- Supply chain issues rank as the second-biggest concern among small business owners this year, trailing only inflation.
- Most experts predict supply chains won’t return to their pre-pandemic normal until 2023 at the earliest.
- Transparent, authentic communication is critical for small business owners to manage consumer expectations.
- This article is for small business leaders and employees who deal directly with customers.
The shirt you ordered was supposed to arrive last month. Then it was delayed until two weeks ago. Now it won’t ship until at least next month.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because product delays have become the norm rather than the exception. Whether it’s clothing, furniture, household appliances, or even bottled water, supply chain disruptions are wreaking havoc on the ability of businesses large and small to meet consumer demand.
Worse yet, that disruption is likely to persist at least through the end of the year, predicted Michael Wolf, a global economist with consulting firm Deloitte.
“There are still a lot of problems,” he said, citing the bottlenecks at ports, the war in Ukraine, and increased costs resulting from inflation as just some of the issues.
Small business owners seem to agree. According to new data from MetLife and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Small Business Index, supply chain issues rank as the second-biggest concern for small business owners so far this year, trailing inflation and just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic and worker shortage.
The number of small business owners citing supply chain issues as their biggest problem jumped eight percentage points to 26% in the first quarter of 2022 from 18% in the fourth quarter of 2021. Underscoring the anxiety the disruption is causing, 3 in 4 small business owners are concerned about the impact of supply chain issues on their companies.
Did you know?: The impact of supply chain issues now ranks as a bigger concern for small business owners than COVID-19 and the worker shortage.
Part of small business owners’ concern stems from their customers’ frustration. They don’t want to hear about supply chain delays; they want to know why they can’t get the products they need. For small business owners, who often lack the marketing and public relations apparatus of larger organizations, that makes communicating with customers critical.
Here are some tips from business communications experts for how small business owners can effectively address supply chain challenges and manage customer expectations.
1. Listen and empathize.
By now, most people are at least vaguely aware of problems with the supply chain. They understand on an intellectual level what the issues are, but on an emotional level, they sometimes just need to vent, said Andrew Ogilvie, assistant professor of clinical business communications at the University of Southern Carolina.
“A really great customer experience in 2022 isn’t about what you say, but how you listen,” he said. [Related article: Superior Customer Service Turns Crisis Into Opportunity]
Empathy and sincerity can go a long way in easing consumer frustration. As Ogilvie puts it, “They don’t want to hear why the bed they ordered is delayed for a few months; they want you to tell them you think it sucks as much as they do that it can’t be delivered when they want it.”
For small business owners who are already wearing too many hats to manage customer communications but want to remain available, the best call center services offer a wide range of customer service plans, from phone lines to email inboxes. If your customer satisfaction is suffering, make sure your customers feel heard by outsourcing your customer service department to a dependable third party – ideally one that gives you complete transparent access to your customers’ data.
2. Be transparent and proactive.
Being upfront about what the challenges are and what you are doing about them can answer a lot of questions before they are asked. Let customers know if there is a delay or shortage with the product they want and when they can expect it before their order is placed, for instance.
“Set realistic expectations and don’t make any guarantees,” said Carla Bevins, assistant teaching professor of business communications at Carnegie Mellon University. She advises small business owners to be proactive about getting customers to sign up for email or text alerts so updates and notifications can be pushed to them.
Tip: Keep your customers informed of product arrivals and delays with clear, concise, consistent messaging across platforms.
3. Use multiple touchpoints.
To paraphrase legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s approach to making news memorable for a television audience, “First you tell them, then you tell them again, then you tell them what you told them.”
The same principle of repetition applies to supply chain problems. Keep your customers informed with clear, concise, consistent messaging across platforms. Display in-store signage on racks and registers. Make sure all employees have the same messaging, including availability, alternative options in stock, and any discounts or rewards associated with the item. Post alerts on your company’s website. Directly message customers by email or text. Posts updates on social media. [Learn more about using social media for customer service.]
Bevins suggests a diversity of distribution tactics – such as an email one day, text the next – that build on each other with new information.
“Communicate more than you think you need to,” she said. “Send snackable messages that create a breadcrumb trail of information.”
Small businesses today can manage multiple channels with ease if they use the right solutions. For entrepreneurs looking to stay in touch with customers wherever they are, there are tools like email marketing software for newsletters and company updates, text message marketing software for reaching customers on their cell phones, and location-based services for reaching customers in the local area.
4. Offer rewards.
If you don’t already have some kind of customer loyalty program or frequent shopper rewards, now would be a good time to launch one. Build on the relationship you already have with your customers, Wolf said. Free shipping, for instance, is an obvious way to reward a loyal customer for their patience if you can afford it. So is something as simple as a free T-shirt, which also reinforces company branding if your customer wears it in public. Use customer data to create personalized rewards for your most loyal customers. [Related article: How to Manage Data for a Small Business]
5. Build a feedback loop.
Whatever you do, measure its effectiveness, Bevins said. Use customer satisfaction surveys to gauge how they feel about tone and frequency, for instance. Track what messages are being accessed and on what platforms. Segment your audiences and optimize information continuously.
Whatever data you have, be it analog or digital, use it to create a feedback loop between you and your customers. Those insights can help small businesses owners create effective communications plans long after the supply chain crisis is over, Bevins said.
To track your customer communications, consider choosing customer relationship management (CRM) software for your sales and marketing teams. CRM software not only stores customer contact information and notes, but tracks recent communications in a centralized place. This way, you can update your customers who are waiting on an order as the status changes – and monitor dissatisfied customers. If you’re in the market for this solution, consider our choices for the best CRM software.
Key takeaway: Leverage customer data to learn how people feel about the tone, frequency, and effectiveness of your messaging, and adjust communications plans accordingly.
What’s next for small business supply chains?
Most experts agree that supply chains won’t return to their pre-pandemic normal until 2023 at the earliest. That means small businesses should already be planning for the second half of 2022 and the all-important holiday shopping season. As the MetLife-Chamber report showed, a majority of small business owners are already concerned about the impact of supply chain delays on their businesses this year.
In addition to laying out your financial plans and inventory needs, you should be developing a communications strategy for your small business to address any issues that arise. The tips above can help you build an effective one.