Poor service? Closed during business hours? Failure to deliver? Covid excuses are everywhere these days: taped onto the doors of closed businesses, heard on call center messages, typed into company emails. And customers are over it.
A Covid excuse shirks responsibility while communicating the problem in the form of an excuse, akin to business owners "simply giving up and letting customers suffer," says UK small-business coach Peter Boolkah. "It has never been OK to blame the pandemic for poor service."
Business experts wince at pandemic excuses because, well, they're excuses, which are not the bailiwick of successful entrepreneurs—who are, by definition, problem solvers. "Excuses are for losers," says Rod Robertson, managing partner of mergers and acquisitions firm Briggs Capital and author of Winning At Entrepreneurship, who sees little rationale for them 21 months into the pandemic. "We advise over a hundred firms. Financial Armageddon never materialized for most, and many companies skated over thin ice and went on to rapid recovery," he says. Consumers know this.
Although tossing off a Covid excuse may seem benign, it creates a messaging problem because it's likely deceitful: Customers are now savvy to the fact that supply chain, safety, and staffing challenges are well-established market conditions—not sudden pandemic blows. "It creates the habit of stretching the truth a little," says Andy LaPointe, managing partner and director of marketing at Traverse Bay Farms. "Problems occur every day when running a small business or dealing with customers, but no matter what happens, customer and supplier trust must be maintained."
The rule of thumb here is that pandemic explanations are OK; excuses are not. It's all right to tell customers that employees are in quarantine, or a manufacturer in Asia is in lockdown. These are all legitimate situations, and can be communicated in a way that positions you as savvy. "Let customers know that there is a shortage of X, Y, Z in the area, not just at your business. This makes you an informative authority of the entire area, so customers stop shopping around," says small-business advisor Adam Lyons.
But an excuse is fundamentally unhelpful to you and the customer. "The truth is that people still need the services we provide, and at the end of the day they just want to know that we are able to provide those services," says Jessica Tappana, who runs two small businesses—a psychotherapy practice and a search engine optimization consultancy for mental health practitioners. "Ultimately, both of my businesses are still taking full responsibility for any issues with customer service or service delivery."
Whatever the business conditions, the solution is to pursue a myopic focus on customer needs—and meeting those needs. "It is all about ensuring customers don't suffer due to the circumstances surrounding them," says Boolkah. Otherwise, customers will leave for competitors—and once they're gone, they're gone, he says.
For most businesses, focusing on customers means continuation of customer care. "If you're understaffed, figure out a way to maintain the same level of customer service," says Diana Rodriguez-Zaba, president of water damage-restoration company ServiceMaster Restoration by Zaba, who launched her business during the 2008 recession. "Answer emails at night if you need to. That's what I do when things get busy. Be ready to pivot services if you need to."
As always, market turmoil creates an opportunity for small businesses to stand out from competitors. Smaller organizations can typically offer personalized service that large companies cannot, and this is the perfect time to leverage that advantage. Lyons suggests offering new services—ones that are not dependent on products from a shaky supply chain. For example, a clothing store might find that "this is a great time to add custom tailoring or online styling sessions." He also suggests "price stacking," by offering a range of inexpensive-to-expensive services such as car or pet washes, or even renting out the space to pull in income through a dry patch. It's all doing, rather than excusing.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.