As the fear of closing up shop for good looms ever-larger in the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, small business owners are facing each day with a different set of challenges than the day before. For some, it could be keeping up with demand when social distancing measures make it difficult to do so efficiently. For others, it might be finding new sales channels as old ones close off, or deciding which positions are essential in light of gut-wrenching budget cuts. For most, it’s reckoning with an uncertain future while simply trying to stay afloat.
It comes as no surprise that more than 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed since March despite emergency loan programs and other Hail Mary responses to prevent 44% of U.S. economic activity from drying up. Especially for businesses that rely on in-person services, a key component of survival is using technology to reach customers despite social distancing restrictions.
Reinventing your business model
While the pandemic may have put business-as-usual on pause for the foreseeable future, many businesses have been able to pivot their strategies to accommodate a new or shifting business model. This can seem like a daunting task for businesses of any industry or size, but thankfully there are a few tips that may help keep the doors open, even if only digitally for now.
Prioritize content creation as a way of reaching new customers
COVID-19 is preventing people from connecting in person, and a recent study shows an average increase of 61% in social media engagement and 70% in web browsing since stay-at-home orders were implemented. As such, businesses should pay greater attention to their opportunities for content creation; whether it’s an Instagram post or a longer-form blog, there is usually some form of content that can be implemented as a low-cost way of reaching new clients or customers and educating existing ones from a distance. If you're not already out there as an expert solving problems, now's the time to start or ramp up those efforts.
How technology can help: Social media management tools like Hootsuite, Later, Buffer, and Planoly have made it possible to organize and schedule content and interact with customers and followers from a single platform. Most of these tools have a free plan that offers limited features, so users can prioritize online engagement without cost being a barrier to entry. Similarly, multimedia content creation tools like Canva and Adobe Spark offer a robust library of graphic design and video templates for non-designers to strengthen their brands.
Lean into e-commerce
In recent months, business owners have seen the shift to e-commerce jump ahead by four to six years, according to some estimates. Indeed, the convenience of online shopping—or even the option to buy online and pick up in-store, particularly curbside pickup—has allowed businesses to continue serving customers while maintaining COVID-19 precautions. While it may take some agility to create a brand-new online shop or add e-commerce capabilities to an existing website, the ability to preserve business continuity in this way will help solidify a path forward despite the unpredictability of the pandemic.
How technology can help: Some content management systems (CMS) like Squarespace and Shopify have out-of-the-box e-commerce functionalities that can be activated with the flip of a switch. For sites that are built on Wordpress, the WooCommerce plugin is the most popular tool to enable online transactions, manage inventory, and fulfil orders.
Brainstorm ways to provide services to customers at home
On the other side of the virtual coin, service-based businesses in industries like financial management, fitness coaching, or personal grooming might not be able to adapt their businesses to support e-commerce, but they can still institute some adaptations to maintain social distancing standards. Examples of this include offering remote workouts or virtual self-care appointments. At a minimum, offering online scheduling or reservation capabilities instead of relying on first-come, first-served policies will give patrons peace of mind ahead of their appointment while simultaneously easing the burden of business owners responsible for ensuring limited-capacity compliance.
How technology can help: Keeping in touch with clients is made easier with communication tools like TextMagic or Salesmsg for SMS, Zoom or Google Meet for video conferencing, and Mailchimp or Drip for email. Scheduling applications like Calendly, Vagaro, and HoneyBook make it easy to book appointments, and table management software like Resy and Tablein take the time and headache out of managing reservations.
Simplify customer service responsibilities
Amid the chaos that the COVID-19 pandemic has created, a customer’s confusion about store policies, hours, or other adjustments should not be one of them. As such, businesses should consider posting the most recent pandemic-related content at the front and center of their sites to grab their customers’ attention. This not only minimizes negative customer experiences but also prevents missed business opportunities from a customer accidentally assuming a business is closed or otherwise inaccessible. Additionally, instituting chatbots might seem like an impersonal approach to customer service, but streamlining the answers to frequently asked questions can point frustrated customers in the right direction without requiring a human being to sacrifice time that could be more effectively spent elsewhere. But don't overlook the value of good customer service, which was already something of an anachronism even before COVID-19 made customer service even harder to deliver. Responding cheerfully, helpfully, and quickly to customer contacts will always set a business apart.
How technology can help: Chatbot developers like Chatfuel or Chyme automate responses to simple customer service questions across a number of platforms. Some solutions like Intercom use an integrated approach that allows a human agent to step in if a customer inquiry requires special attention. Even simple call center applications such as Avoxi or Five9 can streamline customer service operations and make responding quickly and effectively from home an easy feat. Similarly, keeping Google My Business pages up-to-date is a cost-free way of putting the most relevant information front and center for customers seeking business information.
Despite the day-to-day challenges posed by COVID-19, small businesses can leverage technology to adapt or reinvent their business model to stay afloat. Some of these technologies include social media management platforms, e-commerce content management systems, communication tools, appointment/reservation software, and chatbots. Not all businesses will be able to reinvent themselves in a way that completely satisfies previous demand, but many will be able to adopt new practices and technologies that will improve operations when business eventually returns to normal—and may result in permanent new lines of business even after the old ones have recovered.