Earlier this year the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in full force, sending most of the country into isolation and quarantine in order to save lives. Stay-at-home orders and restrictions forced many businesses to shutter entirely or operate in limited capacities.
A few months later, the novel coronavirus is still a real and present danger. Small businesses across the country, however, are ready to reopen—unemployment is high, the bills are piling up, and funds from Paycheck Protection Program are running out.
Thanks to a better understanding of how to protect ourselves and others, guidelines released by healthcare professionals and government authorities, and new ways of doing business, many feel they can get back to work safely.
In this guide, we’ll focus on the challenges of and tips for reopening your business with your customers in mind. As we all know, the number one priority for any business reopening in these circumstances must be the health and safety of their customers and employees.
Once a baseline of new safety precautions has been established, small businesses can take other steps to operate in this “new normal.” Adapting and innovating to meet customer needs, communicating with customers, and instilling confidence are all important in order to maintain momentum and remain open through the ups and downs to come.
Let’s review some key actions your business must take in order to bring customers back to your business—whether virtually or in-person.
Follow National, Local, and Industry Guidelines
Your ability to reopen your business to customers, and the extent to which you can, will depend on where you operate, what industry you’re in, and whether you’re mainly a brick-and-mortar or digital business, among other factors.
To that point, you’ll need to review guidelines issued by national and local authorities, as well as industry experts, to know what’s possible. You can’t open up to customers if you aren’t able to open up at all.
Start with reviewing national and local guidelines to see what restrictions are currently in place for your business, and when the government might lift or change those restrictions.
- Center for Disease Control: The CDC’s guide for businesses and workplaces to plan, prepare, and respond to the pandemic is a must-read as it covers topics like cleaning and disinfecting, mitigation strategies, and general public health guidelines.
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSHA has guidance for workplaces and businesses on preparing to operate in a post-COVID-19 world.
- State government websites: Reopening the country is happening on a state-by-state basis, which means reviewing information released by your state government is critical. You can find your state government’s official website and links to other state agencies with this USA.gov tool.
- U.S. Chamber’s State-by-State Reopening Guide: Check your state’s reopening status, effective dates, general workplace guidance, and sector-specific guidance using the U.S. Chamber’s handy resource guide.
Keeping your customers safe, engaging them, and enticing them to return to you will be very different if your business is a restaurant, a hair salon, a real estate office, or a retail shop. You’ll therefore want to hear from experts and leaders in your field for guidance.
Google your industry or sector plus search terms like “reopening” and “coronavirus” to see what relevant information—perhaps specific to your state or city—is available. You can also review this list of sector resources compiled by the U.S. Chamber, which includes resources for restaurants, retailers, gyms, construction businesses, childcare programs, and more.
Review and Implement Safety Protocols
The overarching message we will return to again and again: Cleaning and maintaining the cleanliness of your workspace will be of the utmost importance. Keeping your staff healthy and ensuring that visiting customers will be unlikely to spread anything to your workers or other customers is how you’ll stay in business as the weeks and months progress.
Some of the resources linked above will include guidelines for keeping your workplace clean and instituting protocols for maintaining a sanitized and virus-free environment. Below are more specific guidelines you can use:
- CDC’s guidelines on hygiene and cleaning/disinfecting: Review and have your employees review the CDC’s guidance on identifying symptoms, using cloth face coverings, washing your hands, social distancing, and more. Additionally, review and implement the CDC’s recommendations on how to clean and sanitize surfaces at your workplace.
- Use of personal protective equipment (PPE): Your business may be subject to OSHA’s general requirements for employee PPE use. If not, you still may want to review the CDC’s best practices for PPE, including requiring employees and customers to wear a face covering, making hand sanitizer readily available, and the use of gloves, hairnets, and other traditional PPE when appropriate.
- Social distancing: The CDC has recommendations on how to configure your workspace to align with social distancing guidelines—installing physical barriers, closing communal spaces, asking customers to stay six feet apart while waiting in line, etc. Look for ways to promote and encourage social distance in your workplace, in ways that can be easily realigned as guidance changes.
- Employee health monitoring and managing illness: Asking employees to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, as well as developing a plan for how you will alert your employees, customers, and other stakeholders if someone tests positive will be critical for maintaining the health of everyone involved.
At this point, you should have a good idea of what’s needed to bring your business up to federal/local and industry standards, as well as the standards of customers who will insist on personal safety as a requisite of visiting your business.
