Many of us are still finding ways to adjust to the unprecedented changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In just a few months, the outbreak has derailed the global economy, left millions of Americans out of work, and compelled most of us to stay home, separating us from family and friends.
In many ways, small businesses have borne the brunt of the crisis. Many small businesses may not survive after being forced to shut down indefinitely. It also doesn’t help that the government-backed loans explicitly aimed at assisting small firms to stay in business and avoid layoffs have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain for many entrepreneurs.
How Do Small Businesses Move Forward?
Some small businesses have been able to keep employees working remotely and keep revenue coming in via online sales and reliance on shipping or delivery services. Regardless of how you’ve been able to navigate the pandemic to now, it’s time to begin thinking ahead.
What is unknown is how consumers will respond in the weeks and months ahead. What are their concerns? Are they going to expect businesses to do things differently to accommodate lingering worries about contracting COVID-19? Is there going to be a surge in pent-up demand for your product or service that you can begin preparing for now?
That’s why it’s essential to take time to explore ways to engage with your customers now, even if your business is far from returning to its pre-shutdown level of functioning. Connecting with your existing customers not only fosters goodwill, but it also reminds them that you value their business and are looking forward to their patronage for the long term.
But more than that, building a deeper connection with your customers will provide the insight you need as you prepare for what will be an unpredictable next few months and years, possibly.
Lend Your Support
In times like these, one of the best strategies for connecting with customers is to do what you can to make them feel like they have your support. How you go about doing this will vary based on the type of business you have, but there are a couple of different ways that should apply broadly.
One way is financial support. Many people are struggling. If you can afford it, consider giving your customers extra time to make a payment, or allow them to break up payments over several months on larger purchases.
If your business is membership or subscription-based, consider giving your clients the option to freeze their membership indefinitely and without penalty. Such a concession now will make your customers more likely to come back when they’re on firmer financial footing.
You’ve likely seen news reports of restaurants that have been providing free lunch to hospital workers and other first responders, or small and large manufacturers switching over to producing masks, face shields and other gear.
Is there an opportunity for you to contribute similarly?
Consider doing so, as it will help solidify your business’ reputation in the community and likely do a better job of winning you more potential new clients than making the same investment in traditional advertising.
Remember, none of us has experienced anything like this pandemic before, and traditional calls to action that you might rely on in your advertising may not hold as much appeal or relevance to customers struggling to make it through the many challenges caused by the outbreak.
Stay In Touch
This time of social distancing is ideal for engaging with your customers via email and social media. The idea is to offer your audience value, rather than inundating them with purely promotional messages. Consider sending out email updates detailing the ways you’re helping support the community’s efforts to cope with the outbreak. Include anecdotes from yourself, your employees, and others in the business community.
It’s a good idea to highlight how your customers are relying on your product or service during the pandemic and economic downturn. Even if your business isn’t able to entirely transition to an online model, there are ways to deepen that relationship with your customers.
Whether you’re a yoga studio owner, a chef, a financial planner or hairstylist, you can connect with your clients by sharing your knowledge and giving advice online. Judging by the popularity of YouTube searches for tips on how to give yourself a haircut or bake bread, many people are at home and clearly going online for pointers on all kinds of tasks. Odds are you can provide some useful tips and garner some exposure for your business.
Now is also an excellent time to revise and enhance your digital assets: website, social media profiles, and ads — all facets of business that are less likely to be affected by the shutdown.
Be Ready To Adapt
Social distancing and the grim aftermath of COVID-19 will likely have lasting and unpredictable consequences on consumers and how business is done. Even as some restaurants, bowling alleys, and tattoo parlors have reopened for business in some states, there’s a question about how quickly people will return.
- Will they be comfortable sharing space in a crowded restaurant?
- Will they insist that employees at a tax preparer’s office or a flower shop wear masks and gloves?
- Is renting bowling shoes a thing of the past?
- How will the way you do business be changed by the outbreak?
You’ve probably begun to consider new scenarios and processes, and if not, you should.
One way to get clarity is to ask your customers when you connect with them through social media or your email list. Their responses will be invaluable as you prepare to reopen or get your business back to whatever becomes the new normal. Regardless, make to be adaptable. Perhaps you switched to an online sales model temporarily to get through the shutdown. It may end up being your customers’ preference now.
You may have to pay for extra deep sanitation of your restaurant or retail store and advertise this process so that you can make your customers feel at ease about coming back. You may have to retrain sales staff to ensure their interactions with customers take into account a new sensitivity to close personal contact. And you may have to live with smaller capacity in your store, restaurant, gym or bar so that patrons don’t feel they’re in a crowd.
Prepare To Be Flexible For Uncertain Times Ahead
Finally, even as you reach out to your clientele, it’s wise to ensure you have a good handle on your finances to gain the confidence and clarity that you can deliver on orders, payroll and other obligations.
Financial clarity is particularly outstanding if you’ve been all but shut down through most of the last few weeks.
Start sizing up your financial situation by taking inventory of all your cash, accounts receivable and expenses. By now, you’ve identified and eliminated nonessential expenses. Reducing overhead is still one of the best ways to conserve some money and keep your bottom line healthy.
This process can be complicated, so you may want to consider investing in software that links up all your finances so that you can get a real-time snapshot of your finances and a more reliable means of forecasting your cash flow.
You’ll want to ensure that you have clarity on your cash flow for the next several months so that you know whether you can cover all your bills, payroll costs and other expenses. If it looks like you’re going to fall short, consider your financing options. The last thing you want is to be saddled by cash flow problems as you get ready to open for business again during an economic downturn.
Start with the Small Business Administration, which backs a variety of loan programs for entrepreneurs, including economic injury disaster loans for businesses that take a financial hit due to COVID-19. The loans carry a 3.75% interest rate for small businesses. The interest rate for non-profits is 2.75%. Once a loan officer reviews your application, you can expect a decision from the SBA within 2-3 weeks.
An online lender may also help. Alternative lenders have become a reliable source of small business financing over the past decade by processing loan applications much faster than traditional lenders and generally being more open to lending to small businesses.
Challenging economic times can be stressful for entrepreneurs. However, they’re also an opportunity to rethink how you can improve your business and forge more enduring relationships with your customers. The pandemic can’t stop you from doing that.