We are NOT fine. In the last few weeks I have been reaching out via phone, email, and zoom to talk to dozens of CEOs who are trying to figure out what to do. Like most conversations, it starts with “How are you?”. And the response is “I am fine, thanks.”. But you are not. You are human. You can’t be fine. There is nothing fine about this situation. If you are not worried, scared, and confused you are superhuman… or just faking it. I get it that you have to be strong for others. But, I have also learned that there are times when we are stronger together. So, when someone responds, they are fine, I ask them, “No, really, how ARE you?” And then we have a meaningful conversation about what is going on in their world, what they have changed, what they are contemplating, what scares them, and what they may do next. We connect at a level far deeper than we historically have in “remote” media.

ConnectingIn this “never-before-experienced-time-that-we-hope-never-to-see-again” how do we make rainbows and lemonade? We connect. People and businesses that connect at an emotional level, that are adding extra value, that are transparent and wearing their heart on their sleeves will strengthen their bonds—to employees, to customers, and to the market in general. While it may seem all gloom and doom now, we will recover. Predictions of when are less certain and vary by geography. But the sun will shine, and the markets will come back—most likely in a measure of months. When they do, let’s be in a better place than we were when things went off-the-charts. Let’s be a better version of ourselves and our businesses.

How can we forge deeper connections?

Email has its place but don’t misuse it: It is efficient but not that personal.  It is a great tool for apprising employees of policy and protocol changes. Use mass email to tell your customer base what has changed such as shifting hours of operation or new or changed services. You might consider developing several tiers of communication with different offers and frequency for different customer types (assuming you segment customers by market, lifetime value or another meaningful way).

More personal connections happen in personal settings.

If you have to have mass communication, consider video where people can see you and hear you and your empathy can show. Phone calls and video chats are more personal and forge the deepest connection. If you have to deliver hard news, do it this way. If you really want to know what is going on, ask this way. CEOs are calling individual employees, setting up small group chats, and finding ways to connect with employees beyond the norm. As a result, they are hearing what their folks need to be better employees, better homeschoolers, and better time managers and finding new ways to support them. The same can be done with customers. That new relationship will reap huge dividends later.

Find ways to add value

We have all heard from many companies how they plan to add value for their customers in the coming weeks. Verizon gave me 15G of mobile hotspot through April. PayPal is forgiving fees. Tell your customers what you are doing to help them. What can you offer that doesn’t have (much) hard cost but is valued by customers? It may not be enough to do one thing. This new normal may last longer than many of us originally thought. If it does, consider adding one new thing a month. Plan ahead, developing a quarterly plan, so you can get out in front and implement seamlessly without operational hiccups. Verizon’s offer has an expiration date of April 30th and maybe yours needs one too if you can’t afford to continue it indefinitely. So, think carefully about what you put out there—is it taking your business in the direction you want to go? Can you sustain it for longer periods if you have to? People remember what you have done for them, particularly without them asking. Connections deepen when we show we care through our actions—with customers and employees.

Partner in new ways

One step further: partner with customers.  Now that we are becoming highly transparent, we have the opportunity to partner in new ways. What can we do together that benefits our joint stakeholders?

Shared Community: Is there something we can do for the community like run or donate to a joint food pantry? Co-create a shared resource bank of volunteers to match with those in need: tutors for homeschooled kids, dog walkers for those having to work, DIY specialists to help people with their home projects (remotely most likely). Redirect excess capacity to supporting shortages like personal protection equipment for health care workers. Match those with skills and available time with those who need help.

Share solutions: What can you provide to each other that helps the other out? Last week I spoke to a company that has a significant customer service component and some of the service agents are dedicated to a specific customer. Before they considered laying off any of them, they contacted customers to see if they would like to “fund” them so that there would be continuity of service—and a fair number did. Could the employee end up going to work for the customer? Sure. Did the company do the right thing for the customer and the employee? Did it deepen a connection? I think so.

Brainstorm new and better ways to work: What are those niggling issues that we have always said, “Well, that is just the way it is.” Or “When we have time, let’s talk about….”. Well, maybe now is the time to have those conversations. As we work remotely, we don’t have one hour-long commutes, superfluous meetings go away, and we know people are “in”. I learned the value of this when caring for my daughter. Many of you know that we raised a special needs daughter for 24 years. When she was hospitalized at Children’s Mercy Hospital from time to time, my office at Hallmark was almost across the street. How fortuitous. While this was a while back and we didn’t have the technology we do today, I could swing by the office and pick up work and do it from Alison’s hospital room. I could pop back over to the office for crucial meetings. I figured that I was 2x as productive and my time invested went to about 40% of normal. Weird, huh? How do we use those pockets of time to our advantage? And of course, we should direct this kind of thinking to internal operations as well.

Be congruent: Knowing you, this goes without saying, but be sure that the values behind your actions are driving support for all of your constituencies. You understand the pitfalls of taking care of your customers at the expense of your employees. Some brands are already being accused of that. We can only be as good as our people. We need to tend to their wellbeing and mental health in addition to their work productivity. As leaders there is no more important job.

Pledge to yourself to do one thing this week to deepen connections—with your employees, your customers and your community. And while you are at it—your own family!

As you know I am under “stay at home” orders which frees me up to be more readily available so please reach out if I can help you in any way. Let’s connect! 816-622-8843