A Small Business Guide to Surviving (Leading the Way) Through COVID-19
As COVID-19 tightens its grasp on Europe and the cases in Africa start to follow the well-known and well-publicised trend of a hockey stick curve, what can small- to medium-sized business owners practically do to help their staff, their clients, and themselves during these uncertain times?
Here in South Africa (SA) we do have a silver lining in that we can watch how other countries who are ahead of the curve are handling it and learn from their successes and mistakes.
It’s important to understand as much as we can about what to expect. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a complete pandemic cycle in any given geographical location appears to take around 12-13 weeks. Of the 60 million people in China’s confined Hubei zone, 68 000 people were infected with just over 3 000 deaths. As of the morning of Monday 16th March, Italy had 24 747 confirmed cases, 1 809 deaths and a further 1 672 people in intensive care. At the same time, there were 1 391 confirmed cases in the UK and 35 deaths, while in SA there were 61 confirmed cases and no deaths.
Whichever way you look at it we’re in for a rocky ride, but as a small business owner what should you be doing? In the absence of any firm and coherent advice (other than social distancing and handwashing) from our professional bodies, if I were still running my own business these are the concerns I would have:
- Owner: If my team can no longer see clients and I must shut up shop, how long can I keep paying the bills?
- Team member: If we shut our doors will I still be paid?
- Business: If we can no longer meet clients face to face what are we going to do? What contingency plans do our suppliers and product providers have in place to ensure my ship can weather the storm?
And this is how I would address them…
As an owner…
Take two pieces of paper. At the top of the first page write: Best Possible Outcome; and at the top of the second page, write: Worst Possible Outcome. Anecdotal evidence from Facebook groups consisting of UK and South African advisers suggests their best possible outcomes may well be an increase in new inquiries as people panic and seek financial advice. If you’re not able to meet them face to face, what are you going to do? What digital tools do you have set up to converse with your clients and how will you onboard them if you can’t see them in person? At INN8, we use Microsoft Teams (Slack is a great alternative) to communicate with each other. Our platform is fully digital and requires no wet signatures so you don’t have to meet up physically with your client to continue working.
What is your worst-case scenario? Once the initial panic over your clients’ investments has passed and hopefully, they’ve accepted that ‘stay invested and sit tight’ is the right way forward, it’s likely there’ll be a lull while the country grinds to a halt. Then what is your Worst Possible Outcome? Is it that you keep the engine running but no clients are coming in or is it that you must restrict your business activities for four to six weeks while the peak of the virus passes? What will trigger you to close your doors? A confirmed case in your team or something else? Thinking upfront here will save confusion down the line.
Then the following questions come into play: Can you divert your phones? Is your filing system digital or paper-based? Do you have everything in place that you need to ensure you and your team can work remotely?
For your team…
I’ve seen questions as to whether owners should still pay staff full rates if the workload is less or the team is working remotely. My stance on this would be absolutely, yes – and communicate it early and clearly to staff. Uncertainty here will be your downfall while certainty will pay you back tenfold when the wheels start to turn again.
A message from one business owner to his staff around this read:
“To everyone in the team, I realise there is a lot of concern over COVID-19 on many fronts including wages, etc. Things undoubtedly will change constantly over the next few weeks and months and we will no doubt have to adapt and possibly alter working arrangements. I just want to reassure EVERYONE in our great team that I am here to support EVERY team member and I have multiple plans in place to cope with any scenario. Everyone will be supported financially. In the meantime, it is business as usual. Have a great weekend and see you next week.”
If the doors are still open but there are no clients coming in, what can you do to keep everyone busy?
- CPD: With only a couple of months left until the end of financial advisers’ continuous professional development cycle, now is the perfect time to rack up the points. What courses can you and your team do online during this period? Keep an eye out for our upcoming webinars from INN8 to get some points!
- Decorate: Why not revamp the office? Now is the perfect time to refresh your space and get to those jobs you’ve been putting off for months
- Go digital: The move from paper files to digital that just seems such a massive task – now is the time to do it. Get your team to research the best possible tools to implement into the different areas of your business, from operations to communication
For your clients…
How are you going to communicate your strategy to clients? Along with the investment advice emails you have no doubt been sending to clients, sharing calm, ‘stay invested’ advice in the face of uncertainty, clients also want guidance about whether they should meet with you and how to get hold of you. It is essential that you tell your clients you’re staying open.
Here’s how one adviser in the UK communicated this news to his clients:
“It’s my intention to continue meetings next week. However, to sensibly help to restrict the spread of COVID-19, I hope the following measures help you in the event that I am an unwitting carrier, and of course vice versa.
1. At the door of our suite of offices, there will be wipes and/or gel. Please clean your hands thoroughly and then place any used wipes in the bag provided. The doors will be open to avoid the need to touch any surfaces needlessly. Please also repeat the process when leaving
2. When we meet, we will sit at either end of the large table in our meeting room. This is because coronavirus spreads by droplets from the mouth and nose or by breathing in an infected person’s respiratory secretions
3. Finally, because you can pick up contamination by touching someone who is infected, I ask that we don’t shake hands either
These are sensible measures which should not (I hope) offend anyone or make you feel awkward or uncomfortable but which should go some way to us all doing our bit. If anyone wants to cancel their meeting or would prefer to chat by phone or skype instead, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
For your business…
If you can no longer work in the office, how can we get the work done? Managing a team remotely is a skill and now might be the time to learn it. Made Brave has a great article with tips about how to manage a team remotely using digital tools. Read here.
Consider the suppliers and lenders
What contingency plans do your suppliers have in place? All large businesses should have a disaster recovery plan in place in the event that the call centre can’t be manned or people having to work remotely. STANLIB and INN8 both have their Business Continuity Plans available for anyone who wants to request it. With straight-through processing and tech taking the load rather than a large operational department, the Business Continuity Plans for INN8 is robust and simple.
Every business owner’s nightmare question at these times is how am I going to meet my commitments?
My advice here is to take a sheet of paper and list the monthly commitments you make after you’ve paid your staff:
- Look at the list and assess what you are going to do during your Worst Possible Outcome period
- What is optional spend – kill it
- What can be deferred – speak to the supplier in question before it becomes a problem and make a plan together for the period in questions
- What is essential – only look to pay these expenses during your Worst Possible Outcome period
At the end of the day…
Nobody yet knows how COVID-19 will play out in South Africa, but what we do know is that the situation will get worse quickly before it gets better.
Work on a 12- to 13-week cycle for the pandemic and prepare for uncertainty until at least the end of May. Remember to create your own Worst Possible Outcome, do it now and communicate it with your team – and reduce their anxiety by communicating their financial security. Then, communicate and make a plan with your suppliers and lenders without delay and don’t forget to tell your clients your plans during this crisis.