It started with emails from the airlines letting us know that they’re cleaning the planes and taking precautions when handing out drinks and snacks
Then came the emails from every company you’ve ever given you email to.
Finally came the email with offers, like the one I received from a consulting firm stating that, in these uncertain times, the most important thing you can do is find new revenue streams and they can help, so give them a call.
Yes, it’s important to communicate, to be transparent about what you are doing and what you’re not doing, and to be honest about what you do and don’t know.
But that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to send an email to their customers with news, updates, and offers.
The barrage of emails reminded me of a scene from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a frothy rom-com with a great cast and endlessly quotable quips. In this scene, the lead character, Peter (played by Jason Segal) decides to take lessons from the resort’s surfing instructor, Koonu (played by Paul Rudd).
Koonu: Okay, when we’re out there, I want you to ignore your instincts. I’m gonna be your instincts. Koonu will be your instincts. Don’t do anything. Don’t try to surf, don’t do it. The less you do, the more you do. Let’s see you pop up. Pop it up.
Peter hops up to standing on the surfboard
Koonu: That’s not it at all. Do less. Get down. Try less. Do it again. Pop up.
Peter starts to slowly do a push-up
Koonu: No, too slow. Do less. Pop up. Pop up.
Peter gets to his knees
Koonu: You’re doing too much. Do less. Pop down. Pop up now.
Peter tries again
Koonu: Stop. Get down. Get down there. Remember, don’t do anything. Nothing. Pop up.
Peter lies motionless on the surfboard
Koonu: Well, you… No, you gotta do more than that, ’cause you’re just laying right out. It looks like you’re boogie-boarding. Just do it. Feel it. Pop up.
Peter does exactly what he did the first time and hops to standing
Koonu: Yeah. That wasn’t quite it, but we’re gonna figure it out, out there.
I imagine this was the conversation that a lot of corporate/crisis communication folks were having with executives in the last two weeks — Do more. Do less. Don’t do anything. That’s not quite it.
In the midst of all of this uncertainty, how can companies know what to do now?
To be very clear, I am not an expert on communication or crisis management BUT I am an expert at understanding your customers, being a customer, and receiving lots of emails. I’m also a business owner who, for a brief moment, wondered if I needed to send a COVID-19 update to my clients and network.
Before making my decision, I asked myself these 3 questions:
Am I in a business that is the focus of a majority of the news stories? These businesses include anything in travel (airlines, cruises, hotels), food and food service (restaurants, fast food, grocery), medical supplies (masks, gowns, gloves, ventilators).
If the answer is YES, send an email because people are thinking about you and wondering what you’re doing to keep them safe.
My answer was NO, so I went to the next question.
Am I a business that is woven into people’s daily lives? These could be essential businesses like banks, medical professionals (dentists, orthodontists, chiropractors), and cleaning services (home cleaners, dry cleaners, laundromats). The list could also include non-essential businesses like personal service providers (hair stylists, nail techs, aestheticians).
If you are a steady part of people’s lives, then YES, you should send them an email to let them know what you’re doing in light of the situation.
I’m a part of most of my clients’ lives during projects which have start and end dates, so I went to the next question.
Am I making fundamental changes to my business that will directly and immediately impact my customers? These changes could include changing your hours of operation (e.g. adding Senior hours), changing how you transact business (e.g. no more curb-side pick-up). Or the changes could be bigger, like closing because of a government order, or delaying or even cancelling shipments because manufacturing and shipping processes are delayed due lack of materials or staff.
If you’re making a fundamental change to how you do business, you should let your customers know and help them reset expectations.
Other than moving all meetings to Zoom and no longer traveling, no element of my business operations changed.
DECISION: Do less.
I did not send a “How MileZero is responding to the Coronavirus” email because, based on the answers to the three questions above, my clients had far more pressing concerns than how often I’m using Clorox wipes to clean my keyboard.
But I didn’t do Nothing.
In the work I do with clients, I get to know them extremely well. We move from the typical consultant-client interaction to a trusting (professional) relationship between two human-beings.
What I did tried to reflect that.
I sent quick personal notes to each individual, wishing them health and safety, asking how they and their families are doing, and offering to hop on the phone for a quick chat, to be a sounding board, or simply a shoulder to lean on. It’s not much but it’s genuine and appropriate for the circumstances.
I did not try to tell them what they should be doing right now. Nor did I try to sell them a new service. I simply offered support and connection because, in a time of social distancing, connection is what we need right now.
What do we do now?
The same thing we should have been doing all along. We think of our customers (i.e. the people at the other end of the email) and what they want and need, and we do our best to serve them.
Sometimes we’ll get it right. Sometimes we’ll get it wrong. But if we think first of our customer, not ourselves or our businesses, we’re gonna figure it out.