by Andrew Layton, American Lotus
By now, we’re all acutely aware of the mayhem caused by the new coronavirus and its associated illness, COVID-19. Many local business owners, particularly those in the service industry, are facing an existential crisis with many unknowns.
These are uncharted waters for most of us, and there are no magic formulas to guarantee success or even survival.
We can, however, do our very best to pivot and adapt quickly to these ever-changing circumstances. In doing so, we can inject a potent antidote to the growing undercurrent of fear and worry — hope.
To be clear: being hopeful doesn’t mean we are naive. It means we are choosing to focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t; on what is in our control rather than what is out of our control.
Anything else is a waste of precious mental and emotional energy.
With that in mind, let’s go over some ways you can shore up your business and hopefully increase our chances of weathering this storm together.
Yes, it is ok to promote your business now
Promoting your business might feel a little tone-deaf or maybe even wrong at the moment. And that would be absolutely true if you were using this as an opportunity to take advantage of people’s suffering, engage in price gouging, or ignore public health guidelines.
But that’s not what good business is about anyway. Good business is built on meaningful good-faith relationships with customers who genuinely like what you provide for them.
For your best customers, your business is part of their regular routine. And that routine has been completely disrupted. So believe it or not, they might actually miss you right now and would love to hear from you.
Meet your customers where they are
Some businesses are already responding to the situation through modified means of product delivery (curbside pickup, home delivery, virtual meetings, etc.).
Those are great tactics to explore and brainstorm around, but if you really want to connect with the community during these crazy times, you need to mentally step outside your current situation.
Imagine yourself in your customer’s shoes (or house slippers as the case may be). What are their biggest concerns right now? How do they feel? How have their daily routines changed? Are they stressed? Bored? Frustrated?
Fill in all those blanks and carry that mental picture with you at all times from now on.
Find out how you can help
Now comes the most important question: What can you do to help your stressed-out customer base?
This is a hard question to ask when you are overloaded with your own problems. You may be working with limited funds, reduced staff, or both. You may even be looking at a hard stop if things don’t turn around soon or if the government orders you to close.
But it is vitally important to stay focused on the customer and find out how you can help reduce their pain during this mess — even if they can’t buy from you right now.
When thinking of ways to adapt your business, consider how you can reduce the levels of stress, boredom, and frustration your customers are likely feeling.
Can you provide your product in a way that lowers risk of exposure for your customers? Can you make it fun? Can you add bonuses or create packages designed just for people stuck at home? If it must be delivered in person, can you do rain checks or gift certificates?
This practice of aligning what you can do with what your customers need is nothing new (and we should be doing this all the time anyway), now we’re just fast-tracking the process.
Stay in front of your customers
Staying in touch with your customers is good advice in the best of times. But it is absolutely crucial in a time where face-to-face interaction is being restricted more by the day.
Start by taking an inventory of all your communication channels. Consider these:
- Facebook page
- Google My Business listing
- Instagram account
- YouTube channel
- Email subscribers
- Smartphone app
Don’t panic if you don’t have all of these; you can be effective enough with one or two. The important thing is to know what you have and double down on the channels where your customers are most active.
For most local businesses, you should absolutely update your Google My Business listing and your Facebook page RIGHT NOW. Customers are relying on these channels for accurate, up-to-date info on hours of operation, service availability, etc., now more than ever.
Once you have this basic information covered, start sharing updates at least a couple times a week.
Not to sound glib, but if you’ve ever wondered why you should spend so much energy building an audience online, you now have an answer — it could save your business.
So far, several businesses in Phelps County with active online channels have been knocking it out of the park — notifying their followers of special curbside deals, virtual gatherings, and timely updates about business operations.
New ideas are popping up all over the internet, but I highly recommend checking out these local businesses for inspiration:
Public House Brewing Company – https://www.facebook.com/publichousebrewery/
Just A Taste – https://www.facebook.com/justatastemo/
Red Door Gifts & Boutique – https://www.facebook.com/reddoorgiftsrolla/
Hartley’s Climate Control – https://www.facebook.com/HartleysClimateControl
Also be sure to notify the Rolla Chamber of any changes so they can update the Rolla is Open page on the Chamber website.
Keep it positive
Your customers want and need to see anything that reminds them of “normal” right now, even if it’s just your smiling face.
Resist the urge to talk about how worried you are or how much of a strain this crisis is putting on your business. Many if not most local small businesses are feeling the same pain, and your customers are dealing with their own stress.
Acknowledge what’s going on and show that you know how disruptive this situation has been for everyone, but as much as you can, be positive.
Above all, show what you are doing to make things better. Show how you’re adapting. Show how you’re innovating.
Keep sharing, even if you have to close temporarily
If you have to temporarily cease operations during this crisis, it is still very important to stay connected with your customers.
You don’t have to talk business the entire time — in fact, it may be better to put that on hold for a while until you have something to announce.
But in the spirit of keeping things positive, think about sharing occasional updates from behind-the-scenes. Maybe you use this opportunity to give your shop a thorough spring cleaning. Or maybe you go on a socially-distanced hike and want to share pictures of the sunset.
Or if you’re feeling ambitious, you could put on a virtual class or a webinar. Take advantage of the down time to be creative and make something new.
Either way, if you are consistently there for your customers even when your doors are closed, they will be there for you when your doors re-open.
Closing thoughts: Keep your eyes open
At the time of this writing, new resources are popping up by the hour to help small businesses deal with the disruptions from COVID-19.
Google, Facebook, the SBA, banks, chambers of commerce (including this one), and many others have set up special portals and info pages on the topic. Avail yourself of all the resources you can find.
Most importantly, engage the community. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. We are in this together, and we will get through this together, whether it takes two weeks or it takes a year and a half.
I believe that not only will we get through this, we will ultimately be a stronger business community for it.
Stay safe and stay healthy!
Andrew Layton is the owner of American Lotus, a technical marketing and creative agency in Rolla, Missouri. Andrew has been helping technical businesses with marketing since 2003 both as an independent consultant and on in-house marketing teams. He is also an accomplished photographer, musician, and amateur wine geek. Reach out with marketing or creative questions any time at firstname.lastname@example.org.