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

Even the savviest business owners, in a booming economy, need advice. And during an unprecedented crisis like COVID-19, good guidance can be priceless. So how can you find the right insights for your business and the right person to give them? Consider this game plan.

 

Determine your pain points

The first step is to think past, “I need help fixing my business” and instead consider the specific challenges you face. Sit down and write out specific things you need help with. If you’re struggling to define your challenges, try researching the issues online or talking to your inner circle — the people you regularly go to for informal help. They can help you gather your thoughts and pinpoint specific questions to seek advice on.

Here are some suggestions to help you formulate questions:

  • Be specific, but not too specific. If you start with an extra-specific request (“How can I estimate the cost of reconfiguring my workshop for social distancing?”), you may miss out on ideas. If you’re too vague (“How much is COVID-19 going to cost me?”), people may not know how to answer. Be specific, but not limiting (“Can you help me figure out how to affordably reconfigure my shop for social distancing?”).
  • Summarize your request. Determine whether your question is unique to your industry or more general. Is it related to crisis management? Specific to COVID-19? Categorizing your question can help you find the right advice.
  • Prioritize. If you have multiple questions, try to prioritize them. You might focus on the most expensive challenge first or the most time-sensitive one.

 

Find an advisor/mentor

Talking to your inner circle may not provide enough guidance for a crisis like COVID-19. And knowing who to ask for specialized advice can be difficult. Start by looking for other business owners whose guidance you trust, including owners outside of your field.

For example, a dentist could get valuable advice about rescheduling appointments from a chiropractor. You might also get great advice from specialists or executives that aren’t business owners themselves.

Keep in mind that getting advice is one thing but building a more formal mentor–mentee relationship can take time and effort. You want to make sure you’re a good match.

To help you find the right person, consider these tips.

  • Network via the SBA and others. The Small Business Administration offers resources to connect with other owners, as well as a mentorship resource, SCORE. Also consider the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), National LGBT Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) and the Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA), if applicable.
  • Tap a specialist. If you’ve determined your problems are niche, look for an expert in that field. For example, if you’re trying to understand the pros, cons, and terms of different types of financing, you might call your banker.
  • Get social. Tap into your existing network, using tools like LinkedIn, to see if anyone you know can share insights. Or ask your connections if they know people who could help. This is where having a summary of your request helps; it can make it easier for your contacts to find the right person.

 

Action: Do your homework before approaching a new contact. If you want insights on rebuilding, for example, it can help you to know that your contact rebuilt their business after a natural disaster.

 

Get the most out of the conversation

Sometimes, a mentor’s answers are only as good as the questions. Since you researched their background, use that information to ask follow-ups. If you know your mentor innovated and expanded during the 2008 recession, ask how they identified opportunity and what they did to fund growth. Specific questions can help you get the best responses.

If you want to continue asking this person for advice beyond your initial conversation, start by following through on whatever they shared. If you don’t follow their advice, reach out with an update so they understand your reasons.

What you do is ultimately your decision but following up shows you valued their insight.

 

Action: Consider becoming a mentor yourself. Think about what you have to offer and make yourself available — it could open you up to new insights and opportunities.

 

Developing relationships can feel challenging during a crisis but finding someone you trust for advice is worth the effort. Having a guide to help you make decisions can go beyond insights and help provide peace of mind during a difficult time.

 

Sources: Small Business Administration, Fast Company, Forbes

For many businesses, websites are an afterthought and social media can be optional. But in the age of social distancing, an accurate digital footprint is critical. Here are four ways to help customers find your business online.

 

  1. Think beyond transactions

A strong online presence is about more than digital sales. Customers and prospects need to be able to find you online.

Consider the hypothetical Joe’s Auto Shop, which gets a steady stream of clients from the neighborhood. Joe never needed a website to attract clients, so he never bothered.

During the COVID-19 crisis, people wonder whether Joe is open and if his hours have changed. When they search auto shops in the area, Joe’s doesn’t pop up, but Manuel’s Auto Shop does, along with his updated hours. Joe could lose customers to Manuel.

 

  1. Get verified

What Joe may not know is that he can start to build an online presence without investing time and money into building a website (though he may want to do that later).

Many people use third-party websites to find information about businesses, particularly during reopening and rebuilding. These third-party platforms are a great way to start building a digital footprint for your company.

