Communicating with Customers During COVID-19

Relationships are hard

Relationships require communication. At different periods and aspects of life I would say that I have been a poor communicator. The most memorable ah-ha moment was a time when my wife asked that her and I go grocery shopping together.

“But why? That sounds so inefficient.” Was my response. “Why don’t I go do this errand, and you do the grocery shopping. That way we’ll be done our work faster.”

At the time I thought my reasoning was logical and fair. It is likely a common response that many people would give – not just myself. My brain is programmed like an agenda with a to-do list. The more items that I can check off my list, the more accomplished I feel about my day. It is my measure of success. I have a Type-A personality and if you’ve seen me on my phone you will notice the lists that I conjure in the day.

What I did not realize was that my partner was really saying “Lets spend time together. We are both busy, why don’t we spend time together getting groceries.”

Relationship

Wow. I had no idea. Men really have no idea what women are thinking. It is like our brains are on two entirely different channels. I think what both of us learned from this is to communicate in a way that conveys our emotions. If we feel the need for connection then we are better to recognize that and tell our partner rather than send mixed messages. If she had just said “Lets spend time together,” I would have understood that and complied.

Why am I writing this

This post is about communicating with patients, specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic while our business is closed. For those of you that are reading my blog for the first time. I am the owner of North Peace Optometry Clinic. This time has been very difficult on a lot of small businesses and their employees. Individuals are instructed to stay home as much as they can, and that drives a wedge between  many small brick & mortar businesses and their customers. Yesterday I received an email from Canada Post notifying me to expect delays due to large volumes of parcels being delivered, similar to the large volumes of parcels delivered during the busiest weeks of Christmas season. As you read further I explain some of the steps that our business has taken to communicate to our customers.

Communicating with customers

Email is King

It was a worrisome time when the very first cases of COVID-19 came to British Columbia. We were fortunate to have good guidance from the Canadian Association of Optometrists as well as the BC Centre for Disease Control as to how to screen patients that could be infected with COVID-19 and to caution anyone that had been travelling, had flu-like symptoms, or had been in contact with COVID-19, to stay at home for 2 weeks after they were symptom free.

Act fast, email blast

Our immediate response was to communicate this on a channel that would reach all of our customers very quickly and efficiently. On March 13, 2020 we sent an email blast to 6096 patients at our clinic asking them to stay home if they met any criteria of our COVID-19 screening protocol. As the number of cases rose in British Columbia, and a lockdown of non-essential businesses was ordered, our business sent out another email blast on March 24, 2020, this time to 6,122 patients, announcing our closure.   In the message we communicated how they could reach us, how we could support them, and how our business was adapting to the current conditions.

Healthcare banner

Email blasts have been immensely successful at our business over the past few years. It remains my favorite marketing tool for its low cost and high penetration. I attended a communication webinar given by a member of Twilio, who demonstrated research that showed customers preferred emails for “reference” type communications that were non-urgent. We’ll talk more later about what customers preferred for urgent communications.

Prior to COVID-19 it was often difficult to collect emails from customers. Nobody likes spam or receiving emails that are irrelevant. For that reason many customers were reluctant to give us their emails. Now, we find that it is a useful tool. Not only can we send customers important updates about COVID-19 protocol and business hours; but we can send customers copies of invoices or instant notifications when their glasses are ready. The relevance of emails has grown significantly. For customers, this will be a recognized and trusted method to stay in contact with our clinic.

Tips to get it right

As I mentioned earlier, nobody likes receiving emails that are  irrelevant. Our time is limited and often we don’t have time to read all of our emails. Here are some tips for writing great email blasts:

  • Keep your material relevant for customers. If you are sending a message that is only specific to a certain group, try to filter your recipients so it only targets customers that would appreciate you message.
  • Keep it short and impactful.
  • Break up large lines of text with images.
  • Use a catchy subject line
  • Create a call to action in your email
  • Include a link to unsubscribe.

Social Media Frenzy

This is a great opportunity to make a splash into social media. Building a fan base takes a significant investment of time but can also be rewarding. Social Acuvue Social media postmedia is not a useful tool for communicating urgent information, like when someone’s appointment is cancelled, but can be a great reference tool to create a positive impression of our business in the minds of your customers. Customers want to feel a connection to the business’ that they deal with; many individuals use social media to research similar businesses before making a purchasing decision. Social media is an opportunity to give your business a personality and demonstrate your purpose.

During this time our business doubled down on our social media posts to communicate to patients outside our email reach that we are temporarily Emergency eyecareclosed to the public during the COVID-19 pandemic; however we emphasized that we are available to help customers who need glasses and contact lenses or have an eye emergency. Very rarely is offering emergency services relevant at the time that the customer is reading your post, but it creates and impression and the customers remember your message for when they do have a need. Shortly after our post, I received a call from a customer of mine that was having eye pain and had been told about our emergency services from her daughter, who coincidentally had seen our post.

There will never be another pajama day

It is important to be genuine. Share with customers what you are doing

Pajama da
The staff sent me this photo to celebrate Pajama Day at work

during this time. During the closure the staff had joked that every day was blue-jean day. This turned into fun theme events on two occasions. April 17 was pajama day at work. It was a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) opportunity for the staff to wear their pajamas to work. We captured the fun and posted it to our social media page. We also post more relevant information, like how we’ve been offering free shipping and curb side pickup.

