New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, California’s Gavin Newsom, and Virginia’s Ralph Northam are among the more than 23 governors who have issued orders for all non-essential businesses to close as part of a concerted effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  But while the governors are acting in the best interest of wider society, the designation “non-essential” hurts in several ways. It marks companies as less important, it makes customers and employees rethink their loyalty, and it detonates years of brand building and marketing investments. 

This is especially harmful to small businesses, of which there are nearly 31 million and which made up 99.7 percent of the business community. A pizza shop may only employ a few people, but all of those people are likely out of a job if they are “non-essential,” and the owners may not be able to reopen if company savings and marketing investments have gone kaput. 

But opportunity is always present, and the “non-essential” business owner’s suddenly free time should be oriented towards earning “know, like, and trust” relationships with customers who, once the COVID-19 crisis is over, will become buyers. Specifically, I am recommending the following strategy to my clients as well as the wider business community.

  1. Touch base with past, present, and future buyers two times per week.
  2. Use four simple, heartfelt, and human messages to reach customers.
  3. Use whatever medium(s) is most effective - text, e-mail, video, social media, etc. 

Here are the four message types which will make any business “essential” in the eyes of its target market, customers, and future buyers.

1. Heartfelt Appreciation.

Customers and clients can tell when an appreciation message comes from the heart. Do this exceedingly well. “We are grateful for your long patronage of our (Company name.) You are among our most valuable clientele and we want to let you know how much we appreciate that you have trusted us and counted on us.” Short, sincere, and done.

2. Express hope for their well-being. 

Repeat your appreciation and then express your human desire for them to be safe and well. “Dear (first name), We are so grateful that you have honored us with your business for many years. We hope that you and your family are able to follow the best health and safety protocols and that you remain well and safe.” Close with a tip or simple graphic which relates to your company’s service or products -- “Be sure to keep your oil changed in case of an emergency” or “Be sure to keep your roof clear of snow and ice as the weather changes.”

3. Connect to their personal lives with helpful information that puts you in the daily lives of your customers. This is where you can really shine.

For example, a landscaper might offer “Have Fun with Your Kids While Maintaining Your Yard.” A consultant or professional services provider might write about “How to keep building your knowledge while on your own.” Food services could offer “How to Cook Our World Famous (Recipe) at Home” or “Best Foods for Freezer Storage” or “Kid-Friendly Baking.” Reading lists or links to entertainment are appreciated and remembered.

4. Share how your company is treating employees. Have you laid off or furloughed people? How will they be affected near and long term? Do you hope most will return as soon as possible? Your customers will remember how well you treated your employees when it is HARD. That’s what sticks. And it makes them return to you as soon as they can.

The value of the sequence of 4 different messages is that you remain in the minds of your customers in the most positive way possible. You reinforce that your company is the one they like, know and trust. As importantly, your human connection will stand out amongst the many, many companies which are using social distancing as a marketing opportunity. A New York Life financial advisor recently e-mailed me to let me know that her company has been around for 175 years and “is standing strong.” She told me, “Don’t hesitate to contact me.”

Brain science tells us that in difficult times our primal brain takes over and gives us three options: fight, freeze or flee. We are not capable of deciding to buy anything right then. Do not be the company that adds to the burden facing their customers and clients by making a pitch, and when you return to the marketplace, your customers will once again make you essential to their lives. 

Susan Trivers is CEO of Trivers Consulting Group, a Northern Virginia-based business strategy firm which has helped over 500 clients improve revenues by more than two billion.

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