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“Unprecedented”. It seems like every company is using that word too much. Of course, it’s true. These times we live in really are unprecedented. There’s no doubt about that.
But, crisis isn’t unprecedented.
Crisis happens all the time, maybe to one company, maybe to an entire industry, or to a community. And though each crisis is completely different, there are significant patterns and commonalities.
This crisis is undoubtedly larger and it may last longer than other crisis events, but it does follow the same patterns.
The companies that recognize and respond to the patterns and dynamics of a crisis can respond to the changing environment in smart, productive ways, and lessen the damage. Being able to survive and navigate a crisis as a company is a unique skill set to have, one that everyone hopes they'll never have to use. Unfortunately, here we are. Every company needs a crisis skill set right now.
This resource provides crisis marketing and sales recovery strategies that can be applied to all crisis situations, but we're going to focus particularly on the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most difficult elements of this crisis for companies is that the global conversation has shifted. COVID-19 dominates the news, social media, and conversations everywhere. Ultimately, the question for all companies is: how do you sell products and services and run a business when the whole world’s attention is focused elsewhere?
If the crisis situation is all-consuming, is it possible to continue having sales conversations and talking about your company and the work you do?
There are 3 segments of communication to focus on during a crisis, and we're going to cover each in this resource: sales, announcements, and the larger social conversation. Each requires a unique approach in a crisis. It's important to be able to distinguish between these communication segments and map out each strategy.
The survival of any business, at any time, depends on one thing: sales coming in the door. Revenue is a company’s oxygen. If sales stop for too long, the business no longer exists.
So, we’re going to talk about 5 things to put into place to protect sales during this time.
The entire public conversation shifted in the past few weeks, which means that a smart sales strategy isn't quiet enough because it lives within that larger conversation. Participation in that larger conversation and regular announcements to customers are required in order to make that sales strategy work.
So, that's where we're going to start, with crisis announcements.
In every kind of crisis, an important pattern that appears again and again is this: everybody looks for the announcements.
If a company is involved in a crisis, announcements are almost always necessary. A crisis raises a sense of urgency in everyone. And that urgency creates a need for information. Currently, we're in very rare circumstances. We’ve landed in a situation that involves an ongoing crisis situation that is shared by every company around the world and the general public.
The extent of the crisis, the duration of the shutdown, and the overall impact of COVID-19 have created a situation where companies do have to participate in the conversation. This has become a large-scale public tragedy impacting every company and every citizen in the world. In almost every other event, a company would have the option to operate "business as usual", but unfortunately this is one of those rare events where that option isn't really available.
The crisis is too big to avoid in business communications. Customers are looking for COVID-19 announcements, so it’s important to release them regularly.
One of the reasons opting out of the COVID-19 conversation and operating “business as usual” is so appealing is because nobody has any concrete answers to what is going on. And, in a crisis, it feels as though words and actions have more potency. There’s a growing feeling of responsibility to say and do the right thing. And, the consequences of saying the wrong thing feels bigger. The last thing anybody wants to do is spread misinformation or make a wrong move.
So, many companies go silent and wait for more information. If you take a look, many companies have gone dark on social media, or pulled communication altogether. These companies are waiting for a plan, or an answer, or a path forward before communicating to team members or customers. But, going quiet isn’t an option either. It’s the absence of announcements that creates the most panic.
As a company, the only high-stakes activity is silence. Sitting quietly and waiting to communicate until you have all the information is actually the highest stakes activity. Crisis situations are unlike normal circumstances in this way. Customers are craving leadership, action, and communication. Simply showing up and saying something is incredibly valuable.
People need announcements, even if they’re incomplete or imperfect. People freeze up and panic in a crisis without announcements. The more the communication flows, the safer everybody feels, and the easier everyone can unfreeze and move forward. Customers, teams, and the general public need leadership.
So, lines of communication need to stay open, but what should companies say in a crisis?
Announcements consist of just 2 things: what has changed and what remains the same. It may seem overly simple, but customers need to know what about your operations has changed and what hasn't.
