For small and growing businesses, being able to recognize when customer sentiment is shifting in a negative direction is critical to successfully adapting to your market circumstances. This ability is more relevant than ever, as bad reviews, toxic commentary, and a general sense of negativity seem to have permeated a variety of discourses beyond the continuously growing party-based political divide here in the U.S.  Paul Jarvis, an author and entrepreneur whose newsletter I’ve subscribed to for a number of years, published an article earlier this year that expresses the phenomena from his perspective. His article opens:

I’ve noticed a concerning trend lately: small business owners who sell anything are being seen and labeled as the enemy by some folks online. The logic I assume goes: a few people online do shitty things (like promoting their products every 30 minutes to their list or making hard/impossible to get refunds), therefore everyone who does anything online is currently doing shitty things and must be punished!

It isn’t important whether an increased sense of negativity is present in your market right now or not. It is something that will come and go over time. What is important is that you have the ability, structure, and process that you can use to assess your customers’ mood so that you can tailor your approach to business to reflect changing sentiments. Sometimes you can influence your customer’s mood, and sometimes you can’t.  But adapting your approach in a process-driven way means that you can focus on what you can control: how you communicate, how you market your company, and how you interact with customers moving through the sales process.

Meeting your customers where they are—as opposed to where you want them to be—is about letting go of why a person trusts or doesn’t trust your business and acknowledging that you will, at some point or another, work with potential customers who could be in either camp. That’s why adjusting and adapting your approach to reflect whatever state your customers are in when they first interact with your company is crucial to master.

Meeting Your Customers Where They Are: The Starting Point

The first step to being able to adapt your company’s approach to clients and learning how to act in a way that matches the behaviors and emotional states that your customers are in is knowing how you are going to categorize market and customer sentiments. Speaking with clients who have chosen to use the behaviors and processes discussed in Left of Bang: How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life  and taught in our Tactical Analysis Course to improve how they interact with their customers, they often realize the very stark difference between a market that can be categorized as having positive atmospherics and a market that has negative atmospherics.

Places or markets that have positive atmospherics are areas and entities where customers feel safe, not threatened. They are places and entities in which customers don’t experience any stress in their interactions. Markets and areas with negative atmospherics, on the other hand, are places where customers don’t feel safe, where they feel threatened, or where they experience stress because of the company.

Recognizing that the collective mood for your particular market is negative—or recognizing that things are shifting towards a negative sentiment—is an important observation to make, as the collective mood has a huge the impact on your customers’ behaviors. Perceiving something threatening or stress-inducing triggers the “Uncomfortable Cluster” of behavior which, as these behaviors are universal and observable, provide a very clear feedback loop to businesses who recognize that customer discomfort can be a problem, especially when pursuing goals to build relationships with those groups.  Observing the uncomfortable cluster can serve as a warning sign, especially to small businesses, that they may need to change their actions to match the needs of their customers. And when businesses fail to make these behavioral observations, there can be serious consequences.

The Customer Experience and the Impact of Discomfort

Before we talk about how a business can respond to recognizing that its market is turning negative, it is important to understand the consequences and risks of failing to recognize discomfort and negative atmospherics.

Think about someone who has the choice of going to two different grocery stores.  The first grocery store is clean, well maintained, orderly, and a place where the customer is comfortable for an extended time as they walk up and down every aisle to get what they need.  The second grocery store is dirty with disorganized shelves, and there are people standing around the aisles who are clearly not there to shop, but to leer at those who are. How long would you stay in the second store? Probably not for very long. That is because most people choose to shop in stores and areas that don’t make them feel threatened or stressed.  People don’t want to be in areas where their fight or flight response is triggered while simply shopping for groceries.

When people become uncomfortable and perceive threats and stressors in their shopping experience, they will likely spend less time in the store. They will try their hardest to get in and get out as quickly as possible. This minimizes the amount they might spend than they would if they were relaxed. When people are uncomfortable, they are more likely to be closed-off, guarded, and protective of what is theirs. They are in a store because they have to be there to get something they need, not because they wanted to or because they chose your store over a competitor. Feeling like they have been forced to shop from a specific brand contributes to a sense of wariness and leads customers to question the intent and trustworthiness of the business. None of these are ideal situations for a company looking to establish relationships with customers that will allow the business to succeed both now and for years into the future.

As small business owners consider these consequences, whether their business is centered around a physical shopping experience or is primarily an online enterprise, it is worth mentioning that it doesn’t matter if your store is the thing creating or contributing to a negative atmospheric or not.  What matters is what your customer entering your store or online ecosystem thinks. You might own an online business that truly puts your customers first, but if the press around big tech companies leads your customers to think that many, or some, or all online businesses are unethical, manipulative, or only acting in their own self-interest, they may bring that perception with them to your website.

For instance, let’s say you own a truly service-minded, small- to medium-sized defense contracting company. However, if the Washington Post articles about the “Afghanistan Papers” or other negative press about the actions of other defense contractors means that employees, vendors, and supply-chain partners view your actions through a skeptical lens, that perception has the potential to permeate all of your meetings, negotiations, and contracts if you don’t address it.

Taking Your Customers Where You Want Them: The Final Step

In response to negative market and customer sentiments, it is easy for businesses to get defensive, say that it isn’t fair, or blame others for contributing to the problem. But these approaches do nothing to solve the problem, as the perception that customers bring with them and bring into your interactions is often nothing more the current reality for that particular customer. That mood, however, becomes the starting point that you have to acknowledge so that you can begin to adjust your practices and processes to meet them where they are.

We can’t tell you exactly how you should respond to a negative collective mood in your market in an article.  That answer and the actions you decide to take should be based on your business goals, your chosen strategy, and your view of the relationship that you want to have with your customers. Does taking action guarantee that a negative collective mood won’t impact your business? Of course not, but it does allow companies to focus on the areas where their current and prospective customers interact with them and use their behaviors to guide the most informed approach available. The process of assessing behavior allows people to focus on the areas of their customer interactions that can be controlled. It lets them identify the areas that can be influenced, and it helps people realize that there will be some things can never be controlled, and that should therefore not bother them when they don’t go your way.  Assessing behavior informs the approach.

Small businesses have competition and operating in a way that is either ignorant of the collective mood in the market or unprepared to adapt and succeed in any market condition is no path to long-term success.  The information that growing businesses need to thrive is there and visible, it is just a matter of knowing how to assess it and how to use it. If you don’t use it, it is likely that someone else will put customers first.  But why should another company have the upper hand? Success is there for the companies who put their customers first and meet them where they are.