Communicating with customers in a pandemic

Before you think "oh no, not another blog post about the pandemic," please hear me out for just a minute. We need to talk about fatigue, information overload, and anxiety. Sounds fun, right? No, of course it doesn't. But if you work on or run a customer-facing team, you need to be thinking about what these things mean for your prospects and customers.

We’re about a year into the pandemic. For many of us in the United States, we’re approaching the one-year anniversary of when our offices and schools first shut down. In Austin, that date was March 13, 2020. 

So much has changed in the past year. Some of those changes have actually been positive, like the move to more supportive remote work environments. But some of those changes have been negative, like increasing isolation and loneliness. The pandemic is relentless. The number of people experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety has gone up since the start of the pandemic. Parents are struggling (moms especially). Many people are dealing with mental health issues. If you’re reading this, maybe you are too. If you’re not, someone you know is. And that includes your customers.

So let’s discuss how you can best support your prospects, customers, and clients right now. And while we're specifically focusing on the customer relationship in this post, this advice is pretty broadly applicable, so you can likely use these tips to communicate with teammates, friends, family members, even yourself. 

First, let’s talk a little bit about how depression and anxiety may manifest themselves at work. What might a customer do if they're struggling? How does this show up? Some common manifestations of depression and anxiety at work might include: 

  • Rescheduling meetings
  • Not turning on video during Zoom calls 
  • Slower email response times
  • Reluctance to commit
  • Social awkwardness 
  • Forgetfulness or lack of concentration
  • Irritability 
  • Missing deadlines

You're not a doctor or a therapist - and you shouldn't try to be - but if you see signs that a prospect or client is struggling right now, what can you actually do? How can you be considerate of what they're going through, acknowledge the larger context we're all living in, while at the same time still doing your job? There are a number of small but significant things you can do to help.

  • Accept 1-2 reschedules, no questions asked. Sometimes someone just might not be up to taking a meeting that day. They may or may not give you an excuse. Just reschedule the meeting, no questions asked. If this happens more than twice, consider pushing back gently or offering an alternative to a synchronous meeting. You do still need to do your work, and that’s okay. Just be kind about it. 
  • Offer alternatives to Zoom. When we spend hours every day video conferencing, it can be exhausting to think about getting on camera even once more. You could offer to do a simple phone call instead of a video call. Or show up as a cat if you feel like it (or can't help it).
  • Create opportunities for asynchronous engagement. When possible, make room for someone to respond or engage on their own time. Right now, your clients may be juggling work and home life, along with remote school for their children or caring for a sick relative. That might mean they end up working different hours, like in the evenings or early mornings. If you can work with that schedule, you may have better luck communicating with them.  
  • Communicate with humor and empathy. Right now, a little kindness and a little humor go a long way. Don’t be afraid to lighten the mood sometimes. Humor can be an effective coping mechanism, or even just a fun distraction
  • Follow up with concrete next steps and meeting notes. When inundated with stress, the brain can get forgetful. Know that your clients may be dealing with so many other things that, even if they’re trying to pay attention, they may not remember everything you discuss. Take careful notes, send follow-up information promptly, and do what you can to reinforce in writing what you talked about verbally. 
  • Be gently persistent. It’s totally fine to follow up more than normal right now. Try not to annoy, but know that it may take an extra outreach or two to get a response. Be patient, but persistent. 
  • Keep meetings short. Our attention spans are strained, and so are our schedules. If you can end a meeting in 25 minutes instead of 30, do it. If you only need 10 minutes to check in on a few things that would be easier than sending a ton of emails back and forth, ask for it. If you don’t absolutely need to meet for an hour, don’t. 
  • Be flexible. Things may change. People will have different schedules. Be prepared to be flexible. 
  • Check in. If you suspect a client is having a hard time or even just a bad day, send them a quick note. Engage with one of their posts on LinkedIn, send them a cute GIF - just something to let them you know you’re thinking of them. 
  • Relate if/when you can. Sometimes it can help to just hear that they’re not alone. If you find yourself feeling similar and you’re comfortable sharing, do that. We're all experiencing this pandemic differently, but it helps to feel like someone else knows what you're going through. 

This pandemic is hard in so many ways. If you can communicate with empathy and kindness, you can make some parts of it a little easier for your customers. They will remember your support later.

And if you ever want or need to talk, I’d be happy to - please find me on Twitter or send me an email any time.