We can’t predict the future, but predictive technology can help you manage your accounts.

Digital banking is helping many business owners handle the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and improve their business’s operations. For instance, Wells Fargo mobile check deposits1 increased as both small businesses and consumers experienced the convenience it offers, from staying socially distant to saving time. And while features like mobile check deposits help consumers and business owners alike, there are a number of unique ways for business owners to use digital banking to help stay on top of their finances going forward.

To best explain how you can leverage digital banking features to help boost your business, we’ll start with the most common, so you can get a sense of how digital banking has evolved to make life more convenient. Then we’ll look at how new developments, including artificial intelligence, are emerging to help you manage your money.

Going beyond convenience

For many businesses and consumers, digital banking is about convenience. Checking balances on a digital device, like a computer or mobile phone, can help you stay on top of cash flow in between your monthly statements. In fact, a big reason many businesses owners enroll in digital banking in the first place is to manage and monitor their accounts.

But, if that’s all you do, you could miss out on features that may help your business finances. For instance, you can automate paying your bills, via Wells Fargo Bill Pay, so you don’t have to worry about missing a payment. Alternatively, mobile check deposit enables you to deposit checks from clients without having to go into a branch.

While those are transactional examples, it’s important for business owners to realize digital banking goes beyond just the transaction. For instance, Wells Fargo partners with accounting software providers like Xero®2 and QuickBooks® Online3 that can sync your books to your bank accounts, making it easier to reconcile your accounting.

Going digital doesn’t mean ONLY digital

Your banker is an important member of your business network and that doesn’t change when you use digital banking.

Some business owners may not realize digital banking may even make it easier to talk to your banker directly, since you can use the Make an Appointment feature to easily set up a time to talk.

If you’ve already used digital banking to stay on top of day-to-day account management, you may be able to focus on more ideas with your banker, like your plans for growth and strategies to fund them.

Enhanced security

We provide an array of options, allowing you to customize the level of security that works for your business.

Features such as two-step verification further secure your sign-on. And Account Access Manager lets you easily control who has access to your accounts. These are just two ways that digital banking helps you further protect your business.

In addition to information security, digital banking may also offer some security in a health sense. Social distancing is still the norm, and digital banking can help you minimize in-person contact and the need to visit a branch. In addition to mobile check deposit and paying bills, which we discussed earlier, you can use Control Tower® to turn your business credit and debit cards on and off.®4 You can also leverage contactless payments by setting your business cards up in your digital wallet.

As we work toward a new normal, digital banking can continue to help you distance, whether it’s accepting touchless payments from your customers or digital payment options in your personal life outside of work.

Banking for the future

We are also harnessing future technology. Did you know that we use artificial intelligence (AI) to provide personalized account insights, which can help you prevent overdrafts? You may be benefiting from AI without even knowing it.

The predictive banking feature within the Wells Fargo Mobile® app analyzes your cash flow patterns and upcoming expenses to identify potential shortages in your business account, so you can prevent disruptions before they occur. This feature is driven by AI.

This same technology can help you analyze your spending, spot if you’ve been double billed, identify missing expected deposits, and find unusual activity or savings opportunities.

Although we live in uncertain times, digital banking can help you stay in control of your finances. Whether you check balances to help stay on top of cash flow or use mobile deposits to help save time, digital banking can help you worry less about money so you can focus on bigger issues — like how to grow your business going forward.
 
 
1. Deposit limits and other restrictions apply. Some accounts are not eligible for mobile deposit. Availability may be affected by your mobile carrier’s coverage area. Your mobile carrier’s message and data rates may apply. See Wells Fargo’s Online Access Agreement for other terms, conditions, and limitations.

2. Xero accounting software is offered by Xero Limited. Wells Fargo doesn’t own or operate the Xero website. Xero is solely responsible for its content, product offerings, privacy, and security. Please refer to Xero’s terms of use and privacy policy, which are located on Xero’s website and are administered by Xero. For more help, visit Xero support. Xero is a trademark of Xero Limited.

3. QuickBooks is offered by Intuit, Inc. Wells Fargo doesn’t own or operate QuickBooks. Intuit is solely responsible for its content, product offerings, privacy, and security. Please refer to Intuit’s terms of use and privacy policy, which are located on Intuit’s website and are administered by Intuit.

4. Turning off your card is not a replacement for reporting your card lost or stolen. Contact us immediately if you believe that unauthorized transactions have been madde. Turning your card off will not stop card transactions presented as recurring transactions or the posting of refunds, reversals, or credit adjustments to your account. Any digital card numbers linked to the card will also be turned off. For debit cards, turning off your card will not stop transactions using other cards linked to your deposit account. For credit cards, turning off your card will turn off all cards associated with your credit card account. Availability may be affected by your mobile carrier’s coverage area. Your mobile carrier’s message and data rates may apply.

QuickBooks and Quicken are trademarks of Intuit Inc. registered in the United States and other countries.

Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. Member FDIC.

The 5 most common tactics scammers use, plus tips to spot them and ideas to help protect your business

We’re spending more time online and doing more business via email than ever before. That has government agencies warning both consumers and businesses to be aware of potential email scams. In particular, business owners should be alert to business email compromise (BEC) scams, especially if you or your employees are working remotely, which can make it harder to get in touch with colleagues to verify certain details.

