In times of great uncertainty, it’s more important than ever for companies to inform, support and connect with employees and customers. The only thing that’s certain during COVID-19 is that circumstances and facts are changing at a dizzying pace. How are business leaders staying connected with internal and external audiences in the era of large-scale quarantines, social distancing and remote work?
Executives, business owners and other leaders are sharing their insights with us and, in turn, we’re sharing them with you to help your organization maintain relationships, communication and trust during this time of uncertainty. They’re also offering personal stories about how they’re coping with the anxiety and stress all of us are feeling. There’s no end game. No sales pitch. We hope their suggestions and perspectives help.
Here, we feature Steve Yastrow, author of “Brand Harmony,” “We: The Ideal Customer Relationship” and “Ditch the Pitch.” He’s also president of Yastrow & Co., a Chicago-based consulting firm that helps companies improve their results by earning the dedicated commitment of their customers and employees.
What advice do you have for business leaders who face so much uncertainty during the COVID-19 crisis?
In a situation like this, where our environment’s changing, it’s important to not be controlled by the situation. Assess, evaluate and understand things that are out of your control, but don’t let them control you. Your success in a situation like this depends on addressing the things you can control. You want to sit in the driver’s seat – not the passenger’s seat. Sit in the driver’s seat so you can act with focus – not frenzy.
What do you tell business leaders when they’re stuck in the passenger’s seat?
[With so much uncertainty], you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, so you need to prepare for whatever might happen. First, you must understand your environment. If you don’t understand the environment, you’re acting with your eyes closed. Then, you need to take thoughtful, strategic and deliberate actions based on what you learn about your environment.
It’s important to not freak out when you see the macroeconomic factors – factors like the stock market, unemployment, inflation, balance of trade, etc. As you see those factors, ask yourself: ‘How will this affect my customers’ behavior? Will they care about new things? How will they affect my team? Will these factors cause employees to need different things from me? How will it affect my competitors? Will it affect how people buy and sell in our industry?
A few years from now, we’re going to read stories about people who made it really big in 2020 and 2021 – not because they took advantage of people but because they understood the situation well enough to deliver value. Those people who understand the environment well enough and adapt to it may thrive in this situation. Be focused, not frenzied. Sit in the driver’s seat. You need to adapt to the situation and act.
How should companies communicate with their employees and customers as the pandemic grinds on?
You need to communicate openly. Uncertainty brings fear and suspicion. By communicate, I don’t mean send out messages. Communication isn’t about what we say but about how we are understood.
One of the common themes I see all the time is that companies don’t talk to their employees or invite them into conversations about why their companies matter and what they mean in the marketplace. When employees are brought into this conversation and have a deep understanding of why the company matters, that breeds commitment, especially when employees understand their roles in delivering the company’s value. Those companies will be better positioned to having their employees go the extra mile and adapt to changes. Adapt your communications to them. Communicate in forums that allow feedback. Be in a situation where you can hear back from your team. People want to be listened to and you can adapt your message based on your employees’ feedback.
As for customers, it’s important to communicate the need for flexibility; meaning, we might not be able to serve you right away. Have a dialogue with them about the things they’re going through, too. It requires dialogue. All communication needs to start from the customers’ point of view. How do they see the world? Focus on what’s important to them as opposed to what’s important to you.
You have a very scarce resource – your customers’ attention. It’s a rationed good. You must be very careful about ensuring what you communicate is relevant. Earn their attention by being relevant.
How can companies plan in a time of unprecedented uncertainty?
As I mentioned earlier, plan by being prepared for whatever might happen. Then, determine what your best possible outcomes could be in 2020 and 2021, and focus your efforts on creating those outcomes. Don’t be doom and gloom. Imagine the best possible things that could happen and focus your resources on creating those results. Identify the customers who will help us reach those outcomes and focus on motivating those customers to commit to you.
How can marketers adjust to the disruption that the coronavirus is causing?
We have to recognize that a lot of marketing communication is unnatural. We send one message to a lot of people. We need to recognize that when we’re blasting out messages one way, we’re doing it because it’s convenient. Most of us don’t operate in a mass marketing world. Pepsi has to speak as a mass marketer, because they need to reach hundreds of millions of people. We don’t. Most of us have the ability to communicate directly with our customers. Don’t think about a mass advertising mindset – try to be as personalized as you can while allowing dialogue. It doesn’t mean you can’t send mass communications, but don’t stop there. Acknowledge that when you send the same message to more than one human being, you’re always making a compromise. Avoid doing this, especially during this sensitive situation.
Marketing is everything you do. Your customers are evaluating you at every point of contact, every interaction they have with your team. One of the most important things to focus on is creating a unified brand experience for your customers. A unified brand experience is always critical, but especially now, because customers have a lot of clutter in their lives. At every point of contact, make sure you’re telling the same story.
How has your consulting business changed during the pandemic?
I do a lot of public speaking and run many workshops for companies with executive teams. Everything that requires being somewhere in person has, of course, been canceled for the next couple months. And we are now delivering a lot for clients remotely and have been very strategic about the value we can provide to our clients remotely.
This is a time to serve – not to sell. I’m telling my clients that if they need a sounding board or to brainstorm things, they can call me. This can be a dialogue for anyone who wants to talk now. The clock’s not running.
Tips for holding online video meetings are all over the internet now. Any thoughts on those?
Zoom conferences are not the paradigm of communication – they’re a necessary compromise. When you’re remote, try to approximate real-life communication as much as possible. Focus on the way you would communicate with someone as if you were sitting with them in the same room and having a deep conversation. The best approach is natural human communication.
From a personal perspective, how are you coping with the situation?
I’m looking at the silver lining of enjoying my home and hanging out with my wife. I’m a musician and my favorite thing to do is to go down to my basement music studio. I’m playing a lot of jazz and learning new things there. I’m focusing on music and creative expression. My publisher has encouraged me to write my fourth book and I’m gearing up to work on that. My hope is to adapt to the situation and find ways to make being at home a positive. I’m focusing on the positive side, but admit that’s sometimes a challenge.
As a business leader, how are you engaging with your internal and external audiences and dealing with uncertainty during COVID-19? Let us know in the comments below.