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We know, the crisis hurts. But it’s also an opportunity to connect with clients and rethink how you do things

The COVID-19 pandemic has left many B.C. businesses on the ropes, but this is no time to forget your customers. Mark Colgate, professor of service excellence at UVic’s Peter B. Gustavson School of Business, shares some advice on keeping the love alive—and being ready to bounce back stronger than ever when the crisis subsides.

1. Tell your customers what’s happening

Even if your business is closed right now, don’t go silent. “The thing customers are looking for the most is information, what we call cognitive control,” says Colgate, author of The Science of Service: The Proven Formula to Drive Customer Loyalty and Stand Out From the Crowd. “Everyone needs to know what’s going on, and not just from a health perspective.”

Given that the current disruption may last for some time, he suggests emailing clients every couple of weeks with an update. “Keep reminding them that you’re out there,” Colgate says. “I think in a lot of cases, when it does start, it will start up again pretty quickly,” he adds, citing child care, hairdressing services and the hospitality business.

2. Get ready to restart

Companies that have had to shut their doors shouldn’t just sit back and watch, Colgate warns. “The organizations that are preparing now for when the dawn comes again, they’re the ones that will be in the best position,” he says. Psychologically, it may be tough to envision the end of the crisis. “But we know it will end, and so being prepared for that is really crucial as well.”

3. Keep building customer relationships

“Human behaviour hasn’t changed for hundreds of thousands of years,” Colgate says. During the pandemic, “all we’re seeing is an amplification of how we’re hard-wired.”

That wiring pushes us to follow experts, go along with the crowd—and engage in panic buying when we think things are scarce. But relationship-building is part of it, too, Colgate explains.

“We like working with people that we like,” he says. “And so any organizations that are reaching out to us and showing us that they’re still thinking about us—it’s not just about the struggles they’re going through but the struggles that people are going through having to stay at home—I think customers appreciate that.”

Companies should do so without expecting anything in return, Colgate suggests. “They’re the ones that will be a little bit further ahead when things start up again,” he says. “Every organization has an opportunity to see this as a chance to build some relationships with customers where maybe they didn’t have that time before.”

4. Take this opportunity to rethink your business

As Michael Gerber pointed out in his 1986 book The EMyth: Why Most Businesses Fail, entrepreneurs often spend more time working in their business than working on it.

“You don’t get the time to do research,” Colgate says. “You don’t get the time to read books and educate yourself and think about can I redefine my business model, can I find new ways of working with my customers.”

The pandemic changes that situation. With an eye to being prepared for after the downturn, now is a good time to step back and ask those questions, Colgate maintains. “When we do open in, say, three months, what can we do differently?”

5. Develop your employees

Now that the federal government has announced 75-percent wage subsidies for businesses during the crisis, some people on your payroll may find themselves sitting at home with time on their hands, so don’t waste it. Colgate sees a window to offer staff training. “Can you use that white space to do some education, some leadership development, some employee development, some online education?” he asks. “There’s lots of free resources out there that you could tap into as well.”