To help you and your employees spot and avoid these emails, we’ve listed the most common scams designed to harm your business.

1. The invoice scam

In this scenario, someone at your business receives an email that appears to be from a supplier requesting payment. However, the email is actually from a scammer. When you send payment, the money goes to a scam account instead of the supplier’s account.

What to look for
Double check the email addresses from anyone requesting a payment. The sender’s email address might be off by a single letter or come from a “.net” site instead of “.com”, for example. If the sender is providing a new bank account to send the payment to, this may be a red flag as well.

Help avoid it
Instruct your employees to call and verify payment requests, using the trusted phone numbers you have on file instead of anything provided in the email. You can also automate your vendor payments. For instance, after confirmation of the correct payment information you might set up recurring payments via Wells Fargo Business Bill Pay. If you do this, you can trust payments are being sent each month to the right suppliers and vendors, and it may be easier to spot a suspicious invoice.

2. Executive imposter scam

With this type of fraud, someone emails your accountant (internal or external) or another employee at your company impersonating you or another high-level executive at your company, such as a co-founder or president. In reality, the sender is an imposter. Usually, these emails request a money transfer to a specified account.

What to look for
As with invoice scams, it’s important to double check the details of the sender’s email address. In addition, if the sender is providing a new bank account or address that differs from what you have on record, this may be a red flag.

Help avoid it
Institute a verification process at your company. For instance, inform employees you will never send an email about a payment without copying a fellow employee. That way, if an employee receives an email claiming to be from you without another employee copied, they’ll immediately be alerted that something suspicious may be going on.

Additionally, create a system for how to report this type of suspicious activity. If an employee thinks the request might really be from you, they may not want to question it. A preset process may empower them to speak up.

3. Email contacts scam

With these types of scams, your email or the email of one of your employees is hacked to gain access to your contact list. The scammers then email your contacts pretending to be you requesting payment. These payments then go to the criminals’ accounts, rather than yours.

What to look for
Suspicious signs that should make you question if your email has been hacked include strange messages from anyone in your contact list or if customers who normally pay on time are late.

Help avoid it
Consider using accounting software like Xero®1 or QuickBooks® Online2 to set up automated invoices. This can make it easier for customers to spot a fake invoice since it will look different.
You can also automate payment receipt; if your partners have your (real) account information saved, they may ignore the account details in a fraudulent email and send payment to you directly instead. This may help you spot and fix a compromised account.

4. Attorney impersonation

If you get an email that looks like it’s from your lawyer requesting personal details or a transfer of funds, particularly if it includes bank account details or is marked urgent, it may be from an imposter.

What to look for
These emails are often sent at the end of the day, which, when paired with an “urgent” label, may tempt some employees into transferring the funds without taking time to verify the request is legitimate. Look for spelling errors or any change in tone from how your lawyer normally writes to you.

Help avoid it
When in doubt, don’t send funds until you can verify the request with your attorney. It is always better to confirm the request and details of payment separately from an urgent email requesting payment.

5. Data theft

Finally, hackers can use email as a way to steal data — like Social Security numbers, passwords, or credit card information — which can then be used in a variety of ways by criminals.

What to look for
Advise your employees not to click on any suspicious-looking links, as they may contain malware.

Help avoid it
Establish company best practices around cybersecurity, including what employees should do if they receive a suspicious email or start noticing suspicious charges.

It can take time to change your habits to diligently search for, and help protect yourself and your company against, potential scams. The scams and tips provided here are a good place to start.
If you suspect fraud, it’s important to address it immediately. Know what to do if you suspect fraud:

What to do if you suspect fraud

Sources: Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Coalition, Deloitte, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Small Business Administration, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Google Search.

 

1 Xero accounting software is offered by Xero Limited. Wells Fargo doesn’t own or operate the Xero website. Xero is solely responsible for its content, product offerings, privacy, and security. Please refer to Xero’s terms of use and privacy policy, which are located on Xero’s website and are administered by Xero. For more help, visit Xero support.

2 QuickBooks is offered by Intuit, Inc. Wells Fargo doesn’t own or operate QuickBooks. Intuit is solely responsible for its content, product offerings, privacy, and security. Please refer to Intuit’s terms of use and privacy policy, which are located on Intuit’s website and are administered by Intuit.

QuickBooks and Quicken are trademarks of Intuit Inc. registered in the United States and other countries.

Xero is a trademark of Xero Limited.

Using digital documents can help make preparing your small business taxes easier.

As a business owner, you’re no stranger to making decisions. But deciding whether to go totally digital with your bank statements may be a choice you’ve been delaying. You might like the feeling of having paper documents in hand to review or perhaps you don’t want to rock the boat if you’ve always received your statements in the mail.

This may be a great year to reconsider online statements1 and digital documents, because a growing number of accountants and tax professionals are asking for digital copies of financial statements. Using online documents of your Wells Fargo bank statements can make this process easier. Not only does this option come with online banking at no cost, you may find the benefits extend beyond tax season. But let’s start there.

Getting ready for tax season

Even if you keep your books in great shape throughout the year, there’s usually a last-minute push to categorize or review expenses, and make sure your business is maximizing its deductions. This process can be made easier if you access your online documents and/or download your account activity through Wells Fargo Online® Banking.