Are there social distancing adjustments that need to be communicated? Have the hours of operation changed? Are deliveries still running on time? Even if absolutely nothing has changed about how you operate, it’s still important to communicate that. Remember, everybody is facing a world where normal, everyday things are drastically different than they were a few weeks ago. Announcements like this are vital for your team and for your customers. People feel frozen. To unfreeze them and get them to move forward, basic things need reiterating.
Everything is uncertain, and folks have questions. Your team and your customers need space to talk, vent, and ask questions. Then, in a few days, they need more space to ask those same questions again. That’s just human nature during a crisis. Information needs to be repeated.
Announcements provide a check-in, an open line of communication for information and reassurance. It’s a chance to update people and get updates from them. Let them know how the company is doing, and ask them how they are doing. Stay in contact.
Tone always matters in communication. But in a crisis, tone is everything. And, panic can quickly spiral out of control. The way you speak about a crisis will impact how your team and your customers interpret and respond to the situation. They will likely mirror the tone you set. Leadership missteps can be corrected and will quickly be forgiven during a crisis, but tone has a tendency to linger and it's more tricky to correct. Keep a pulse on your tone to make sure it is in line with your values.
A crisis atmosphere is a breeding ground for bad decisions. In this COVID-19 crisis, all companies are being forced to make decisions about their operations with incomplete information and a constantly changing situation. Decisions have to be made quickly without enough perspective or time to plan.
Every company is trying to take steps forward while the ground shifts beneath them.
In her book "Option B", Sheryl Sandberg talks about the 3 P's that psychologist Martin Seligman found can stunt the recovery from a trauma, tragedy, or life-altering event. These 3 P’s are dangerous for decision-making so it’s important to be aware of them during these weeks of crisis.
The first of the 3 P's is Personalization. When crisis strikes, it's always filtered through a very personal lens. Humans are designed to scan the environment for danger, and that includes scanning ourselves for potential weakness and vulnerability. When something bad happens, we immediately look inward for a cause. It's human nature, we blame ourselves.
No company had a COVID-19 crystal ball. No company prepared for this. No company could have possibly prepared for this. The idea that businesses could have predicted this situation or mitigated the impact is pure fantasy. And, if a given company seems to be succeeding during this crisis, it's either not really true, or it's absolute luck. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking something could have been done differently. But, not only is this not true, this kind of thinking damages decision making.
Businesses will close. Some will file for bankruptcy. Some won't open their doors again. That's the brutal reality around the world. But, while the large-scale numbers are daunting, they aren't the same as an individual company's outlook. Many companies will bounce back. Many will come out stronger. While this crisis might hurt economies around the world, it doesn't have to crush your company. Large economic numbers have no bearing on an individual situation. They're just large averages. They matter for policy-makers and they’re important when writing headlines, but individuals can completely ignore those averages.
The second of the 3 P's is Permanence. When something bad happens, the natural fear is that it will last forever, that the pain is permanent.
This kind of talk is anxiety-fueled, fear-based, and damaging to the psyche. The idea that life will never return to normal is media fiction. Isolation is temporary. Quality of life cannot be sustained in isolation. This will pass. And, it's important to filter out headlines that talk about an unrecognizable future. It's debilitating from a decision-making standpoint. Nothing lasts forever. In fact, if you look closely, you'll see that this crisis is starting to come to an end.
The initial panic of this crisis is starting to thaw. It can be seen already. Look for that thawing. Generally speaking, there are 2 phases in a crisis: trauma and integration. First, the trauma is endured and survived. When the danger has passed, the work shifts to integrating the experience into our lives. We're nearing the end of the trauma phase and the next phase will be integrating and rebuilding. The idea that the trauma phase will go on forever is what sells newspapers, but it is not accurate and it's not a mindset that will allow you to make smart, appropriate business decisions.
The last of the 3 P’s is Pervasiveness. When a crisis hits one area of life or business, the knee-jerk reaction is to imagine that everything is affected. Most people quickly catastrophize and make the problem bigger and more pervasive than it truly is.
In this COVID-19 crisis, it’s easy to slip into the belief that this shutdown has dealt an irreversible blow to every area of your business. But, there are likely areas of the business that have been untouched. For instance, the quality of the products and services likely remains intact. The talent is still there. Your experience and reputation are probably unharmed. And, because the problems are not as widespread or pervasive as they initially seem, they can be isolated and managed.
