Unfortunately, so many of us, both personally and from a small business perspective, don’t plan for a crisis. While most major corporations have elaborate back-up plans and systems to replicate their processes in other locations, the majority of businesses have none.
Whether a company is a Fortune 100 corporation or a neighborhood store or restaurant, their greatest business asset is their customers. In planning for a crisis or thinking about what your company could do differently upon re-opening, it may be beneficial for businesses of any size to consider some of the following ideas.
1. Maintain an ongoing database of customer email and phone numbers that can be easily updated and accessed in an emergency. During Hurricane Sandy, many businesses lost power (or worse), and were not able to communicate with their customers. This list should be used wisely and not be treated as another marketing tool during a crisis. One of our furniture suppliers immediately sent out an email saying we hope you are okay, but closed the email communication with a message that basically said, “If your stuff is ruined we can sell you new stuff.” That left me with a bad taste. Of course, in this era of permission marketing, always get the customers’ communication preferences, as well as their agreement for reaching out before doing so. The storm may be a good opportunity for all businesses to initiate a campaign of updating their customer database.
2. Communication needs to serve a two-fold purpose. Equally, or more important than informing your customers of your status, is ensuring that your customers are safe and okay. Customers are people first, customers second. That’s an important distinction. If you are not in a position to help your customers financially, you may be able to inform them of resources that might be available to assist them; Red Cross numbers, local charities, churches, or other places they can contact for help. People remember those acts of kindness and it’s a sure way to almost guarantee customer loyalty.
3. Use social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook. Posting information on your potential re-opening date, offering suggestions or ideas during the crisis, and letting customers know that your staff is safe are additional useful communication tools. Customers who are regular and loyal patrons of a business are just as interested in your situation and your associates’ well-being as your business is in theirs.
4. Don’t only think locally. When a crisis of Sandy’s magnitude occurs, it affects the entire universe. If you own a place of business that was not directly affected by the storm, your customers may be concerned about loved-ones who do have relatives or close friends living in a disaster area. Ask your customers if they know of anyone who lost power or experienced damage to their home. It will demonstrate concern and help the business build a stronger personal relationship.
5. Don’t be afraid to make that emotional connection. When my wife and I returned to one of our favorite restaurants in NY after the storm, every waiter and busser either gave us a firm handshake, a kiss or a hug. They were so happy to see us and we were happy to see that they made it through the storm too. Customers are people first, and the staff that serves customers are people too. Showing emotion clearly communicates concern, sympathy and appreciation.
6. Actively listen. Of all of the courses I took in the corporate world, how to actively listen was the most valuable. Every customer who contacts your company by telephone, email or face-to-face has an underlying emotion. They could be sad, concerned, elated, happy, frustrated, disappointed, etc. Listening for and acknowledging that emotion automatically builds an instant connection. In a time of crisis, customers especially appreciate when company associates not only handle their issue is an expedient manner, but value the human interaction with a person who truly hears, listens and responds in a warm and understanding manner.
Many people believe that out of a bad situation, something good will follow. No person or company has control of Mother Nature. However, what we do have influence over is how we plan for a crisis, as well as how we run our businesses every day. Let’s all use this act of Mother Nature to realize that customers are the heart of any company, and treating customers as people with specific needs, desires and emotions is an excellent way to run your business, every day of the year.