Recently, I hosted a DX Live panel on how businesses are surviving, and thriving, in the COVID-19 economy. Two entrepreneurs, Nicole Valdivia from The Cave Ventura and RE/MAX agent Krista Gaumer-Nowak, joined me for the panel’s interview. One question I asked them was how they are able to connect with customers. How does taking a pause allow you to discover what makes you successful?

Both agreed that this unprecedented time is full of opportunities. Entrepreneurs may take a more relaxed approach to business. This is a rare chance to connect with customers on a deeper level. The relationships built now will last a lifetime.

We have taken a closer look at how startups lead and pivot their business models during COVID-19. What about connection? Here’s how small businesses connect with customers and why kindness pays incredible dividends back to business.

1. Ask how you can add value.

“The question we ask ourselves every day is ‘How can we add value?’ For some of our customers it is a simple phone call to check in. Others, it may be spot coaching or helping lead their team through a virtual sprint. Our company has moved quickly to a virtual experience for our workshops. We deliver live keynotes, strategy and leadership workshops, plus leadership coaching. Our clients love it!

It feels like we are in start-up mode again developing new products for our clients. This pause allows us to reinvent and innovate. Holding that mindset allows me to see this as a chance for growth.” — Nicole Bianchi, Partner, Bravium Human Development

2. Offer to help.

“During the pandemic, the one thing that makes my business successful is the innate desire to be a helpful member of the community. I’ve come to realize that the ultimate purpose of any business is to help people. Our content is leaning towards the informative side and focusing on how we can help out. It is a softer approach compared to how we did things in the past, where it was aggressive and competitive.

In a crisis, we realize what’s really essential in business and life — to help each other survive and even thrive in whatever way we can.” — Willie Greer, Founder, The Product Analyst

3. Be kind.

“Personally, I’ve found that the current pandemic has allowed me to connect deeply with customers and colleagues. There is a sense of shared experience and camaraderie as we all deal with the unknown. I’ve seen how the uncertainty of the situation has given us the chance to communicate with honesty and empathy. I believe that the COVID-19 crisis has taught us to cherish the people in our lives. It is a reminder to prioritize personal wellbeing and healthy habits.

Going forward, I am confident that we’ll be more mindful of the struggles that we each face. At the end of the day, the way that we treat one another matters.” — Monica Eaton-Cardone, Co-Founder and COO, Chargebacks911

4. Go into full drive mode.

“I have gone into full drive mode. As a wedding photographer, I quickly knew that my business would be paused. However, I also have a corporate business background in marketing. I can personally help other entrepreneurs during this time with their own COVID-19 pivots through marketing and social media. My offering went from photographing couples during their weddings to helping entrepreneurs show up consistently on social media in their areas of expertise.

I’m fortunate that I get to take a stance of authority in this space to help others. My main focus is to show up as an educator who wants to help and support entrepreneurs. I’ve met many amazing entrepreneurs in the past. However, during Covid-19 I was able to meet and connect with hundreds. I’ve learned a lot in the process. Sharing my journey, going from surviving to thriving, has helped others see they aren’t alone.” — Heather J. Keys, Photographer and Educator 

5. Enroll in an online class.

“I have worked in the weddings and events industry for over 30 years. I still have clients willing to hang in there, postpone their celebrations, and stay positive. However, I am able to stay relevant, and connect to customers, via education. I take online courses that provide me with knowledge to help stand out in a field that is becoming easy to blend in.

For example, I took a course to learn how to work with people with autism. One in 65 worldwide births are now individuals with autism. I needed to know more to stay on top of the families I work with who may be traveling with someone with autism. I recently became a CATP (Certified Autism Travel Professional). Diversity, especially in business, is key to staying busy during any down/slow time.” — JoAnn Moore, Wedding Industry Expert

6. Pay it forward.

“This pause is not about making the sale. It’s about helping others. Our advertising strategy has turned into personal social media marketing by our team. We offer free strategic webinars to help business owners at a time they are in need of answers. We send personal emails to those who reach out to us. Paying it forward is what is needed right now. We have adjusted our models to fit our client’s needs and we are grateful that our business model and platforms allow for this shift.

