Helping Clients in Hard‑Hit Industries

How to build trust and expand your offerings in a way that serves your business for years to come.

As an agency, developer, or freelancer, you live to serve. Sure, you work to pay your bills, but if you’re like most people in this field, you’re also driven to make your clients genuinely happy.

In times of uncertainty and hardship, it can be difficult to know the best way to support your clients. Uncountable businesses are in peril right now—and more importantly, the people behind them may be really struggling. They might need you more than ever before.

Being helpful starts with being human. We talked with Sarah Williams of 816 New York, Ryan Davis of Smarthouse, and Carl Smith of Bureau of Digital about how to use your skills to serve your clients and community when it matters the most.

1. Be empathetic

Sarah Williams launched her brand strategy and communications agency 816 New York with service in mind. She wanted to apply her abilities as a writer and graphic designer to promote small businesses like restaurants, nonprofits, clean energy and tech companies, and community organizations.

She has always cultivated personal relationships with her clients. When the pandemic broke out, that made a difference.

“That's just how it's always been with me and my clients,” Sarah says. “If something really big is going on in their personal lives, I usually know about it. I've been working around those kinds of things forever. So now this is something happening in all of our personal lives, and we're collaborating to survive.”

It’s an important time to practice empathy and dig into the relational aspect of your business. If that’s not already your modus operandi, it should be moving forward.

Before launching into problems that need solving, Sarah says it’s essential to ask your clients how they are doing personally, then follow with questions about their business. This baseline of consideration builds trust, which is key for a lasting partnership.

Ryan Davis, co-founder and principal of Smarthouse Creative in Seattle, Washington, works mostly with arts and entertainment clients like independent filmmakers whose work revolves around live events. This industry was among the first thrown into upheaval when the virus hit. For her, empathy meant immediately reaching out to her clients with a message of reassurance.

“We let them know we understood they were in a transition period and may need to pause or alter their plans with us,” Ryan says. “We also sent an invitation to all our contacts offering calls to help them think through their marketing plans, providing any advice from what we were seeing from other organizations or events.”

Great service involves preempting needs and surpassing expectations; this could be your moment to come through like never before. Remind your clients that you care about them as people and that you’re invested in their success. With that as your foundation, you can work together not just to identify problems, but also how you’re going to solve them.

2. Be solution-oriented

Your clients need you to be an empathetic listener, but beyond that, they count on you for solutions. By identifying what they are experiencing first, you’ll be prepared to take their strategy to the drawing board and deliver something that works. Plus, thinking creatively about what you can offer will be a boon to your business for years to come.

Bureau of Digital co-founder Carl Smith found that problem-solving for his clientele better positioned his business to survive. Most of his revenue typically comes from in-person events where digital leaders share experiences and learn from one another. When COVID-19 necessitated lockdowns all over the world, ticket sales took a nosedive, and, understandably, people wanted their money back. Their clientele was scared, and Bureau of Digital was in jeopardy.

“We reached out to everybody who was supposed to be at the next event, and we said, ‘Hey, we know you're worried. We're worried. Here's what we're going to do. If you don't mind, let what you've paid be a credit. We're going to give you membership. We're going to do an online version of the event at no expense to you. And then when we can get together in-person again, you can use that credit, or you can give that credit to somebody else.’”

Not only did most people happily accept the offer, video testimonials began to surface from past attendees and speakers sharing how much the Bureau meant to them and their businesses. Quickly, membership more than doubled.

To keep members inspired and connected, they also reached out to their best speakers and industry leaders to plan livestreamed webinars. These events are free to members ($25 to non-members), and they’ve offered a new way for leaders in the digital world to learn from one another at a time that requires rethinking.

A lot of solutions to the current crisis rely on the ability to help your clients go more digital. This can be an opportunity to get your clients in front of an even bigger audience than usual.

“For some of our film clients there could possibly be an upside,” says Ryan. “With the majority of their potential audience at home looking for things to do, there's potential to build an even bigger viewership if they're able to bring their film or event online.”

Sarah has kept her eyes on the marketing landscape to make sure she’s offering clients everything she can and experimenting with new tactics. “If there's anything that we can roll out as a new feature or a new way to make their customer's life easier, and to just get their attention in a different way,” she says.

By letting your clients know that you’re paying attention to the evolving marketplace and trying new solutions, they can confidently focus on survival for their business.

3. Build community and then lean in

Despite physical distances required to prevent the spread of COVID-19, metaphorically, the virus has brought many people closer together. Fostering this sense of community is vital for your business and that of your clients.

Because this is new territory for everyone, people are finding the best answers by putting competition aside and sharing ideas. Ryan witnessed an immediate flurry of unique opportunities to grow together.

“It's been really remarkable how quickly the arts and entertainment community has come together to provide forums, webinars, and other resources for us all to learn from one another's experience,” she says. “We typically spend 2-3 hours a day on group calls or Zoom discussions with our peers, hearing what they are doing and how it could be helpful to our clients.”

Sarah has found success for her clients by connecting with their community, too. For restaurants she represents, like Red Lentil Vegan & Vegetarian in Boston, it’s been about spreading messages of gratitude. Among many effective tactics, she’s facilitated giveaway contents to thank their loyal customers and social content to thank the diligent staff. The message revolves around how much each side needs the other—and how thankful they are to have it.

Building genuine connections that yield results for her clients is what motivates Sarah. She is, in turn, thankful for the opportunity to flex that skill.

“The hope was always to build stronger communities. That's a really hard brand message for me to get across as a small agency because I just don't have the visibility that bigger agencies have. And so this is an opportunity for me to shine and to show people that this is really what we do well,” she says.

Beyond connecting to serve your clients and their audiences, it’s been a meaningful time for collaboration between industry peers. Not only have members of the Bureau of Digital looked to one another for camaraderie via tools like Slack, they’ve also banded together to boost each other’s businesses and keep people employed.

When agencies have lost projects, Carl has witnessed fellow members of the Bureau swoop in to provide work for people who would otherwise be without it. “People put aside their personal gain to try to lift up the whole community.”

4. Keep moving forward, a little stronger than before

Business will be different moving forward. There’s beauty in that, if you look for it.

“This is the time to share ideas, rethink the usual way of doing things, and be open to change,” says Ryan.

The way you think about your relationship to your clients, the services you provide, and how you contribute to a community might become more fundamental to your work than prior metrics of success. That’s encouraging to Carl.

“Don't try to get back to yesterday,” he says. “Don't worry about what was. Look at the opportunities in what is; everybody still wants us to win.”

When you feel scared or unsure of how to help your clients in times like these, Sarah recommends bearing your original motivations in mind.

“This is actually why I got into this—to show that somebody who is in marketing can actually make a difference on a bigger level.”

Jodi Cash is a freelance writer and photojournalist who covers small business, community, and sustainability. She runs a site about all 3 called The Seed & Plate.