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We don’t have a crystal ball. And you likely don’t either (unless it’s part of some long-forgotten Halloween costume). Even without that crystal ball, if you’re a business owner, we can likely guess what’s on your mind.

How do I re-open safely?

As states begin phased re-openings, businesses are looking to state and federal directives for guidance. They’ve also been turning to us here at the Better Business Bureau for answers. To help answer questions, we (virtually) brought in Abbey Abbondandolo, Senior Director for Security and Emergency Management at St. Luke’s Health System, and Jessica Flynn, the CEO of Red Sky Public Relations. The pair spoke to a Zoom audience of hundreds of business owners, managers and employees during one of our recent webinars.

Flynn tackled how to talk to your employees and customers as you prepare to re-open.

“Consumers are wondering how they’ll be protected,” she said. “Customers are looking for that information and it’s on businesses to make sure plans are clearly communicated on different platforms.”

That means businesses should post updates on their websites with plans to re-open and how they will keep customers safe. But a website post alone may not be enough. Signs posted at a physical locations with the same re-opening and safety information, helping customers navigate your storefront, is another critical guidepost. Similarly, businesses should have a voicemail greeting with the same helpful information.

Flynn advises using a pneumonic device to communicate effectively during COVID-19:

• Humanize your company by letting your customers know you care about people, not just profit. This is a great time to show that your company is made of real, heartfelt people working for people.

• Educate customers about changes you’re making to keep them safe. Are there new ways to get in touch with your employees or new operating hours?

• Assure customers they can expect the same quality and service from your business. Remind your customers why it is still a great idea to do business with your company.

• Revolutionize what you offer your customers; is there a new way to offer a product or service that makes more sense? Never waste a crisis – some of history’s best innovations were born of necessity.

• Tackle the future by showing customers the path forward and let them know you are constantly re-evaluating relevant directives from state and federal entities.

Abbondandolo said the key to effective messaging between companies and customers it to keep it simple. No long emails, he says. While it can be tempting to delve into the minutiae of each safety procedure you’re enacting to keep customers safe, they won’t retain all of that information, or likely read it in the first place. As Flynn says, “brevity brings clarity.”

In the hospital setting, Abbondandolo said it has been helpful to pair clear and concise signage about social distancing with a smiling human. Though it’s not always easy to tell someone is smiling behind a mask, if an employee can greet confused and scared customers with kindness, it goes a long way in facilitating a calm interaction.

Still, Abbondandolo said embracing discomfort is vital for creating appropriate physical boundaries. We all need to get a little more comfortable being uncomfortable. “Yes, you can say, ‘You’re too close to me, do you mind backing up,’” he said.

It’s simple, but necessary as businesses strive to operate in a new, precarious landscape.

Finally, for businesses that are dealing with leery or agitated customers, Abbondandolo offers a tried and true de-escalation sequence that your employees should all be trained for. Follow these tips to take the tone down a notch:

1. Speak slowly

2. Lower the tone of your voice

3. Get the person’s first name

4. Use the person’s first name often

“Start with your staff,” Flynn says. “Staff needs to feel confident about what they’re communicating.”

To catch all of Flynn and Abbondandolo’s tips on re-opening, visit trust-bbb.org/coronavirus

Danielle Kane is the Oregon State Director for the Better Business Bureau Northwest + Pacific.

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