You can register your business with review sites like Yelp and search engines like Google. (Creating a Google profile for your business only takes a few minutes, though you’ll be asked to verify by mail that you’re the business owner. This helps protect your business but can take a few weeks.)

Yelp, Google and other third-party sites have areas to note COVID-specific changes to business, so you can keep your customers updated.

Not only do consumers use these sites to discover companies, the sites themselves often provide metrics about how many people searched for your business and what percentage engaged to find out more.

 

Action: Boost your relevance once you’ve registered your business or created a page by asking customers to post reviews. Monitor these comments since they can help you better understand your customers, and good feedback can convince prospects to pick you.

 

  1. Get social

Creating social media pages lets you share information without creating a full-fledged website. You can instantly communicate a product launch, for example. It also makes it easier to have two-way conversations with customers, which can be helpful as you reopen or rebuild.

Which social media platform you start with may depend on the type of business you run and your target customers.

  • LinkedIn is a good platform to find corporate clients.
  • Facebook or Twitter can help you reach everyday consumers.
  • Instagram and Pinterest are especially great if your business is visual, like an interior design firm or a florist.

A number of social media sites also have e-commerce options, so customers can make purchases from your business via the social platform.

 

  1. Get a website

If you’re seeing a lot of traction on social media, consider creating your own website. It’s much easier today than it was even a decade ago. A number of companies offer “templates” for websites, many based on the type of business you run.

In most cases, you’ll just need to follow the prompts to select your website address and domain, enter text, and upload photos. If you’re worried the web-version of your business name is taken, consider adding your city or state to it, and explore “.org” or “.net” in addition to “.com.”

To make your site different from your social media or third-party pages, fill it with unique content, like a blog or descriptions of your products or services. Don’t be afraid to get into the details and talk about what sets you apart. If Joe just got a new tool to let him do diagnostics in-house at the auto shop, he could create a post or video explaining how it makes for a faster and cheaper visit.

 

Action: Link your Google business profile, Yelp profile, and social media accounts to your website — and vice versa.

 

As daily life shifts back to the “in-person” standard, the online focus that’s dominated the COVID-19 crisis is unlikely to change. Now is a good time to build a digital presence that helps customers find you and pick your business.

The ongoing disruption of COVID-19 can transform loyal customers into occasional visitors. In order to keep your customers, or win back any you may have lost, consider these three strategies to make your customers feel valued.

 

  1. Stay engaged

As the crisis evolves, it’s important to make it as easy as possible for your customers to continue being customers. The best way to do this is by putting their needs first. You’ve likely made changes to your business in response to the COVID-19 crisis — but have you thought about how to keep customers engaged through those changes?

For example, a local wine shop may have added online ordering and curbside pickup to accommodate customers who prefer to stay home. This move puts customer safety first, but it’s possible to go a step further to build customer relationships. Consider New York wine shop Corkbuzz, which hosts virtual wine classes for a small fee. Customers have the option to purchase corresponding wines ahead of time. Create something similar by telling customers about business updates that prioritize their needs and interests, then look for a way to develop those updates one step further.

If your business works with other businesses (versus directly with consumer), you can create this kind of engagement via community involvement. If you partner with other organizations, talk to them about ways to help the community, like sponsoring socially distanced events to help replace live sports or concerts.

 

Action: Think of how your customers’ lives (or businesses) have changed since January. Use your customer journey to figure out how to make their new reality easier; it might deepen your relationship.

 

  1. Stay receptive and empathetic

Excellent customer service requires listening, as well as outreach. Make sure you are available to your customers: social media, email, telephone, website, and even in person, if it’s safe to do so.

Be sure customers can easily get in touch with you to voice any complaints or issues. Your customers may be emotionally, physically, or financially on edge, so try to lead with empathy and follow these tips.

  • Devise a strategy. Determine the best way to respond to customer inquiries or complaints, then write it down and share it with employees. Be specific. For instance: If a customer wants to cancel a membership, authorize employees to offer a discount or a three-month hiatus. If that doesn’t work, cancel without pushback.
  • Make sure customers feel heard. Determine how you’ll acknowledge and address customer problems, even if you can’t fix them. Your employees might say, “This is important, and the owner would want to hear from you,” before taking a call-back number.
  • Adapt your strategy. As the saying goes, the customer is always right. Ask your employees to share what works and doesn’t when taking customer feedback. Don’t be afraid to update your plan and policies accordingly.

