Small Businesses Embrace Digital Tools to Keep Customers Engaged Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic
On Wednesday, April 15, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (CO) held a virtual workshop for small business owners on how to keep their businesses operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. Business owners heard from leading experts and engaged in an audience-driven discussion designed specifically for the small business community.
The first workshop in a series of Workshop Wednesday sessions, “Keeping Customers Engaged During Coronavirus,” focused on how small businesses can pivot their business models to target consumers at a distance. Led by Jeanette Mulvey, executive director of content at CO, small business owners gathered together to discuss using digital tools to engage and retain customers.
Marcus Davis, owner of four Houston-based restaurants including The Breakfast Klub, understands the importance of the stay at home orders put into place by state and local governments, and completely shifted his operations to take-out and delivery services exclusively. He leverages his history of customer loyalty to keep his community informed online.
“This is where years of data building has come into place,” Davis says. “We have tens of thousands of email addresses and telephone numbers. We have thousands of folks on our social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So that is a major source of information.”
According to Davis, at a time where people are home and actively online at all times, social media is one of the most effective ways to reach out and connect with customers. But Dennis Steele, co-founder and CSO of Podium, a cloud-based CRM software company based in Lehi, Utah, finds that small businesses still need to adapt their workflows to adopt digital tools like these.
“This has forced a lot of our customers to completely adapt,” Steele explains. Small businesses have been forced to reexamine the way they use social media and software to communicate with customers. Steele’s company has already seen a surge in messages to and from customers.
Haley Griffis, head of public relations at Buffer, a social media management tool, finds that at times like these, customers are actively looking to hear from businesses. Small businesses can take advantage of that by creating content around ways to solve problems in the community. But she warns business owners new to social media that trying to navigate all platforms at once can be difficult.
“If you are trying to be successful at all of the social media channels, it means you're only putting a little bit of energy into each of them instead of being able to grab one or two channels and put more energy into that,” Griffis says. She also advises business owners to choose their platforms carefully, and base that choice on their targeted audience.
Approaching Customers with the Right Message
But what do customers want to hear from businesses? Regardless of the platform, Davis believes that it’s important to express gratitude, focus on community, and relay the importance of small businesses for the economy and the community to customers. But according to Steele, customers are primarily looking to see that their favorite local businesses are still there.
“The best practice we've seen is just for businesses to say, ‘Hey, we're here, we're in business, we're open, and we can handle this situation,’” Steele says. “Although it's tough, customers want to know businesses have the kind of tools in place to handle this situation. And that's what we've seen to be really powerful.”
The panel was followed by a Q&A, where listeners asked more in-depth questions pertaining to their small businesses. Panelists discussed challenges involved with selecting the right social media platforms and tailoring communication effectively during a crisis. And when it comes to addressing customers, Steele encourages small businesses to come from a place of empathy.
“Local businesses are the backbone of the economy,” Steele says. “They’re in a special place to send a message to the community that we're in this together and that we have the ability to push through this.”
In times of uncertainty — like what we are currently experiencing with the COVID-19 pandemic — small business owners need to make sure they are regularly and consistently communicating with their customers and showing their support.
“You need to show that you understand what [the customers are] going through, and show that whatever you're trying to pitch is beneficial to them,” Davis says. “You may have to extend the olive branch out there, hoping for return, knowing that you may not get a return on that investment.”
This isn't just an effective way of retaining customers, but it can also help small businesses acquire new customers. The limited in-person interaction between businesses and customers can make finding new customers difficult, but relaying empathy using digital tools can reach a wide audience of new customers. According to Griffis, employing hashtags and developing partnerships can help businesses with this.
“People follow hashtags,” Griffis says. “And that's one of the ways that they find content. Try to figure out how you can find those hashtags. Some businesses are doing online events with complementary services. Determine what value you can add to their community and partner with them.”
Small businesses must adapt to this new way of retaining and acquiring customers, and digital tools such as these are crucial to their success. And according to Steele, this adaptation is necessary regardless of when the current safety measures are lifted, so establishing a sense of normalcy when communicating with customers is critical.
“At first this situation was extremely terrifying; businesses were shell-shocked, everybody was just freezing up,” Steele says. “But I think now, since we've been a month or so into this, we're all trying to find what that new normal is. Expressing some of that normalcy in your messaging and adding that personal touch — that's what really breaks through all the noise out there.”
Steele ends on a note of optimism: “If this is the new normal, then I am very encouraged that we'll be able to adapt and everybody will get comfortable with that,” he says. “And, and if it is going to go back to normal, then we'll all just be a little bit better prepared to handle things remotely."