COVID-19 has upended our world. Many small businesses have shuttered temporarily, while larger ones have drastically shifted operations. Every day we receive emails from companies we do business with that acknowledge the pandemic, provide details on what they’re doing in response, and explain how that affects us.
On the flip are businesses you never hear from. And that’s a mistake.
When a crisis hits, people need information sooner rather than later. Whether it’s a 6-month yoga membership that they can no longer use, an order they placed that’s now in stasis, or a conference they registered for that takes place in October, they need clear communications NOW. Otherwise, they will speculate on what’s going on and assume the worst: that a company simply doesn’t care.
The worst thing a company can do at this point is say nothing. Even if there isn’t much to say.
If you’re struggling with messaging right now, I have a few tips. I base these on my experience as an internal corporate communicator involved in a fair share of crisis communications and as a freelance writer who has helped with recent messaging. Plus, like you, I’m receiving a ton of email communications these days from big companies like Delta and Best Buy to tiny businesses like a local massage studio. I analyze these not only as a writer, but as a customer.
Here’s what those who are communicating via email are doing right:
As companies scramble to figure out how this will affect operations, it’s often a knee-jerk reaction not to say anything until a firm plan is in place. Unfortunately, the longer you wait to send out a communication, the more worried and frustrated people become.
The best thing to tell customers (or employees if this is internal) is that you’re aware of the situation, you’re working on a solution, and you’ll send more communications as you hammer out the details.
That yoga studio I mentioned earlier? I had signed up for a membership March 5. Two weeks later, classes were cancelled. I didn’t receive an email, and I started wondering if I should pause my membership. I had to go to their website to get information. At least that was updated. But a customer shouldn’t have to work that hard.
Yes, we’re all operating in a world where new information is coming out daily, but you can’t wait for the perfect time to say the perfect sentence. Say something good enough and get it out there. Especially in the age of social media, you just can’t sit on your hands, because customers will go on Facebook, Twitter, etc., to demand action.
Empathy is right out of Rhetoric 101; it helps connect you to your customers. We’re all hurting right now. We don’t know how things will end up, who will get sick, or who will die. It’s scary. Therefore, acknowledge the pain in some way. Recognize that we’re all operating in a world of uncertainty and that you care.
For example, the CEO of Delta Airlines had this to say in a recent email:
“It has been an extraordinary few weeks as our world faces historic challenges with the growing COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Amid the stress and uncertainty, it’s never been more critical to stay connected with one another, even as we practice social distancing to reduce transmission and keep each other healthy and safe. I remain dedicated to keeping you informed about the actions Delta is taking for you during this uncertain time.”
Or take a look at what Union Bank said to their customers:
“Last week we shared our Union Bank® priorities concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. As the landscape continues to change, and additional containment measures go into effect, we want to assure you that Union Bank is committed to protecting the health and safety of our clients, colleagues, and their families.”
Both of those emails acknowledge the fear we’re experiencing before getting down to business. That is essential to building trust and getting people to listen to your message in the first place.
Those next steps may be as simple as “We’re working on a plan and will get back to you in 24 hours.” Or they may be as complex as how to get a refund, cancel a reservation, or explain that appliance deliveries will now only be curbside, not inside the home. You have to tell people what to expect in the next few days.
Be honest if you’re still working out the kinks. As long as you follow through with a solution, customers will most likely forgive you during this time of crisis.
Clearly, those next steps should be reflected on your website (and social media) and linked to from your email. Because not everyone is going to read an email. They may go directly to your website for information, as I did regarding an Etsy order I placed three weeks ago. Should I assume the order was delayed because delivery services are impacted? Yes. But the vendor should have told me before I had to message them directly.
This is a time to show gratitude and acknowledge an ongoing relationship. Eventually, we’ll get through this hellish time. And when we do, who do we want to do business with? Companies that treated us with respect and thanked us.
Here’s how Best Buy ended a recent email:
“All of us at Best Buy are grateful that so many states and localities believe we are an essential business, allowing us to continue to serve you when you need it most. We thank you for your patience and loyalty and look forward to continuing to provide you with the technology and home essentials you require to stay connected and work and learn from home. Thank you.”
What strikes me the most about that message is the humanity — you need us, and we need you. Despite so much uncertainty, how can you not feel something good from that?
I’ve highlighted messaging from some pretty big companies who no doubt have large communications teams skilled at crisis communications. I applaud their efforts. They’re probably working overtime to get these messages out, and they’re doing a splendid job.
But not everyone has the resources of a communications team. For smaller organizations, the owner of the business may be working directly with HR to craft messaging. If that’s your situation, keep the four tips above in mind as you write your next – or first – communication to customers.
It’s not easy, but in times like these, it’s always better to communicate than say nothing at all.
I’d love to hear about your project. Feel free to contact me.