Regardless of industry, there's no question that COVID-19 has transformed global and U.S. business practices. Some changes have been small, while others have the potential to be lasting and, possibly, revolutionary.
According to a June 2020 Global Economic Prospects Survey, the global GDP was predicted to contract 5.2% in 2020, the biggest worldwide drop in decades. The only certainty right now is that everything is fluid, and the businesses that want to survive must adapt.
For my company, the impact of COVID-19 meant leaning more heavily on automation. As we tried to keep up with increased e-commerce demands, we also had to reckon with warehouse labor shortages.
For some businesses, that's meant applying traditional brick-and-mortar operations to virtual platforms like Facebook Live and FaceTime, and doing what every company wants to do: adapt and find a new way to stand out. For established business leaders, adaptation in the face of sudden change is a big ask, but it's also necessary.
Letting go of complete control
At their core, great business leaders are problem-solvers. Even with unexpected circumstances, the basic tenet of problem-solving remains the same: Identify the symptoms, diagnose the root causes and then find ways to either fix the root problem or ease the symptoms.
In this regard, confronting the fallout from COVID-19 should be no different from any other obstacle; there are just more symptoms to deal with. That can mean a lot more uncertainty surrounding what's feasible and what isn't, an intimidating, but not insurmountable, prospect.
When my company first began to scale, we faced all kinds of uncertainty. The vision of where we wanted to be didn't always align with what the market wanted. It was difficult at times. Those early days taught our team that change was a force to embrace instead of weather. This is a lesson I've carried with me into the pandemic, and it's one that I believe a business of any size or stripe needs to learn if it wants to emerge from the pandemic better than before.
Make embracing change easier
A more forward-thinking approach is within every company's reach – as long as business leaders implement the following strategies:
1. Listen to your customers.
It's no exaggeration to say that the manner in which you respond to your customers' needs during a crisis will have long-lasting effects on your business. To keep, or even grow, your customer base, you need to do more than pay lip service to customers dealing with the pandemic's effects. You have to really listen to people's concerns and desires so you can meet your customers where they are. Customers agree, as 52% of consumers said they believe companies need to act on customer feedback.
Right now, care and connection should be playing major roles in the customer experience. Small business owners should keep in regular contact with their customers so they can quickly implement changes to match their expectations in this new normal. After you have adapted to customers' current needs, focus on what you can do proactively to make it easier to quickly adopt future changes, thinking through how the customer experience will be permanently changed post-COVID. As a small business, know that your most successful changes will most likely result from customer interactions and insights.
2. Find people willing to work hard and question the status quo.
Intelligence, experience, and passion – these are the qualities you should look for above all else when hiring employees to guide your company into the future. This might sound simple enough, but intelligence and passion can't really be gleaned from a résumé, and even experience looks very different on paper than it does in real life.
That's why it’s critical to go beyond a list of qualifications when looking for people who can help steer a company through troubled waters. Delve deep into specifics during interviews to push candidates to show you what they really know. You don't even have to know a lot about the topic yourself in order to ask illuminating questions. What matters is gaining a better understanding of how candidates approach problems, determining how well they can explain their processes and seeing how open they are to pushing back against the status quo to get things done.
Small businesses, in fact, have the flexibility to consider ditching the traditional résumé altogether. Have prospective employees fill out a wide-ranging survey of questions that cover both technical questions and background information like the candidate's favorite blogger. The goal is to find the people with the qualities the company actually needs, rather than what conventional wisdom says it needs.
3. Implement minimum viable product development.
A minimum viable product (MVP) is essentially a work in progress that shows you immediate value. The goal is to release a product quickly and with minimal development costs to see how it performs in the real world. From there, you can rapidly iterate on the product on the basis of customer reactions.
Regardless of whether you subscribe to the lean methodology overall, MVPs are the perfect way for small businesses to figure out which paths are worth exploring before sinking too much time and money into the wrong things.
4. Embrace bootstrapping to keep your company nimble.
It might seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the best thing you can do during a crisis is to steer clear of outside investment and take a bootstrapping approach to growth. According to a Small Business Trends study, 77% of small businesses front the cash for their companies with money from their own personal savings and checking accounts. Limited resources force you to stay on your toes, adapting to whatever comes next. Keeping lean can also provide you with clarity that helps you focus on the efforts that matter and drive growth.
The lack of a safety net means everything needs to be done more efficiently and on an accelerated timeline. It means vanity projects fall by the wayside. Working lean might seem like a lot of pressure, especially when there's already so much going on, and it is. But it's the right kind of pressure to help you not only weather the storm but also become a more nimble, focused company that's ready to handle whatever comes its way.
5. Push companywide transparency.
A large company will have a lot of people with their own specialized expertise. This is great, as these are the people who will know your products inside and out. But specialization can also lead to a kind of tunnel vision that prevents experts from seeing outside their own departments. If these experts aren't transparent with other departments about the work they're doing, sharing both their successes and obstacles, business operations can break down.
I've experienced this communication breakdown on a few occasions that highlighted the importance of transparency for me. In one instance, our operations team wasn't fully tracking the number of temporary workers who showed up for work compared with the number requested. For that team, it wasn't a big deal – they were able to get everything done with the people they were given. But it was important information for human resources to have, because it's HR's job to deal with a below-average show-up rate before it becomes a serious problem throughout the company.
It can be easy to get caught up in your own piece of the puzzle and forget how it fits in with the rest of the business. But 87% of employees say they want to work for transparent companies, and that makes one thing clear: It's important for others to see what you're doing so they can figure out how it might affect them.
Change is inevitable; it doesn't normally happen so rapidly. If you want to overcome the hurdles that seem to arise almost daily during the pandemic era, you have to embrace change and trust that the process will lead you safely to the other side. This will help you not only more survive this pandemic but also prepare for the next crisis when it inevitably comes along.