Communication in the Time of COVID-19
Tools and best practices for communicating with customers
The coronavirus pandemic has caused many companies to shut their physical doors and move operations online where possible. Among the challenges some face is how to best communicate to maintain relationships with existing customers and partner companies and how to attract new business. Now is more important than ever to understand how customers want to communicate, and to know the best practices and tools available to do so.
“Knowing telecommunications increased immensely overnight, there is an opportunity to reach new people on channels they were not devoted to in the past,” says Pete DeGorter, vice president, DeGorter Inc. “We see this as an opportunity to reach them where they are now; it is a matter of staying relevant. We should be where our potential opportunities are and when they are there … right now they are online.”
Sources agree that meeting customers where they are is key. So is discovering and delivering on individual customer preferences. “Now, more than ever, we’re using multiple methods to communicate with our employee owners, vendors and customers,” says Mike Willard, CEO of Salem Distributing. “We’re using emails, phone calls, texting or however the customer prefers to be communicated with.”
Rowe Fenestration also employs myriad communication channels, to include email marketing, social media, video and public relations, based on customer preference. Given the personal relationship with each customer and partner, Lindsey Parker, director of marketing and communications, says, “We try to communicate and inform them through the channels that work best for each of them, whether that is phone, email, video or text.”
Vitro Architectural Glass, meanwhile, is maintaining direct communication with customers and some critical suppliers, with phone and email being the most important, according to Robert Struble, Vitro’s brand and communications manager.
The company also created a landing page on its website for “important glass supply updates,” which Struble says “hasn’t changed much because supply and inventory levels remain strong and readily available.” Vitro ensures customers can still access remote tools, such as glass performance calculator, glass education and AIA Continuing Education programs. “The key is communicating through the channels they’re using when they’re working and thinking about glass and design.”
“Our number one goal externally is to communicate to partners we are here to support them,” says DeGorter. “Our team is instructed to be compassionate, flexible and accommodating.” He says this has taken the form of extended financing when possible and finding thoughtful solutions for equipment loans as they related to a project’s timeline. “These kinds of solutions cannot happen without working together over a number of weeks, keeping them informed of potential delays at the start, the actual delays when they happened, and finding solutions to move on immediately should we experience a worst-case scenario.”
LinkedIn: engaging on social media
In general, sources report that social media initiatives haven’t changed much. DeGorter notes that this is a good time, however, to further develop social media channels. The one channel many companies are investing more in? LinkedIn. “LinkedIn [is especially useful] for thought leadership and to bring added value,” says Parker.
Keith Daubmann, president of My Shower Door, describes LinkedIn as “unbelievably powerful” not only from a B2B aspect, but also for acquiring customers. He posts plenty of content each day related to what the company offers and how it can solve problems, but one of the practices he credits with boosting his presence is engaging with others’ posts.
“I engage no different than I would at an in-person meeting,” he says. “It’s the law of averages: the more connections you have the more opportunities will come your way. Not only did I dedicate myself to acquiring more people within my group, but I engage in their content, not necessarily plugging ourselves, but bringing thoughtful conversation to their platform.”
My Shower Door is using this time to expand its educational offerings. Daubmann says that, “as the shower door guy,” he’s often one of the last people to show up on a jobsite, at which point many customers are already over budget. “They’d say they just needed something cheap and that would be a hurdle we’d have to try to overcome,” he says. “So I had to come up with a creative way to get in before I was the last person.”
He ended up communicating with architects to try to get the product and glass specced. Then, about five years ago, started doing lunch and learns where he’d schedule time with designers via Zoom or FaceTime. During the current crisis, he’s still conducting these lunch and learns through Zoom, where he walks around the factory, demonstrates how the glass comes in and walks through the entire process, including cutting, water jetting, CNC machining, polishing and tempering. “A lot of them had specced millions of dollars worth of glass but had no idea how it was manufactured,” he says. “Every single one said they wished they’d had this knowledge earlier.”
“We are all seeing an influx in use of technologies that have been available, but have not yet been widely adopted by our industry,” says Parker. “A silver lining in this time is that we are forced to be innovative, adapt and communicate in ways we have not had to or wanted to before.”
As with so much about the pandemic, much depends on its duration, including how communications will continue to adapt. “Just as we’ve adapted to ‘work from home,’” says Struble, “we may need to adapt to a further evolution of how we communicate as companies.”
Vitro is also adapting its marketing social media activity. “As our followers are scrolling through crisis-related headlines, we didn’t feel it was appropriate to be sharing promotional product-focused messages,” explains Struble.
At the end of the day, he adds, “all good communications start with empathy for the recipient.”
Best External Communication Practices During COVID-19
“There is no playbook for this,” says Lindsay Parker, Rowe Fenestration, of business communication during this pandemic, “but if we approach best practices with sensitivity and intentionality, we can continue to serve our customers and partners during a challenging and disruptive time.” She offers the following five tips for best communication practices.
- Acknowledge and adapt. We don't have all the answers, but this is how we are adapting to serve you, our customers, staff and partners. Sharing that universal vulnerability can be scary, but transparency builds trust.
- Keep messaging in your area of expertise. There is a lot of information out there, but you have a specific message that is relevant to your customers and partners. Zero in on messages that reflect your business offerings, and how you are working to continue to solve your customers challenges. Share that messaging with your team to provide a cohesive voice from your company.
- Stay positive and authentic. There is enough fear circulating; we do not need to add to it. Be transparent on how you are working through your business challenges, and reassure your customer base and partners that, while this is not business as usual, you are in this together.
- Bring value. Try new ways to bring value to your customers through digital channels. It could be an online course, a video presentation or digital download that was not previously available. You could implement a mentorship program or cross training. Listen to what their needs are and collaborate on a new way to address those needs.
- Use resources available to you. Set aside some time for training and education. Anything from online social media webinars, testing out a new graphic design program to raise your brand profile, utilizing the content provided by MyGlassClass.com and the NGA. There are so many ways to build up your and your team’s skills that are relevant to your business objectives. Share those opportunities with your customers. Providing educational and career development opportunities only helps our teams, customers, businesses and industry as a whole.