For years, we have talked to our clients about the importance of process, policies, compliance, and true structure in a business for growth and success. It has never been more evident to us that our beliefs in a strong foundation are essential for every business owner. Our structure keeps us going during this pause. It allows us to help others. It is truly rewarding to pay it forward during this unprecedented time.” — Nicole Gallicchio, COO, Turning Point HCM

7. This is a rare opportunity to connect with dream clients.

“I am a confidence coach. My business has always been online, but the pandemic changed a lot for me… for the better.

I used to help people find their passion and the confidence to start living a life on their own terms. When the lockdown started, an idea came to me and I rebranded within a few short weeks. The world suddenly shifted to the online realm. A lot of people would struggle to build their business. I realized I already had the experience, plus incredible mental and coaching tools, to help entrepreneurs that lack the confidence to show up online consistently — which stops them from growing their business.

I was able to connect with people who are my ideal clients. They are not defeated by the pandemic. Rather, they look for their own way to create a business in this new reality. I connect through my online content with those who are ambitious and brave, but also need direction, support, and a set of tools to become successful online entrepreneurs. It’s been incredible to find my niche this way!” — Alex Tomaszewska, Confidence Coach

8. Making the connection, step by step.

“I am a woodworker and epoxy artist navigating COVID-19. My business has gone from discussing client wants and needs with full-scale drawings, product samples, and a tactile approach to ZOOM meetings and emails only. Art is rarely the same on a computer unless it is digital. My work is done in wood and epoxy. Pivoting, and relying on describing my work to potential clients, is akin to a chef wishing TV had Smell-O-Vision. It has forced me to develop my pitch to an online only world.

My clients miss the experience of me seeing their space. In order to compensate for the loss of face-to-face contact, I have step-by-step walkthroughs available for my clients regarding capturing their own spaces for me. We communicate via email. This has been both rewarding and challenging! At the end of the day, it has shown me I can adapt to an online world. Most importantly, I can still connect with my clients.” — Jess Crow, Owner, Crow Creek Designs

9. “The client’s success is our success.”

“This time allows us to do is focus on how we provide value to our clients. We do everything to make sure that their marketing investments are optimized and working hard. In some cases, that means working out different payment plans or waiving our fees. 

We always held that our clients’ success is our success, and that is significantly more the case now. Making changes in the way we engage with clients has paid dividends. We have been able to add business with a pragmatic approach focused entirely on how we can add value. We also provide free consulting to local businesses. This helps them stay solvent. These practices have allowed us to maintain our own business while helping existing clients and opening up future opportunities.” —Rick Banks, Co-Founder, RBLB Marketing

10. Rekindle past connections.

“During this pause, I have reexamined my business. I advertise the positives for the future because the tourism industry was hit hard. It is a good opportunity to review terms and conditions as well as insurance. This allows me to see how I can make changes to offer leniency and transparency to my future guests.

I have also reached out to past guests and rekindled relationships. These relationships were temporarily lost when times were busy. Implementing a system to stay in touch and connect even as business improve is a big part of it.” — Shaun Taylor, Owner and Manager, Moriti Safaris

11. Connect through social media.

During COVID-19, my business has had to take a pause like everyone else. I spend most of my time in elementary schools supporting students and teachers. My business model has made a pivot to offer more support to parents that have now added ‘academics instructor’ to their plate. We offer virtual tutoring for families, free reading resources, a daily literacy calendar, and online teacher training and PD for teachers and schools. 

Since so many educators and parents are online during this time, I am able to connect with customers and a community of educators through social media. I’ve also been able to write educational and informative content for parents, teachers, and educators. 

This pause has helped me focus on what I love most about my work: creating content, writing books, training new teachers, and developing innovative projects and partnerships that make an impact nationally.” — Kathryn Starke, Founder, Creative Minds Publications

12. Reach out to the community.

“For the past 13 years, we have cultivated a dog community that goes beyond our small business offerings. Our focus is on dog walking and training. However, we have also built a network with our clients and their dogs. Other organizations are included in that extended family, from veterinarians to rescues.

