The COVID-19 crisis has upended society. Thousands of lives have already been lost, and the world’s economies are taking a tumble, with retail one of the hardest-hit industries.
But despite all the bad news and overwhelming uncertainty, many teams continue to go into work every day, and they need more guidance and support from their employers than ever before.
Here are some tips on how retailers can effectively communicate relevant and important information during the COVID-19 crisis, so retail teams remain healthy, happy and keep things running smoothly.
1. Communicate Frequently As COVID-19 Evolves
We're now months into the coronavirus. As time goes on, the world is learning more about the disease and its effect on the economy. So far, the short-term impact has been devastating, while the long-term impact is unknown. Retail leaders are expected to have all the answers. But in a time of crisis, it’s impossible to know everything.
That’s why it’s important for retailers to consistently communicate with their teams internally to keep employees calm, focused, and optimistic about the future, despite its uncertainty.
Paul Argenti, a corporate communication professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business, recommends providing “timely information rather than waiting until you know all of the answers.” His study of crisis communications after 9/11 found that hearing from a leader — whether through email, over the phone, or on social media — played a significant role in reducing employee anxiety.
Instead of sitting idly by, communicate what you know, admit what you don’t, and speak with retail teams clearly, succinctly and regularly to reduce stress and show support.
2. Be in Private What Customers See in Public
Putting your customers first is one of the most important rules in retail. But in a time of crisis, they’re not the only ones who need reassurance that your business is in strong hands.
Retailers need to convey the same calm, cool and collected image they put forth to customers publicly with their employees in private as well.
When communicating with teams, retail leaders should aim to strike the same empathetic, genuine and patient tone with employees. Share updates and relevant information that help them do their jobs better and reassure there’s a plan for the future, even though there may not be that many concrete solutions in place.
Ultimately, your employees want to know the same thing your customers do: that someone is proactive with the business, looking out for their best interests and receptive to their thoughts. Speak with your frontline regularly to get their feedback, and seek out any suggestions for streamlining operations and internal communications moving forward, so you can create a safe and successful workplace for employees and customers alike.
3. Put People at the Center of Your Communications to Make Messages Resonate
Communicating with retail teams can be difficult, especially when it’s easy to get distracted by the many impacts of the COVID-19 crisis during this time. And, whether employees are cognizant of it or not, it’s challenging to focus on what matters most when they’re inundated with information.
So, to make internal communications stick, make the focus of your messages people at the store level and how any updates affect them.
For stores that remain open (or operate in a limited capacity) during the COVID-19 crisis, each day is filled with new facts, guidelines and resources to parse through, and it can be hard for retail teams to identify which information is still relevant from one week to the next.
When crafting communications, take a human angle. Describe how the work they do impacts customers (and the world around them) during this difficult time. Or, in the case of changes to standard operating procedures, share an anecdote illustrating a common pain point certain employees are facing because of the COVID-19 crisis, and explain how your company is attempting to alleviate them. Doing so helps reinforce company goals and standards, and shows your organization cares about people, not just products and profits.
4. Be Prepared to Change Tact and Messaging When Necessary
The COVID-19 crisis is constantly evolving. With so many updates from public health officials and developments arising every day, it’s challenging to stay on top of occupational health and safety guidelines, mitigate risk and make the right decisions while remaining open.
But it’s impossible to have all the answers, which is why it’s important — both from a crisis communications and management standpoint — to practice intellectual humility. Recontextualize information as time goes on, rather than stick to outdated insights or previous decisions based on pure intuition.
McKinsey’s Gemma D’Auria and Aaron De Smet cite “updating” information as it develops and “doubting” previous notions as essential cognitive skills retail leaders need to master during a crisis, and it’s fair to think that those behaviors have a big effect when communicating with retail teams during the COVID-19 crisis as well.
With business operations changing every day, it’s essential to ensure each interaction is meaningful and relevant, so associates don’t get bogged down with useless or outdated information.
Adjust your messaging accordingly as new insights come in. Open up the lines of communication, so retail teams can ask questions, share concerns and discuss new ideas. Doing so shows your business is taking proactive measures to protect the company, its customers and employees.
Marc Gingras is the CEO of Foko Retail, a communication platform for retail teams. He is a serial entrepreneur and angel investor, and sold his last venture, Tungle.me, to Blackberry. Marc holds an MBA from INSEAD, a MASc in Management Sciences from the University of Waterloo and a BASc in Mechanical Engineering.