If a customer walks away from an interaction feeling good, they’re more likely to come back. Make sure they feel heard and supported.

 

Action: Try to be less rigid about fees, cancelations, and returns, if you can. If you can’t, explain why and be as empathetic as possible.

 

  1. Reward loyalty

Just thanking customers for their business can go a long way toward making them feel valued. But there are a few other things you can try.

  • Price: Consider a basic discount for any long-term customers. This could apply to a single product or service, or everything you offer.
  • Service: Thank long-term customers with special or added services, like priority reservations.
  • Points: Generate long-term loyalty by offering some type of reward points that can be redeemed in the future.
  • Perks: A one-time perk, like a free gift or service, can acknowledge customers who stayed with you during any breaks in business.

 

Action: Be strategic about which products and services you use as rewards. If you’ve launched a new initiative in response to COVID-19, featuring it as a reward can raise awareness while also expressing customer appreciation.

 

Making your customers feel appreciated can help protect you against any future disruptions, whether they’re related to COVID-19 or not. Be overt about wanting to develop a strong bond. After all, valued customers not only come back, they can also generate positive buzz that leads to new customers and sales.

 

Sources: Corkbuzz, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, McKinsey & Company

As a small business owner, you know adapting your business is key to survival. And the economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic means many businesses are under pressure to find new revenue streams. If you’re looking for ways to pivot and find new income, staying true to who you are as a business can help increase your chances of success.

Consider these four steps to developing new revenue.

  1. Review and enhance your value proposition

Your value proposition is the benefit your company promises to deliver to customers if they buy your product or service. In order to reevaluate your value prop in the time of COVID-19, consider the following.

  • Audience: Your business was designed to meet the wants and needs of your core clients and customers. Keep in mind your customers’ needs may be changing during the crisis.
  • Relevance: If you are still meeting your audience’s wants and needs, think about how you can continue that. As your customers’ habits continue to change, can you find a way to be even more relevant to them?
  • Culture: Your company has a unique identity. Is it coming through in the products and services you offer?
  • Competition: This crisis may change the businesses you compete with. Keep an eye on what they’re doing and look for opportunities to differentiate.

Discovering a new way to bring value to your customers is the easiest way to develop a new product or service that generates revenue for your business.

 

Action: Make a list of ideas for how you can deliver new benefits to customers who may have changed during COVID-19.

 

  1. Ask for ideas

Coming up with new ideas for your business can feel like a lot of pressure, but you’re not alone.

  • Customers can tell you what they want, need and lack. Ask, “How can we better help you?” Your customers may have a specific need in mind, and the solution is as simple as asking. However, you don’t want to ask customers to innovate for you if they don’t have answers, so be ready with specific questions about how their circumstances have changed. By better understanding their situation, you may be able to design a solution.
  • Competitors may have ideas that inspire you or provide a lesson in what to avoid.
  • Employees are motivated to help you succeed, and they know your business well. They may have ideas about how to add value. Consider Women & Children First, a Chicago-based bookstore that began hosting a virtual book club after employees suggested that customers might like virtual events.

 

Action: Keep track of who you speak to, and their ideas, in one place. This can make it easier to spot a standout idea and identify who to work with to pursue it.

 

  1. Think evolution, not reinvention

Don’t feel like you need to go back to square one. Instead, focus on smaller tangible ideas.

  • Less might be more. New revenue streams don’t always mean upgrading your products or services. With people worried about money, simpler products or services might be more in demand and generate more revenue than a higher-priced option.
  • Be persistent. It might take a few tries to turn an idea into a revenue generator — but don’t let that keep you from testing new things. If you’re enhancing your value proposition, you should be able to monetize the idea eventually.

 

Action: Strategize how you’ll let your customers know about any new offerings. Emphasize how customers will benefit.

 

  1. Stay flexible

While it’s important to brainstorm with your employees, customers and confidants, you also need to test your ideas. There are operations involved, and you may need to invest money and hours into the pivot.

