As part of our local business community, we at Sunset Coast Media have spent a good portion of the last week concerned how the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19, in the United States – and the resulting closings and disruptions to our regular patterns – will affect our local economy in Southwest Michigan. After all, we’re a tight-knit community. Local businesses not only make our region uniquely charming and dynamic, but they’re owned and staffed by our friends and family. I think it’s fair to say that everyone is a little shell-shocked right now and uncertain about the right thing to do next. 

Personally, I’ve spent a lot of time sifting through emails from both local and national businesses over the last few days, and I’ve noticed some interesting patterns. Some of the communications I’ve seen – particularly from large corporations – have been downright bizarre in both their tone and lack of usefulness.

I’m looking at you, Barnes & Noble:

Seriously, why bother! I’ve already got 50 other emails to go through; NEXT!

But at least this one caught my eye. For the most part, the messages have simply been bland, uninformative, and impersonal. In fact, if you really dissect them, a lot of the emails I’ve gotten really say nothing at all.

Please save your reassurances that you care about your customers’ health (yeah, we hope so!  So, what else you got?) or that your business will stay open unless you have something to offer that’s actually informative, helpful, or actionable. We’re all completely bombarded with communications of all kinds right now. It’s time to make yours count. 

Even if for your company it’s mostly “business as usual”, keep in mind that for most of the customers you serve, right now is NOT business as usual. An email that takes up a customer’s time without offering any useful information is at least, useless white noise, and at worst, can damage your brand’s credibility.

Right now, your customer is looking for you to do more than what you’ve always done. They’re looking for you to adapt, innovate, go out of your way to serve them, and LEAD. 

As a content strategist, I know that communication always matters, but make no mistake: during times of high stress and uncertainty, the way you communicate with your customers and the larger community cannot be treated as a throwaway. Every message counts! 

That doesn’t mean you have to hire out all your communications to a marketing firm or give them to a copywriter to handle – in many cases, that may actually be the wrong approach. But it DOES mean you need to A) Innovate and B) Clearly Communicate your plan and how it will help your customer.

Below are a few emails that crossed my desk over the last few days, all sent from small, locally-owned businesses, that I think all did a great job of the above. In their own individual way, each business made a judgment call about how to ramp up their efforts to keep people safe and/or deliver great service, and then clearly and effectively communicated those increased efforts to their customers.

Here’s a sampling of businesses we think got it right – and keep in mind, this situation will take time to play out, so you have plenty of opportunity to learn from their approaches. 

The “We’re Here, But On High Alert” Email

This message was sent to the email list of Wanderlust Outfitters, an retailer of outdoor gear & apparel in downtown St. Joseph. 

Hello Customers,

It’s Jonathan & Brittney, owners here at Wanderlust Outfitters … Mind if we take a moment to share with you from our heart?

As we all know COVID-19 is now here in Michigan. While we don’t yet have any confirmed cases here in southwest Michigan, we are staying on top of all information from the CDC, state & local officials.

As small business owners, we care greatly not only about the health of our business, but also about the nearly 20 people we employ and y’all – our awesome customers & community members.

With that in mind, we wanted to share with you how we’re addressing COVID-19.

What we’re currently doing.
Please know that for a while now, we’ve been implementing the following:
• While all of our team is currently healthy, we have communicated with them to stay home if at any time they feel unwell.
• Our team members are frequently washing their hands (before & after every pack fitting, shoe fitting, etc.) & we are diligently disinfecting surfaces throughout the shop (counters, door handles, etc.).

How will COVID-19 impact our upcoming in-store events?
As many of you may know, we have several upcoming events next weekend (our Osprey Pro Shop Celebration, our Bust the Vault Tent Sale, and a free class).

If we’re sharing honestly, these events are important to the vitality & success of our small business. However, out of an abundance of caution, we feel it wise to make some accommodations with regards to these events. We personally have friends and loved ones who need to practice social distancing to stay safe. We know some of our customers may also fall in that category. We also know that during an event, our shop can become busier than normal. So instead of a busy weekend event, we will be turning our events into week-long promotions so you can shop at your convenience.

We will …

• Begin offering our Osprey Pro Shop Celebration deals this Saturday (3/14).
If you make a qualifying Osprey purchase in-store (3/14 – 3/21), you will receive your free gift and savings. Please call ahead to schedule a fitting if possible.

