Hannah Stacey
Hannah Stacey
Posted 17 March 2020

Communicating with your customers in uncertain times

When you’re facing unprecedented situations like the current COVID-19 pandemic, it can be hard to know the best thing to say to your customers. 

It goes without saying that retailers will be faced with different communication challenges at this time – and in the short-term, nobody can claim to have sure-fire solutions to them all. 

The good news is that we’re all in this together, and the retail community has already been using both creativity and common sense to step up to the challenge. 

This blog post will discuss some of the immediate considerations that retail marketers might want to think about in the short term, and offer some real-life examples. 

Communicating important information to your customers

For many retail businesses, there will be necessary information that you need to get in front of customers, such as:

  • Important updates about how coronavirus may impact your physical stores (opening hours, click and collect).
  • How the current situation may affect deliveries and order fulfilment. 
  • How you’re changing the way that you operate – especially if your business relies on physical contact (e.g. no-touch personal stylist sessions, deep-cleaning testers and samples)

In such cases, email and other digital channels are the best way of getting your key messages in front of shoppers.

These messages should:

  • Be empathetic: acknowledge that now might be an anxious or uncertain time for your shoppers.
  • Be clear: give customers necessary information with clarity, without being dramatic.
  • Be personable: from a human being at your company rather than just a brand name.
  • Focus on people over products: whether it’s your customers, staff or those in working as part of your supply chain, it’s important to focus on providing people with value rather than selling.
Space Nk
This email from Space NK clearly outlines the measures that the brand is taking in-store with its ‘No touch’ policy; reminding customers that they can still shop online and emphasising that they are following advice from a public body.
This email from the Bonobos CEO gives clear details about store closures as a result of COVID-19 without being alarmist, whilst also reminding customers that they can continue to shop online.

Should you reach out to your customers with a dedicated message if you’re online-only or not impacted by any of the above? Again, this is very much a brand-led decision, but proceed with caution.

Acknowledging the situation and offering your customers a gentle reminder that you’re open and operating as usual may be tempting. But it’s important not to appear insensitive or like you’re trying to capitalise on the situation or, at the other end of the spectrum, like you’re virtue signalling. Likewise, it’s worth considering your customers are likely receiving a bunch of these messages, and their patience may be wearing thin (hello, unsubscribes). 

That said, some brands are using these emails as an opportunity to provide more value to customers.

We loved this email from Ometria client Rhone, which approaches the topic with sensitivity (and a dash of humour ‘Not another COVID-19 email’) – acknowledging the situation we’re in; emphasising the brand community, and adding value through content (rather than products).

And it’s not just email that brands are using to get key messages across – we’ve seen many retailers galvanise their social accounts to answer customers questions and create a sense of community.

Biscuiteers & Teapigs
Ometria customers Biscuiteers and Teapigs are using Instagram stories to answer customer questions (and generally share the love).

Regular customer comms

In stressful times, it might feel insensitive to carry on sending communications as if there isn’t, well, a worldwide pandemic going down. 

But on the same note, with the workforce shifting to working from home, and with restrictions on socialising predicted to last weeks (if not months), there’s an argument that consumers will have more time on their hands to shop online.

It’s a tough line to tread, and there’s likely to be ongoing debate about how brands should respond.

Given the uncharted territory, many brands are choosing to go out to their customers to get a feel for what they should do and how they should communicate. 

Edge Of Ember
This excerpt from a text-only email from jewellery brand Edge of Ember’s founder actively asks for feedback and provides her personal email address for responses.
Ometria customer Astrid & Miyu has asked its customers to provide feedback via a customer survey.

Others are taking a more editorial approach, using their social communities to share content and create a sense of solidarity – whether that’s asking people to share their WFH setups or offering (non-sales based) advice on how to survive quarantine.

We love our client ba&sh’s Instagram story, giving valuable advice on how to occupy yourself in self-isolation – from recipe advice to playlists to yoga tips.
Fashion brand Bimba Y Lola have been creating a sense of community and solidarity sharing their work from home setups

Whether you choose to address the current situation head on in your emails and other channels, or continue business as usual (or indeed somewhere in between, like the example from Papier below) is ultimately a brand decision – and the retail vertical you operate within, your brand image and outside merchandising factors should play into your communication strategy. 

Ometria client Papier subtly acknowledges the current situation in the copy of its email – “Whether you’ll be spending Sunday with her or celebrating from afar”.

Things to consider:

  • Make sure that your preference centre gives customers the alternative of hearing from you less – giving customers this option may reduce potential unsubscribes.
  • Monitor your unsubscribe rate closely – if it’s higher than usual, it may be a sign that you need to adapt your messaging or frequency.
  • Keep an eye on engagement rates – especially if you’re including topical content in your emails – are recipients clicking through?
  • Add more ‘adapted’ content to emails – like Papier above, consider adapting the content of your emails to suit those who may be house-bound. For example, it may be worth removing references to outdoor activities or products. 
  • Assess your product catalogue – what products will make more sense for you to promote? I.e. a skincare range, sleepwear/homeware.

Quick tip – dealing with stock uncertainties

Providing great customer experience in a time of crisis is a sure-fire way of ensuring shoppers stick with you in the long-term. While many retailers may be facing uncertainties around supply chain, a key way of ensuring this does not impact the ongoing customer experience is to adapt the product recommendations you serve up. This may be by:

  • Ensuring that out of stock items are suppressed from product recs
  • Ensuring that specific categories that you know will not be relevant to customers right now (e.g. holiday or travel items / outdoor recreation) are excluded
  • Ensuring that specific products or categories that you anticipate you might experience stock difficulty with are also excluded

Prod Rec

Automation audit

Now more than ever, automation will be a crucial stream of revenue from existing shoppers, supplementing broadcast and other digital channels. On top of adapting your planned broadcast activity, it’s also worth taking stock of messages that may already be going out via automation to ensure they provide the best customer experience. 

Things to consider:

  • Customer feedback: if your customers ask to be contacted less, ensure that they are also suppressed from non-vital automation campaigns
  • Offline activity: do any of your automation campaigns encourage shoppers to shop offline in bricks and mortar stores? Consider amending this content until restrictions are lifted. 
  • Review the tone of your copy: ensure that copy that made sense in this new context and doesn’t contain any clangers.
  • Review promoted categories or products: ensure that none of your automation campaigns are undoing all your good customer experience work by promoting products or categories that don’t make sense in the current climate. 

Conclusion: keep calm and carry on putting customers first

We hope this post has provided some practical advice in the short-term when it comes to addressing the challenges that the current COVID-19 situation is posing; and we hope to update this as time goes on.Any questions we didn’t answer for you? We want to do our best to support you, our community – drop me a line on [email protected] and we’ll do our best to answer them.

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