In March our world was turned upside down with this global pandemic and since then, we have only experienced more turmoil as our healthcare and economic systems work to adapt. On the economic side, tens of millions of people are newly unemployed, many businesses are shut down or operating with skeleton staffs while small business owners and many individuals are not sure how to make it through the next few weeks or months. Our focus must be on people and the very short term.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but this isn’t a time for blame games and finger pointing. There are very legitimate questions about lack of preparation and what could have been done better though they should come later. Post-mortems are standard practice after a major event whether in business or society and the time for post-mortems comes later, with perspective. Right now, we need business, government and society working together to get through the health crisis and then build the economy.
For small businesses, initial priorities should be maintaining connections with employees and working through the smorgasbord of federal, state, local and non-governmental programs. For organizations, people are the most important resource, and one of things remembered 10 years from now will be how an organization treated employees. Keep in contact, even if employees had to be laid off and help them however you can. At the same time, be sure you are talking to your banker and suppliers to maintain relationships, inform them of your situation and develop your approach to make it through.
Importantly, use the Small Business Administration website to find out what help may be available for your business and how to get it. Implementation of government assistance has not gone smoothly but it will continue to improve as we learn how the programs can work and how they can be made more efficient. Be patient but keep pushing to get assistance.
No one knows exactly when, but soon there will be a need to look at how to manage when the world starts the journey out of this mess. It will happen after the health crisis has started to stabilize and you have an approach for managing through this horrific initial phase. Working through how your organization’s transition looks is not about long-term strategy. For most, this is not a time to develop a new strategy or focus on implementation of current strategies. As mentioned, first focus on the people around you, then move into planning your business comeback.
One guarantee I can give is that you will continue to hear many contradictory forecasts of what the future will look like. I won’t say ignore them as you can get ideas that may help. However, take the forecasts with a grain of salt. No one knows what is going to happen and even the most experienced and knowledgeable are guessing, whether it be about the health crisis or the economy. For example, I have heard experts say that e-commerce was going to grow exponentially after the health crisis is over Others say that e-commerce shopping is useful but essentially boring, so people would want to get out and shop.
The fact is that many forecasters have an agenda they are selling and any person’s view of the future is built with personal biases as a starting point. Having experts predict V shaped, U shaped or L shaped recoveries is unimportant in itself since they are essentially guessing. Don’t bet on one definitive option, think through alternatives and how they you could manage through those options. Remember Dwight Eisenhower’s truism that planning is more important than the plan itself as reality will step in the way during execution.
My recommendation when you reach the second stage — focus on helping employees transition back, provide great customer service and work with and learn from customers and suppliers. For the most part, small businesses can’t compete directly with the Amazon’s or P&G’s, but by providing outstanding customer service and meeting needs the big companies don’t, small- and medium-sized business will be a successful part of the economy. That does not mean it will be easy or that all will survive. However, small and medium- businesses were the growth drivers of the U.S. economy in the past and will be again.
Coming months are likely be some of the more difficult we have faced. To get through this will require working together to manage the remainder of the health crisis and building the economy again. For businesses, it means scrambling to keep up and even survive. However, taking care of others, ensuring you can stay in the game and then focusing on how to come out of this are the three important things any business can do in the short term.
Terry Pinch is mentor with SCORE Fox Cities, a nonprofit association dedicated to helping small businesses.