With this baseline established, you can begin the process of actually engaging, communicating with, and selling to customers—in-store or otherwise.
Adapt to What Your Customers Need and Want Now
What you’ll be able to to offer your customers will depend greatly on what industry you’re in and where you’re located.
That being said, universally speaking, your business must adapt to what customers are looking for within the context of what’s safe and possible.
This is easiest to illustrate with restaurants. At the moment, many restaurants are not able to serve customers indoors. Some allow outdoor dining, but that’s a limited and best-case scenario.
What do customers want from a restaurant? Simply put, they want food as well as ambiance and service. If restaurants can’t deliver on the ambiance and service (beyond what is required in every interaction on the phone or at the cash register, which should always be top-notch), they’ll need to pivot and double-down on how they provide food.
The vast majority of restaurants have turned to delivery and takeout. Some are packaging and selling kits so customers can bring home ingredients and assemble their favorite meals themselves. Others have turned into makeshift grocers, selling the high-quality pantry staples and goods that elevate their dishes above what we typically buy in supermarkets.
There are other revenue streams and alterations to their model that restaurants could consider. They include: changing the menu to reflect that some food travels better as takeout; selling meals that are meant to be frozen and reheated; creating bulk food packages meant to entertain small family dinner parties; shipping across country or even internationally; and so on.
Apply this mindset to whatever your business and capabilities are at the moment. Retailers must invest in an online shopping experience that minimizes in-store browsing and contact. Gyms and fitness centers can create online classes, or organize outdoors-only workout experiences that don’t require physical contact.
If you’re having trouble thinking about how to apply this mindset to your specific business, here are some quick tips to help you get moving in the right direction:
- Emphasize the “new”: How can you innovate and offer a new product or service that you weren’t before the pandemic? Whether it’s a new item for sale, a new way of letting people buy from you, new branding, or new use of social media, use this as an opportunity to create or boost a revenue stream that you can utilize going forward.
- Embrace digital: Many businesses lagged behind the times when it came to embracing social media, online shopping, and the array of digital tools available such as inventory management software or email marketing platforms. To encourage social distance as well as uncover new efficiencies, explore digital solutions.
- Find ways to automate: In order to bring some kind of stability to your cash flow, find ways to automate payments and business from customers at various price points. Whether it’s a monthly subscription model or pay-to-access service, give customers many different ways to pay for your business on a regular schedule.
- Talk to your customers: Finally—and we’ll get into this more below—you need to listen to your customers. Send out surveys, conduct polls on social media, call loyal shoppers, and get in touch with the people to understand what they would be willing to buy from you. Don’t just assume you know what your customers want or are comfortable with at this point—find out for sure, then go from there.
Communicate to Customers That You’re Ready for Them
In these socially distant times, it’s not enough for you to flip the “Closed” sign on your front door to “Open” and watch as customers stream in.
First of all, allowing an endless stream of customers may not align with the health and safety guidelines you’ve implemented. But more realistically, and importantly, customers won’t know to come visit you unless you tell them you’re ready for them.
There are a few avenues you can take to get the word out that your business is open, has pivoted to offering new services, has new hours, has taken the necessary precautions, etc.
- Social media: If you don’t have a presence on all the major social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn), it’s time to create one. Use them to update customers on your status. Announce new hours, new deals, and updates whenever necessary. It’s better to over-communicate in this situation than to have someone visit you when you’re closed, or try to buy an item that you no longer have in stock. Pin the tweet with the newest important update; turn your guidelines into a highlight on Instagram Stories; keep the most up-to-date information front and center on these channels.
- Google: Don’t forget to update your information on Google My Business so people know your hours and capabilities when they look you up via the world’s most popular search engine.
- Email: Reaching out to your email subscribers with similar updates, as well as links to blog posts, news stories, or resources will keep your customers informed and engaged.
- Signage: If you have a physical location, don’t forget to post your new hours, regulations and guidelines (such as requirements around wearing masks upon entering or total store capacity), and other information about your business and brand (your social media channels, or messages to the community) on your door; sandwich boards; and anything else that faces the street. You should update any other printed marketing materials—menus, for example—accordingly as well.
Communication with your customers throughout the process of re-opening and ramping up will be critical. If there are any changes to your business hours, model, or practices, or forces outside your control that force you to close or restrict your operations again, having these avenues of communication will help your customers stay informed.