The relationships and connection we have with our clients and our staff is stronger than ever. Our community believes in what we stand for. Everyone is willing to do their part to get the word out and find new
opportunities for tbm to help more dogs. Right now, we are raising money to keep our staff of 12 employees employed through a GoFundMe campaign. We rely on our community to keep our staff employed despite being closed for business.

Recently, we also launched a blog series called the Canine Consultant. For years, I have wanted to provide this information to the broader k9 community and now it’s finally up!  We also go live on Instagram every Wednesday at 6:30 PM EST with members of our industry. This is to build our community and dispense knowledge on important topics. Recently, we spoke with a vet to discuss COVID in relation to our pets, discussed training tactics, and how to foster and adopt dogs.

With the new methods of reaching a broader community, it is my hope that tbm can be a platform to connect others and find stronger ways to provide the best life for our dogs. We’re in this together. We will do all that we can to come out of this together and reach more dogs.” — Kara Kleindienst, Founder and CEO, The Barking Meter (TBM)

13. Connect on LinkedIn.

“I am the founder of a virtual healthcare PR agency. While I believe in face-to-face time, it’s important to harness social media platforms including LinkedIn and Instagram, for new leads. Connect on LinkedIn. This platform is targeted to business contacts and people in positions to make decisions. As people see what you and your business are doing, it may lead to new business partnerships or networking connections.” — Georgette Pascale, Founder of Pascale Communications

14. Start calling clients.

“I’ve also been building much deeper relationships with many of my customers. This is the perfect opportunity to reach out to many and arrange phone calls. I just chat with them about what they like and dislike about my business. This makes it easier for me to better understand their needs and prioritize our focus.” — Jayson DeMers, CEO, EmailAnalytics

15. Remember: doing business is not about the sale.

“This pause, due to COVID-19, has allowed me to connect and engage with my customers and my digital audience. I am a Business Intermediary, and I specialize in the sales of existing, turnkey businesses. My customers, both buyers and sellers, were impacted by the downturn. I found that I had to really take action and make myself available to listen to their concerns and fears about their business.

By doing that, it showed them that business is not always about the sale. It is about helping others and forging relationships. Being that my role is a commission-only position, I feel the approach this pause prompted me to take will only help my business down the line. We have all appreciated the people whom have taken time with us and/or listened to our fears. We also appreciate those that have tried to offer us solutions. I think it’s important that anyone in business keeps that in mind. Put yourself in the shoes of those with whom you’re working with. — Terri D. Sherman, PA, Business Intermediary, Florida Business Exchange, Inc.

16. Reassure others.

“We help people find the right Internet provider and there has been an increase in demand for our services over the past couple of months. We’ve heard a lot more from customers lately than ever before because people are so uncertain about what’s going to happen. We’ve been more than happy to reassure them. We work to address their needs, whether it is an upgrade or a switch to a different provider. It’s great to be trusted by the community to provide answers in a time like this.

Because we’re so grateful, we also took this opportunity to give back to the community. We know that so many underprivileged households and rural areas either do not have access to the Internet. So, we committed to connecting with these people in this moment of need, and provided them with free Internet access whenever it has come to our attention that there is someone in need. I believe strongly that everyone should have the possibility of remaining connected to the world online, so we’re fulfilling that ideal and paying it forward.” — Sean Nguyen, Director, InternetAdvisor

17. Ask customers “How are you?”

“When our clients’ doors were shuttered for eight weeks, I took the time to pause and ask ‘Who is really important in all of this?’ I knew if the clients and people in the industries we serve make it through this, my team has fulfilled a higher purpose.

In that spirit, I rediscovered the good old-fashioned phone call. I started calling each of our clients with a single question for them. How are you doing in this moment right now? I was able to be fully present for the people we serve. I listened and empathized. With some, we cried together.

Next, I called the executives (who have become friends over the years) of the major associations serving our industries. The industries we serve are in crisis. We have the tools to bring them real-time data on what their peers and customers are thinking and doing in the face of COVID-19. With their help, we were able to deliver that data via free webinars to about 5,500 attendees in our industry nationwide. We gifted 237 complimentary communications strategy sessions to practices in need. During this time, we genuinely showed up in the spirit of service and offered facts to help quell fears.