Prior to COVID-19 we had not been very active on our Instagram account.

We took our business closure as an opportunity to post some of our ophthalmic frames as a gallery on Instagram. This will create some buzz on our platform and can become a useful tool if a customer is wanting to browse frames that we have available.

How is my hair?

It is important to have live content. It sounds scary, but is an important part of an active business page. This is an intriguing new form of branding your business, as you become recognized as the face of your organization. It is important to keep your live videos relevant and brief. We have made 2 videos recently to announce some of our exciting initiatives. On April 8, 2020 we proudly announced that our business was donating free prescription eye wear to hospital staff that work in the ER department of our local hospital. Safety eyewear is an important part of their personal protective equipment, as it is required to prevent virus particles carried in water droplets from reaching the vulnerable mucus membranes of the eye.

“Okay Google, Communicate for Me”

Google-My-Business

What can’t Google do for us? Google Business is similar to social media, except that customers interact with your Google Business page whenever

your business appears in the results of a Google search query. Your Google Business account can display important information such as your phone number and business hours. It can display images of your business and encourages you to add new contact. Your Google Business page also displays Google Reviews that customers leave for you. Maintaining an active account is valuable in being the top ranked website in search results.

Start a Blog

A blog is just one more way to communicate with customers. It is especially useful for customers that want to learn more about a specific topic. If you can provide an expert opinion on a subject, you are now a trusted source. Your blog should contain links to reference other websites or to your business page. This becomes useful because a website with links to other websites becomes more “reputable” in the eyes of search engine bots, and ultimately it makes the blog easier to find in search engines. If nothing else, it is a great way to let off steam while writing about topics that have been swirling in your head. I chose to write this current blog post in order to prepare myself for a webinar that I am hosting Monday April, 27, 2020.

Is Your Website Dusty?

It is important to add new content to your website. Search engine bots recognize websites that are regularly adding new content. This contributes to your website being the top ranked result when a customer is looking for a business similar to yours. Take this opportunity to write about something that you are already doing. This also becomes a useful tool when you want to offer your website as a resource for customers. As an example, I recently created a new page on our website for myopia control thinking it would be attractive for new customers to see the great services that we offer outside of comprehensive vision and eye health examinations. What has been even better is that now I can print off this page for patients when I discuss myopia control with them, and reference my website as a resource.

Pop-ups that don’t aggravate people

It is important to notify visitors to your website that your business is closed during COVID-19. It sounds bleak, but customers appreciate having current information;  turn this into a positive by taking the opportunity to collect their information so that you can notify them when you are open. A simple way to do this without changing the message on your homepage is by creating a pop-up that sends the message. Include an icon to close the box and a web form to collect patient information if they so choose.

Sell/show it online

Adding a web store can be helpful in times like this. Getsightly, Shopify, and

Julbo sunglasses
Our attempt at using a light box

Woo commerce are all examples of interfaces that customers can shop local while browsing the web. My advice is choosing the service that you see fitting your needs for the long term. I was very fortunate to view a webinar demonstrating OSI’s new Vision Store. We will launch our own Vision Store in the near future. This will allow our customers to renew their contact lens order, and purchase dry eye products and other accessories online from our branded web store. A web store poses new challenges, including fulfillment of orders and monthly subscription fees, so if it isn’t suitable for your business I think it is very important to have web forms for customers to contact you with questions or to re-order their contact lens supply.

For those with trouble sleeping

Lastly, another communication tool for your website is a chat bot. If customers are not able to find their answer on your website, a chatbot allows them to have commonly answered questions answered, or speak to a live person to get support. If you have a knowledgeable staff member who is tech savvy, this is a great job for them. Unfortunately because of my type-A personality, I’m the one who takes ownership of this. Members of the Generation Z  era love this feature because they don’t have to speak to a person; however it can be agony when you receive messages at 11pm because someone broke their glasses. Our website plug-in integrates seamlessly with Facebook Messenger and sends instant messages to our Facebook business page.

SMS Has Arrived

The newest Optosys communication module on our electronic health record system allows for SMS communications with our customers. This is a remarkable tool for sending appointment reminders, as well as to notify customers when a product is ready for pickup. Twilio, coincidentally the tech service company that provides this SMS service, reports that SMS is a customer’s preferred form of communication for urgent messages. Their explanation for this is because a person is likely to check messages on their phone several times in a day. Rarely does a person go a full day without reading a message that was sent to them. Whereas alternatively, a person may go a full day without listening to their voicemail or reading an email.

Here are some useful tips that I’ve discovered using the communications module in our Optosys software:

Optosys

  •  Save time by pre-programming messages to send to customers.
  • Remember that each message costs money – something like 5 cents.
  • At this time, customers cannot respond to our messages.

Final Notes

To business owners, I hope that some of these tools will be helpful in re-igniting the spark in your relationship with customers.

To customers, please don’t migrate to another social media platform. I don’t have the energy to manage any more accounts 🙂

To my wife, I will go grocery shopping with you anytime babe.