By this time during a normal year, small business owners and their sales staff would be at least halfway finished with their strategic and sales plans for the following year. This year, though, many business leaders have put off their planning.
If you're one of them, answer this question honestly: What are you waiting for? Are you waiting for the pandemic to end? For customers to start flooding stores again? For your employees to get back to work? For a surefire vaccine to make it safe to strip off your mask and huddle with your team? For your governor to say it's OK for businesses to ramp back up to 100%?
You could be waiting for a long time. Here's a better strategy: Don't wait another minute.
Even in times of extreme uncertainty, it's important to plan. Without a plan, very little gets done, and you leave your success to chance.
Granted, the pandemic makes it harder to plan. Your plan for 2021 surely will not be "business as usual," and this persistent second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks could shoot holes in your plan as soon as you write it. Plan anyway. It's important to create a blueprint based on your intention to stay in business and roll out new products and services.
Maybe your rollouts will be smaller than usual. Maybe they will involve fewer new products and services. Maybe you will have a smaller staff. Maybe you will put off plans for expansion for now. But "fewer" does not mean "none." "Postpone" does not mean "cancel." "Scale back" does not mean "shut down."
Even – rather, especially – if everything will look different on Jan. 1 than it did a year ago, you need a plan.
1. Plan for what is.
Even if you fear the next wave of COVID-19 could shut your business down temporarily, keep your employees at home, or cut your sales in half, having a plan will help you do what you can do with what you have.
A plan will force you and your leadership team to:
- Realistically assess your company's status in terms of government restrictions, actual income, availability of employees, and buying habits.
- Compare that status to actual sales, revenue and customer behavior since the pandemic began affecting your company in March.
- Adjust sales expectations, reconsider scheduled product and service rollouts, and scale back production in light of that reality.
- Create new or different products and services to accommodate the changing trends, buying habits, and needs of past and potential customers.
That's a lot to plan for. Business leaders who spend time now planning for a new year that's vastly different from years past will be in a better position to respond calmly and seamlessly to whatever is next. Those who don't will be the ones panicking and throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks.
2. Plan for what if.
The smartest business leaders are the ones who anticipate what's next and account for that in their plans. Lately, though, it seems the coronavirus is outsmarting almost everyone.
Still, you can plan for "what if." For example, what would your restaurant do if officials were to forbid indoor dining while it's still too cold to serve meals outdoors? How would your store survive if it were allowed to let in only 25% of the usual number of shoppers – or no customers at all? Could you find new clients for your consulting business if your regulars temporarily don't need your professional services? What would happen if your employees get sick or have to work from home for a while longer?
Planning for uncertainty involves:
- Brainstorming with your leadership team to anticipate possible challenges.
- Coming up with a Plan A in case everything stays as it is today, and with a Plan B in case restrictions and consumers revert to the way they were at the beginning of the pandemic.
- Considering what the post-election changes in the country's and your state's leadership might mean for your industry, community, and business.
- Preparing for shifts in consumer spending and preferences by keeping a keen eye out for the slightest uptick in popularity for a product or downtick in interest for what you already offer.
This kind of planning isn't unfamiliar to business owners who recognize the value of creating strategies and schedules. The number of what-ifs may be greater now than during a typical planning cycle, but it's a fact of business that changes in demand can happen at any time for any number of reasons.
A flexible plan that accounts for ever-present uncertainties – and that you constantly revisit and update – can be the difference between a business that survives and one that folds during a crisis.
3. Plan for what's next.
Even if your employees are unhappy about working from home, your flagship product or service is no longer making you any money, or you can barely recognize your company with what it's become since the pandemic started, you might not ever change everything back to how it was.
The fact is that teleworking employees probably cost you less than the ones who need a desk, computer and cubicle in a physical workplace. Those Zoom meetings that everyone is growing tired of are working for a lot of businesses: They allow employees to attend important meetings without spending money on Uber rides, plane tickets or hotel rooms. Selling online most likely has introduced your products and services to customers who had never heard of your company before.
Some of the accommodations that businesses have made because of the pandemic might be good for your company in the long run. As you do your strategic and sales planning for 2021, consider that a vaccine and continued social distancing are likely to lessen the severity of the pandemic and, ideally, eradicate it sometime next year. Once that happens, will you take your company back to business as usual, or will you take what you have learned during the disruption and bake it into the structure and culture of your firm?
Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? By the time the pandemic subsides, your business will have survived a year or more by using creative, alternative business practices – including some that work better than the ones they replaced.
Gather all your employees for a virtual brainstorming session that could reveal some of these things:
- Some products and services sell far better online than they ever did in a physical store or office.
- Conducting virtual meetings with clients is saving your company money, because you're not flying salespeople all over the country or paying for in-person dinners and lunches – and that might be working just as well for your clients.
- Customers have responded positively to the necessary changes you made. Maybe they enjoy eating outdoors or having someone deliver their purchases to their cars, for example – services that you might not have offered before but could profit from if you keep them post-pandemic.
- Your business has attracted a different kind of client – one you had never considered a fit for your business – since you've made a specific change.
By now, you've spent the better part of a year figuring out how to sell what you offer and how to offer what sells. Plan to build on that, not get rid of it.
4. Plan for what's new.
Once you decide what's changing, what you will keep, and what your business will look like as the pandemic rages to its end, prepare your staff for a new way to work, new products and services to sell, and a new kind of customer to serve.
Any business that survives the pandemic will be changed by it. Its future success will depend, in part, on how well its employees adapt to the new look.
Here are a few areas that might require training for even your longest-term employees:
- Sales representatives who used to conduct in-person transactions have learned how to do business online during the pandemic. But has your business created standards and procedures for online sales? Once you do, retrain your sales staff so they will not default to in-person standards with online sales.
- If your customer base has grown or changed to include younger or older shoppers, wealthier or lower-income fans, or consumers of different races or genders, educate yourself and your team about the expectations, likes and needs of the new clientele.
- Employees who seem to be taking their jobs and your customers for granted might need to brush up on the value of gratitude. As you rebuild a business that has been diminished or even on hold because of the pandemic, remember – and don't let your staff forget – what might be the pandemic's most important business lesson: Having a job isn't a given; it's a privilege, and it's your loyal customers who keep those jobs available and the company's doors open.
And it's a solid plan that keeps the company moving forward. Start your 2021 plan today, without delay. Don't let the new year arrive without you knowing how your business will stay in business.