Doing so means your bank statements will be available as soon as Wells Fargo is done processing them. You can start reviewing or categorizing expenses before they would arrive via mail, giving you extra prep time throughout the year. You can also share digital documents with accountants or third-party teams without having to scan paper files. With Account Access Manager, you also have the ability to provide your accountant access to pull down these documents themselves, saving you time.

Finally, experts recommend keeping seven years of tax returns and supporting documents on hand in case of an audit. This can get to be quite cumbersome if you’re keeping stacks and stacks of paper documents. (If you’ve switched to a home office setup during the COVID-19 pandemic, mounds of paper may be even more unwieldy.)

With digital documents, Wells Fargo stores up to seven years of deposit statements online, so you have easy access to these files if you ever need them.

Get information faster

Of course, taxes are only a small part of your business (even if they feel like the only thing in the world from February through April). So it’s important for you to realize that if you sign up for digital documents, you’ll experience benefits the rest of the year, too.

For instance, your statements are available each month as soon as they’re processed. If you opt for paper statements, these documents must be printed and mailed, which may add several days between the date the statement is processed and when you receive it. You also have fast access to past statements — no need to dig through file folders to find them.

If you’re concerned about cash flow (and what business isn’t?), the quick access to online statements and balances can help you stay on top of your business account(s). In fact, you may be able to sign up for alerts that notify you when your statement is ready.2

Delegate better

Opting for online statements can also help you tackle one of the biggest issues business owners face: delegating tasks. It can be tempting to want to handle everything yourself. And if you’re the only one with access to bank statements that are mailed directly to you, it can reinforce the feeling that you have to handle accounting issues on your own.

With digital statements, you can instantly share important documents with relevant employees or even approved third parties. You can determine who’s able to access statements via your Wells Fargo Account Access Manager. And you can store digital files in a secure location on your computer or company intranet.

Imagine this scenario: Through Account Access Manager, a trusted employee downloads bank statements and shares them securely with your third-party accounting firm or tax specialist. That specialist then comes to you only when there’s a clear picture of cash flow, P&L, or taxes due. Your time is now free to focus on your strategy for 2021 and beyond.

Plus, it’s important to remember that signing up for online statements doesn’t mean you have to give up paper statements completely. While opting for digital means you won’t receive copies by mail from Wells Fargo, you can still print the PDFs and review them on paper. This approach may still save you time and give you more immediate access to your financials.

Learn more about digital banking with Wells Fargo Small Business, including online statements.

Sources: DSJCPA, Microsoft

1 Online Statements require Adobe® Acrobat® PDF reader. The length of time Online Statements are available to view and download varies depending on the product: up to 2 years for credit cards, student loans, home equity lines of credit, and personal loans and lines of credit; and up to 7 years for deposit accounts, home mortgage accounts, and trust and managed investment accounts. The length of time the specific product statements are available online can be found in Wells Fargo Online® in Statements & Documents. Availability may be affected by your mobile carrier’s coverage area. Your mobile carrier’s message and data rates may apply.

2 Sign-up may be required. Availability may be affected by your mobile carrier’s coverage area. Your mobile carrier’s message and data rates may apply

Months into the COVID-19 crisis, Americans are wary of touching surfaces, including using cash and payment terminals. That can make accepting payments tougher for small businesses. But it also presents an opportunity to help improve the customer experience by offering contactless payments.

During the COVID crisis, small business owners noticed more customers were asking for contactless or digital payment options, yet many businesses hadn’t updated their payments systems to account for this preference.

Seizing the opportunity to go contactless may help you well beyond COVID; contactless payments have long been gaining popularity, and the trend in the U.S. has been moving away from cash toward more digital payments.

Here are four opportunities to use contactless payments and help improve the customer experience.

1. For cash-only businesses

Consider a food truck, small convenience store, or barber shop — small businesses that deal primarily in cash.

Customers are carrying less cash during COVID-19; ATM withdrawls are down around the world. Customers want to pay in a safer way; they want to use contactless payments.

Business owners can adapt to this shift by making an effort to accept digital payments and debit and credit cards.

Digital payments include various platforms that allow customers to make payments directly from their account to yours. One example is Zelle®, which allows you to receive payments typically within minutes1, using an email address or U.S. mobile number.

You can also consider accepting debit and credit cards. If fees were an impediment in the past, keep in mind that accepting cards may expand your customer base, which can help offset those fees.

 

Action: Research digital payment options as well as point-of-sale (POS) payment systems that can help you move away from cash and toward contactless payments.

 

2. For businesses who accept cards in person

The COVID-19 crisis is prompting some businesses to think beyond accepting debit and credit cards in store.

Some businesses are allowing customers to pay by phone, or are setting up e-commerce, so customers can buy online, then pick up in-store, curbside, or via shipping. While accepting card payments by phone or online may carry different fees than using a point-of-sale device, it may also help boost business, even as physical stores reopen.

 

Action: If you don’t have a website, investigate how you can still take card payments online or by phone using web-based solutions. You can also create a website and add an e-commerce feature.

 

Businesses with brick-and-mortar locations might also go contactless in-store by using a POS system with near-field communication (NFC) technology. This means devices can communicate from a few inches apart so customers can place their smartphone, credit or debit card near your POS device to complete a transaction. There’s no contact required, and the process is encrypted for security.

