Minburn Communications helped it’s community recover from the COVID-19 economic slump by providing incentives for employees to shop local.
Andy Johns: More than a year into the pandemic, what are some telcos still doing to help members and customers respond? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host with WordSouth. And I’m joined on this episode by Kristi Petersen, who is a marketing and PR manager at Minburn Communications in Iowa. Kristi, thanks for joining me.
Kristi Petersen: Well, thank you, Andy. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Andy Johns: So Kristi comes to us today. Well, I’m not sure exactly the timing on this podcast whether it will come out after the miniseries has started. But Kristi was sent my way for this podcast after Carrie Huckeby, who is the host of our new miniseries “Journey: Exploring the Customer Experience.” But Kristi’s boss, Deb Lucht, is going to be on that miniseries. You’ve not had a chance to listen to that yet if it’s out. So if you have a chance to make sure that you check out that podcast. It’ll be on the same feed. It’s a six episode series looking at the customer experience and how rural telcos across the country are putting that together. Carrie Huckeby is the host of that one. She’s great. The podcast is great. I think you’re going to love it. So, Kristi, we’ve got the commercial out of the way. It’s time that we can talk about what we’re here to talk about today, which is the way that you guys responded to the Covid pandemic, and I guess are still responding.
Kristi Petersen: Excellent. Yes. Well, even though we’re a year after when the pandemic actually began, I know that we’re all still feeling the impacts of what that did to our economy and to our business operations.
Andy Johns: Definitely. Definitely. And one of the things right off the top, one of the things I want to talk about is, you know, there’s been a lot of talk here this spring about stimulus checks coming out. And, you know, stimulating the economy has been a big piece of the government response. But you guys had your own stimulus program or that you guys were doing for your folks as well.
Kristi Petersen: Absolutely. So after we saw our local businesses having to close their brick and mortar locations, we reached out to them to ensure that we were going to continue their connections so that if they didn’t have a voice mail service or if they weren’t needing the amount of bandwidth that they were subscribing to because of the lack of their being in the office, we offered them solutions to help keep them connected with either a new voicemail account or reducing their bandwidth speed or putting them on a furlough plan. That was very well received by those business customers. They were very appreciative. When they were able to reopen their doors, people were still reluctant about going out. And those local businesses are some of our bread and butter. If they’re not surviving, then that is a direct impact to our bottom line. So a unique way that we thought we could help, in addition to the service offering, was to give our own employees a stimulus. Each week, employees were given $15 to spend at any one of our local businesses just to help sparse some of that economy on their behalf. So that meant they could go to the local grocery store and make their purchases during the week. They could go to the restaurants and a little coffee shops, if you will, and support their activities. And spending that $15 where the company was reimbursing and giving back to the community then.
Andy Johns: I love that because not only does that help the businesses, it’s kind of a nice little perk for your employees to keep them happy. You know, it was a trying time for everybody. I really like that idea. I really like that approach. Can we get into the mechanics of that a little bit? How did that work? Were there are gift cards, or was it like a stipend that showed up on their paychecks? How did that work?
Kristi Petersen: Right, we implemented really, really quickly. Essentially we just communicated the opportunity for each employee to receive this $15, and they would proceed and make their purchase directly and then they just had to submit receipts every week to our accounting department, and then would be reimbursed for those expenses. So it was very easy to manage. It just became, you know, expense reimbursement that we could code and tract directly to our Covid financial to our account, if you will.
Andy Johns: That’s a smart way to do it. And a lot simpler than having to give out dozens of $15 gift cards every week. So I think that’s a smart way to do it.
Kristi Petersen: We didn’t want to control where the customers were spending those dollars. And those purchases, I would say the majority of them went to a lunch. But we have a couple little clothing boutiques that are locally owned as well. And so some of us gals took advantage of making some purchases there and utilizing those dollars, which was also a lot of fun. I believe maybe some maintenance on vehicles was also utilized with our local mechanic. And the feedback that we got from those community members was just overwhelming. We even received kind of kudos or acknowledgment from our mayor and what word that was very encouraging to hear positive feedback. And that positive word of mouth is just, you know, advertising and PR that you can’t pay for.
Andy Johns: Absolutely. And that goodwill, I’m sure, is continuing on. I mean, you talk about an impact when when folks really needed something like that. One of the other things that you guys did was try to help find the at risk folks and kind of step out there and find some of the folks that you thought might be in a little bit of trouble.
Kristi Petersen: That is true. So we did participate in a lot of the federal and state programs that were available. The PPE and we had some CARES Act funding available through our state. And, of course, our customers were eligible to receive the stimulus. Customers who were in the service industry, who weren’t allowed to come in and work, were pretty much furloughed and/or let go, if you will. And they were at risk for not being able to afford some of these services, including their Internet, their TV and phone connections. So we took it upon ourselves to develop our own pandemic plan for Minburn Communications. And basically it was for any of those at risk customers who were not able to pay and/or were in a financially impacted Covid situation. What we offered was a six month program to reduce those costs. It was applicable to the broadband and to our phone service, the essential service. We did not allow it for our video, but we reduced that monthly fee for six months. And through that whole transition on when customers were offered this program, and I believe it was August when we implemented it. We now have customers who are back and paying their regular price and we’re very appreciative. We were only at risk and/or lost one customer due to not being able to continue the services.
