Marketing in the Age of COVID, 9 Ways to Improve Your Customer Service Amid Crisis

Congratulations, world! We’ve made it to July! What a year this has been and it’s only halfway over. In the last six-months. COVID has changed the way businesses operate, especially the way we go about marketing our small businesses. 

My husband and I had an experience a while back that made me think about how COVID has changed the way businesses operate. We had a rare afternoon with the kids gone. He is working at home (we share side-by-side desks, God help us) and we decided to take a break for lunch. Wanting a little escape and feeling some novelty of not having the kids around we hopped into the car and went to a certain chain unnamed restaurant famous for serving burritos.

I was wearing a mask my mom had made and my husband had grabbed a bandana which he was using to cover his face, wild west style. The restaurant had signs posted on the door that face coverings must be worn and we assumed we were in compliance. Then we were met by a woman at the door who was nothing short of a bouncer, who didn’t speak English. 

She points at me and says, “You, yes.” She then motions at my mask. “Him, no. No, mask.” 

We were both confused. What?? Trying to communicate that we didn’t understand, a second employee came to the door and explained that I could come in because I was wearing a mask but my husband could not because he was not wearing one. 

I motioned over to him and explained that he was wearing a bandana. Which she promptly told me didn’t count. The second employee then says, “Hold on, let me go check with my general manager.” She then went back inside and LOCKED THE DOOR behind her. 

Y’all, she LOCKED US OUT. Why? Perhaps she thought our bandana covered selves would storm inside in demand burritos? I dunno. I see her through the window walk to the corner of the dining room and talk to a man for a few seconds then she came back and says, “Our manager will make an exception this time but next time he needs to wear a mask.” 

The recent mask order put in place by our county had specifically included the use of bandanas, which we were careful to double-check before we left. We wanted to follow the rules. I fully respect a business’s right to refuse service. But the no-bandana policy directly conflicted with the county mask order. 

If this particular establishment wanted to forbid the use of bandanas as face coverings then that was fully within their rights but it is their responsibility to educate their customers on their unique policy in a friendly and customer-centric way.

Once we were allowed inside, when I looked behind the counter I noticed half of the employees had their masks pulled down below their chins. Serious eyeroll. It made me not want to go back.

On the way home I started thinking about how many mistakes the burrito place had made. The manager lost a couple of good customers that day for no-reason. The situation could have been handled so much differently.  

sign informing customers they must wear a mask

The Pressure of a Small Business Owner

There’s a lot of pressure on business owners right now, especially restaurant owners. Dining rooms are closed or capacity is reduced. Sales are reduced significantly. . Half of the population flat out refuses to wear a mask even though it’s now mandated in most places.  Instead of greeters, now have bouncers. 

It’s a strange world we live in. 

Even worse, now the burden of enforcing public health is now placed on small business owners. This leaves many small business owners caught between wanting to keep customers happy and needing to keep customers safe. This makes many small business owners uncomfortable – having to refuse service to customers who refuse to comply even those who have been loyal customers in past.

Those people that do visit your establishment place their trust in your business to keep them safe. This was true before COVID (think health inspections) and it’s even more true now

People are Feeling Vunerable

There’s a lot going on in the world of the consumer right now, too. People are scared to leave the house, money is tight. Disposable income isn’t so disposable anymore. If someone chooses to indulge in something like going out to eat there’s a lot of pressure to pick a place they will truly enjoy. When their experience doesn’t match up to their expectations they feel violated and taken advantage of. 

Messaging that worked 6-months ago doesn’t work so well anymore. Peoples’ needs have changed, as have their priorities. This vulnerability leaves the customer very impressionable. More so than normal. We are all operating at a heightened state of awareness which leaves us extra sensitive to the experiences we have both good and bad. Businesses that are promoting their newest/latest offerings risk being seen as insensitive. 

This means that customers are even more likely to remember the more mundane interactions they have at your place of business. 

BUT WAIT. THERE’S GOOD NEWS!

The New Face of Marketing is Customer Service

In December of 2019 the best performing emotion was Gratification, while in April 2020 the best performing emotions were gratitude and safety - so focus on language focused on trust and intimacy. 

Forbes

Customer service is just as much marketing as placing ads. And I’m here to argue that exceptional customer experience during this time of uncertainty and crisis will be the single most important thing that separates the small business that survives from the one that fails. 

As sensitive as people are to bad experiences, they’re equally sensitive to the GOOD experiences, especially now. We will remember the small businesses that go above and beyond during this time of crisis long after COVID has run its course.  The business owner who operates with compassion and gratitude will come out on top when this is all over.

Even Forbes agrees that gratitude and safety rank right up there with language customers are responding to. Discount offers, especially those that involve delivery options are also garnering a lot of attention with consumers.

