The coronavirus pandemic has turned our world upside down. The huge impact on life and work as we know it goes far beyond the sudden shift to working from home. Repercussions can be felt everywhere. Having good crisis communication skills is essential in this challenging time.
“Dealing with the reality of COVID-19 has taken us all by surprise,” acknowledges Simon Cooke, managing director of full-service digital agency BozBoz. “I can’t think of a single event in recent years that has forced so much change to agencies and businesses in general, in such a short period of time. The feeling is of shock, and realization that everything you relied on and all your priorities have been shaken to the core.”
This shock has led to a flood of coronavirus emails from all kinds of businesses. Although understandable, it’s questionable whether a lot of the messaging is necessary and how effective it will be. It’s a delicate balancing act—sure, you need to keep going, but you also don’t want to be seen as overselling your services.
Knowing when and what to communicate with your clients is crucial. To help you make the right decision, we asked Shopify Partners, business leaders, founders, and digital strategists for their top tips on how to adapt client communications during a global crisis scenario and for crisis management. The following best (and bad) practices are not just unique to our current situation; a lot of them can be applied to less challenging times as well.
Can brands *please* stop putting '...these unprecedented times...' in the first sentence of every single email?— Content Design London (@ContentDesignLN) March 30, 2020
For the love of all that is good in the world, show your actual writing skill and creativity.
What is crisis communication?
Crisis communication refers to a guiding set of communication principles for a company or an individual during challenging times, emergencies, or unexpected events. This might involve creating a crisis communication plan, which can include instructions such as:
- The steps to take when a crisis first occurs
- How to communicate with the public and key stakeholders
- How to prevent the issue from occurring again
When it comes to crisis communications with your clients, by having solid guidelines in place, you:
- Are less affected by the challenging emotions going on, so you can think more rationally, and make better decisions
- Can act quickly
- Can maintain consistent messaging no matter who is talking with your client—whether it be you or one of your employees (if you have any)
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The dos and don’ts of talking to your client in a crisis
Alex O’Byrne, co-founder and director of Shopify Plus agency We Make Websites, put together a handy list of dos and don’ts to consider for your communication strategy.
Here’s what he recommends for client communication:
- Get in touch with your clients in a timely manner and regularly enough. When there's a crisis, it's important for them to know they have your support.
- Make a priority list of your clients (for example, a list of the clients who are the most hard hit), so your teams can spend their time wisely and effectively.
- Be transparent and let the client know of any changes on your side that may affect them.
- Be human. Reach out to your contacts on a personal level. Offer them an ear to talk to; it doesn’t necessarily need to be about the service you provide.
- Think of creative ways to help them during times of adversity. Could you offer a payment plan? Did you see agood response from another brand that you could share? Are there anyquick wins you could offer?
- Stay true to your brand voice. It’s vital that you project the right tone during a crisis, while remaining true to the personality your clients have come to know.
- Don’t use the crisis to blatantly upsell or push a deal along. You can still sell, people will need your service, but do this ethically.
- Don't limit yourself to your service offering. If a client asks for help with something, then help, or introduce someone who can help.
- Don't send unnecessary communications. Make the strain of their inbox a little easier. Send concise emails with clear action points.
- Don't expect to have all the answers. Your clients won’t either. The best thing you can do is provide consistency and figure it out together.
- Don't lose sight of your values. It’s easy with so much going on, but your values are a key part of your customer relationships.
Let’s take a look at some of these in detail.
Keep selling, but use empathy
Lauren Currie, CEO and co-founder of Stride, an organization aiming to democratize leadership development, believes there is a big difference between making money from a crisis and making money during a crisis.
“No business exists in a vacuum,” she points out. “You must keep going. Keep building. Keep promoting. Keep selling. But do so with thoughtfulness, self-awareness, and gentleness. Now ain’t the time to spam people with promotions for new ideas you have—stay true to what you know, what you're known for, and the problem your customers trust you to solve for them.”
You might also like: How to Build Strong Relationships with Clients in Another Time Zone.
Carl Smith, owner of the Bureau of Digital, recently ran an online Q&A on selling in a crisis, and the most popular category of submissions was how to be understanding without going broke.
“I jokingly called this Empathy vs Eating,” he explains. “But it’s not an either/or situation, and the two ideas aren’t in conflict. Those that conduct themselves with empathy will be the ones who are working now and even more so after this crisis. Because even though projects are going on hold and budgets are being frozen, eventually everyone will have to get work done again. So… maybe make some concessions. Offer to do some work today at a discount, but make sure it’s known that this is special ‘crisis pricing’.”