Kristi Petersen: So we were very pleased with what we were able to provide. It also gave those customers who had kids who were learning remote or if they were required to work from home, an opportunity to readjust, if you will. Because a lot of them had to up their speeds, and we helped them work through what that meant. They were calling with trouble saying, you know, “we’re dropping,” or “it’s slow.” Or “we’ve seeing a lot of latency.” Well helping to educate them on why that was happening with all of this bandwidth usage and that they needed to increase their bandwidth take was an awful strong point and component. We are 100% fiber. So it was a very easy transition for us to make customers. It was crazy to see that broadband consumption, whereas typical peak hours, late afternoon, evening hours you would expect and our usage almost stabilized at high rates and peaks, you know, throughout the day. So it was, you know, not only an impact on them, but an impact on our bandwidth as well.
Andy Johns: I believe it. I mean, right here at our house, we had two folks working from home and one child schooling from home. All day long, I can certainly see that being the case now. With the good work that you guys were doing, and I like both of those approaches. The results there are pretty remarkable to only have the one disconnect, like you said, or the one person who wasn’t able to come back. You got some pretty good recognition for the SBA, for the work that you guys were doing. Do you mind telling us a little bit about that?
Kristi Petersen: You bet. We did. Little did we know that others were really watching outside of our community. The SBA had reached out to our state association, the Iowa Communications Alliance, knowing that the issues that people were having with not getting a reliable broadband connection. They were seeking stories or examples of how telecommunication companies and rural communities like ours had utilized the paycheck protection program funding from the SBA to help support broadband expansion and/or connections. When the SBA contacted the state association, they immediately referred them to Minburn Communications. We were pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from them requesting an interview. Well, not every day do you get a call from the SBA wanting an interview to validate how you’ve used federal funds, right. So you have to put on your what media relations cap and make sure that you are fully understanding their intent before you give them a story. And so I dove into it a little bit and learned very quickly that they really, truly were looking at the unique ways and how we’ve implemented those funds and what those PPP dollars enabled us to do. So we gave them that interview, and it was a lot of fun. And we shared the fact that the PPP dollars allowed us to purchase the safety equipment for all of our technicians that we necessarily didn’t have. So that included full suits and of course, the protective gloves and face mask and foot gear, so on. It gave us also the opportunity to create new operational procedures that allowed our technicians to continue to serve our customers in a safe manner. We rebranded temporarily our tagline, which is “delivering world class connections with the hometown touch,” but we modified that to “world class connections with a hometown no touch.” So it was a fun spin that customers recognized, and the SBA really thought that was a fun twist as well.
Andy Johns: Nice. That’s good. I know that you have a little bit of background in agency work and in media relations, but what are some things that you learned through that process? Because it’s awesome when you get recognition like this. And like you said, you you guys weren’t really expecting it. It Just kind of came out of nowhere. But when you get a call like that asking for an interview, what are some of the things that either you learn this time or advice you would have for other folks where, you know, not necessarily the crisis communications, but if you have a chance to tell your story in a positive way, as you guys are doing with the SBA attention, is there anything you learned along the way or any advice you would pass on to folks if something like that comes their way?
Kristi Petersen: Absolutely. Number one, seek first to understand why they’re calling and what the intent is. And always remember that they are at your mercy because they are wanting your information. And it is very imperative to understand why they want this information and how they’re going to use it. So you need to rethink how the conversation happens instead of them being the interviewer. You need to wear that hat and be the interviewer to dig deep into the why. Once you discover that, it’s also okay to take a step back and say, OK, now I understand what you’re seeking. I would like to see a list of your questions prior to giving you that interview. So that gives you some time to prepare. Especially if it’s not a crisis situation. And that way you can feel, you know, exactly where that conversation flow is going to go, and you have more control on the content that’s being delivered. And finally, I always ask, it’s not always granted, but I always ask for an opportunity to review the story or article prior to it being disseminated or published. Most of the time, with interviews, when it’s not a crisis, they will give you that chance to at least listen or edit for any true inaccuracies. That’s not always true with local press and, you know, media, but so far things like, you know, partners like the SBA, they were always very willing to work with us.
Andy Johns: Doesn’t hurt to ask.
Kristi Petersen: They took our story and pushed it out on state level. And then it actually was picked up again during the National Small Business Week on a regional level. And we then were contacted by additional media for further storytelling. So it really grow some legs for us. We were excited with the exposure.
Andy Johns: I bet, and that’s a great way. You know, that lets your your your membership, your customers, know what you guys are doing is being recognized. It makes your employees feel good for getting that attention. I mean, it just benefits all the way around there, I’m sure. So. Well, I appreciate you sharing all that with us. Is there anything else that you wanted to discuss with the pandemic response or anything you guys have coming up in the future or in the works that you wanted to share right now before we wrap up?
Kristi Petersen: Well, we don’t have anything in the works right now, but I think the thing that saved us the most throughout all of this was being very nimble to change and being very responsive to the change that came with that. That was from our staff, from the management. And we had a fantastic year last year because we were nimble and receptive to the dynamic of how our operations were moving. And you can’t fight it. So you might as well figure out how to make it work for you.
Andy Johns: That sounds like good advice that anybody in the marketing and communications space can can definitely take to heart. So, Kristi, thanks for joining me.
Kristi Petersen: You bet. I appreciate it. Thank you.
Andy Johns: She is Kristi Petersen, the marketing and PR manager for Minburn Communications in Iowa. I’m your host, Andy Johns with WordSouth. And until we talk again, keep telling your story.