Part 1: Practicing the Art of Effective Communication
By Ken Lucci
Rest assured, this crisis will end and life will eventually return to normal … albeit a new normal that will involve social distancing, fewer handshakes, and tons of handwashing.
It may be difficult to visualize that day in the middle of this ever-evolving situation, but as an industry we will survive and even thrive again. While many of us have been forever changed by the major events impacting our lifetime, our industry still stands, and we only did so by adapting and evolving in order to survive! The same will happen after the coronavirus crisis has ended. Whether it ends with a bang—like someone inventing a vaccine or developing a cocktail of drugs that will shield the population from the virus—or a whimper, end it will (I promise).
When the economy starts moving again, so will we in a big way. Many corporate executives will have to travel to firm up their own businesses, re-establish their supply chains, and take advantage of new opportunities that will surely emerge. Private individuals will travel again after weeks that seem like years “sheltering in place” with their loved ones.
The question then becomes what the speed of recovery will look like. If the rebound looks like a hockey stick and the economy ramps up exceptionally fast in a dozen weeks instead of many months, we had all better be prepared to rebound quickly. Conversely, if the new normal takes months to take shape, as business owners and leaders we must also be prepared for that eventuality and be ready to deal with it (Part 2 of this article will cover more on that). While we wait for that inevitable future, here are a few recommendations as we ponder surviving now in order to thrive later.
Leadership for Your Team
Aristotle once said, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” It’s a truism that can be applied to leadership as well. Stop letting the vacuum of information be filled by others and start filling it yourself with the right knowledge. Practice the art of communication.
Our businesses may be close to idle right now, but as owners and leaders we cannot afford to be. Our managers, staff, and customers depend on us for information, critical thinking, and timely decision-making. Most operators have had to furlough or lay off staff or make drastic cuts. That conversation should not be the last about the effects of the virus. Let it be the first: If you want your dedicated team, the people who helped to build your business, to come back to work when this thing ends, then it’s imperative that you are engaging them in a positive way. Reach out to your staff regularly even if it is to say hi and see how they are doing. The more personal the better, but if you must do it in writing, then be as one on one as possible by sending it to their personal email or phone.
During a time when actual social distance is a must, if you expect people to follow you through this situation and be there when it ends, that distance must be bridged with open dialogue and honest discussions about the future. Brief them on the positive actions you are taking to save the company and get them back to work, even if these actions have yet to bear fruit. Seek their advice: Ask them what they think we should do to help get through this and what changes can be made to the operation when things pick up. Promise to communicate with them again, urge them to email you if they have questions or comments, and thank them for their patience and understanding. If you really mean it, then treat them like the valuable family that you say they are.
Don’t Ghost Customers
After frequently updating your team, communicating with customers is an absolutely critical task. This too needs to be on an ongoing basis. I recommend reaching out via phone to (or continuing dialogue with) your largest customers first and working your way down the list; make it a goal to speak directly to your most important 50 or 100 accounts. Have your staff also speak to their peers within these organizations.
The first message you must convey is one of optimism and confidence. The more important these customers are to you, the more confidence you should exude. Perception is reality, while they obviously know the coronavirus has negatively affected our businesses—it’s affected every business—they don’t need the gory or depressing details. They need to know you have taken appropriate measures to keep them safe and that you will be there for them when they’re ready to get back to business. Deliver that message.
The second goal of these conversations is to genuinely ask how they are doing during this crisis as well as what is happening in their sector and market. This should help gauge your actions during implementation of a recovery plan (more on that in the next installment). Let these clients know you are personally available—now and any time—if they need anything, no matter how small or out of the ordinary the request. End the call by promising to check back with them as things recover. Editor’s note: If you must do this via email, we recommend using a subject line without “coronavirus” or derivation of it. Your inbox is filled with a hundred non-personal form letters just like that, and honestly, do you read them?
Pay attention to your social media as well. It’s equally important not to post doom and gloom on your business page (or your own, if customers are also friends). I’m not recommending that you avoid social media, or post sunshine and lollipops. Find the right balance of information and confidence as you inch closer to “business as usual” and avoid being tone deaf. If you have only one trip today, don’t SAY THAT! Instead, celebrate it in a generic narrative, such as:
“We are happy to be transporting business executives to Boston today as a safer alternative to air travel.”
“Our sprinters have partitions to keep that whole social distancing thing going, and we’ve been doing it for years.”
“Bacteria and germs? Our vehicles have always gone through a daily cleaning regiment, but we have 10x’d it to combat this virus for your safety and the safety of our team.”
Keep Your Own Sanity
To combat misinformation, start by trusting credible sources. I spend time outside of phone calls and emails with clients by checking the CDC website, reading economic forecasts from analysts at JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, and flipping between CNBC and Bloomberg for cable-based business news. There isn’t a lack of information; there’s a lack of reliable information. Think before you link.
The second way to keep calm as this crisis unfolds is to schedule time to unplug and relax. Yes, I know there’s a lot to do while filling out SBA disaster relief forms and effectively managing your idle business, but it really is important to take time for yourself by shutting off the news, putting down the smart phone, engaging with family one on one, reading a book, taking a walk, and in general finding ways to stay healthy and positive. Remember: All of this is out of our control, and we are all in this mess together (while being appropriately socially distanced, of course). Don’t let this consume you.
Fear of the unknown is one of the worst feelings in the world: While we are all in uncharted territory—a time when every operator has had to make gut-wrenching decisions—we must find ways to manage our way through it without being undone by it. Every one of us must resist the urge to steer directly into the crazy skid by only thinking about the near future and getting caught in the gloom on social media (or adding to it) while we all take this unprecedented journey together.
Need more examples? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will help you develop a few at no cost.
Ken Lucci is the founder of industry consulting firm Driving Your Income. He may be reached at email@example.com.