Your POS equipment may already have contactless technology that you’re not using. To check, look for the contactless symbol Contactless Payment Symbol . According to the International Card Manufacturer’s Association, 60 to 70 percent of U.S. terminals are equipped with the functionality, but aren’t activated.

If you don’t see the symbol, you may need to upgrade your device. Doing so won’t limit your customers to only use tap-and-go; they can still insert or swipe their cards.

 

Action: Look for POS systems that enable contactless payments in addition to swipe and dip, since tap-and-go may help your business in this environment. You can generally use these same systems to accept online payments, too.

 

3. For service-based businesses who use billing

Consider a law firm, accounting firm, or any business that invoices its clients.

Going digital can help these firms move away from asking customers to mail checks to pay bills, which can help businesses better manage their money.

One lawyer based in upstate New York told the ABA Journal that she recently added contact-free digital payment so clients could pay by credit card as well as checks. She explained that she was motivated to update how she accepted payments by the current crisis, since giving clients new payment options might make it easier for clients to pay on time when cash flow is tight.

Plus, online payments generally automatically sync with your accounting software so you can send e-invoices and streamline accounts receivable.

 

Action: Research online payment systems, or you can talk to your banker about options. Some systems may require specialized software.

 

4. For businesses who use billing and accept cards in person

Many health care practices, professional services businesses, and businesses that primarily accept payments from other businesses need ways to accept payments in person, using POS systems, while also billing or invoicing patients, clients, and customers.

To reduce in-person contact, these businesses have a few options.

You could switch to a contactless POS system to minimize contact at checkout. You could also offer clients the option of paying online or by phone (both of these options are described in more detail in section two).

Another option is to bill clients for transactions that you normally do in person. (If you need help updating your billing software to be more efficient, and to reduce contact even further, see section three).

 

Action: Upgrade your billing system to accept online payments and add a contact-free payment option to your physical location.

 

The current crisis is changing how your customers want to pay. Adjusting the way you accept payments can help improve the customer experience, and help your business continue to drive sales. And with payments moving in the direction of digital and contactless around the globe, any changes you make now may continue to pay off in the future.

Resources: Digital Transactions, Federal Reserve, NFCW, Forbes, CardFellow, CNET, International Card Manufacturing Association, American Bar Association Journal, Square

 


1 Enrollment with Zelle through Wells Fargo Online® or Wells Fargo Business Online® is required. Terms and conditions apply. Transactions typically occur in minutes when the recipient’s email address or U.S. mobile number is already enrolled with Zelle. Available to almost anyone with a U.S.-based bank account. For your protection, Zelle should only be used for sending money to friends, family, or others you trust. The Request feature within Zelle is only available through Wells Fargo using a smartphone, and may not be available for use with all small business accounts at this time. In order to send payment requests to a U.S. mobile number, the mobile number must already be enrolled with Zelle. Neither Wells Fargo nor Zelle offers a protection program for authorized payments made with Zelle. To send money to or receive money from an eligible small business, a consumer must be enrolled with Zelle through their financial institution. Small businesses are not able to enroll in the Zelle app, and cannot receive payments from consumers enrolled in the Zelle app. For more information, view the Zelle Transfer Service Addendum to the Wells Fargo Online Access Agreement. Your mobile carrier’s message and data rates may apply.

Zelle and the Zelle related marks are wholly owned by Early Warning Services, LLC and are used herein under license.

The Contactless Symbol and Contactless Indicator are trademarks owned by and used with permission of EMVCo, LLC.

When COVID-19 hit, nearly half of small businesses had to furlough or lay off staff members. But as the economy reopens and businesses rebuild, you may be ready to hire or rehire. Deciding how to staff your business may be heavily influenced by the ongoing crisis, even as you rebuild for the future. These four steps can guide you through the hiring process.

1. Determine your current needs

First, examine whether your business model shifted due to COVID-19. If so, your staffing needs may be different. For example, if you are now offering remote services or doing more of your business online, you may need a more robust tech team. This could mean rethinking the roles in your business and coming up with new job descriptions.

 

Action tip: Make a list of the tasks you find yourself putting off or that you or a team member don’t feel comfortable doing. This can help you pinpoint the skills you’re looking for, which can in turn help you build a detailed job description that can help you fill the role.

 

2. Consider the pros and cons of rehiring any laid-off workers

Since small businesses can feel like family, you may be tempted to rehire anyone you let go. However, whether you rehire workers may depend on whether your current needs have changed (step one). If you still need your former employees’ skills, rehiring them can offer big benefits, like a shorter learning curve and loyalty to your business.

However, if you’re hoping to rehire former employees to reduce paperwork, be aware that you may need to file the same tax forms and other paperwork that you would with a new hire.

Plus, some furloughed workers may not want to come back — whether over safety concerns (especially for in-person work) or because they found work elsewhere. They may also be less willing to adapt or pivot their roles to reflect any changes you’ve made to your business while they were let go.

 

Action tip: Resist the temptation to reach out to previous employees informally. Instead, document any attempt to rehire former employees in writing, including details about the terms. If Congress passes new aid packages or updates the rules governing the forgiveness of loans backed by the Small Business Administration (like the Paycheck Protection Program), this documentation may be helpful.

