If you came here looking for a step-by-step guide for doing business during a global health crisis, I’m sorry to disappoint.
My best advice: do what you’ve always done – just do it better.
Focus on your employees first.
I know, I know, the common mantra for many services organizations: “the customer always comes first.” But think about it for a minute – can you REALLY serve your clients if you haven’t already taken care of your employees? At 3Pillar Global, our employees ARE our product, so we immediately started thinking about how best to protect them and their health. The faster we could move to prevent illness among our ranks, the more likely we were to minimize impacts to business (ours and our clients’.) Once we had that under control, we started focusing on some changes we would make to best serve our clients during this time.
Again, always a good plan. A difficult time is NOT the time to start sharing less information with your clients. Tell them what you know, admit what you don’t know yet, share timelines for things you’re certain of (“employees will be working from home at least through X date”) and prepare everyone – internally and externally – for the possibility of decisions changing at the last minute. Two weeks ago we were still “all systems go” for employee travel to client meetings and events, but we were really clear that the decision could change overnight. Less than a week later, we were grounding travel plans and even pulling back a few of our US team mates who had traveled to Europe for client meetings. Make a plan, but be ready for it to change.
I sent a global client communication last week to bring our clients up to speed on the guidance we’ve given our employees and measures we’re taking to ensure business continuity, as much as we can given the circumstances. Almost immediately, one of our long time clients asked for a call to discuss “operational readiness.” I was worried our preparations wouldn’t be “enough.” After all, it’s not like many of us had “global pandemic” on our business continuity plans. During that call, our client shared a previous experience when their office in South America weathered an extended period of local “unrest”, resulting in extended Work From Home protocols. They also shared their own suggestions for engaging teams and making sure team leads felt prepared to lead their teams. It couldn’t have been a more collaborative conversation and I think we both walked away feeling that together “we’ve got this!” Your clients expect you to be prepared but they don’t expect you to have ALL of the answers. Collaborate with them and maybe you’ll learn something too.
Make it personal.
Clients are people too and they are likely struggling with what this means to their business, and on a more personal level, to them and their families. Business IS personal – ask them how they’re doing, how they’re managing to their “new normal” and what advice they have for others. Yes – it’s harder to establish connections remotely, but it absolutely can be done. We know this from experience because we run hundreds of engagements with global teams, with some team members never having met certain colleagues or clients in person. While we aim for all of our teams to get to know each other in person, that doesn’t always happen immediately and in some cases – it may not happen within the length of an engagement. So we recognize how important digital connections are. We REQUIRE our teams to use video conferencing whenever possible. You’ll see that it makes a huge difference.
And yes – it means the first 15 minutes of a Monday morning meeting often includes people sharing what they did over the weekend, showing pictures of their creative “work from home” setup or talking about something funny their kid said.
Don’t forget to focus on yourself.
This couldn’t have come at a tougher time of year for me. We’ve just reorganized a portion of our business, taken on significant funding to help us grow, and we’re in the process of onboarding senior executives to help move our business forward. And I was REALLY looking forward to a Spring Break trip with my family. It would be easy to let this overwhelm me both personally and professionally. On a professional level, make sure you stay focused on the important – not just the urgent. I just recently started using the Full Focus Planner and I’ve already seen better traction on my “Daily Big 3” most important tasks. On an individual level, it’s more important than ever to establish a new routine (particularly if you aren’t used to working from home). Plan when you’ll exercise, when you’ll eat, when you’ll shut down and when you’ll connect with family and friends. (Knowing when to shut down is the hardest one for me … ask any of my colleagues).
I’ve been telling our internal teams for years that how you handle a crisis situation can create an even stronger bond with your clients. Everyone can do a “good job” on an average day, but the truly superior ones – the ones you want in your corner when something goes wrong – are the people who excel when the going gets tough. So go out there and do what you normally do – talk to your clients, find out what they want to know, and give them the best possible answer you can.
What else have you found to be useful in your client communications as we navigate this unchartered territory? I’d love to hear from you.