It’s important to constantly evaluate what’s working and what isn’t. If a new revenue stream starts to cost more than you’re benefiting, don’t be afraid to reevaluate.

If your new initiatives stay true to who you are as a business, pursuing them won’t derail any long-term goals. In fact, you may even uncover new opportunities for potential growth. A virtual book club, for example, might evolve into potential new business.

 

Action: Evaluate the longevity of any new products or services as the economy recovers. Does it make sense to keep your new offerings permanently as other lines of business pick back up?

 

Just because you’ve discovered a new revenue stream today doesn’t mean it will keep working as the crisis progresses and changes. Staying flexible is key.

 

Sources: Wells Fargo Works, Forbes, Inc.

The COVID-19 crisis is making it harder for some businesses to safely and affordably access the supplies and materials they need. Unlike a natural disaster, where interruptions to the supply chain can mostly be predicted, COVID-19 is affecting supply chains in unanticipated ways.

Not only are manufacturers, distributors, and retailers affected, but so are the businesses that serve them. Whether you’re directly or indirectly impacted, this article can help you better understand how the economy during this crisis could affect supply and how to best prepare.

 

What’s happening?

As early as March, small business owners were feeling the effects of supply chain disruptions, and those disruptions continued. The problem extends across industries, including food and agriculture, e-commerce, retail, and pharmaceuticals. Items sourced from overseas present even more complex challenges, since different countries have different experiences and are recovering at varying paces.

 

Why the disruption?

If you’re like most business owners in the U.S., you probably favor a “just-in-time” inventory system, where businesses keep just enough supplies on hand to meet demand. The strategy frees up cash and avoids waste. But it means there isn’t as much flexibility when supply and material shortages arise.

Consider the food supply chain. People are purchasing less food from restaurants since the crisis started and buying more groceries instead. The grocery stores who order just enough to meet demand are experiencing shortages, while the food suppliers who sell to restaurants are experiencing a surplus.

It can take time for stores to find new suppliers and vice versa. We’re producing enough food to feed everyone, but this imbalance can cause price increases. Since we can’t predict exactly how quickly we’ll reach a new normal, there could be more disruptions in the future. What’s more, prices may fluctuate significantly due to changes in supply, demand, and global markets.

 

Is my business at risk?

Most industries can expect some level of disruption, and these interruptions may not be predictable.

For instance, a wholesale business may have switched from a supplier in China to one in Mexico. By summer, the same distributor may have had to switch suppliers again, since Mexico is experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases. Meanwhile, Chinese factories are ramping up production again.

If you purchase supplies from another person or company, you’re likely at risk. The degree of risk can depend on the location of supplier, the relationship you have with them, and the type of supply you purchase.

To help plan ahead, monitor things as best you can. Get a better sense of the supply risks facing your industry by subscribing to magazines and email newsletters from trade groups.

 

Action: Read local news from the areas where your suppliers are located.

 

What you can do

If you can no longer get the same supplies at the same price or if you’re worried that could happen, there are some important questions to consider:

  • Can you adjust your operations? If your business has enough cash on hand, consider adding inventory for the short term to protect against potential disruptions. Plan ahead by asking suppliers if you can stock up. Ask about discounts for orders exceeding your typical buy.
  • Can you replace the supply with an alternative? If yes, take into account differences in price and quality.
  • Can you find a new supplier? If you can’t adjust the type of supply you need, look into finding a different qualified supplier. The same questions around price and quality apply.
  • How flexible is your pricing? If the cost of your supplies go up, can you pass the increase on to customers or will it eat into your margins? Remember that passing costs on to customers has the potential to backfire, considering many Americans are financially strained during the crisis.
  • Can you update your products? A change in materials or suppliers could present an opportunity. A jeweler who can’t afford the increased price of gold might launch a line of sterling silver products.
  • Can you handle a delay? Some of your customers might be willing to accept a delay in exchange for the same product. Ask if you can get the same supplies at a later time. (You may be able to ask for a discount, too, in exchange for waiting.)

Not every business will experience a supply chain disruption directly. However, understanding what’s happening with supply chains and the cost of raw materials can help savvy business owners with forecasts and future planning.

If you expect a disruption, think through which solutions make the most sense for your business.

