As a small business owner, you’re likely thinking through how you can safely reopen your business as coronavirus lockdowns are lifted. A crucial part of reopening your small business is communicating effectively with your customers to make them aware of your business’ “new normal”. This can also be helpful to reassure your customers – who are likely anxious about emerging from lockdown – that your business is safe to visit once again.
Emerging stories from business owners in newly “reopened” locales demonstrate how critical it is to engage with your customers on changes to your business in our new normal. For example, Mark Lawrence, owner of Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour in Massachusetts, was eager to begin serving his ice cream to customers again. However, what was meant to be a celebratory first day open went awry, as demand for his ice cream overwhelmed the staff and angry customers berated employees, leading one employee to quit the same day. Lawrence’s restart plans were good: he asked customers to place 1-hour advance orders and provided ample masks and gloves for his staff. However, he hadn’t anticipated the overwhelming demand and crowding at his business. “It’s a completely different world that we’re living in, and people are going to have to adjust and learn that we don’t know,” he said. “We’re trying.”
Lawrence’s story highlights that managing a successful reopening is not just about rethinking your layout and protecting your staff (critical initial steps), but also about proactively communicating with your customers well in advance to reset their expectations, as well as having contingency plans in case things do not go as planned. Here are four things to consider to re-train your customers:
- A set of customer service policies that are clearly communicated
- A process to ensure demand does not exceed capacity
- A product offering that is flexible in the current environment
- A plan to meet unanticipated fluctuations in demand
1. Update your customer service policies and share them with your customers
First and foremost, the safety of yourself and your staff are critically important for ensuring the sustainability of your business AND the confidence of your customers. Elements such as contactless or credit card only payments, requiring masks for entry, temperature checks, or limiting the number of customers per household are all potential steps that you may consider to keep your staff and customers safe.
If you have decided to change your customer service policies, ensure that customers are aware of these through visible signs, communications and notices on all your digital channels (website, social media pages, etc.). If possible, try to share these policies well in advance of your reopening. Consider issuing (and posting) a Customer Bill of Rights or Code of Etiquette that includes the new ground rules, such as capacity limits, requirements for masks, or contactless payments only.
If you haven’t already, you can set up a mailing list or text update service to provide customers with up-to-date information about your business hours and operational changes. This provides a channel to directly communicate with your proactive customers who are likely to be part of your initial swell after reopening.
Lastly, don’t forget about your own staff – be sure they’re aware of what your new service policies are and how they should handle issues with customers who are having challenges meeting your new policies.
2. Ensure customer demand doesn’t overwhelm capacity
Next, it is critical to manage expectations of how many customers can be served in this pandemic, given new rules around social distancing and capacity. There are several creative ways to ensure your business isn’t overwhelmed by crowds that can be considered, including:
- advance orders or appointment times;
- eliminating walk-up servicing;
- and leveraging queue management technology to give real-time updates on wait times and manage virtual queues, such as QLess.
These new service practices should be clearly communicated with customers through all your channels at least 48 hours before reopening.
3. Make your product offering more flexible for the current environment
In B.C. (Before Corona), good service was generally defined by personalization and time spent having your needs addressed. This included trying on clothes before purchasing, customizing your order (which could be more time consuming for the business), or lingering over the last of your meal before requesting the check. This also meant that other customers understood the need to wait their turn in order to fully enjoy their experience when their time came. However, the coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed these dynamics, as customers will now likely prefer speedy service to avoid lingering in public places to lower their risk of exposure to the virus.
To minimize crowding and lingering, you may wish to consider ways to increase the number of customer orders you can complete in a given amount of time – or throughput – of your business operations. For some businesses, this could mean adhering to a more standardized and limited set of menu options and services. For example, if you’re an ice cream shop, instead of offering 30 ice cream flavors, you may want to limit your menu to 5-10 options at a time, ban flavor sampling, and cut products like sundaes which are more time intensive to produce.
This proactive step can also help you adjust to constraints in staffing or supplies. As you can imagine, this also requires regularly engaging with your customers to manage their service expectations. Customized service will have to give way a bit to faster and safer services to minimize crowding.
4. Put a plan in place to handle unexpected crowds
Considering your plans in advance for dealing with an unexpected surge of customers will help to alleviate anxiety and stress for both your customers and employees. A bouncer is a bit of an exaggeration, but you may want to designate a staff member for line monitoring, enforcing capacity limits, and ensuring that customers are observing social distancing. He or she can also advise when the line has extended too far for the customers to be served in a reasonable time. In these situations, it can be prudent to cut off your wait line after a certain period of time. You could consider offering small discounts to customers that you have to turn away, so they are incentivized to return when you are less busy.
You may also want to publish shorter business hours to give you some wiggle room on handling overflow customers. Just be sure you set expectations with your staff that they may be working an hour or two beyond your “official” business hours.
All in all, this is a delicate time for everyone: yourself as a business owner, your employees, but also your customers. Use email marketing, your website, and social media channels to engage with customers in advance of your reopening. This way, you can retrain them on the best ways to interact with your business and staff, including any new policies that are being implemented like card only payment or mask mandates. Incorporate new tools and procedures, including digital queuing and appointment technologies, to support your ability to successfully manage crowding and serve customers as efficiently and quickly as possible. Limited menus and/or limited hours may also be helpful initially as you begin to assess your demand and staffing levels.
Importantly, as a leader of your team, you must think through your plans in advance should any of these measures come under unexpected pressure from a surging crowd or unruly customers. Prepare offers or discounts to customers to encourage their patience and ongoing support. With everyone’s cooperation, it is possible for us to emerge into the new normal stronger and more connected than ever.
OnDeck is here to support small businesses – check out our COVID-19 Resource Hub for more helpful information for small businesses impacted by COVID-19.
*This article has been prepared for informational purposes only, and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for health, tax, legal or accounting advice. You should consult your own health professionals or tax, legal and accounting advisors before implementing any business changes.