So, the goal is to drill down to the most specific problems the company is experiencing in this crisis. What has the COVID-19 shutdown damaged exactly? For most companies, the specific problems are around cash flow. If we drill down, the one problem for most companies during this crisis is a lack of revenue.
Drilling down to the most specific problems created by the crisis, financial recovery depends on 2 important factors: generating revenue and cutting costs in the meantime.
Ultimately, survival depends on sales recovery. That’s the linchpin. If sales are coming in, the rest can be managed. If no sales come in, there’s only so long a business can do damage control. So, what does the sales process look like during a crisis? How can sales conversations continue and thrive?
Even if the company is closed at the moment, when it reopens, what’s the sales plan? How can companies get cash flowing through the doors again as quickly as possible?
Maybe revenue has stopped altogether. Or, maybe sales are continuing in a distanced way or online, but the money coming in has slowed drastically.
Until revenue returns to normal, cutting costs is a way to preserve cash flow temporarily. So, what’s the best way to cut costs without damaging any opportunities for money to come in the door? Where can companies afford to make cuts? And, what needs to be preserved?
That's where we're going to start.
Remember, this situation is temporary. Any adjustments made now aren’t permanent. So, which costs can be temporarily cut to save cash in the short term?
First, reach out to vendors, landlords, and other companies you work with and ask questions. Can payments be delayed? Is rent required this month? Companies are making payment adjustments, so find out the details. The rest of the cost cutting is a matter of sorting out expenses into essential and non-essential categories. When you’re sorting out these expenses, there are 2 things you must always protect: staff and customers.
We’re entering a time of prime hiring. The hard reality of this crisis is that talented people will lose their jobs. Companies will be looking to fill their roles with only the best people. There are likely irreplaceable people on your staff that will be approached by other companies for valuable work. It’s more important now than ever to strengthen your working relationships. Make sure to look out for and support your team every way you can to protect that resource. And if you need to hire, it’s a great time to find talent.
The company processes may need to change. Delivery may need to change. There are parts of the work that may require temporary adjustments. But, it’s important to protect customer results. If the end result of the work remains intact, the rest of the process can be shuffled around. Every company needs to be asking, “what are the essential parts of the work? What are the end results? And, how can they be best protected so customers keep coming back?”
In a crisis situation, communication often goes silent as those in charge try to figure out what to say. Marketing is one of the first things to be pulled back. But, just like crisis communication, if the stretch of silence goes on too long, it causes damage. When the marketing goes quiet, customer flow goes down to a trickle. Crisis or not, if the marketing stops, the revenue stops.
Marketing channels may need to be adjusted in a tight financial situation. Maybe more expensive marketing channels need to be put on pause for now. Look for the channels that are the least expensive, and the most effective. Narrow your focus to the most cost-effective communications. Where do you bring in the most customers? Where do you find the best customers? Those lines of communication and marketing channels are the top priority.
Fortunately, we live in a world where many marketing channels are free. It might be the perfect time to bulk up cheaper marketing models (like social media). Whatever you do, make sure you always keep marketing.
The crisis seems to be all-consuming for general public. So, how can sales be generated during this time? Particularly if your work is considered non-essential, how do you actively sell during this crisis? How do you talk about sales when the conversation seems to be overtaken by this global event? How do you bring in dollars when the world attention is focused elsewhere?
Being open for business is vital, of course, but a passive approach to sales (simply being open), isn’t quite enough. Sales require a more active approach, even in a crisis situation.
There are 5 important steps to put into place in order to generate sales during any crisis. We’ll talk about each of these and how they relate to this specific global crisis situation.
Some companies are adjusting pricing, delaying payments, offering “buy one, give one” promotions, or waiving payments altogether for a period of time.
Giving to customers in this way during a crisis is a beautiful gesture. And, if it’s something that’s possible for your company at this time, it’s a great way to generate goodwill. But, for many companies, delaying or lifting payment is not an option financially. Discounting is not the only way to be of service. And, it’s not the only way to bring in customers. For that reason, the 5 strategies in this plan don’t include gifting and discounting pricing strategies.
