With the Victorian government recently pledging billions of dollars of support for businesses operating in heavily affected sectors, there’ll be plenty of SME owners in Melbourne thinking through how they can safely reopen their operations as coronavirus lockdowns are lifted.
A crucial part of reopening an SME is communicating effectively with your customers to make them aware of your business’ “new normal”. This messaging can also be helpful to reassure your customers that your small business is safe to visit.
Learn from SME peers
Stories from business owners in other parts of Australia demonstrate how critical it is to engage with your customers about changes to your business in our post-COVID-19 new normal. For example, Anthony Courtney, owner of Bite Me Bakehouse at Mount Colah, in Sydney’s North, says the safety of his staff and customers is paramount. “Before COVID-19, we could squeeze 15 customers into the shop at any time. However, when social distancing measures were introduced, we set a limit of one customer.”
The SME also invested money in three sanitiser stations while all staff were required to wear face masks. Moreover, handles on the soft drinks fridges and handrails were wiped religiously by the Bite Me team.
Other SMEs have introduced simple but effective measures such as signs at the entrance and throughout the shop to remind customers to socially distance or avoid picking up retail items unnecessarily. Also, floor stickers to indicate appropriate standing distances are prominent in many stores.
Put a plan in place to handle unexpected crowds
Considering your strategies for dealing with an unexpected surge of customers will help to alleviate anxiety and stress for both your customers and employees as restrictions are relaxed, Courtney advised.
Even before social distancing regulations came into effect in NSW, Courtney was quick to employ a full-time doorperson to marshal customer access and longer cues outside the bakery. “Our full-time doorperson cost me money, but I wasn’t prepared to take short cuts. Short cuts lead to dead ends, and from the outset of the pandemic, the safety of my staff was my priority.
Bite Me also has an extremely popular outdoor area for its customers which it closed many months ago and is yet to reopen. “As soon as the news of COVID hit, we closed this area immediately and have never reopened it despite the pleas from some customers,” Courtney said. “We would need to employ an extra two staff members around the clock to keep this area clean and sanitised. The additional staff would cost me many thousands of dollars every week in salaries. It just wasn’t worth the expense or increased risk.”
Courtney admitted his COVID-19 measures and protections had cost him some business from disgruntled customers who didn’t like waiting outside the shop. “But our loyal customers are so much happier and regularly comment about how safe they feel when they visit us.”
Use technology to communicate with customers
Kickstarting a business after lockdowns is a challenging time for you as a business owner, your employees, and customers. Use email marketing, your website, and social media channels to engage with customers in advance of your reopening. This way, you can retrain your customers in the best ways to interact with your business and staff, including any new policies such as card only payments, different opening hours or face mask mandates. Courtney said, “We continue to promote ourselves hard through COVID-19 and continue to use social media to communicate with our local community.
“I was told we’d be lucky to survive the pandemic, but I was always determined to thrive. If this virus was going to take me down, I was going to go out swinging,” said Courtney, a former pugilist who once held the NSW light heavyweight boxing title.
Importantly, as a business owner, you must think through your plans should any of these measures come under unexpected pressure from a surging crowd or boisterous customers. In response, ensure your staff are prepared with objection handling training and responses. You may even consider preparing offers or discounts to customers to encourage their patience and ongoing support. Courtney summed up, “Sometimes your best form of defence in boxing or small business is attack.”
OnDeck is here to support small businesses – check out our COVID-19 Recovery Hub for more helpful information for SMEs impacted by COVID-19.
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