 

3. Plan your hiring process

When it comes to searching for talent, you may want to think outside the box. If, after the first two steps, you’re still not sure exactly what type of role or employee is best suited to help you rebuild, you might want to hire a worker for a contracted period of time. Or you might hire two part-time roles instead of one full-time employee. Just be sure to check the guidelines around hiring contract workers versus full-time employees in your area.

Once you’ve come up with a clear role and job description, your search for talent begins. This recruitment process may look quite different than it did pre-COVID-19.

Even if your business operates in-person, you may have more success finding job candidates if you offer a virtual interview option. Consider what remote interviewing looks like for your company. You might offer remote and in-person options, for instance.

If you’re a remote team or want to be extra cautious, create a strategy for remote onboarding as well. Creating a robust digital onboarding process could go a long way in helping new staff feel welcome.

 

Action tip: Make sure you have technology in place to handle (potentially remote) interviews and onboarding, such as a user-friendly digital calendar for appointments, video-conferencing software for interviews, and secure file sharing for important documents.

 

4. Prepare to answer COVID-related questions

In addition to standard questions around compensation and benefits, potential hires may ask you about your response to COVID-19. Think about how you’ll answer questions around safety precautions, sick-day policies, health insurance, and remote work.

Candidates may also ask whether a role has room for growth or if it’s temporary and rooted in COVID-19-specific changes to your business. They may also be curious to know how you would handle their role if COVID-19 upticks again or if your business faces any new forms of uncertainty.

 

Action tip: Make a list of the toughest questions you might get and how you want to respond. Share the list with your team and get their input. This has dual benefits: It reduces the chance you’ll be caught off guard and helps get your team on the same page.

 

While the COVID-19 crisis has presented clear and unprecedented challenges, a growing number of small businesses are optimistic about the future and ready to bring on new staff members. Making smart choices about staffing can help you navigate this crisis, fortify any changes you’ve made to your business strategy, and be prepared for a changing small business landscape.

Sources: Harvard Business Review, McKinsey & Company, Embroker, Monster, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Society for Human Resource Management

If your small business has (or had) a brick-and-mortar location, social distancing likely pushed you to expand your online presence. Perhaps you built a website for a first time. Now, you may be back to doing business in your physical location and wondering how to think about your new (or revamped) online presence.

Successfully balancing your digital and in-person business may help you rebuild and grow, and some businesses may even want to shift more permanently to digital. We pulled together some insights to help you decide how to balance your online business with in-person sales.

The case for focusing on digital

 

Graphic: Electric wallet icon; Text: Shoppers spent 43% more online in September of 2020 than September of 2019.

COVID-19 caused a big increase in online sales: Shoppers spent 43% more online in September 2020 than September 2019, according to Adobe Analytics. This may have been a result of both supply and demand.

More shoppers were forced to shop online due to social distancing, and a wide variety of businesses focused on online sales in turn. For example, a McKinsey study of small businesses showed some 60 percent of restaurants added curbside pickup during the pandemic. Many of the customers who used the service were doing so for the first time, too. For some restaurants, this may be a new business model with long-term potential.

If you run a business that discovered untapped potential online, you may want to focus more on digital sales and marketing in the future. Doing so may even allow you to scale back your physical space, which could reduce overhead and improve margins going forward.

But before you do that, think about what a more significant shift to digital looks like. For instance, if you sell furniture, you might win big by selling online with no storefront. But you may need to introduce new digital features to account for the fact that customers can no longer test furniture in a showroom. Could you replace that experience by offering new software that lets customers “view” the furniture in their homes?

 

Action tip: Analyze whether your online business is sustainable in the long term. If the answer is yes, consider how you may need to update your overall business strategy to accommodate a more permanent online component.

 

The case for refocusing on in-person sales

 

Graphic: Icon of 2 people; Text: 84% of sales still take place in person.

In-person transactions still dominate sales: 84 percent of transactions take place in person, compared with 16 percent online, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s data from Q2 2020. Some businesses simply don’t translate well to a long-term online-only business model, and that’s OK.

If that’s the case, you may want to spend 2021 focusing on rebuilding your in-person sales. (Though you should still maintain a digital presence, which we’ll discuss in the next section.)

To rebuild your in-person business, keep a few things in mind. The World Health Organization doesn’t expect widespread vaccinations until mid-2021. That means to successfully build your in-person business in the short term, you may need to focus on “new normal” guidelines.

Think about how you can strategically improve your business within this new framework. If your capacity is reduced, can you boost your margins by increasing prices? If so, you may need to think about how to adjust your messaging to present those price increases to customers.

 

Action tip: To reopen successfully, start with safety and build from there. Even if your local government doesn’t require protocols like masks, implementing them may make your customers feel more at ease. For example, if your dental office can safely accommodate only half as many patients as pre-COVID-19, you may need to rethink staffing or which services you promote.

 

Finding a balance

 

Graphic: icon of a rain cloud with lightening; Text: 20% of small business owners do not expect business conditions to improve until 2022.

According to the National Foundation of Independent Businesses, 20 percent of small business owners think conditions won’t improve until 2022 at the earliest, with 52 percent hopeful that they’ll improve in 2021. With this type of uncertainty on tap, businesses need to prepare for the unexpected. Maintaining a permanent and robust digital strategy may help with this.