Carl also agrees with Lauren that the situation we’re all dealing with doesn’t mean you need to do things differently.
“The important thing is to be open and honest,” he recommends. “Don’t act like it’s business as usual or that your company isn’t facing uncertainty, too. Ask your clients how they’re doing and how you can help them accomplish their goals given these new constraints. Honestly, you shouldn’t change how or what you sell, just be conscious that things are different.”
The important thing is to be open and honest. Don’t act like it’s business as usual or that your company isn’t facing uncertainty, too. Ask your clients how they’re doing and how you can help them accomplish their goals given these new constraints. Honestly, you shouldn’t change how or what you sell, just be conscious that things are different.
Andy Budd, founder of user experience design consultancy Clearleft, meanwhile, feels that some of the messages he has received since the crisis hit seemed a little tone deaf. They focused solely on the needs of the business owner, rather than the needs of the customer.
One of the best emails Andy has seen came from Kelly Goto, who runs UX design, research, and strategy firm gotomedia:
Account for your client’s unique situation
Don’t forget that everyone’s circumstances are slightly different when you are building your crisis communication strategy.
“This change is providing us all with challenges that are dependent on our unique personal lives,” acknowledges digital strategist Lynn Winter, founder of Manage Digital, a conference for digital project managers.
“We might be thrown into distance learning, dealing with lost income, supporting an essential worker, or taking care of sick family members. In order to have a thoughtful communication plan, we need to support our client’s individual needs.”
We might be thrown into distance learning, dealing with lost income, supporting an essential worker, or taking care of sick family members. In order to have a thoughtful communication plan, we need to support our client’s individual needs.
Here are some things Lynn suggests you can do:
- Determine your client’s ideal time of day to meet.
- Schedule meetings short of the hour. Start five minutes after the hour and end five minutes early to give your client time to break or transition to their next meeting.
- Split long meetings into multiple meetings.
- Determine if something is meeting-worthy. If not, turn a meeting into a homework assignment by asking your client to collaborate in an online document.
Most importantly, Lynn recommends just being a human. “Ask your client how they are doing and listen. Help them as you are able.”
Be considerate with your communication (channels)
Haraldur Thorleifsson, founder and CEO of full-service creative agency ueno, agrees that being human is crucial at this very stressful time.
“In general I would say most brands should not be actively communicating with their clients at the moment,” he cautions. “It's just added stress and noise at a time when people are focusing on their health, safety, and financial stability.”
Haraldur also believes that in almost all cases, it's not a good time right now to email your clients.
“For any communication that needs to happen I would strongly urge people to drop any marketing or branding,” he advises. “Connect with them like people, not as customers or clients. Think about their emotional state and their needs. Don't be overly emotional, just be real.”
For any communication that needs to happen I would strongly urge people to drop any marketing or branding,” he advises. “Connect with them like people, not as customers or clients. Think about their emotional state and their needs. Don't be overly emotional, just be real.
Simon Cooke agrees, and points out that nobody wants to be ‘sold to’ right now.
“People want help and genuine advice, they want to find calm in this storm,” he explains. “If you are looking for a reason to email your clients, then stop right there. Don’t email them, call them if you can. If you view your client as more than just a lead, as an associate who is going through the exact same challenge as you, you’ll find common ground. You will strengthen your relationship and build trust. When you call, don’t mention your services or offers. Ask them about their challenges, offer support or just a friendly ear. When the time is right, they will call you back. Too many to call? Then go ahead with that email, but avoid predatory tactics at all costs. Be informative and sensitive to today's situation.”
Think about cognitive load and attention spans
People may be spending more time online but that doesn’t mean you need to put out more content for your clients with your crisis communication plan. Self-taught technologist Jessica Rose warns that in creating and releasing content now, many companies and organizations are forgetting the context driving more people inside and online.
“People are understandably collectively scared and having a difficult time focusing,” Jessica points out. “I would encourage those generating content to focus on empathy for their audience.”
Jessica suggests breaking down messaging into shorter, simpler, more digestible chunks to make content easier to manage for audiences under pressure. Also critically question the value of your content to your audience at this point.
“While demand for entertainment and educational experiences online have risen sharply, people likely won’t have the same focus and desire for marketing materials,” she warns. “People want meaningful information during a scary time, not thinly-linked business content.”
