The year is kicking off with announcements of layoffs, downsizing, mergers, acquisitions and customers holding off on those buying decisions. In a year in which many companies will need to respond to changing market conditions, one thing often gets forgotten: the need to communicate. In tough times your own people and even your existing customers often get taken for granted, as you battle to find new customers and assume your own team know what’s happening.
You need to hold on to your most valuable assets, your staff and your customers; and the key on both counts is communication. Not only is it critical it’s free! Let’s look at the two issues separately.
I’ve heard so many horror stories about how, when it comes to tough times (belt-tightening, redundancies, takeovers), staff are left out in the cold. Even when there’s nothing specific to report, keep the communication rolling. Failure to do so can allow your staff to assume something is brewing and, before you know it, the inevitable Chinese whispers start their rounds. No company can afford this and if you’re a small, tight ship, the cost to your business could be catastrophic.
Good internal communication is not hard if your company is small. It’s pretty easy to get everyone together and let them know what is on for the day or the week. Once your business gets too big for you to stand in the middle of the room and make an announcement, some more formal measures are probably required. Introducing a weekly catch-up can be invaluable; not only are your employees your greatest asset, they’re your best intelligence-gathering machine and very often can spot ways to improve your productivity before you do.
If you have outgrown the weekly catch-up, there is nothing for it but to hit the email and send a weekly missive to the troops. Keep it short and to the point, and make sure that you invite comment and feedback. This can be delegated to someone else, but you need to be disciplined in making sure that the information and messages you want to get out are included amongst the birthday congratulations.
You should love your customers at all times; right now, you need to love them even more. Lose one and there might not be a ready replacement lurking in the wings as there was in more buoyant times. It costs you exponentially more to replace a customer than to keep one and as the number of prospects dwindles, the cost of customer acquisition rockets.
Having hooked a customer, you need to keep them sold on why they should be doing business with you rather than someone else. If you haven’t been keeping your customers informed, then you’re creating an opportunity for your competition to form a relationship with your customer.
Customers, like staff, need to be kept abreast of changes to your business. Even if there is no direct impact on their relationship with you, there is security in knowledge. Don’t make your annual contract negotiation the only time you talk with them – otherwise it could be your last.
If you’re the ‘boss’, now is a good time to come out of the corner office and start to visit some of your key clients with sales staff. It helps your customers to feel that their business is important to your company – not just your sales team’s bottom line. There is also real benefit in observing firsthand the difficulties your customers are facing, along with being able to explore any potential opportunities that may require a shift in your process or sales approach.
Now is certainly not the time for lavish gestures, but taking a customer out to chat about their business over a coffee or breakfast is a cost-effective way of taking a proactive approach in making it known you value their custom. This can be more effective in gaining their commitment than a lavish gift or activity that takes them away from their business for any length of time.
It is also a good time to reinvigorate your newsletter. Make sure that it is worth reading and adds value to your customers’ experiences in dealing with you — that is, it should make an offer that is only available to your existing client base.
If you don’t have time to publish a formal, formatted newsletter, then pick up on something you think will be of interest and take the time to drop them an email. It doesn’t have to come from the top; this is something that those who have direct customer contact can very effectively deliver.
The important thing is, in communicating to your clients you are creating an opportunity for them to communicate back to you. We all know it’s much harder to leave a relationship when the other party is making some effort to stay in touch and isn’t giving you cause to feel neglected.
Don’t create a communication vacuum that can only be filled by negativity. Give your customers and your staff every reason to stay with you by making sure they know they’re valued by your company as a whole. While talk may be cheap, in times like these communication is gold.