As small-business owners continued to emerge from Hurricane Sandy's massive wreckage, many realized they had to communicate with customers--and fast.
But even businesses with shuttered storefronts, downed servers, or damaged supply pipelines have some choices. They can view a natural disaster striking as a public-relations emergency. Or, it can be a big opportunity to boost customer-service efforts and to do some subtle brand building simultaneously.
A disaster is also a reminder that customers are your business's lifeblood. You have to talk to them--especially if you can't deliver on your promises.
"From an entrepreneurial perspective, it is opportunities like this that really test the strength of your relationships with customers and clients," says Dorie Fain, founder of &Wealth Partners, an investment advisory firm for women based in New York.
Although Fain hasn't been able to get into her Manhattan office for days, she's been in touch with each of her 25 clients--many of whom called her first just to see how she was doing--to let them know her business is still extant, and that their accounts are safe.
These efforts are, of course, greatly amplified in the always-on era of social media. Still, you have to be careful how you go about communicating. Outreach needs to be sincere, not contrived, and it must offer useful information. In many cases, experts say, you should not be trying to sell anything. This particular breed of communication is simply an opportunity to lift the covers on your operations and to form a human bond.
"It is important we include our customers in every aspect of our lives and social media has not only dictated this, but made it a way of life for business owners…our relationships with customers are more personal," says Juan C. Perez, CEO of Highbrid Media, a minority marketing consultancy based in New York.
Small businesses lack the resources of some of the biggest companies. Compare Rosenband's efforts with those of Bank of America, which announced Tuesday it was making a donation of $1 million to help disaster recovery efforts in affected areas, as well as planning to help customers with various disaster relief banking programs.
"We have customers and employees throughout the hardest hit region and their safety is our main consideration," Brian T. Moynihan, chief executive officer of Bank of America, said in a release. "As we do what we can to help them through this, we also are doing our part to help get relief to communities affected."
Few small business owners have the deep pockets of one of the nation’s largest banks, eventhough most are just as civic-minded, but the storm has given them access to something just as valuable: an important narrative, says Patrick Schwerdtfeger, a small business and marketing expert, in Walnut Creek, California.
"Small businesses have a much greater opportunity than bigger businesses for this dynamic content and incredible stories that could be told," Schwerdtfeger says.
A particularly strong example is this communication from online design retailer Fab.com's chief executive, Jason Goldberg, sent by e-mail to customers on Tuesday and posted on Goldberg's blog:
Fab's headquarters are in the West Village of New York City, at 95 Morton Street. 225 of our 650 team members worldwide work from our NYC offices. Our offices are 1 block from the Hudson river and our street and building were impacted by the storm. Our office is currently without power and it is closed until further notice. As our offices are on the 5th and 8th floors of the building, we are hopeful that there was no interior damage….About 1/3 of Fab’s employees are currently without power. The other 2/3’ds of us with power are welcoming those without power into our homes. There’s this beautiful, heart-warming email thread amongst Fab employees called, "Team Together" where team members with power are offering up their homes...Our primary interest is the safety and security of our Fab team members and you, our Fab customers, and the broader community. Be careful. Stay safe. Help out others as you best can.
That particular message fires on all cylinders, experts say. First, It informs customers of the ways the hurricane impacted the business. One of the most compelling things you can do is use specifics, like numbers, says Schwerdtfeger: One third of Fab.com's employees are without power, the remaining two thirds are welcoming the others into their homes. Numbers paint a clear picture, and touching stories about workers helping others resonate with people. The email also encourages customers to keep track of Fab.com's recovery efforts on the company blog, intelligently making use of social media for updates.
"When you are transparent and you are honest, people care and they are able to get behind your story a lot better," Goldberg says. There's another lesson here as well: Fab.com is also trying to gain customer trust. While its warehouse is shuttered, it still needs new orders to come in, Goldberg says. If people believe in the company, they will continue to make purchases.
Other companies, such as Zipcar, made efforts that demonstrated their concern for customers. A message recently from a regional supervisor in New York and New Jersey said Zipcar had taken steps to ensure customer safety, moving cars to non-flood zone areas, waiving cancellation fees, and identifying safe locations for stranded members, and alternate locations for those seeking to return cars. In addition, it announced a 20% discount on rentals until Friday.
"My heart goes out to all my fellow New York and New Jersey neighbors impacted by Hurricane Sandy this week. The local Zipcar team has been working around the clock over the last few days in preparation for Hurricane Sandy and on impact assessment post-storm. We will continue to work on your behalf throughout this disaster relief process," Nicole Mozeliak, a regional vice president for Zipcar, wrote in the e-mail.
Show sincerity in your communications, experts say, and be extremely careful when presenting a sales opportunity, such as a discount.
"It's imperative that you are transparent and that the message conveys that you genuinely regret if anyone has been affected," Andrea Heuer, co-founder of Heuer Media, a public relations consultancy in San Francisco, says. "If you let your customers know that you were prepared and stand at the ready to help them get back up and running, you can create good will, without looking like you are trying to capitalize on a disaster."