Consider these two scenarios.

A man, we’ll call him Steve, leaves his house to deposit a check at the bank. He’s been working from home for three months, his wife is also working from home and they have two small children. The kids are his joy but are driving him crazy, though he’s trying hard not to let them see it. He desperately needs a break. As mundane as it was, this brief errand was a moment of freedom. He decides to treat himself to a smoothie at his favorite smoothie shop while he’s out. 

He used to stop by the smoothie shop once a week on his way to work and hasn’t been by in months. He’s excited at the thought of enjoying his favorite Orange Sunrise (with almond milk with protein power) like he used to. The thought of the familiar feel of the cup in his hand and the taste of the smoothie makes him smile.

He’s anxious though, he has been keeping a package of masks in his car and he realized they were gone. The smoothie shop doesn’t have a drive through but he’s hopeful there’s a good option for service so he steers his car in that direction.

Scenario 1.  He arrives at the smoothie shop and sees no signs on the doors requiring a mask so he nervously walks in. Once inside an employee tells him he can’t be inside without a mask and informs him from behind the counter that he has to leave and come back with a mask. It’s the same employee who has made his weekly smoothie for the last two years. 

He could go back and get a mask OR he could just go somewhere else.

He remembers there’s another smoothie shop just few minutes away that has a drive through. He’s driven past it dozens of times but never had a reason to stop. Rather than going home empty-handed he heads there hoping he can get something similar. Once there he arrives he orders their variation of his favorite Orange Sunrise. 

When he pulls up to the window he’s handed his smoothie and a coupon for half off his next order. He then takes a sip and is surprised to discover that it’s better than the one he’d been ordering for years. He has a new favorite smoothie shop. This place is better, priced similarly and he never had to leave the car. And they even gave him a coupon.

Scenario 2. He arrives at his favorite smoothie shop and sees the sign on the door requiring masks for entry and the basketful of masks beside the door. He briefly considers going inside but then he also sees a parking spot designated especially for curbside orders. He decides curbside is the way to go and pulls into the designated space. 

He calls the phone number on the sign and speaks to a woman inside. He gives the woman the parking spot number, orders his favorite smoothie over the phone, pays with his credit card and waits patiently. A few minutes later the same employee who has made his weekly smoothie for the last two years walks out. Even with the mask on he recognized her instantly. 

He can see a smile in her eyes, when he rolls down his window she says, “I knew it was you when I heard your order. We missed you!” She hands him his smoothie, a coupon for half off his next order. He leaves happy and never has to leave the car.

It’s the preparedness of the smoothie shop owner and their communication with their entire team that makes scenario 2 work. 

9 Ways to Level Up Your Customer Service in the Age of Coronavirus (COVID)

  1. Have masks and hand sanitizer available for all customers. This should be a no-brainer by now but it’s important enough to justify a reminder. 

  2. Train your employees on the official mask policy of your business and local authority. Your employees are main point of contact with your customers, make sure they are educated on how to handle difficult mask conversations. If you employ high-school students make sure they are comfortable enforcing the rules. Consider doing some role-play training to help them practice their delivery and tone. Practice makes perfect!

  3. Re-engage past customers with discount offers. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen a portion of your customers, try to re-engage them with a hefty discount offer.  No, 10% off isn’t good enough. Think BOGO or 50% off a certain item. If you choose a 50% off promotion, be sure to double check your margin! Consider offering discounts on your highest margin products only.

  4. Arrange for curbside, no-contact and at home delivery options. Be sure to promote them on social channels. One thing we’ve all learned in the last six-months is that you don’t need to actually go inside a store to do business with it. 

  5. Consider instituting daily specials or offers. This will drive traffic to your store on a rolling basis. Keep switching it up though!

  6. If you sell larger ticket items, consider offering installments or a payment plan. Money is tight right now for a lot of people. If you’ve got something big to sell make it as easy on the customer as you can.

  7. Implement a customer loyalty program, if you don’t already have one. It you already have one, double the loyalty rewards. Make sure your loyal customers know how much you appreciate them.

  8. Become a community resource by hosting a food or blood drive or offering special discounts to front line workers. The “we’re in this together” feeling is strong right now. Make sure your role in the community is cemented with events and offers that benefit everyone.

  9. Overcommunicate with your customers. Good information regarding hours, limited stock and menus is hard to find, make it easier by talking to your customers as much as you can. Emails. Social media posts. Stories. Talk to your customers often so they aren’t left guessing. 

Uncertainty is a crazy thing, it brings up a whole new level of vulnerability and fear for everyone. For business owners and customers alike. Lead your small business with a voice of compassion and resilience and pass that feel-good, positive mentality on to your customers. We all need it right now and we’ll remember you for it!

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