Firstly, I genuinely hope this finds you and everyone close to you in good health and positive spirits. It’s a strange time out there, and it’s not just a localised phenomenon. The whole world is trying to understand how to simultaneously survive and make a living. In some cases the smarter choice (or only choice) is to shut down and wait it out while lobbying your government representatives for financial support for your business and its staff. In other cases, business can go on — cautiously — but how you operate needs to change. This article is for the businesses that fall into the latter category.
It’s now clear that unfortunately coronavirus (Covid-19) isn’t going away in a hurry. Yet many of us run businesses that can’t just turn off and wait it out. As a small business owner I feel your pain and wanted to provide some ideas you may want to consider as things progress.
As I see it, if your business is still operating, there are three stages to dealing with the coronavirus, and they’re stages that all businesses will need to grapple with as the measures used to combat its spread — social distancing and isolation — become part of the ‘new normal’ in business.
1. The response
If your business hasn’t communicated with clients, now is the time to let them know what you’re doing and what’s changed. The details will change from business to business, but the basics are the same. Your email inbox is probably full of this type of message right now.
As far as I’m concerned, this is probably one of the only times where it’s good to be just another email about the same thing. At a time when consistent and unified action is likely to improve human survival rates, adding one more well-considered communication to the mix won’t hurt. This is not a time to zag.
The reality is many recipients will give your email a cursory glance, if that. But by explaining the measures you’ve taken, how it affects your clients and business partners and what you’re doing about health and job security for your staff and suppliers, you’re showing leadership and responsibility for the things you can control. It also forces you to articulate the things you and your business may already be doing. You may get a small uptick in brand value by doing this, however it’s not the objective. Right now, you’re demonstrating that you’re a reasonable person/group of people who are taking things seriously. On the topic of staff, it’s best to be candid with them. At the end of the day, every one of us is facing a problem that hasn’t been faced in generations. Let them know how they’ll be treated if they catch the virus, or if the business suffers, and if it happens, live up to your end of the bargain.
For communicating to customers/clients, we recommend using an online digital marketing platform. Mailchimp (http://mailchimp.com) does the job well, is easy to set up, and is free for up to 2,000 people.
Consider how social media can convey timely information to anyone interested in what you are doing as the situation evolves. Make sure there’s a clear announcement on your website that outlines your current situation. Use live chat when possible (Facebook’s Messenger service is free and integrates with your website, too) and consider answering the questions you are getting asked the most right now. If 80% of your calls are about the same thing, it makes sense to develop a standard response customers can see without having to talk to you. Save everyone time and keep your staff free for the tasks that need their focus.
2. Adaptation of the business and model
Once you’ve got through the first round of communications and process adjustments, you have two choices. The first is to stabilise and follow what the Government says to the letter and ride it out as best you can. If you need funding assistance, the Queensland Government has announced a COVID-19 Business Support loan scheme (http://www.qrida.qld.gov.au/current-programs/covid-19-business-support) which you might want to look into. There are similar incentives and packages being formulated as I write for other jurisdictions.
The second is to assume that things aren’t changing anytime soon and go above and beyond by investing time and energy in how you’re going to survive the next 3,6, and 9 months. Quarterly planning comes into its own here because it gives you manageable blocks of time and you can model your cash burn against it.
You might decide that as a business that has traditionally worked face-to-face, your existing business model simply isn’t viable.
If you’re in retail, and you’ve held off on incorporating ecommerce into your website, now is time to get going. With common website CMSs like WordPress (via WooCommerce) and Squarespace both offering functional online store add-ons, and platforms like Shopify (http://shopify.com ) giving a dedicated experience (for a price), there has never been an easier time to get a store online fast. The most important part of the ecommerce store is a payment gateway, which lets your customers pay using a credit card securely online. We’ve seen great results with Stripe (stripe.com) and the fees are reasonable. Following that, great imagery that shows off the products in their best light is essential, as well as copy (the words) that balance enthusiasm with reality in way that’s easy to read and understand. Invest in getting it done right once, and wear the cost — especially if you’re selling high-end products. If your phones are lighting up with questions about the same products (eg fresh meat), consider running a semi-live availability chart.
On the topic of stores that are likely to be kept operational during a shutdown, start thinking today about how you’ll support orderly pickups of orders by your customers — this may even mean considering scheduled ‘appointments’ for customers to arrive, present ID and pickup a pre-packaged box. To me, if it things keep going the way they are, it seems unsustainable that people will be allowed to occupy the same store space and browse. Plan now and think about what you’ll need to make it efficient and low-risk.
If you’re a service business, it’s time to embrace a more modern working experience. Whether it’s working from home for staff or videoconferencing with clients and potential clients, if you want to keep doing business, you’re going to need to bite the bullet and move along the path of least resistance. Zoom (http://Zoom.us) and Skype are your friends here. If you’re new to videoconferencing, always mute your microphone when you’re not talking and invest in a good set of headphones.
In many ways, while it’s unfortunate, this event is an opportunity to reevaluate all of your business processes and aspects of your model. Are there steps that no longer make sense? Do changes in distribution or shopping behaviour (eg reduced in-store/in-office visits) give you a chance to set up an online store or experiment with incorporating video, or at least live chat, into your customer service experience? Maybe you can you re-purpose existing staff to pack deliveries and look after your customer service chat?
3. Recovery as the virus wanes
The third step is the most vague — we simply don’t know when things will go back to normal, or even if they will. The biggest thing to make sure of is that when it does, you take all the lessons learned from this time and reevaluate your model for the future, keeping what worked well and discarding or mothballing the less relevant aspects. I hope this is something that we’re all doing in 2-4 weeks, though the pragmatist in me says that’s wishful thinking.
If you’d like to discuss how your business can apply any of the ideas covered in this article please reach out to me directly. We have the experience, capacity and sensitivity to help you put a workable and responsible plan in place very quickly, whether it’s a website and online store, preparing communications with your customers, or just setting up your social media.
Lastly, if you’d like to run an idea by me or have a question about any of the tools/systems mentioned above, I’d be happy to be a sounding board — just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org I won’t charge if you’re simply wanting to sanity check an idea or find out how something works.
Most of all, I wish good luck and good health to you, your family, colleagues and business partners during this dramatic time.