For business owners who are new to online — perhaps you just launched your website or began using online banking more consistently — think about how you can incorporate these systems into your business more permanently.

People want to support small businesses, and many are excited to get back to normal. Hitting the right tone in your messaging can help you capitalize on your customers’ goodwill, so they feel like they’re rebuilding with you as part of a community.

 

Action tip: Build the costs to maintain a website into your annual budget and keep posting on social media, even if you phase out any structured advertising campaigns.

 

Online systems can make running a small business easier. Plus, having a digital footprint can help you engage and attract customers, even if those customers ultimately shop in person. Consider leveraging the systems you created during COVID-19 into long-term improvements for your business.

Sources: Digital Commerce 360, McKinsey & Company, U.S. Census Bureau, Reuters, Harvard Business Review, National Federation of Independent Businesses

When the first known COVID-19 cases emerged at the beginning of 2020, many then thought the crisis would be over by back-to-school time. Now, it looks as though we may be living with the virus and its consequences well into 2021. And while that has repercussions across the economy, it has some particularly tough implications when it comes to marketing your business. Owners are faced with a challenge: how to balance the ongoing COVID-19 crisis while still marketing your product and services. The answer may be as simple — and as complex — as listening to your customers and paying attention to their behavior. Here are three ideas to help you evaluate whether to mention COVID-19 in your marketing.

1. Evolve your messaging

Just a few months ago, we were talking about how any content or marketing that mentioned COVID-19 saw higher traffic and more engagement. People were eager for information on the virus and how businesses were working to protect them. But as people become more comfortable with “life during COVID-19,” the bar for mentioning the virus may be higher. While people are still searching COVID-19, those searches now tend to be more about the virus itself than how businesses are handling it. If what you’re marketing isn’t directly related to the crisis — for instance, you’re running a sale or you’re introducing a new product — mentioning COVID-19 isn’t likely to help.  

Action tip: Only mention COVID-19 when it’s relevant — if you’ve updated your safety plan, for example.

 

2. Know your audience

How your customers and potential customers respond to mentions of COVID-19 may be highly circumstantial. If you operate in an area where there have been relatively few cases, your customers might be burned out on hearing about COVID-19 constantly on the news or in ads from big brands. In these cases, go back to your pre-COVID marketing plan and the action tips discussed in section one. However, if you’re in an area that was deeply impacted, your customers may be eager for updates and looking for mentions of COVID-19 to assess how you’re addressing the ongoing situation. To get a better sense of how your customers are feeling, it will remain important to listen to them and pay attention to any nonverbal cues. Are people in your area diligent about mask use and social distancing? If so, you may want to keep COVID-19 a part of the conversation.  

Action tip: In addition to monitoring your surroundings, keep an eye on local and national news, neighborhood message boards, small business owners in your network, and social media to get a better sense of the overall conversation.

 

3. Pay attention to context

While COVID-19 is a major factor in most of our lives (from at-home learning to fewer sports), it’s not the only big news story with the potential to affect your business or your customers.

2020 saw hundreds of protests in support of civil rights, for instance. As well as significant unrest. Which is all to say your customers, vendors, or partners may be paying close attention to current events beyond COVID-19. If your messaging is focused too heavily on the health crisis, you may miss an opportunity to address the issues that are most important to your clients.

 

Action tip: Let relevance and safety drive your message. Pay attention to the dialogue in your community and don’t be afraid to add your voice to the conversation. Similarly, if there’s an uptick in COVID-19 in your area, work new safety precautions into your messaging, even if your clients are experiencing COVID fatigue or are distracted by current events.

As you start to think about marketing in 2021, there’s no one-size-fits-all playbook. At its core, marketing is about selling your products and services. To do that well, you need to “read the room,” so to speak. The best messaging will balance COVID-19 and current events alongside products and services in a way that feels natural to your clients. To help you get the best possible read on your customers, we’ve created a worksheet. Use it to help you better understand where your customers are and create a personalized marketing plan.  

 

  Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Reuters, Digiday, Reuters, Gallup

Being a small business owner can come with higher-than-average levels of stress. That was especially true in 2020. Navigating your business through this type of uncertainty, while acting as a leader to customers and employees, may require unprecedented optimism.

Here are three ways you can approach staying positive when things are challenging.

Stay on top of stress

Stress is normal when you’re running a business. But when stress gets out of control, it can affect your performance and impact your business. That can cause more stress, in turn.

Breaking this kind of stress loop can help you stay positive. Start by identifying that you’re stressed. You may have a shorter temper, change in appetite, or difficulty sleeping.

 

Action tip: Write a list of the behaviors you exhibit when stressed or angry. If you can recognize the signs early, you may be able to combat stress and improve your mood before your business is affected.

 

If you notice one of those signs, try to pinpoint the root cause, getting as specific as possible. Uncovering the true cause of stress can help you manage it more productively.

You may also want to make a list of activities that help you manage stress. (You can even separate it to things you can do in 10 minutes and long-term approaches.) Having a go-to list at the ready can help you tackle stress when you may not be thinking as clearly.

 

Action tip: Ask your employees to make lists about their stress signals and ways to manage that stress. See if you can make tackling stress a group effort — you may be able to share ideas for managing symptoms or help one another recognize the warning signs.