 

Sources: CNBC, UPS, FDA, Marketplace, NBC Chicago

Even the most prepared small business owners can be caught off guard by a crisis — especially when the crisis in question is a global health emergency sending shockwaves through the economy. With so much uncertainty, many of your employees, as well as your customers, will be looking for strong leadership. To help you lead through this crisis, we sought out advice from experts and customer insights and perspectives from other business owners.

 

Put people first

With COVID-19, everyone’s health is potentially at risk. It’s an inherently human crisis, so it’s important to lead with humanity. As a business owner, you likely need to lead your employees, but you may also serve as a leader to your customers and in your community.

For example, in New Jersey, Ani Ramen House had to close temporarily due to COVID-19. They used their existing food supply to create meal kits for 1,300 families. Owner Luck Sarabhayavanija told Nation’s Restaurant News: “We decided to make the most of a bad situation.”

Action: To lead initiatives that inspire goodwill in your community, start with what you know and stay true to the spirit of your business.

 

Communication is key

The first step toward leading — both your employees and your customers — is open communication. In an uncertain situation like COVID-19, transparency can help provide reassurance and position you as a leader.

Experts at management consulting firm McKinsey recommend focusing your message on what people need most from you. For instance, early on your employees may have worried about their jobs. In that case, a facts-based approach may work best: Share what you know, what you don’t know and the basics of your plan.

McKinsey points out that as a crisis unfolds, people may start to feel dejected. When that happens, by sharing positive news, leaders can help people feel secure and motivated. Eventually leaders need to communicate a logistical path forward.

Whatever you decide to say, make sure it gets shared with the right people. You might want to create a communication channel specifically to talk to your employees about developments related to COVID-19. (According to a Harvard Business School survey, 78 percent of business owners have done just that.) This could be as simple as weekly video check-ins with your employees.

Action: You don’t need all the answers in order to communicate. Stay in touch with employees and ask how the evolving situation is affecting them.

 

Seek out practical information

Of course, communication is easier when you have access to concrete, relevant information. This can be particularly challenging during COVID-19, since there’s so much that’s unknown about the virus.

Seek out sources of information you trust, whether it’s a news organization, government agency or academic institution. A number of corporate consulting firms (McKinsey, Deloitte, and Boston Consulting Group, to name a few) have opened up COVID-19–specific hubs to help guide business owners. Membership-based professional groups like Business Advantage TV or trade organizations offer resources as well.

Pay particular attention to developments that could affect your business: the status of COVID-19 in your area, new rules and regulations and changes in consumer behavior.

Action: As you learn new information, share it with your employees, along with how you plan to act. For instance, if your state issues new rules, explain the details to your employees and include how and when changes will be implemented.

 

Ultimately, different businesses and situations call for different types of leaders. When in doubt, lead with what’s best for your employees, customers, and the community. You don’t have to sacrifice profit, but empathy can pay off in the long run via loyalty and positive perception.

 

SOURCES: McKinsey, Harvard Business School

Even before COVID-19 hit, many business owners stayed up at night worrying about money. With “business as usual” a distant memory, many owners now face bigger questions about staying in business.

These five steps can help you address some of the most immediate concerns — and keep your head above water — while you work on more permanent solutions as the new reality becomes clearer.

 

  1. Make a list of your expenses and revenue

Or ask your accountant to share this list with you. Look over your balance sheet (assets and liabilities) and your income statement (cash flow).

This may seem overly simple, but many owners aren’t tuned in to monthly accounting details or various payment terms. If you have to prioritize or renegotiate your finances, it can help to see all of the moving pieces.

If you need a refresher on bookkeeping terms and technical details, you can read up on the basics.

 

  1. Develop multiple possible scenarios

Whether your business has closed or remained open during the crisis, the outlook for most industries remains unclear. To help plan, consider a number of scenarios and analyze what your finances would look like in each.

For instance, if you’re planning to reopen soon, envision the rest of your 2020 if business starts up at 50 percent of pre-crisis levels. What about 15 percent? Or imagine you’ll see a jump in activity due to pent-up demand. Can you ramp up quickly enough to meet it?

What does cash flow look like in each scenario and how do you build inventory and staffing to meet your needs? If you’ve had to adjust inventory and staffing due to a previous closure, how long will it take you to readjust to meet new demands?

Read more on rethinking your operating model.

