The novel coronavirus pandemic triggered unprecedented, global business shutdowns since it first emerged in Wuhan, China in late 2019. While that’s already beginning to remedy itself in places like New York City -- which just entered Phase 3 of reopening and celebrated its first day in months without any new coronavirus deaths -- society’s collective anxiety is expected to long outlast the pandemic.
In fact, a March report from Datassential found that two-thirds of customers were concerned about eating in restaurants, but that was just as the pandemic was beginning. Since then, a lot has happened.
As The New York Times noted, local governments have been sending consumers mixed signals. In late June, Mayor Eric Garcetti urged Los Angeles residents to stay home even though indoor dining rooms remained open. By mid-July, the state was rolling back the reopening. In the wake of shifting messaging from officials, people have been largely left to make their own decisions about what’s safe and what isn’t. In other words, just because your business can open, doesn’t mean customers are going to line up outside to get in. There’s no vaccine for nerves.
As businesses begin to reopen, they don’t just have to follow state and federal guidelines -- they’ve also got to win back customer trust. This starts with a solid workplace safety plan and some major communication. These tips can help.
Whether your business is planning a reopening or still in the midst of the shutdown, a great way to maintain consumer trust is with action. In this unprecedented time, customers are looking for support, but may not know exactly what they need as the situation evolves. This means your company should identify problems and solve them before customers bring them to your attention.
For example, Citi sent an email to their clients reminding them of their online banking services and mobile app. Sure, these services already existed, but the gentle reminder likely eased some anxiety about the need to visit physical bank locations. In addition, Citi waived monthly service fees and penalties for early CD withdrawal, recognizing that many people are experiencing financial hardship at this time.
The main goal of proactivity is making your customers feel like they’re the priority, not your bank account. This goes beyond a couple kind emails and falls into stringent safety procedures. Err on the side of caution like Lululemon and Apple, who both closed their stores before the government mandate in order to better protect their customers and employees despite the financial consequences. Customers need to see that you want to take action rather than are forced to take action.
Be as transparent as possible
The CDC offers a number of resources for businesses that are reopening in the midst of the pandemic -- whether it’s guidance on sanitation procedures or workplace sick leave policies. There are also federal and state reopening guidelines that must be followed, but consumers aren’t generally knowledgeable about the safety measures businesses must take, nor do they understand a business’ unique struggle.
In order to ease consumer anxiety, you should aim to humanize your company with full transparency. Just like with any relationship, this increases intimacy which increases trust. Harvard Business Review suggests spelling out all of the steps you’re taking during the pandemic -- from your detailed plan to keep your consumers and employees safe to how you’re dealing with furloughed workers and the reality that one of your employees might fall ill. Customers should know exactly what to expect during their visit.
The best way to do this is to have a clear, decisive plan that’s posted across social media, on your company website, and sent in an email newsletter. You can even post safety guidelines around entrances of your brick and mortar locations. Some businesses have found success creating downloadable COVID-19 safety content resources.
Educate your consumers
A business can only stay as safe as their customers. If you have numerous patrons flouting your mask and social distancing requirements, that sends a message to clients that your company isn’t very serious about workplace safety, and therefore, they’re at risk. For this reason, you need to educate your customers about their role in your reopening plans.
For example, Gloss -- a Brooklyn-based hair salon -- sent customers a contract requiring them to cancel their appointments if they haven’t been social distancing outside of their normal routine for the last two weeks. They also made customers agree to a list of requirements like sanitizing hands, wearing a mask, and having a temperature check prior to salon entry.
This doesn’t mean it’s easy to get customers to agree to your rules, but you still must enforce them. The best way to gain consumer trust is to show that you’re dedicated to health and safety more than you’re dedicated to turning a profit.
Keeping employees safe keeps customers safe
The biggest risk to your customers are your employees, who can come into contact with hundreds of people a day. Consumers need to know that you’re taking every step to make sure that your employees are protected. This includes providing PPE, minimizing contact through social distancing or the use of plexiglass barriers, requiring intermittent testing, and having a sick leave policy.
To build customer trust, some businesses like Trader Joe’s have been vocal about updating their sick leave policies to include workers like part time staff and independent contractors who wouldn’t otherwise have paid sick days. For added trust, you might also consider creating an employee handbook for coronavirus safety procedures and making it available to the public.
If you can’t open safely, don’t
With the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, the reality may be that your business can’t continue to safely remain open. Allowing your business to operate knowing the risks isn’t just unethical; it’s a potential PR nightmare if someone gets seriously sick because you failed to take action.
Customers aren’t solely concerned about their own safety. More than ever, they want to support ethical companies, whether that means they’re environmentally-friendly, sourcing fair trade raw materials, or offering generous wages to workers. This is where workplace safety comes in.
Pushing workplace safety boundaries shows consumers that you don’t care about them or your employees, who are the veritable heartbeat of your business. Why should customers invest in you if you’re not invested in anyone else? In other words: if it’s not safe to remain open, don’t remain open. Pause to evaluate your safety procedures, make adjustments, then come back stronger than ever.
About the Author
Scott is the CEO of Elevation Marketing. He is a balanced risk-taker with nearly three decades of experience starting and growing advertising and marketing agencies. His business acumen is matched with a drive to build creative teams that thrive in open, collaborative work environments. Scott seeks out the best creative individuals, not only to provide quality service to clients, but to also help shape the future direction of Elevation Marketing. He remains dedicated to helping his talented teams develop unique and effective integrated marketing programs that help employees realize their full potential while serving up impressive business wins for clients.