What customers do and don’t need to hear from you as you reopen your small business

Dear Ontario “non-essential” small business owner,

Hey. It’s been a rough few months, huh? I know you’re hurting hard right now. You’re laying off employees, struggling to pay bills, and hoping you don’t get evicted. And now our province is talking about opening up. Looks like it’s gonna happen soon, too. You have to make preparations, and be ready to go when you get the green light to open the doors again.

So you’re planning. You’re thinking about how to make it safe for your employees and for your customers to do business with you again. You’re making cleaning schedules, and developing new protocols and systems on the fly. You’re taking your entrepreneurial, can-do spirit and applying it to the biggest challenge your business has ever seen. You’re desperately hoping it will work. Hoping that you can create an environment that both is safe, and feels safe, so people will buy from you again. So your business will survive.

Once you have your plan, you’re thinking of how you’re going to share this plan with your customers. You’re thinking, “I need to tell them that we’re opening. I need to tell them everything we’re doing, from the regular disinfecting of surfaces, to the hand sanitizer dispenser, to the stickers we’ve put on the floor to indicate how far apart people should stand. I need them to feel more safe. So they’ll buy from us again. So we’ll be okay. So we’ll survive.” You start to draft an email to send to your entire customer list.

Please. Don’t send that email.

There’s this horrible thing that’s happened during the pandemic crisis. We don’t have strong leadership giving us clear, consistent guidance on what is safe. Not just rules of what is and isn’t “allowed,” but guidance on how to interpret those rules. Our political leaders have personally not followed the guidelines set out by our public health advisors. So, in the absence of clear, consistent instructions from leaders we place confidence in, we’ve descended into chaos. We don’t trust others to tell us what’s safe. Every individual has to do their own research, determine their own risk tolerance, and set their own guidelines for safety.

If you send an email to your customers that goes into great detail about your cleaning regimen, the actual message you’re sending is “we’re doing these things to clean, so it must be safe to shop with us again.” As heartfelt and well-intentioned as that message might be, it suggests that you have some sense of authority and a better knowledge of what’s safe than your customers do. I’m sorry dear Ontario small business owner, but that isn’t true.

The ability to have your customers trust you again is outside your control.

You need your customers to believe your business is safe. But trying to convince your customers to trust you by detailing your cleaning protocols is a fool’s errand. The ability to have your customers trust you again is outside your control. Your customers know that you don’t have any more of a sense of what the heck is going on than they do. No matter how many stickers you put on the floor. No matter how many times a day you’re wiping the counter with disinfectant.

That email isn’t going to work because it’s ignoring the first rule of good marketing communications. Stop talking about YOU. Talk about THEM. Sending a mass email about what you’re doing to make your business safer to your entire customer list isn’t about them. It’s about you, and your desperation, your fear, and your need for control.

So ditch the faux-reassuring tone that implies you know what’s best for your customer right now. Instead, speak with honesty. Consider sending a message that says, “Hey. Listen. We’re scared of what’s going on in the world. And we’re scared we might lose our business. We miss you. We hope you’ll come back. But only when you feel safe to do so.” Because no matter what the politicians are saying about it being safe to return to business, a lot of people aren’t feeling like it’s safe to return to your business. So meet people where they are. Empathize with them and their fears. If you still think they’d like to know about your cleaning protocols, make a new page on your website detailing them, and include a link to it in your email newsletter. Don’t make that the main message of the email.

The only form of authority you can take in your marketing communications right now is to say you’re doing your best. Which you are.

Love,
Avery

PS — Oh my gosh, I almost forgot to tell you. Please segment your email lists, okay? This is the kind of message that needs to go to your core customers. Not your entire list. Don’t send this out to people who haven’t visited in years, or people who might live outside the geographic area of your business. They couldn’t visit you right now even if they wanted to. This kind of message isn’t a blanket statement to send out to everyone. This is for your core customers. The ones who are most likely to take the risk to support you, so you can survive to serve all those other customers again too.

[This post originally appeared in my free email newsletter. Tips, tools, and insight for integrating technology into your small business and your life. Delivered directly to your inbox, twice a month. Subscribe here.]

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