 

  1. Call your partners — customers, suppliers and bankers

Managing expenses is going to be key. The good news is, nearly everyone is aware of the challenges facing business owners and will work with you. Be transparent about your ability to pay your vendors and make payments on any outstanding loans. The scenarios you developed in step two can help you speak realistically with creditors about when you’ll be able to pay them.

You can also negotiate with customers. In addition to any discussions you’ve had about keeping their business, don’t be shy about discussing payment terms. You could ask them about paying in advance for previously scheduled orders in exchange for a discount, for example. Creative solutions may be able to help you improve cash flow.

 

  1. Apply for help

The government-backed Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) is the most popular small business relief effort, but it isn’t the only option. If you did not receive funds, the CARES Act allocated additional resources to help business owners.

If you did qualify for PPP, it’s important to be aware of how the program is changing. For instance, the PPP Flexibility Act passed June 5 updated the terms and extended the covered period.

If you bank with Wells Fargo, our Paycheck Protection Program page can help answer questions. Or visit our COVID-19 resources and support page to see which resources you might qualify for.

Ultimately, you want to ensure that any aid you apply for makes long-term sense for your business. As the outlook for the economy and your business begins to stabilize, you might also consider whether more traditional financing options, including loans or lines of credit, might make sense.

 

  1. Look for new revenue streams

It’s a good idea to think about different sources of revenue throughout this crisis. COVID-19 — the virus itself and our response to it — has changed Americans’ outlook and how we do business. It remains to be seen how many of those changes might be permanent, but it’s worth testing your business against different scenarios.

For instance, if Americans eschew restaurants or live entertainment in favor of cooking at home and digital entertainment, what does that mean for your business? Let’s say you print T-shirts for musicians to sell at concerts; you might need to consider different distribution ideas or using your facilities to make a wider variety of merchandise.

Read more about consumer reactions to COVID-19 and what that means for your business.

While there’s no easy solution to ease financial worries during a crisis, there are steps you can take to feel more in control. Focusing on facts, building varied forecasts, and communicating openly can help you secure funding and better prepare for the future.

 

SOURCES: DaySmart Software, Small Business Administration, National Law Review

COVID-19 dealt an unprecedented challenge to American small business, and more than half believe recovery will take most of 2020, according to U.S. Census data. While the crisis created major challenges around health and safety, the biggest impact for many businesses is financial.

Recent Wells Fargo research showed that even though most small business owners said things were “going well” prior to the crisis, they’re now struggling. Many called the outlook “bleak,” especially if they didn’t have an online presence. As businesses wait to see what economic recovery might look like, early signs show it won’t be linear: Businesses may be open one day, then closed the next if cases increase. And what “open” means may continue to change.

The closures and changing parameters often translate to lost revenue. However, many small business owners also told Wells Fargo that the crisis presents some type of opportunity. The key to staying afloat financially may be resourcefulness and resilience, thankfully a common trait among small business owners.

Let’s look at how small businesses are coping financially, as well as what you can do to help balance day-to-day financial concerns with future uncertainty and long-term growth.

Prepare for unpredictability

One of the most challenging parts of COVID-19 is the uncertainty. So much is unknown about treating the disease and when a vaccine will emerge that planning ahead can feel daunting.

Although you need to stay informed, the constant drumbeat of bad news and speculation can be overwhelming. Try to pinpoint what’s most important to your business by checking news and social media just once a day and subscribing to newsletters from trade associations in your industry, where they’re likely to share only the most relevant pieces of information.

Keep in mind that unpredictability doesn’t need to lead to an overhaul of how you do business. Most small businesses are continuing to manage their finances as they did before COVID-19, Wells Fargo research found.

But in addition to basics, like cash flow analysis, try taking your financial planning a step further by creating sales forecasts for your business based on different potential outcomes. If you’re keeping up to date on news and industry trends, it’s likely you have a few “what if” scenarios in mind, so try putting numbers to them and doing some analysis for how those various scenarios will affect your finances.

Some businesses may find that pent-up demand fuels business. Alternatively, if the outlook is not as sunny, you will have a firm grasp of what expenses need to be cut and actions need to be taken for your business to keep operating.