• Begin offering select Bust the Vault deals both in-store & online this Saturday (3/14).
We are stuffing as much of the tent sale product onto our sales floor as possible starting this weekend. We will be offering our tent sale pricing on all clearance product in-store 3/14 – 3/21. Additionally, we will be putting together an online “tent sale” for those who cannot leave home. We’ll do our best to get online prices as low as possible but will not be able to discount as deeply online.

• We are working to reschedule our class.
Stay tuned. We hope to reschedule our Free Class: The Appalachian Trail: A Thru-hiker’s Tale to later this spring.

Please follow our social media pages. As we finalize all of the plans we’ve mentioned above, we plan to use Facebook & Instagram to communicate all the details with our customers. If you have any questions please call us at 269.281.7047 or email us at adventure@wanderlustoutfitters.net.

On behalf of our entire team … thank you & stay well,
Jonathan & Brittney Meier

Why It Works: 

  • It’s personal. The care owners Jonathan & Brittney Meier feel for their community comes through loud and clear in this email. It’s warm, compassionate, and real.
  • It’s honest. The owners clearly point out that events are vital to their small business, planting in the readers’ mind that attending an event is a way to support Wanderlust. 
  • It’s specific and proactive. Early in the email, Wanderlust details some specific actions they’ve taken in the store (hand-washing before and after pack fittings, for example), plus the changes they’re making to an upcoming event and why those changes will benefit the customer (less crowded stores). Bonus: the reader is now reminded of an event they may have otherwise missed. 

The “We’re Here, But We’re Making Some Big Changes” Email

This message was posted to the Facebook page of The Livery, a brewery and music venue in Benton Harbor’s Arts District.

Friday, March 13th, 2020 – The Livery management team has been in continual discussions regarding the safety and health of our staff, our patrons, and the community in general. It is with extreme care and caution, that we are implementing the following measures in order to be proactive in assuring that we are being part of the solution, and not potentially part of the problem:-

The Livery has suspended our events calendar through the end of March. Our hope is to resume hosting gatherings in April, but at this time we feel that it is in the best interest of the community to pause our large gatherings for the time being. We will reschedule with every artist/organization. If you purchased tickets to one of our shows, they will still be valid for the rescheduled date. If you would like a refund, you can contact TicketsToday if you bought online, or stop into The Livery if you purchased in-house.

-The Livery brewpub will remain open during our regular business hours until further notice. We would like to stress the recommended practices of: Staying home if you feel sick, social distancing if you come out, washing your hands thoroughly and often, covering your mouth/nose when coughing or sneezing (into a bent elbow), avoiding those who may be sick, staying hydrated, and monitoring the CDC for updates. www.cdc.gov

-The Livery recommends utilizing our online ordering system, if you have any doubts. You can order, prepay, and pick-up any of our pizzas, sandwiches, appetizers, or growler/howler fills to-go! ORDER HERE: https://www.toasttab.com/the-livery-benton-harbor/v3#!/order

-The Livery management has met with our staff to ensure proper precautions are in place. We are still increasing our daily sanitation efforts, disinfecting thoroughly. Additional cleaning and disinfecting will occur before/after business hours.

If anything changes to our schedule, we will provide updates via our social media (FB/Twitter/IG: @liverybrew) and website (www.liverybrew.com)

Why it Works:

  • It’s on-brand. As one of the most popular and well-respected live-music venues in southwest Michigan, shutting down an entire month’s worth of events is a bold move and will certainly represent a significant loss of income for The Livery. But as a business that leans in hard on creating community, the message “We’re doing this in the community’s best interest” rings true. 
  • It reminds customers they have options. Ingrained habits can cause us all to “forget” what we “know” – and one of those things may be takeout! Right now, everyone’s habits are changing quickly, meaning they may need to be reminded what new habits are available to them. By making it clear that The Livery offers take-out and that it can be easily ordered online, The Livery is doing double duty: reminding people that takeout = less contact with the public, i.e., makes it easier to practice social distancing without giving up your favorite foods, while also informing the people who forgot or never knew that The Livery offered online ordering for takeout.

The “We’ve Got Your Money And We Won’t Let You Down” Email

This message came from Honor Credit Union, a financial institution with locations across Southwest Michigan. 

