Today’s world…ugh. What can we say? Not only did we just come out of a recent global pandemic involving a novel virus, but we are teetering on the brink of economic problems, rising costs, layoffs, border concerns, real estate bubbles, and additional economic calamities. It can all feel like a house of cards. As a chamber pro, you may find yourself holding your breath and wondering, what could happen now?
While no one wants members (and the community at large) to have to go through these difficult times, you may be able to turn it around for your members. Chambers of commerce can emerge as beacons of support, offering a range of resources and strategies to help struggling businesses weather difficult times. But how do you do it without spreading yourself too thin and how can you play a pivotal role in assisting businesses facing adversity?
Before going into specifics about how you might help struggling businesses, you should know that just like your commitment to them in the golden times, your loyalty to businesses in darker times impacts and shapes your chamber at all levels. The answers to how you will help must permeate every part of the chamber culture, not just one segment.
However, the three major areas you’ll want to focus on for maximum impact and assistance are:
During times of difficulty, it’s important to think of your audience and adopt an empathetic communication style. This concept is a lot broader than simply being a good listener.
Adopting an empathetic communication style helps you effectively support and connect with struggling businesses. Empathy involves understanding and sharing the feelings of others, and in the context of communication, it means conveying understanding, care, and support.
Here are some key steps a chamber can take to adopt an empathetic communication style:
Actively listen to the concerns and needs of businesses. Give them full attention, ask clarifying questions, and demonstrate genuine interest in understanding their perspectives.
Different businesses may face unique challenges. If you’re unaware of these, speak to the various industries and types of businesses in your community. Then tailor communication to address the specific needs they have.
Foster Open and Transparent Communication
Encourage an environment of openness and transparency. Communicate available resources, support initiatives, and any changes in policies. This builds trust and ensures businesses are well-informed, reducing uncertainty and anxiety.
Additionally, if your businesses are struggling with getting information from an entity like the City, investigate how you might be a point person for them on the information they need. This could help your members and the beleaguered City employee(s).
Express Empathy in Tone and Language
Choose language that is empathetic, supportive, and easy to understand. Communicate with a tone that conveys reassurance. Demonstrate the chamber is there to assist and support.
Use Personalized Communication
Personalize communication to acknowledge the specific challenges faced by individual businesses. A one-size-fits-all approach isn’t as effective as tailoring messages to resonate with the unique circumstances of each recipient. Think about the difficulties retail had versus restaurants during COVID shutdowns. Restaurants could switch to takeout while many retail places remained closed.
Recognize and acknowledge the emotions businesses may be experiencing, whether it's frustration, fear, or uncertainty. Validating these emotions demonstrates empathy and creates a connection with the business community.
Establish Two-Way Communication Channels
Create channels for businesses to express their concerns and provide feedback. Possible ideas include surveys, town hall meetings, or polls. Seek input and involve businesses in the decision-making process to enhance their sense of agency and importance.
Offer Responsive and Timely Communication
Respond promptly to inquiries and concerns raised by businesses. Timeliness in communication shows the chamber is attentive and prioritizes the needs of its members.
Clear and consistent communication is crucial during difficult times. Chambers can play a pivotal role in disseminating information about available resources, policy changes, and best practices. Regular newsletters, webinars, and online forums can serve as platforms for sharing vital information and fostering a sense of community among businesses.
Demonstrate Empathy Through Actions
Actions speak volumes. Implement programs, initiatives, and policies that directly address the identified needs and challenges of struggling businesses. Don’t wait for things to get better. Show them you understand their needs now. Actions reinforce the sincerity of the chamber's empathetic communication.
The types of programming and events you offer may change during difficult times. Sponsorships may change as well. Understand what the average business in your community is going through and examine the chamber offerings under that lens. Can businesses still afford thousands of dollars on a table? Even if they can, do they want the community to see them using the money for tables one week and laying off the next? What types of sponsorships and programming might you offer to help those who can afford to spend look better in the eyes of the community? And what types of things might you offer to those who are struggling?
Once you decide what programming and offerings are best during these times, know that you’ll need to talk about the elephant in the room. Many leaders shy away from discussing difficult times. There’s a superstition around the topic. Some people act like if we don’t address it, we won’t feel it. That’s simply not the case. Address the issues and make them part of the conversation. Talk about what you’re doing to help.
Look at the recent IKEA commercial and how it looks to build empathy through addressing hard times:
As part of your marketing during tough times, consider what you’re doing for your members and the community and make sure everyone knows how you’re helping and what assistance is available.
Some ideas you’ll want to highlight include:
Chambers are known for their extensive networks of businesses, government officials, and industry leaders. Leveraging these connections can be a lifeline for struggling businesses. You can facilitate these connections, creating a collaborative ecosystem that fosters support by encouraging businesses to talk about what they need.
Access to Financial Assistance
During tough economic times, businesses often require financial assistance to stay afloat. You can serve as an intermediary (or might already be doing so), connecting struggling businesses with available grants, loans, or other financial aid programs. Hosting webinars or workshops to educate businesses on how to access these resources is a proactive approach to ensuring the information reaches those who need it the most.
Advocacy and Government Relations
Advocate for policies that benefit local businesses during challenging times. By actively engaging with local, state, and federal governments, you can influence decisions that directly impact struggling businesses. Whether it's pushing for tax relief, regulatory changes, or economic stimulus packages, the collective voice of a chamber can amplify the concerns and needs of the business community. When you’re advocating, make sure you’re also educating and letting your community know why specific legislation will help (or hinder) them.
Training and Skill Development
In times of crisis, businesses need to adapt their operations or pivot their business models. Chambers can provide valuable training and skill development programs to help their members navigate these changes successfully. For instance, your programming might assist a retail business in transitioning to e-commerce or implementing effective digital marketing strategies. By enhancing the skills of local businesses, you contribute to the overall resilience of the community.
Mental Health Initiatives and Well-being Support
Chambers and businesses are starting to notice the importance of mental health initiatives in weathering difficult times and stressful events. You may find that this is a good addition to your programming as it improves quality of life and helps businesses with retention efforts.
Additionally, struggling businesses often face not only financial stress but also emotional and mental strain. Chambers can offer resources and support for mental health and well-being, recognizing the holistic needs of business owners and their employees. This can include access to counseling services, stress management workshops, or community-building events to foster a supportive environment.
In addition to marketing the chamber programming, you can spearhead collaborative marketing campaigns to boost the visibility of struggling businesses. By showcasing success stories—otherwise known as hero building—promoting local products and services, and encouraging community support, chambers can contribute to the economic recovery of their members. Joint marketing initiatives also create a sense of solidarity among businesses, reinforcing the community's commitment to overcoming challenges together.
Hero building also improves morale. When businesses see that one of their own was able to come back from terrible times, they may feel less alone.
In times of crisis, you can be instrumental in supporting struggling businesses with a multifaceted approach. Through communication, programming, and marketing, you can foster a sense of community and contribute to the resilience and recovery of the business landscape in your area. As you work together, you’ll create a stronger foundation for overcoming challenges and building a more resilient and interconnected community.
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