 

Stay on top of social distancing and its side effects

Entrepreneurs often experience higher levels of stress or depression even in “normal” times, and business owners have a notoriously hard time balancing running a business with their personal lives.

This means the past year, with remote work, learning, and overall social distancing measures, may have had a unique impact on business owners. Not only has social distancing limited everyone’s ability to balance work stressors by spending time with friends and family, being in a leadership position means you’re not only working to combat isolation in your own life, but you may be dealing with the side effects of isolation among your employees and customers.

For instance, more than three times as many adults say they’ve experienced depression since the COVID-19 crisis began. Look for signs that your customers or employees are dealing with unexpected stressors, like helping kids with distance learning, while also working from home. For instance, if your customers are feeling anxious, they may be more aggressive with your employees, which could have a domino effect.

It’s important to combat this with a great customer experience, and that may require a positive outlook. If your employees are dealing with stressed customers and struggling with the isolation of social distancing themselves, it may be hard for them to provide that service.

In order to encourage positivity among your employees and, in turn, your customers, consider policies that encourage employees to take time off and focus on their mental health. For example, one Chicago-area small business owner gave his employees a day off for a mental health break.

Once you notice the effects social distancing may be having on you, your business, and your connections, you can begin to create small mental health breaks that encourage positivity.

You may not be able to take a full day, like in our example, but setting aside small windows for you and your employees can make it easier to keep a positive outlook. And this can help you share positivity with customers in turn.

 

Action tip: Set boundaries, share them, and be diligent about enforcing them. For instance, consider adding language like, “I won’t be responding to emails from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.,” to your email signature. Doing so might encourage your employees or vendors to take a few hours off, too, since they won’t be able to reach you.

 

Keep things in perspective

There’s a difference between feeling positive in the moment and feeling optimistic about the future. If you’re having a hard time feeling positive right now, see if you can find things to look forward to as you rebuild your business.

For instance, as shutdowns extended into the third quarter of 2020, fewer business owners were positive about their current situations. However (and it’s an important however), 41 percent of business owners said they were optimistic about the future. That’s a 400% increase from the second quarter. And that optimism for the future happened despite feeling less positive about the present.

Bar chart comparing levels of optimism from small business owners in the second quarter of 2020 to the third quarter of 2020. Overall optimism went up from 48% in Q2 to 60% in Q3. Optimism about the present declined from 39% in Q2 to 19% in Q3; optimism for the future jumped from 9% in Q2 to 41% in Q3.

The takeaway here may be that you don’t have to force positivity on your present situation in order to be optimistic about where your business is headed.

However, making small changes could help with positive thinking right now. For example, many business owners focus on potential problems, which makes sense: Your job is to look out for roadblocks so you can steer your company past them. The downside of that can be that business owners don’t focus enough on the wins they have along the way. By celebrating small victories, you may be able to foster more positive energy right now.

 

Action tip: Keep a running list of all the positives in your business. Pay extra attention to wins on your team and dole out praise to employees, many of whom may need extra recognition to stay positive.

 

With all of the challenges facing business owners, staying positive may not be high on your to-do list. But doing so can make a big difference in how you navigate through challenges today and rebuild your business for the future.

Sources: SBDC National Information Clearinghouse, JAMA Network Open, Society for Human Resource Management, Chicago Tribune, Gallup, The Balance Small Business

As you navigate reopening your business or adjusting your services during the COVID-19 crisis, how you communicate those changes to your customers or clients may seem like a big challenge. Not only do you need to convey information, you need to engage customers and make them feel safe and valued, so they’ll want to come back.

Often, that value can be conveyed via the tone of your messaging. Tone encompasses how you talk to your clients (word choice and point of view) as well as frequency, style and design. Taking the right tone with customers can give you a competitive edge and help you rebuild.

To get your tone right, consider these do’s and don’ts.

Revisit any automated communications

Determining when and how often your customers want to hear from you during an ongoing crisis can be challenging. Review any automated messages by asking yourself:

  1. Is this information they need? And do they need it now?
  2. Is this information they’re expecting?
  3. Can I simplify what I communicate to make their lives easier?

For a mechanic, this might mean temporarily pausing auto alerts for oil changes since Americans are driving less and sending a message with updated hours of operation and shop safety measures instead.

  • Don’t: Cancel all communications. Sending messages creates a sense of normalcy and boosts comfort levels.
  • Do: Review your automated communications to ensure they still make sense — each message should feel relevant to current circumstances.

 

Action: Make a list of topics and things your customers may be expecting to hear from you. For instance, they probably aren’t expecting COVID updates from their local coffee shop, but they may expect updates about seating restrictions or masks.

 

Build flexibility into your communications

Reopening is a process, as is rebuilding, and it’s likely that your communications will need to change as things evolve. Matching your message to whatever phase of reopening you’re in can go a long way toward striking the right tone.

For example, as businesses reopened in June and July, many needed to shift from sharing safety logistics to more “regular” information about products or services.

For a restaurant, that could mean pivoting from emails explaining kitchen sanitation to messages outlining how you plan to open tables inside. All the while, you might work in updates about new food offerings so it feels natural when you’re able to return to menu-focused communications in the future.

  • Don’t: Be afraid to adjust your communications plan as circumstances — or the attitudes of your customers — change.
  • Do: Pay close attention to how your customers are feeling. If you live in an area that was hard-hit by COVID-19, you may need to talk about safety for much longer than a similar business in an area with fewer cases.