You can also use these channels, as we’ll discuss in a moment, to communicate other important post-coronavirus messaging, such as your safety protocols and the health of your staff.
Even before you’re ready to officially reopen, start firing up these communication channels as soon as possible to remain present in the mind of your customers and alert them that when the time comes, this is how they’ll hear from you.
Demonstrate Your Ongoing Efforts
An underrated aspect of re-opening your business during a pandemic is instilling confidence in your customers that your business is safe to shop with.
The best way to demonstrate that you are taking every step possible to maintain health and safety standards is to show your work. Post frequent updates letting customers know that you’re taking all the steps necessary to keep your workspace clean and your people safe. Share photos and videos of your cleaning/sanitizing process, your new workplace configuration that satisfies social distancing requirements, your contactless ordering and pickup options, and anything else that shows how committed you are to customer safety.
These efforts to demonstrate your commitment will likely invite responses and feedback from people on social media, positive and negative. Take advantage of these opportunities and respond publicly to messages, detailing what you’ll do to address concerns or review feedback. When other users see that you’re actively responding to others on social media, they’ll know that you’re not only open for business, but open to hearing from and connecting with you. That’s a powerful connection that you can make with new customers, and sometimes all it takes is to hit “reply” to a kind (or unkind) review.
Don’t forget: Striking the right tone with your messaging is important here. In some circles, the new requirements to wear masks or take other precautions invite criticism and backlash. As much as you can, keep politics or controversial statements regarding the pandemic out of your updates. Stay positive and inclusive, and emphasize safety above all else. At the end of the day, the lives of you, your employees, and your customers are the most important thing—and your business’s words and actions should reflect that.
Listen, Adapt, and Execute
Finally, understand that reopening your business and engaging your customers is an ongoing process. You won’t necessarily nail it on day one. And even if you do all the right things in the beginning, the ever-changing nature of the pandemic and its ripple effects means that what works today might not tomorrow.
With that in mind, follow these three steps once you officially “reopen” your doors and continue to follow them throughout your ramping up:
- Listen to your customers, vendors, and stakeholders: What’s worked about your reopening? What hasn’t worked? Ask your customers what you could do differently to have them return and shop more frequently with you going forward. Use sales metrics, ROI, and customer data to measure success as well. Do the same for your vendors, employees, and other stakeholders to understand how your new processes are affecting them, for better or worse.
- Adapt based on that feedback: Listening to your customers and others won’t mean much if you aren’t able to implement their feedback into your operations. Be willing to shift and change, without sacrificing safety and quality. Credit customers and employees when credit is due for helping you see a better way to do business.
- Continue to execute: As you listen and adapt, continue taking the steps we’ve outlined above, including communicate and demonstrate. Don’t let missteps or setbacks discourage you from being transparent, clear, and honest with your customers.
Remember: This Could Change At Any Time
As of this writing, the United States is still in the midst of what some experts call the “first wave” of the pandemic. In some states, the number of cases is on the rise. As society continues to open up, it’s possible that state and local governments will take additional measures to ensure everyone’s safety. That includes potentially reinstituting stay-at-home orders, operational restrictions on businesses, and other directives that could impact your ability to stay open.
For that reason, it’s important to keep in mind that any changes you make to your business model to reflect this new normal may become irrelevant or obsolete quickly. You may have to pivot your business again to reflect additional developments, or close again temporarily in some instances.
With that in mind, always be prepared to face the possibility of another closure. Keep your options open when it comes to digital offerings or tactics, such as delivery, online shopping, or socially distant services. And don’t invest too much capital in tactics that you can’t quickly adjust on the fly, such as building elaborate outdoor seating arrangements or making permanent changes to your brick-and-mortar location.
The Bottom Line
For small business owners, reopening their business in the midst and the wake of a pandemic will be the challenge of a lifetime.
There is no easy way to do this, and there is no playbook. All we have are best practices for staying safe, innovating in difficult times, and communicating with honesty, transparency, and positivity. Combining these things into one course of adaptable action is the most we can do until the present, and future, become more clear.
Your goal should be to provide an outstanding experience for your customers, and you’ll do that by learning, listening, adapting, communicating, and demonstrating your efforts to the fullest.
Have any additional tips for engaging customers as you reopen your business? We’d love to hear from you. Write us at content @ fundera.com or let us know on our Facebook Town Hall page.