The impact of COVID-19 comes in waves: Americans have gone from isolation to reconnecting and back again as the crisis continues to develop. As we rebuild, social distancing has created a challenge for business owners who rely on connections — both personal and professional — to help run their businesses.

And yet, business owners are rising to the challenge. Recent research from Wells Fargo showed the small business community banding together to help one another, and their customers, through this crisis. Let’s take a closer look at how business owners can build lasting connections that can help them rebuild and grow.

Why connections are important

When COVID-19 took root in the US, one of the most immediate and widespread ripples was the push to socially distance and stay at home.

This abrupt change to how we connect and communicate impacts small business. Businesses without websites got online to connect with customers. Face-to-face interactions moved to video calls. Water-cooler exchanges became social media messages.

Wells Fargo talked to a number of small businesses in June to better understand how COVID-19 is changing the way businesses interact with their communities. Owners reported that the trials presented by COVID-19 brought the community together, since businesses felt like they were rooting for one another.

The support doesn’t just exist among businesses. Consumers are looking to shop local and many are increasing their tips (where appropriate) to support local businesses.

Consumers are looking for new ways to help their favorite establishments. As a business owner, it’s important you meet customers halfway by giving them meaningful ways to shop or stay connected.

Finding the best method of communication is an essential first step, but you’ll need to balance the right medium with the right message to really build connections.

 

The case for communication

91%

of Americans rely on a small business at least once per week

75%

of small businesses have been affected by COVID-19

84%

want their favorite businesses to be a reliable news source to keep them informed

Sources: SCORE, SMB Group, Edelman Trust Barometer

Connecting through a crisis

Even as the economy reopens, many customers who used to swing by your shop or office may look for new ways to connect. Finding the right digital platform for your business can make it easier for customers who want to stay in touch to do so. It also makes it easier for you to reach out to them.

The right platform for your business likely depends on your industry, but there are a few basic steps you can take to revamp (or build) a digital profile that resonates with your clients. Register your business with Google and create a Yelp page, for example. Consider creating basic social media pages on the platforms that make sense for you. And if you don’t have a website, think about creating one — it’s much easier than it used to be, and many customers expect them, especially during COVID-19. You can also enable your site to accept payment. Just be sure to test any e-commerce features on a semi-regular basis so you know what experience your customers are having.

For some, putting this much focus on your online presence can feel opposite to the human connection that typically goes into building relationships. But small business owners told Wells Fargo that moving their operations online was one of the most effective ways to evolve their community.

In today’s reality, building a digital presence that reflects who you are as a company helps create an authentic connection. It allows your network — from customers to vendors — to easily discover what you’re really about.

Keep those personal connections intact

Once you’ve built that digital presence, it’s important to make sure you communicate the right message — something that shows how much you care and accurately reflects your business.

Think about the various ways you have to talk to your community. You might write blog posts to keep your clients up to date and develop social media posts to raise your profile. Use language in your updates that reflects how you would communicate in person.

Keep in mind: Your community is more than just your customers. Your employees not only comprise your business, they also represent you. To effectively build a broad community, start by fostering internal connections. Talk to your employees about the changes you’ve had to make during COVID-19 and your plans for the future. You might choose to do this one-on-one, but you can also write an email newsletter or host a group video call.

Make sure your employees know the message you’re hoping to share with the broader community, too. If they’re sharing the same message, your reach will be that much greater.

Individual connections and exceptional service are common reasons customers stay loyal to small businesses. You can use technology, whether it’s social media or video chats, to keep and even grow those personal connections.

Keep it going

As the country reopens — a process that could stretch into 2021 — there’s a large amount of uncertainty. We aren’t sure what back-to-school will look like this fall or if there will be a vaccine, and resurgences of COVID-19 may lead to cycles of new closures and reopenings.

The good news is, the connections you’ve worked to create can help you navigate uncertainty. One major benefit of digital communication is an enhanced ability to take advantage of feedback.

Customers can post feedback on Google or Yelp, as well as social media posts. You can ask clients to tell you what they’re worried about or what they think will happen next; you might even send out more formal surveys. Customers are likely to be pleased you asked for their opinion and even more so if you use their input to better serve them. Plus, since this type of feedback happens in writing, it’s easier for you to track them and ensure updates get made.

Take advantage of employee feedback, too. With economic uncertainty ahead, employees are just as invested in your company’s success (and their continued employment) as you are. As such, they may have ideas to boost revenue or cut costs, and they can be critical in both attracting and retaining clients.

Embrace the competition

Finally, talk to other business owners. According to Wells Fargo’s research, many small business owners seek out advice from their peers. Because the crisis has fostered a sense of community among business owners, there may be a greater than normal inclination to help one another through the crisis.

This could mean sharing ideas about logistics, like the best way to quickly and effectively clean, or bigger picture initiatives, like monitoring updates to local rules and regulations. You might even band together and lobby for changes — like shutting down streets to create outdoor commercial space if people in your area are avoiding indoor crowds.

Just remember that joining together with other local businesses doesn’t mean you have to stop competing or innovating. One idea to consider: Look at similar businesses in other cities and states. If you run a law firm in Arizona, consider how law firms in Iowa or Texas are navigating the crisis. It’s possible you’ll find ideas to innovate or lessons on how to react if the COVID-19 situation changes in your area.

Small business is the backbone of the U.S. economy. They provide half of U.S. jobs and the majority of American consumers shop at a small business at least once a week. That means the community created by small business is essential to how we live and function. Business owners have an opportunity now to solidify that community in a way that benefits not just small business, but the country as a whole.

Sources: Deloitte, Edelman, Groupon, Financial Times, Google, Yelp, Small Business Administration, SCORE, SMB Group