We all know how easy it is to fall prey to a communication faux pas. Businesses do themselves no favors when they actively approach controversial topics or speak about controversial or insensitive elements in their communications. The situation is even more fragile during a time of crisis, when everybody tends to be more tense and short-tempered.

A company’s interaction with its customers is usually the first point of contact between both parties. If you engage them with something off-color or in poor taste, it could backfire immensely. What elements should a company avoid in their customer communication? These 16 associates of Forbes Communications Council offer their insight into how companies can avoid sending the wrong message to their customers during a time of crisis, and why management should be well aware of how the company connects to its clients.

Members share the top things to avoid when speaking to your customers during sensitive times.

Photos courtesy of the individual members

1. Don’t Make It About Yourself

During uncertain times, customers may not remember what you’re promoting, but they will remember how you made them feel through a crisis. Leave the marketing blitz and hype to holidays and anniversaries. Screaming promotions during difficult times could cheapen your brand long term, with resulting backlash. Effective communication is the heart of engagement and brand loyalty. It’s not about you. – Amena Karim

2. Stop The Generic Messages

Stop the generic emails and webinar invites. Send an email from your CEO to customers, empathizing with what’s happening in the industry, economy, the health crisis. Schedule a weekly “Ask Me Anything” Q&A session with the CEO so customers and partners can have a live, honest conversation with the head of the company. Trust me: your clients will appreciate the transparency and access to the CEO, and this will drive loyalty. – Parna Sarkar-Basu, Brand and Buzz Marketing, LLC.

3. Don’t Forget To Be Human First

Financial, technical and logistical issues may need to be addressed, but first, consider the human on the other end of your message. With the current COVID crisis, it is easy to get consumed in the economic ramifications, but this is foremost a human crisis. Pay attention to the sentiment of your customers — they are humans first and are likely dealing with a lot of uncertainty. – Stephen Tarleton, LogicMonitor

4. Don’t Ignore The Situation

Address what’s going on instead of pretending the situation doesn’t exist. You have to change your communications as they can’t continue to be “business as usual.” By listening and empathizing, you show that you care and can grow even closer than before. If you’re insensitive, you can alienate your customer base and develop bad PR. – Roshni Wijayasinha, Foxquilt

5. Don’t Confuse Your Customers

Leaders must understand that customers want clarity and honesty when there is a crisis. Leaders should avoid at all costs speaking or releasing prepared statements that confuse the customer or give the impression that no one is in charge. In addition, customers want to know that a plan is in place to correct or minimize the issue. What do leaders need to do most? Lead. – Brittain Ladd, PULSE Integration

6. Avoid Sales Pitching

Do not sell right now! When times are tough, the last thing customers want is to hear a sales pitch. Your direct communications should be authentic and caring — focused on what your customers are experiencing. It could be as simple as asking how they are or saying something comforting. Also, doing the right thing by customers and employees right now will also “speak” volumes indirectly. – Elizabeth Shea, REQ

7. Don’t Make Empty Promises

When communicating with customers during a time of crisis, it’s imperative that you avoid making empty promises such as, “We’ll do everything we can” while you don’t do “everything” or “We’re there for you” while your support lines still shut down at 5 p.m. If you make a promise in your customer communications, make sure you’re living up to it (and then some!). – Brian Fugere, symplr

8. Avoid Sharing Confidential Internal Info

There are some things you shouldn’t share with customers and should simply keep to yourself. If you are experiencing internal operational and business changes, you don’t have to mention it to the customer unless it is something that will directly impact them. The last thing you want to do is display any instability in your organization and develop uncertainty or negative emotion. – Michael Georgiou, Imaginovation

9. Avoid A “Race To The Bottom”

If you’re seeing your competitors offering special discounts or pricing, think twice before you jump on that bandwagon. Do a quick pro forma for what you expect a promotion to deliver, and carefully consider the message you’re sending to your future customers. For business-to-business marketers in particular, using steep discounts can smack of desperation and sow doubt as to your future viability. – Judy Gern, Loyalty Builders

10. Avoid Lack Of Empathy

In today’s difficult times, the one thing that companies need to avoid is a lack of empathy when communicating with customers. Customers are people, companies or organizations that are all faced with varying degrees of challenges and pain. Companies need to be sensitive to these potential challenges in their communications, to listen, and to find ways to help their communities and customers. – Tom Treanor, Arm Treasure Data

11. Don’t Be Tone-Deaf

You need to be conscious of the fact that everyone’s world is completely different. You need to communicate authentic and sincere empathy. Your messaging should be around trying to help however you can, not by selling stuff or ignoring the topic altogether. You may need to publish content you wouldn’t normally consider in order to help and make an emotional connection during the crisis. – Heidi Green, BrightMove, Inc.

12. Avoid Being A Car Salesman

One of the challenging things to do is promoting a product without sounding insensitive or making a customer feel you’re only talking to them to make a sale. That’s what I call the “car salesman” approach. Showing compassion and empathy and sharing proactive steps is key to not only improving your company’s image but creating a media moment that can help people and not use them. – Mary Elizabeth Elkordy, TransparentBusiness

13. Avoid Delays In Communications

Treat your customer communications like a first-response dispatch. You don’t always need to have the right answer to every problem, but you do need to demonstrate that you’re immediately on the case and have a plan to find the right answer. – Wayne Congar, MAZ Systems Inc

14. Avoid Self-Serving Communications

Customers and their needs should always take center stage in customer communication, crisis or not. It’s not about your company, your products or your solutions. It’s about addressing your customers’ needs, showing that you’re in tune with the difficulties they face and having the patience to listen. Then you can apply your creativity to adjust to a new set of constraints and find solutions together. – Isabelle Dumont, Cowbell Cyber

15. Don’t Enable Your Sales Team Members

Yup, I said it. Before you jump, let me explain. Enable your sales team members with the right communications that help position them and your brand in a strategic partner light rather than a “supplier” or “vendor” — one just here to sell. Now is the perfect time to help your team members reposition who they are for your clients with thought leadership pieces and killer content marketing. – Katie Kirschner, NCR

16. Avoid Excessive ‘Fake’ Sympathetic Narratives

Given how inundated we all are with the COVID-19 pandemic and the media surrounding all of this, businesses need to be vigilant about not coming across too over-the-top, i.e., inauthentic within the undertones of their corporate communications attempting to sympathize with their target markets. Particularly when it’s the “we care for you = which is why we’ve got this special offer for you” approach… – A.J Minai, Subture