store for a deep-clean, you should let your customers know that, too.
Your customers are already on social media, but these days, they are likely checking in much more frequently to get the latest updates on the virus. Whether you’re posting about the virus specifically or trying to offer light, positive content to help take people’s minds off the panic, it can be helpful to increase your posting frequency to ensure you are showing up in their news feeds.
If you operate a service-based business like a restaurant or a salon, you may want to consider offering online sales of gift certificates.
If your business already has an e-commerce component, remind customers that they can still shop for their favorite items on your website. It might even help to offer a coupon or discount to encourage online shopping while your customers are staying home anyway.
If you operate a service-based business like a restaurant or a salon, you may want to consider offering special online sales of gift certificates at a discount. Encourage your customers to buy a certificate now, so they can treat themselves and redeem it when the virus outbreak has slowed and their self-quarantine period is over. This can help maintain sales for you, while giving your customers something fun and exciting to look forward to.
For those customers who do come into your store, it’s important to enforce good hygiene practices and encourage everyone who passes through your doors (customers and employees alike) to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
If your store has a restroom for customer use, put up extra signs pointing them in the right direction to wash their hands, and post the CDC’s guidance in the restroom. If not, you may wish to offer hand sanitizer near the front of the store for customer and employee use.
You may already offer phone and email support to your customers, but now is the time to increase your customer service capabilities and ensure your patrons can reach you — no matter where they are. Social media is a good place to start, as you can offer the option to chat via Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and other instant messaging platforms. You can also offer video conferencing options through Skype or FaceTime, so your customers can get that “face-to-face” feel without actually being there in-person.
With the number of coronavirus cases on the rise, it’s wise for businesses of all sizes to consider creating an emergency work-from-home policy to ensure that workers can still get their jobs done if telecommuting becomes the safest option.
Ask for input
When drafting an emergency work-from-home policy, start by discussing the details with your managers. It’s a good idea to draw input from the managers in all the different departments in your business, since they know the job best. Never underestimate the value of collaboration.
Once you’ve spoken to your managers, you can then consider taking suggestions from your other employees. There might be something that a specific employee does in their job that you’re not thinking about, or you haven’t considered that they need a specific tool.
For business operations to run as smoothly as possible off-site, you’ll need to make sure your employees have the right equipment, such as laptops, chargers, headsets, monitors, phones and possibly even fax machines and printers.
Will your employees be able to access shared drives and shared files from home? If not, it’s time to have a chat with your IT person to make sure everyone is set up with that capability. It’s also smart to give employees access to group communication tools with video conferencing capabilities, such as Google Hangouts, Slack, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Consider offering training so that everyone is comfortable using whichever tool you choose.
Although working from home might offer an exciting dose of freedom for your employees, it shouldn’t be a free-for-all. “If you normally have mandatory core working hours, be sure to include those in your telecommuting policy. The same goes for any cloud-based timekeeping system you may already use.
If you don’t have a formal timekeeping system in place, you might consider asking employees to log their time in a spreadsheet, or you can ask managers to schedule calls with employees to make sure they are staying productive.
Be sure to let employees know how you expect them to keep information secure when working off-site. It’s critical to set clear expectations for private and public internet connections, the storage of both hard copy and digital files, privacy when speaking about confidential matters on the phone, and any issue that could expose the company to undue risk.
It’s also a good idea to make sure employees have up-to-date anti-virus software. You might also consider providing multi-factor authentication (MFA), which makes it more difficult for hackers to access employees’ computers by requiring additional verification for logging in.
Instead of waiting until telecommuting becomes a necessity to discover potential problems, try asking your employees to work from home for a day or two to test things out.
When you roll out your message, such as through company email or an internal company site, don’t forget to find a way to reach the people who might not automatically receive official work communications from you, such as volunteers, independent contractors, vendors, clients, interns and recruits (who might have an upcoming interview scheduled).
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