COVID-19’s financial impact is complicated

As of Q2, 2020

83%

of small businesses said they were negatively affected.1

65%

of small businesses said their financial situation is somewhat or very good.2

73%

of small businesses expect their finances to be somewhat or very good by summer 2021.3

1. US Census Small Business Survey; June 21-27, 2020.
2,3. Wells Fargo Small Business Survey; Q2, 2020.

Find opportunities in crisis

As the pandemic economy continues to evolve, be on the lookout for potential opportunities. Chances are you have already made some modifications to how your business operates (some eight in 10 small businesses have).

Ideally, the changes you make now are things that turn into long-term additions to your business that can boost your revenue stream well beyond the COVID-19 crisis. Consider Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream in Seattle, Washington. Owner Molly Moon Neitzel told NPR she had to shut down completely and lay off all her employees. But by selling sweatshirts online, as well as cards that could be redeemed for ice cream in the future, she made nearly $80,000 — enough to fund health insurance for laid-off employees.

Moon Neitzel also did what many small business owners are grappling with: She pivoted. She increased the number of sales she made to supermarkets, versus at her scoop shops, and is trying to find a balance that will keep the business going through 2021.

Expand your online footprint

While many businesses are looking at online sales as an opportunity, marketing isn’t the only area where going digital can help small businesses.

COVID-19 also motivated many businesses to do more banking online, whether it’s accepting new forms of contactless payment or increasing their online transactions with banks.

Going online can make banking easier during social distancing. It can take time to get comfortable with digital banking if you’re used to face-to-face interactions. But the switch may help you in the long run. Trends show the U.S. is moving away from cash and toward automation. COVID-19 could be a catalyst that pushes consumers even further toward cashless payments.

Take a look at how your customers usually pay and how you bank, and see if there’s a way to streamline how you accept payment, make deposits, and manage transactions, since this could help you not just during the pandemic but well into the future. The speed of these transactions and their ability to link with various accounting software can also make it easier for you to stay on top of cash flow and manage your finances in real time.

Plus, banking online can help protect your business if your area experiences new shutdowns that prevent your bank from keeping branches open. If you have questions about setting up online banking, talk to your banker.

Take advantage of the help available

Many small businesses applied for and received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds from the government. And it’s possible you applied for additional funding as well, via the government, nonprofit, or private sources.

Managing those funds strategically can help you take full advantage of the benefit as you navigate uncertainty. Staying organized is the first step. Make sure you document where the funds are going and keep track of your finances during the period you received them. This can help later when you apply for loan forgiveness or navigate repayment.

It’s also important to remember that PPP isn’t the only program created to help small business owners through the crisis.

If you’re still worried about your bottom line, consider alternative funding sources, such as the Opportunity Finance Network or grants from large corporations aimed at boosting small business. Some city and state governments have created local financing programs.

Grant funds may be available for women-, veteran-, and minority-owned business owners. Check with your local Small Business Development Center for more information.

Crowdfunding may also be an option. In Chicago, Namaskar Yoga Studio ran out of money because of COVID-19–related shutdowns and created a GoFundMe to raise capital to reopen. The studio had created such loyalty among the community — bolstered by the decision to pay teachers through the crisis despite a closure — that a student shared the fundraiser on Nextdoor. Less than a month after posting, the studio had very nearly reached its goal.

With communities rallying around small business, you might be able to find or organize a similar fundraiser. Local economic development groups may be able to help with joint fundraising efforts.

This tactic can also help with managing costs and supply chain issues. In one New York town, small businesses came together to place larger orders for personal protective equipment (PPE) and office supplies, which drove costs down for all of the participants.

In the meantime, continue to conserve cash and use any new cash infusions wisely. One area that may make sense to invest: updates to safety and operations. Being able to assure your employees and customers that you’re operating safely can help boost morale and sales.

Look toward the future

As you begin to make investments and continue to progress through the stages of reopening, it’s critical to measure and track effectiveness. Continue investing in those activities that are paying off and drop those that are not generating results. This approach will help you see your customers’ and community’s needs more clearly and plan for the future while monitoring your cash flow. Evaluating the changes you’ve made to your business in real time is a good first step when it comes to creating solid financial footing for 2021 and beyond.

Sources: Federal Reserve, National Federation of Independent Business, Nextdoor, GoFundMe, AARP