Why It Works: 

  • It addresses a misunderstood concern: While currently, worries about our healthcare system and the health of individuals in our communities seems to represent the lion’s share of media coverage and person-to-person chatter, concerns about its continued economic impact create another layer of fear and uncertainty that will definitely be an emerging story over the next few weeks. This email gets right to the heart of that fear, reassuring members that their money is safe and taking that issue off of the reader’s already very-long “worry list”.
  • It offers concrete help. Families and individuals facing short-term financial strains may not have known about Honor’s Skip a Pay program; now they not only know about it, but are also aware that Honor is waiving the fee. The email comes across as credible, trustworthy, AND communicates an “above and beyond” helpfulness. 

The “We’re Ramping Things Up To Better Serve You” Email 

This exceptional email came from Lapin, a Chicago-based Apple service and repair shop. 

Lapin is committed to providing the fastest and most comprehensive Macintosh service and repair options in the Chicagoland area. As always, your health, safety, and satisfaction are our top priorities. Due to the recent concern surrounding Coronavirus (COVID-19), we are further enhancing both our internal device handling and repair procedures as well as adding new services to minimize unnecessary contact and the possible spread of contaminants.

First, we have implemented the following protocols:

  • Dedicated cleaning and disinfecting stations at all locations for all incoming, in-progress, and completed computer/device repairs
  • Mandatory hand-washing/sanitizing for technicians and employees between all customer repair jobs and before/after customer interactions
  • Sanitizer and wipes available to all customers immediately upon entering our stores
  • Cleaning/disinfecting of customer contact areas (front counter, door handles, credit card terminals, etc.) at regular intervals during standard business hours

We understand that social outings, gatherings, and even daily errands like getting your computer repaired are being discouraged as a result of this outbreak, and we know that social distancing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus and reduce your risk of exposure. While we have an in-person advantage over the Apple Store and similar big-box locations with a lower volume of foot traffic and small reception areas, we have the flexibility to do more.

In keeping with our additional safety precautions, we are now offering:

  • Scheduled pickup and delivery service available to ALL customers in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, including home users, educational institutions, and businesses of any size (fees may apply)
  • Shipping coordination and packaging options for bench repair services, including Apple warranty service
  • Increased remote support options and availability

We continue to offer our standard array of onsite consulting, troubleshooting, and configuration services for all customers.

Lapin is dedicated to upholding our reputation as Chicagoland’s premier Macintosh service, repair, and support provider with an increased level of safety and consideration for our customers and staff. As a small business, we are able to work with you to find an appropriate solution for your technical support needs.

Our stores remain open and scheduling slots are available. Whether you choose to drop off your device in person, schedule an onsite visit, or take advantage of our pickup/shipping options for bench services, we are committed to making the process as safe and convenient as possible.

We thank you for your continued business and patronage.

Why It Works: 

  • It’s super-specific.  This email doesn’t just make vague promises about “increasing sanitizing practices”; it tells the customer exactly which preventive measures are happening at each stage of equipment handling and the customer service process. 
  • It takes advantage of an opportunity. With people increasingly working remotely, computers and devices are going to need to be increasingly important to our work lives. Lapin’s email points out the advantages of choosing a small shop (less foot traffic/exposure to other people) over a big-box retailer or service shop, and now that all Apple stores are shuttered until March 27, this puts the shop in a great position to pick up a lot of new business.
  • It clearly communicates above-and-beyond offerings. After already pointing out the benefits of a smaller shop, we see that Lapin is also going the extra mile to make social distancing possible by adding three brand-new services to even better serve clientele while keeping them safe: scheduled pickup and delivery service, shipping coordination and packaging options and increased remote support options/availability. This further highlights a small store’s ability to be flexible and go the extra mile by quickly adapting to meet the needs of a community – something a big corporation would be hard-pressed to do. 

The Takeaway

Right now your business has a unique value to offer your customer. Maybe you’re going to help them stay safe by changing or closing events. Maybe you’re going to make it possible for them to retain some sense of normalcy in their lives during a challenging time. Whatever it is, you have something to contribute right now: and if you’re a small business, you have an additional advantage in your ability to be nimble, flexible, and to take care of people in creative ways.

So what are you willing to do for your customers, and how will you communicate that value to them?

Don’t freeze or follow the pack – and please, for the sake of all our inboxes, DON’T send useless emails. Take a tip from the examples we’ve highlighted above, and go above and beyond to innovate, communicate, and lead.

There is truly no time like the present. 

In the spirit of going “above and beyond”, Sunset Coast Media will be offering limited free strategy sessions to businesses that would like help crafting a communications plan to address our current economic concerns. If you’re interested, please fill out this form and we’ll be in touch. 

Meagan Francis