 

Action: Outline your rebuilding plan and decide what you’ll talk about at each stage, then make a note of it. If your rebuilding schedule changes, you can use this outline to determine how your messaging needs to change, too.

 

Adjust your tone

If you’ve ever heard the phrase “it’s not what you said, it’s how you said it,” then you know what we’re getting at in this section.

Ensure you’re saying things in the right way by putting your customers’ needs first and basing your communications on how you interact in person. Put another way: Empathize and use a human voice.

Try to write how you speak, using contractions and casual language. And think through design elements as well. Dense text blocks may feel intimidating to readers and using all caps can be construed as yelling.

Positivity can help, too. You’ll likely still have to communicate tough news, so putting a positive spin on it can help improve how it’s received by customers. This can be as simple as word choice — shifting from “closed” to “open soon.”

  • Don’t: Lead with yourself or with negativity at the expense of your customers. For example, avoid: “We had to lay off staff and are working around the clock, so we need you to be patient.”
  • Do: Start by thinking about the challenges your customers are facing, including their needs and emotional state. Try: “We’re so happy to welcome you back into our store and are working hard to give you the best experience possible. Please be patient as we figure out the best way to serve you.”

 

Action: When in doubt, express your appreciation for your customers and their business. You don’t need to go overboard but a sincere thank you goes a long way.

 

People want to support small businesses, and many are excited to get back to normal. Hitting the right tone in your messaging can help you capitalize on your customers’ goodwill, so they feel like they’re rebuilding with you as part of a community.

As small businesses across the country begin to rebuild, it’s important to remember that reopening your business isn’t a single event. Reopening is an ongoing process that will continue, with reclosures possible (as we’ve already seen) until there’s a vaccine. Owners must account for shifting legal requirements from states and municipalities as well as employee and customer concerns — all while working toward making a profit.

Focusing on these four areas can help keep your reopening on track and help you transition more seamlessly to long-term rebuilding and “business as usual.”

  1. Monitor the situation

COVID-19 is a moving target, so many state and local governments have tied reopenings to public health metrics. That means new concerns about public health may lead to more closures or changed rules in the future.

A number of organizations have published free resources so you can easily track what’s going on where you are, like this dashboard from MultiState, or this tracker by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Use these resources and any others in your area to check your location and monitor what’s happening in areas nearby. Watch areas that reopened ahead of you for ideas to try or things to avoid.

 

Action: Look up which data your state, county and city officials are tracking (for example, the number of new cases) and monitor it. This can help you stay ahead of potential changes in policy.

 

  1. Take care of your employees

With local rules and regulations changing, it can be hard to know the best way to take care of your employees from week to week. Federal safety standards can provide an umbrella guide to help you with long-term planning as you keep track of state, county, and city updates.

When it comes to keeping your physical workplace safe, check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to see current best practices for your industry. For less obvious but equally important concerns, like what kind of questions you can legally ask if an employee calls in sick, check out the pandemic response guidelines issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

It’s also important to read up on new laws regarding paid sick leave and how they apply to small business owners. Employees who are covered by the law and unable to work because of COVID-19 are entitled to 80 hours paid sick leave, with additional provisions around time off to care for others.

 

  1. Support your customers

For consumer-facing businesses to reopen successfully, they must address one major hurdle: Getting customers to come back. To do this, owners must stay up to date on how concerned customers are about COVID-19.

Consider Georgia, which was on the frontlines of reopening during the crisis. When, after months of operating at half-capacity, restaurants began operating as usual, a major concern was: Will customers feel comfortable returning?

This concern isn’t unique to Georgia. As Americans deal with lingering fears about regularly going out in public, business owners may need to work harder to get them to come back — and keep coming back.

Start by outlining what measures your company is taking to keep customers safe, keeping in mind that people outside of your industry may not know what rules are in place. You can also emphasize steps you are taking that go above and beyond the rules. Be sure to update these notices regularly to reflect changes in best practices or new customer concerns.

 

Action: Get in front of potential questions, leading with empathy. Think about what concerns you’d have as a new customer and prepare answers. Share those responses with your employees.

 

  1. Watch your bottom line

Additional rules and regulations governing business can create situations where owners and employees are working more hours for less money. Not to mention the added expense of personal protective equipment and other safety-related supplies. One Georgia barbershop owner, thrilled to reopen in May, told NPR: “It’s the hardest we’ve ever worked for two haircuts an hour.”

It’s important to evaluate whether your reopened business is operating sustainably. Every few weeks, check your finances and assess whether reopened conditions are sustainable:

  • Are you still making money?
  • If not, can you reasonably make changes that will help you turn a profit, like temporarily raising prices, adjusting your staffing or taking a pay cut?
  • If you’re losing money, do you think the losses will be temporary? How long can you operate at a loss?

Don’t expect to be profitable immediately. But if your finances remain strained for a significant period, you may need to think through bigger changes to your business.

Reopening won’t happen in a single day, and it won’t necessarily take a straight path forward. Keep on top of big picture developments so you can stay two steps ahead and analyze what’s working so you can adjust as you go.

 

SOURCES: Department of Labor, National Federation of Independent Business, WSB-TV Atlanta, FiveThirtyEight