All business should assess their crisis communications plans on an annual basis and examine options for communicating with customers in a crisis. As we here in California enter the height of fire season, it’s as good a time as any to review your crisis plan. Most companies have plans for what to do when the company is in crisis (or should have these plans) but do you have a plan for how to support and communicate with your customers when they are in a crisis?
First things first – you should have a documented evacuation plan for your employees and your patrons should they be threatened by an emergency while at your place of business. If you don’t, download your city’s free Emergency Preparedness Guides. The City of Carlsbad’s free Emergency Preparedness Guides can be downloaded at www.carlsbadca.gov for guidance.
Once that is in place, prepare the guidelines for how you and your employees will communicate with your clientele when they are in a crisis.
Recognize the Difference Between Urgent Communications and Non-Urgent Information
Contact your customers immediately if their loved ones or property are in your care and are threatened by an emergency situation. It’s important to also recognize when calling your customers with non-urgent information at the wrong time could be distracting and inappropriate. Customers should not be contacted with non-urgent information during a crisis. For example, while I was evacuating my children from our home during the May 2014 southern California wildfires, I received a call on my cell phone from a business where my daughter takes extra-curricular classes. They were notifying me that classes would be cancelled for the day. This was seemingly clear and needless to say not top of mind as fire threatened my home.
Moreover, during a crisis your business practices should be in line with the instructions from law enforcement and first responders. If the authorities are asking people to stay off the roads and off the phones, your company’s actions should mirror those instructions. Tell your customers that in support of local emergency efforts you are closing and direct customers to your web site, social media channels or posted signs at your location for information on re-opening.
Share Your Talents & Services for the Benefit of the Community
Do offer your services to support the community during and after such an event – but communicate those offers in a sensitive and empathetic tone and use the appropriate communications channels. For instance, if you are a provider of restoration services, providing special discounts, free quotes or other consultations will be appreciated now. Yet make sure your post-crisis marketing has the correct tone and acknowledges the emotion and duress your clients may be under. Under normal circumstances a flyer announcing a discount may come with bold colors, starbursts and exclamation points that are not appropriate when people are putting their homes back together.
Announce offers and freebies for displaced residents and hard-working first responders via your social media channels, web site, e-mail newsletters and on recorded phone messages. Follow your local media outlets on social media and share the information with them. They will likely help spread the word in an effort to support the community and help it rebuild.
If you are looking to highlight a special program you offered during or after the fire, let your customers do the talking for you. Share their tweets, publish a letter of appreciation in your newsletter or post it at your business for all to see. All of these gestures will serve a dual-purpose. They will demonstrate your loyalty to the community and create goodwill in a way that doesn’t smack of self-promotion or exploitation.
Do acknowledge that during times of crisis, rules can be broken. If you usually required a 24-hour cancellation policy, waive that policy during the period of crisis and for a respectful period of time afterward. Again, use non-invasive contact channels to share these exceptions. Perhaps the best and most personal way to make these gestures known is to reach out to your customers once things are “back to normal” and offer to help them reschedule their appointment and ask after their well being. Nothing means more to a client than knowing you were concerned about them.
Lastly, it’s important to write all your plans down and share them with your team of employees. Document what worked and what didn’t. Save e-mail templates for use again in the future. In doing so you’ll be prepared for the next crisis that we hope never comes.
What would you add to this list of tips for communicating with customers in a crisis? Do you have any best practices to share that you learned from experience?