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Customer service tips for small businesses during a crisis

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Triage customers who need to hear from you first, such as those who have an upcoming appointment or anyone awaiting a deliverable.

1. Create a communications plan.

You want to leverage all the channels at your disposal, from your email list to your website and social media. If you have personal information for clients, send texts and phone calls if appropriate. Triage customers who need to hear from you first — for example, those who have an upcoming appointment that needs to be rescheduled or anyone awaiting a deliverable, whether it's a business proposal or a prom dress.

2. Refine your message.

First, be transparent. If you are temporarily closing a physical location, let customers know why — for example, the structure sustained damage that makes it unsafe for your staff and customers or you are complying with state or federal guidelines. Assure them that your priority — after health and safety — is continuing to serve them.

The rest of your message will depend on the type of product or service you offer. A restaurant or retailer should convey information on how customers can order (via phone or your website), while a service provider will want to give details on rescheduling or making an appointment.

3. Encourage two-way communication.

Streamline the process for customers who have questions or seek additional information. Create and post a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on your website to address issues that many customers might have and then proactively share your preferred communication channels — whether it's phone, text, or your social media platforms.

While not everyone will comply, that can help funnel most of the communication to where it's easiest for you to manage. Respond to messages promptly, taking care to also occasionally check other channels in case customers have been leaving phone messages rather than sending emails, for example.

4. Consider your refund policy.

If you've already collected funds for an event that won't occur or products that won't be satisfactorily delivered, alert customers to how and when they can expect a refund. You might consider offering the opportunity to apply the funds to a future purchase. Some might take you up on it, which can augment current cash flow if you're feeling a pinch.

For customers who pay for a service on a recurring basis, determine how and if you'll adjust your billing and cancellation policies. While you might prefer that all customers accept vouchers for future goods and services, err on the side of accommodating refund requests as much as possible since it can bolster your reserve of future goodwill. Your customers will remember that you did the right thing in their eyes.

5. Pivot your services as needed.

If you have to temporarily close a brick-and-mortar location, consider other options for continuing to serve your customers. You might launch — or expand — an eCommerce site and offer local delivery or shipping. If you usually offer in-person services, consider how you can shift to online options. For example, a consultant might offer video calls, a boutique gym could stream classes online, and a restaurant could shift to providing ingredients, recipes, and a video tutorial if the kitchen is out of commission. These options not only keep money flowing in, but allow you to continue engaging with your customers to keep your business top of mind.

And that's the goal of all these strategies. Customers understand that business interruptions happen, especially if it's affecting a wide swath of the community. By being transparent and staying engaged with customers, you will earn your their trust, which will foster loyalty for both the short term and the long term.

Important Disclosure Information

This content is general in nature and does not constitute legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment advice. You are encouraged to consult with competent legal, tax, accounting, financial or investment professionals based on your specific circumstances. We do not make any warranties as to accuracy or completeness of this information, do not endorse any third-party companies, products, or services described here, and take no liability for your use of this information.

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