Our panel of experts discusses how you can stay connected with your customers during the coronavirus outbreak.

Struggling to stay connected to your audience during coronavirus? CO—'s expert panel served up insider perspectives on how businesses are managing to keep customers engaged during the crisis while adapting their strategies to weather the storm.

Marcus Davis, entrepreneur and founder of Houston restaurant The Breakfast Klub; Hailley Griffis, head of public relations for social platform Buffer; and Dennis Steele, co-founder of Podium, which provides messaging tools to local businesses, spoke with CO—'s content director Jeanette Mulvey.

Here are seven critical takeaways from the discussion.

Adapt to the marketplace’s immediate needs, explore untapped revenue sources

For Marcus Davis, entrepreneur and founder of Houston restaurant The Breakfast Klub, the pandemic has forced him to swiftly pivot his business to what the market is calling for now. That meant closing two locations, and shifting his two other locations into takeout, delivery and online-ordering hubs.

It also forced his attention to neglected areas of the business, such as The Breakfast Klub’s product line of items like seasonings and pancake mixes, which has now become an unexpected new revenue stream. “Right now, we have sold the most products than we have sold in the history of our company. I have a stack of boxes table-high that have to go out,” Davis said.

“The pandemic forces you into a position to listen to the marketplace and create what the marketplace is calling for,” he said.

Tap technology that keeps you open for business: touchless payments, texting and video calls

Dennis Steele, co-founder of Podium, which provides messaging tools to local businesses, said the crisis has transformed technology like touch-free mobile payments from a nice-to-have tool to a must-have tool, as today, “the only experience you can have with your customer is messaging and touchless, so it’s forced our customers to adapt,” he said.

Businesses across industries are shifting their in-person transactions to virtual ones, like a jewelry store that has added mobile payment capabilities and video calls to its toolbox, and a car dealership that is now conducting “virtual tourism” on its lot, Steele said.

Creating a friction-free process for consumers now is more important than ever, which is why Podium is also offering a free Text-to-Takeout feature to enable online ordering, payment processing and customer pickup all via text for local restaurants affected by the pandemic. “Businesses need to stay open and customers need to transact,” Steele said.

Leverage your brand reach via customer data

It might sound simple, but reaching out to shoppers in mass at this time is critical. “This is where years of data building has come into place,” Davis said. “That is a major source of information.”

Davis explained how he tapped into The Breakfast Klub’s customer database of thousands of email addresses, phone numbers, and culled through thousands of social media posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to reach out and connect with its guests.

Seek out best practices in your sector via industry resources

Businesses would be wise to identify how industry peers are navigating the crisis effectively, and then adapt accordingly, panel members said.

Podium, for one, has compiled a list of best practices across industries to serve as a resource to the business community, Steele said.

The entrepreneur cannot exist without the community and the community cannot exist without the entrepreneur.

Marcus Davis, founder, The Breakfast Klub

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Create compelling content on the right social channels

Businesses don't have to be on every social channel right now: They should instead focus on one or two platforms where their customers are already spending time and engaging them there, said Griffis of Buffer, the social media management platform.

Consumers are now turning to social media for compelling content that offers solutions and even advice, she said. "Our customers who are small businesses created their small business to solve problems for their community,” Griffis said, “and now their community has a new set of problems. So, their community might be looking to them to solve these new problems now.”

The right message? An authentic and empathetic one

What’s the right way to communicate with customers? Authentically and empathically, speakers said. “The entrepreneur cannot exist without the community and the community cannot exist without the entrepreneur,” Davis said. The restauranteur has been “thanking them for 18 years of supporting us — from hurricanes to the 2008 recession,” he said.

In turn, it’s critical to communicate to consumers what small businesses mean to this nation, he said. “You’re not just buying biscuits, you’re buying baby formula for the cashier,” he said, “helping them to sustain during this time.”

Even just the power of a text message to say, “We’re open and we’re here for you,” goes a long way, Steele said.

Stoke goodwill gestures that will bear fruit post-crisis

Panel members stressed the importance of having an attitude of gratitude during this time of adversity and uncertainty, and embodying that by extending a helping hand. That might mean offering something for nothing. Podium has done just that with the recent launch of Podium Starter, what Steele called a “freemium” version of Podium. “We want to help businesses stay in business, so you can keep your doors open and keep communicating with customers,” he said.