You might also like: How Shopify Partners are Responding to COVID-19.
Also, Jessica agrees that you should deprioritize messaging channels like email that people use as part of their personal communication. “Messaging that competes with their chosen news, family, and personal updates isn’t likely to be welcomed or well received,” she cautions. “Check that you’re promoting or sharing your messaging in ways that factor in people’s priorities and concerns.”
Carl Smith, meanwhile, also acknowledges that marketing during a crisis is tricky. “The amount of noise and distraction around us will make it hard to get noticed,” he warns. “Messaging needs to be about the person you’re trying to reach, now more than ever before. Share great resources but not the same ones everyone else is. It’s a time for discussing our shared reality, not pushing white papers.”
Revisit your plans
Lynn Winter also suggests revisiting your marketing strategy and the contract you have in place to back it up, even though both might have been very clear. The world is changing by the hour, and that change is impacting your client’s business.
“Find a time to meet with each of your clients to discuss how these challenging times might change your engagement,” Lynn advises. “Will the budget, timeline, and scope need to adjust? Does their content strategy and marketing plan need to pivot? Do you have a way to test your product with users remotely?”
Lynn recommends directness with a healthy side of empathy for this conversation.
“Our job here is to help our clients think ahead so they can pivot quickly and avoid roadblocks, while also helping our agency plan for those inevitable speed bumps from delayed projects and funding changes.”
Carl Smith agrees and points out that this could be the one reason to email your client—to see how they are, both personally and professionally.
“Find out what's changed,” he suggests. “How are they looking at previous plans under these new conditions? Consider saying something like this: ‘I know we were charging ahead on phase two, and we're ready to go, but I wanted to see if your priorities have changed. We want to make sure we're in sync with your needs now that we're in this challenging time.’”
You might also like: Tips on How to Transition Your Brick and Mortar Clients Online.
Make yourself indispensable
The best advice that Jordan Moore, co-founder and director of design at independent digital product firm Dawson Andrews, can give to any business (or individual within a business) during uncertain times is to be indispensable.
“Digital studios find themselves in this strange purgatory between being domain experts when the whole world has been forced to think about digital transformation and—on the other end of the spectrum—feeling the pinch as client marketing budgets are sized up as one of the first financial casualties,” he points out. “Whether you fall into the former or the latter camp, much depends on a client’s fight or flight response, but finding ways to make yourself or your company indispensable will help you win in the long run.”
Jordan suggests starting by empathizing with your client on a deeper level than just the project you share with them.
“Find ways to help beyond the project,” he advises. “Consider deferring payments for six or twelve months if you are in a position to. Now is the time to double down on those existing relationships and strengthen through shared adversity.”
Find ways to help beyond the project. Consider deferring payments for six or twelve months if you are in a position to. Now is the time to double down on those existing relationships and strengthen through shared adversity.
Revisit your collaboration tools
While you already have a process and set of tools you use with your clients, Lynn Winter also recommends considering if they should change now that teams are learning how to work remotely.
“Examine the new reality in which your clients can no longer walk to each other’s offices or pass around a document,” she advises.
Before you start sending off logins to all your favorite tools, Lynn suggests you consider the following with regards to project management best practices:
- Where are you at in your project? Do you need short-term or long-term solutions?
- How do(es) your current tool(s) not support this new reality?
- Who needs access that doesn’t have it now? Are there limits on the permissions they should have?
- How well can your client adapt to new tools?
“As you consider any adjustments, focus on minimal viable needs,” Lynn recommends. “Your client has enough on their plate, and the last thing they need is you overwhelming them.”
Let’s get through it together
In the end, we’re all in unchartered territory. Most businesses aren’t prepared for a crisis of the magnitude we’re finding ourselves in right now.
Use empathy and your common sense, be human and honest. Stick to what you’re best at, and evaluate whether you need to adapt the tools and processes you use to communicate with your client. Be careful with your messaging but if you don’t get it quite right the first time, that’s okay, too.
“If you do see a marketing message slightly over-reaching itself, it’s probably worth giving the folks behind it the benefit of the doubt,” Andy Budd suggests. “Many companies are feeling scared about the oncoming downturn, and that’s bursting out in their comms in often uncontrolled or unconsidered ways. While there may be some predatory behavior, most business owners are just trying to keep the lights on and their staff paid.”
Use the tips in this article to improve your crisis communication skills and help your clients through this challenging time.
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