The impact of COVID-19 came in waves. We went from isolation to reconnecting and back again as the crisis developed. As we rebuild, social distancing creates an ongoing 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. The small business community keeps 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 to 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.

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.

Initially, the COVID-19 crisis brought the community together, since businesses felt like they were rooting for one another. Much of that camaraderie extended into rebuilding. 

This 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.

 

Connecting through a crisis

It may take customers months or even years to go totally back to pre-crisis habits. That means you may need to attract customers who used to “just swing by.” 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. Many customers expect them, especially during COVID-19 after social distancing forced more business online. 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 many small business owners find that moving their operations online is actually an effective way to grow 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 as the COVID-19 crisis evolved as well as your plans for what’s next. 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

Despite reopening, there’s a large amount of uncertainty. The good news is, the connections fostered through the crisis can help you navigate it. 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. Employees are just as invested in your company’s success (and their continued employment) and may have ideas to help your business stay relevant as we work toward a new normal.

 

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. Continue to take advantage of the sense of community fostered by the crisis. 

Just remember that joining together with other local businesses as you navigate toward a post-crisis world 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 getting back to normal. It’s possible you’ll find ideas to innovate or lessons on how to shift from a crisis to a growth mindset. 

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

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