It’s a softer and more relaxed approach to business. Now, nine weeks in, I have gotten into the habit of reserving one full workday to pick up the phone and have candid conversations with people we serve. These are the times that we build the strongest relationships. This is simply done by climbing into the wheelbarrow together and allowing fate to push us gently across the high wire. Together, we are safe.” — Wendy O’Donovan Phillips, CEO, Big Buzz

18. Define what customers need.

“We’ve seen a rise in sales through the lockdown. It is because when everyone else tries to avoid talking about what was going on in people’s lives; we showed how we could help. We work on bridging the gap between customer and business, and push for a deeper relationship.

Our ads are made to be relatable for what our viewers were experiencing right now. Relatability was big for us even before any of this. We really tried to look at what our customers were feeling, and how using our products could help their emotional state.

By bridging that gap, we feel we found our way to move forward. This is about more about putting ourselves in their shoes. It’s about asking what they need right now.” — Camille Chulick, Co-Founder, Averr Aglow

19. Invest in your employees.

“We conducted weekly employee engagement surveys when New York shut down to see how our team was coping at home. We saw a real decline in motivation. Underlying it were concerns on finances, job security, and health. Everyone felt anxious not understanding how this virus will impact their lives. It translated to their work and lower productivity.

We introduced a policy to subsidize therapy, which turned out to be popular. Now, we’re looking to introduce Ginger.io. This is an employee benefits therapy platform. We even told employees to use work hours for these session. The therapy sessions have helped some employees cope with their anxiety through all of this.

Interestingly, our team didn’t expect this. We found in later surveys that this act really showed our team that we cared. It helped with motivation and productivity. It’s a clear lesson that if we continue to show our team we genuinely care, they’ll want to care about our mission.” — Neal Taparia, Founder, Solitaired

20. Create valuable content.

“We’ve been playing close attention to what dental care treatments and oral health problems readers have been searching for online. Our site content is being tailored to reflect these needs. People are concerned about how to take proper care of their teeth since they are missing out on their routine dental appointments. We have been focused on posting lots of helpful information related to that topic. This unprecedented time has turned into a period of growth simply by listening to what people need.” — Max Harland, CEO, Dentaly

21. Keeping customers healthy.

“Crisis reveals character. Our community understands that we have been in the trenches and are here to help. A pause allows you to do is to truly think. You can create a strategy that wins as opposed to just being executing the tactics everyone else uses. It’s a strange combination of a softer approach — making sure customers and employees are safe and healthy. And in another sense, it requires laser focus on only the things that help customers and employees succeed.” — Michael Dermer, Founder and CEO, The Lonely Entrepreneur

22. See this moment as one for great change.

“Rather than operating from a place of fear, I choose to have a different perspective. I believe we’re on the ground floor of a whole shift and transition to a new world economy. I’m excited to reinvent some of my companies to take advantage of this moment in history — a time when we might look back and say, ‘That’s when everything changed.’

While others use the word pivot, I’m examining each of my businesses. We are creating new value propositions for customers and thinking about what people will need to thrive in the next 18 months. We have to be cautious during uncertain times. However, we must also thrive through this period. You have to swap the fear mindset for an opportunity mindset. A pivot is a change in operational procedures. A reinvention is taking control of the opportunities that arise in uncertain times and completely changing how you solve problems for yourself and your customers.

Businesses, especially startups, are not set-it-and-forget-it. The environment surrounding your business is always changing. The ‘see a need, fill a need’ principle helped me become hugely successful, but limited me. I focused only on the hustle, rather than building a sustainable business. The Internet ‘gurus’ say you can sell your way through anything. They fail to mention there’s more to a real business than just sales. You must know your numbers.

Scaling a company with stability requires you to make hard choices and act swiftly. Look at the systems you have in place and tweak them continuously. If something isn’t working to your advantage, don’t wait to fix it. Do it now. Be proactive instead of reactive. That’s it!” — Matt Mead, Founder, EpekData

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