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How do I communicate with customers during Covid-19?

This is the big question I covered in my latest Biz Coffee Break with Nelson Tasman Business Trust.

If you prefer, you can listen to the full recording - or read on for the highlights.

The tone of any communication is critical to conveying the right message.  But at this time, it’s even more important to hit the right emotional level.

Our inbox, like yours, is filled with some terrible examples. Not their fault, they need to communicate and are doing it the same way they had before. But today, that’s just not going to cut it. 

If you missed last week’s episode of the Biz Coffee Break, you can check it out here.  In that, I talked about why business won’t go back to normal, and how you can change.

Based on research conducted both in the US, as well as Australia and New Zealand, I’ve put together this guide.

Now, as much as I’m a fan of strategies, at the moment this is a very fluid situation - you just have to build in a level of flexibility, and communication is no different.

I'm also going to start today's subject in a slightly unusual way, with a disclaimer.

No one has experienced this. There isn't a marketer in the world who has. Even those who say we can learn from past recessions, the GFC, the Great Depression. They were different.

Although we can always learn from history, you can't say, well, that's what worked for me or others then, so I'm just going to do that now.

Normally, of course, I would tell you that to understand your customer, you have to go and talk to them. Now clearly in such a fluid environment and on tight budgets, that is more difficult.

The good news is that major companies around the world are conducting publicly available market research to identify what’s happening out there. And these give us some valuable insights we can use to develop communication that strikes the right note.

It’s about your relationship

I've always been an advocate that the way to build a stronger business, is to have a strong relationship with customers. And it’s even more critical according to research.

If you have that stronger relationship, now's the time to be reaching out to them. Talk to them … How are they feeling? What are they doing? What do they need from you? What value can you provide them that maybe you weren't doing before?

If you want more proof on the value of the relationship at this time, check out this research report by Gallup

Make it personal and real

Now as for the actual language, think about how you talk to your friends on social media - we tend to have a more relaxed style. But when talking to customers we naturally feel the need to use a more formal tone. We've got to remember that your customers are real people, going through the same emotions as you, so treat them like a friend.

They want to know you are ok.  They know it’s tough for business, and they genuinely care. So, show your human side.

Tell them what you're doing behind the scenes to get ready to open again. Have you been developing an online shop, or have you upgraded your store?

You can even talk about your family life, what the kids are up to - it’s about making yourself real, someone they can relate to. So, tell your story - it puts a completely different perspective on your business. Everyone is going through a variety of emotions, showing your empathy for that is not exposing your weakness.  It’s actually a strength.

Being honest and saying we're finding it challenging at times, but this is how we are making a positive change.

Customers want to hear from you

A recent study conducted in New Zealand, showed that 77% of consumers want to hear from their brand. They want to know you're okay. They want to know what you've been up to. They want to know how you’re helping your staff, how you're helping the environment, the wider community, and what you’re doing to make them safe.

We've come together as a community, so don’t underestimate that when developing your messaging.

Business has an opportunity to not only show that you've got a community spirit, but that you're real, their neighbor. That you're not just a brand, you're not just a business name.

Facts, not fluff

The other thing that’s coming out in research is that people want information. They want to know What and How. Don't waffle. Statements like, “we're all in this together” and “in these unprecedented times” are now done by everyone, and have quickly become wallpaper - they’re just not strong enough.

This isn’t that new - for as long as advertising’s been around, customers are more interested in ‘what’s in it for them’.  The main difference now, is that their ‘value’ has shifted.

What's of value to your customer? What information do they want from you? Keep drilling down, then you’ll find your cut-through.

And you thought attention spans were short before.  People can't digest the huge amount of information circulating around. Be direct in your language, be warm, friendly, caring.

Humor is another element coming out of research.  Clearly there’s a fine line, but presenting the information in lighter way, anything that makes people smile, that leaves a much longer impression that just cold language. We want to make people's life a little bit lighter in this whole very heavy scene.

A great infographic I found released on the 21st April, showed that 40% of people say they're going to avoid doing handshakes, and hugs & kisses. 45% say they’ll stay at home at the first sign of illness. 30% say they’ll shop more online.  And there’s heaps more, but it all comes back to making people and the community feel safe.  So, communication at this time and the foreseeable future must address any concerns.

Don’t disappear

Where I will pinch from history, is it that it's important to keep your brand out there? Don't just disappear into your shell.  People will switch to a competitor if they feel they’ll be better served.

Even more than ever we’re chatting online, phone, video calls etc, and we’re swapping notes on who’s doing the right thing.  You need to be part of the conversation.

On Saturdays our street get together at the end of our driveways, as is happening around the world - for us it’s quite an interesting focus group. The conversation turned to how they'll change their shopping habits - to the businesses that were offering helpful advice and service.  It was like swapping notes…

Practical example

Eriks received an email from a hotel. The subject line: Eriks, we are here for you.

Okay. What does that mean? I know you haven't burnt down; you still exist, I just can't travel to you. Why would he open the email?  What’s in it for him?  But here’s an alternative, “I'm putting a mint on your pillow.” It’s so much warmer, and way more enticing to read the rest of the email. 

We tend to communicate with friends and family in a different style, but that warmth, lack of formality is what your customers are looking for. So, communicate with customers in exactly the same way. They're part of your family. You want to keep them in your family. You want to bring more into your family. 

Remember, they're real people. They have real needs, the same as you.


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