In every company, there are sales that come easy, and others that require more time and resources. In a crisis environment, when money is tight and resources are scarce, the way through is to focus attention on the sales that are easiest and require the fewest resources. Even when business is running normally, it's important to know who your high-leverage customers are. Which customers bring in the most money? Which products and services are the most profitable?
Most companies experience the 80/20 Rule, or The Pareto Principle, where roughly 80% of the profits come from 20% of the customers. The task right now is to focus attention on that highly profitable 20%. Making sure they stay happy and cared for will support the company revenue if the other 80% of customers slow down buying.
It's easy to imagine that all customers are at a standstill, but it's not true. There's still a strong segment of the population with cash in their wallets looking to spend. The idea that nobody is buying anything isn't true. People are buying, it's just a matter of finding those customers within your market and getting your products and services in front of them.
If you have the funds to spend on advertising, it's far more affordable right now because many companies are cutting ad costs to save cash. Ads are cheaper now than they've been for a long time. And, if you're spending on advertising, it's important to be reaching out to the customers who are actively buying. There are absolutely customers looking to buy, it's just a matter of zeroing in on them.
What about the other customers? Once you’ve secured the top 20% (your best customers), how do you build up the rest of the sales?
In a crisis, and during recovery, purchases narrow. For many people, an economic downturn means spending cuts. But, people don’t cut everything. They don’t cut the things they really want. Highly motivated purchases aren’t affected much. So how do you build that high motivation?
There’s a common phrase used in journalism, “don’t bury the lede”. It refers to the tendency to build up to a big reveal, and save the best part of a story for the end. The problem is that “burying the lede” requires a lot of attention and patience from the reader, it doesn’t work to structure a news story this way. It’s better to start with the most important point and then add in details and context.
Companies often “bury the lede” in the sales process, and it has the same effect.
When companies build up slowly to the big selling points and make a grand case for their work, customers lose interest, no matter how great the writing may be. In sales, don’t bury the lede, in conversation or written sales materials. Lengthy sales material is often frustrating for people, so keep it short, sweet, and put the best parts right at the beginning. Be clear, be bold, and make sure you get straight to the point.
One mistake companies make in sales is to spend a lot of time painting a picture of future results. For instance, if a company provides parenting help (books, courses, and programs), the sales material for those programs might present a glowing future where kids and parents live in harmony 24/7.
While this may seem like a smart copywriting approach, it actually complicates the purchase decision. The future is hazy and it depends on several factors. A glowing future is too far off in the distance to be concrete. While it sounds good, it can easily frustrate and overwhelm a customer because the future is too intangible and uncertain. In crisis environments, the future is even more uncertain for customers and often companies will try even harder to paint a rosy future. All of this exacerbates a sales setback.
So instead, when creating sales material, it’s important to make products, services, and results as tangible and immediate as possible. Rather than painting a picture of the future, bring the purchase into the here and now. Instead of spending the sales conversation talking about the incredible results someone may experience 6 months from now, talk about what you can deliver right now, today. When money changes hands, what do customers get immediately? What’s something they can have tomorrow?
This COVID-19 crisis has made even 1 week from now look hazy. The situation is changing so quickly and in ways we’ve never seen before. Planning for the future feels daunting and more uncertain now than ever. So, bring the work into the present moment and make it concrete. How can your work serve people right now? What can you help someone with today? What’s tangible and available now?
People are overwhelmed and stressed. Speaking in a more immediate, concrete, and tangible way will make it easier for customers to quickly understand the value of the products and services, allowing them to make easier, faster purchase decisions. Don’t get lost in the uncertain future, stay in the here and now when selling.
The coronavirus crisis has upended life temporarily for almost everyone across the globe. While this kind of upheaval is threatening and damaging, it also creates a void, or a gap of opportunity. Some companies are putting together special temporary offers that reflect the more specific needs of this crisis. Other companies are reimagining their work altogether.
There’s a good chance this environment will make room for an expansion of sales in a new area, so keep scanning for opportunities to reach new people. Has the crisis created any new customer groups? Has it uncovered an opportunity to be of service in a new way, either temporarily or permanently? Has the crisis created a window for new products, or a new package of services?
For instance, maybe the your work has been forced into a temporary digital model. Could you continue to provide these online offers even after the crisis ends as an added revenue source? Maybe the crisis has made it temporarily difficult to sell to the local community, and online sales have become the company’s life raft. How can your market be extended moving forward using online tools?
This is a perfect time to take a look at the overall operations of the company, the products and services available, systems, processes, customer groups, and the direction of the company. It’s a great time to make changes, find new opportunities, or experiment with new ideas that have been sitting on the shelf for too long.
In a crisis situation, most people get quiet and try to figure out the right thing to say. And in terms of cost cutting, many companies cut marketing first. All of this creates a large communication lull. Customers are usually bombarded with marketing messages from companies, on every platform imaginable. While some companies are still marketing, this is a uniquely quiet time across all channels.
This is the moment to increase marketing communications. Look for your highest-performing ad channels, marketing channels, and social media activity. Find the channels where you connect with your customers best, where you get the most sales traction, where you find your most profitable customers, and ramp up communications. Be more active now than ever. When other companies go dark, take that opportunity to make more connections. Every piece of marketing during this time will reach more people and be amplified in the minds of customers. This is a rare chance to be heard by your market while other companies take a break.
Remember, this is a time when it seems like the communication stakes are high, but actually there are no stakes. The only risk lies in staying quiet and not joining the conversation. It’s a perfect opportunity to test new ideas, find new marketing platforms, and seek out new ways to connect with customers. The marketing world is quiet, advertising is inexpensive, and people are listening and waiting for leadership. Marketing channels are like roads into your business, and now is the perfect time to be building roads.
The larger conversation is important to understand in a crisis situation, and in this case, it holds a really important lesson for companies.
The world has stopped moving, so human activity in many ways is at it’s peak level of boring. Nobody is traveling, eating restaurant meals, or snapping photos in their private jets. And yet, the social media conversation more entertaining and alive than ever. It’s the very best time to learn this one vital lesson that every company has a hard time digesting: social activity, engagement, and conversation is not about *having something important to share*. It’s about sharing the everyday, mundane stuff.
There’s this unspoken rule that to be interesting you need to be doing interesting things or having interesting things. But, conversation, connection, and engagement does not depend on any of that. Connection and conversation function independent of circumstance, because we are all exceedingly interested in just bullshitting around with each other. Despite many activities being cut off, the internet conversation is absolutely thriving.
Participate in the conversation. Embrace the meaning within the meaninglessness of it. Being successful on social media isn’t correlated with having interesting things to share. It’s correlated with the volume of participation. It’s about sharing the everyday stuff, providing a glimpse of what’s going on in your life, and just showing up. Social media success comes down to participation points. That’s it.
Crisis situations, while they often damage and reorganize our lives, they also make space for the new. Particularly now, with this COVID-19 crisis and the quarantine measures, daily life has been upended and there’s a void to be filled. People are searching for conversation, learning opportunities, entertainment, and projects. Attention and time are more abundant than ever, so it’s important for companies to contribute.
In a culture that is often busy and active, everyone is still and bored. And with that kind of boredom comes a willingness to check out new things. This is the time to get in front of people and talk about products, services, and solutions because people actually have the time and willingness to listen.
This COVID-19 situation will shift and change, and companies will have to continue to navigate. But, remember that crisis situations have patterns. And, even though this particular crisis has never been seen before, the patterns hold true. And, those patterns help to make sense of the situation, and provide a way forward. Everyone is in the dark, but look for the patterns, look for the opportunities, and stay in the conversation. Regular communication and connection with others is what keeps everybody moving forward in difficult times.
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Stacy Rust is a Minneapolis-based marketing and sales strategist. From locally-owned shops to multi-million dollar brands, she helps organizations around the globe craft the details of their marketing strategy.
With an innovative, in-depth approach to marketing and sales and over a decade of education, research, and on-the-ground experience, Stacy's strategy work allows companies to ramp up sales quickly and authentically.
After working in Creative Services at the BBC Worldwide in London, and then as an Account Executive at a private advertising agency in the US, she started her own company to provide fresh, unique strategy to business leaders around the world.
Stacy works with entrepreneurs, executives, and creatives on selling, marketing, and building a strong, long term community of customers.