Many businesses lack the resources to design and practice a Business Continuity Plan (BCP). Unfortunately, every business could use one now. Here, the focus is on alleviating pain in 4 key areas:
- How do I care for my employees, including those I can't keep?
- My customers can’t visit my physical business. How do I move my business to where my customers are?
- People are spending less; my customer base is smaller. What new revenue streams can I expose to offset losses?
- As customers transition from on-premise consumption to at-home consumption, my revenue is approaching zero. What short-term capital can I access to maintain liquidity and give my business breathing room to adapt?
A few words on health
Health is the first priority. A lot of good advice has been written to help people stay healthy during the Coronavirus outbreak. I'm not a doctor, so instead of writing my own advice or restating what others have said, I'll link to the advice of people with more knowledge on the subject than me:
- From the CDC, "What every American and community can do now to decrease the spread of the coronavirus." It's written for an American audience, but anyone can follow the recommendations.
- We're all hearing a lot about flattening the curve. PBS created a rather fantastic video that explains what it means, "What does [the] chart actually mean for COVID-19?" Importantly, it answers why we're each being asked to make such drastic changes to our behavior.
What is a Business Continuity Plan (BCP)?
A Business Continuity Plan or BCP outlines procedures that a company will follow in the event of a disaster. That's some admittedly heavy wording. Said another way, a Business Continuity Plan answers the question, "What happens when the things we assume will always be available to deliver our company's products and services – suddenly aren't available anymore?"
Any company that has a Business Continuity Plan practices it several times a year. Examples of when the Plan is put into motion are earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and now the Coronavirus. For the sake of this article, it's late to design, implement, and test a Business Continuity Plan. This is a crash course on some tools and practices to keep us all going.
Caring for employees
The most important asset a business has is its people. Some businesses, like grocery stores, may be unable to close their physical offices. All businesses must take steps to maximize the physical distance between their employees and their customers. A business may have employee roles that can be fulfilled while working from home. As the social distance between people increases, the virus's attack surface decreases. Minimize on-premise workers; maximize remote workers.
Business continuity checklist
Along with caring for employees and protecting the safety of your employees and your customers, the United States CDC created the, "Business Pandemic Influenza Planning Checklist." It's full of actionable material.
In the event of pandemic influenza, businesses will play a key role in protecting employees’ health and safety as well as limiting the negative impact to the economy and society. Planning for pandemic influenza is critical. To assist you in your efforts, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have developed the following checklist for large businesses. It identifies important, specific activities large businesses can do now to prepare, many of which will also help you in other emergencies. Further information can be found at www.pandemicflu.gov and www.cdc.gov/business.
Leading through layoffs
A lot of businesses may find themselves unable to continue paying their employees. There will be layoffs. Any business that finds itself in the difficult position of having to reduce personnel should make the process as compassionate and humane as possible. That's more than handing out paperwork. It's the delivery of resources specifically tailored to the employee who is losing their position and messaging those resources in a format that's easy to understand.
Think of it this way. Customer Experience or "CX" is an often-used buzzword. A quick search on LinkedIn will return thousands of insightful posts on the topic. Similarly, the goal of attracting and retaining talent is tied to Employee Experience. That includes more than the experience of working at a company, but also employee onboarding and departures.
Employers need to imagine that employees will review them for the layoff experience. What can they do to make it as pleasant as possible? For example, if the HR paperwork is long and complex, businesses need to provide simple, visual guides for common tasks like filing for unemployment. The goal is to get the released employee back on their feet as soon as possible; to eliminate a source of fear at a time of great fear. It's about empathy.
How an employer conducts its layoffs says more of the character of its leadership than it does about any economic condition. We, each of us, control how we treat one another. A layoff is not a transaction for the employee. It's a transition, and employers own the process. They should make themselves available to an impacted employee after their last day. The employer understands the process and applicable laws. The employee does not. Pushing process complexity to the employee is inappropriate.
CareerOneStop is an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. It has a resource page dedicated to the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Employers need to make themselves familiar with its guidance and given state policies. Information pertinent to individual states can be accessed from the page. Employees may be eligible for financial assistance even if their jobs aren't eliminated.
COVID-19 (Coronovirus) update: The federal government is allowing new options for states to amend their laws to provide unemployment insurance benefits related to COVID-19. For example, federal law allows states to pay benefits where:
An employer temporarily ceases operations due to COVID-19, preventing employees from coming to work;
An individual is quarantined with the expectation of returning to work after the quarantine is over; and
An individual leaves employment due to a risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member.
In addition, federal law does not require an employee to quit in order to receive benefits due to the impact of COVID-19.
Businesses are struggling. Destination businesses, like restaurants and gyms, are faced with closing their physical storefronts. Despite the difficult circumstances, there are things that businesses can do to keep going even if their customer base has moved or shrunk.
An example of a customer base that has moved is a restaurant business. Formerly, a patron would travel to a restaurant, sit down, and eat at the establishment. During the pandemic, restaurants may be prohibited from allowing customers from dining-in. Even if they're allowed to host people, customers might think eating at a restaurant is unsafe. People still eat though. But, instead of eating at restaurants, they're eating at home. The customers have moved.
All businesses are dealing with a shrinking customer base now. The stock market is volatile. People are experiencing or fearful of layoffs, so they're spending less. The total opportunity for every business is smaller. Businesses that move to where their customers are will alleviate this pain. Further mitigation will require additional tactics.
Gift cards are a great way for a business to supplement its income. They allow businesses to collect revenue now and earn it later. They also make great gifts, as the name suggests, and will leave friends and family with something to look forward to when the pandemic starts to subside.
A lot of local businesses have built-in community loyalty. They may find patrons who want to help their business by purchasing a gift card, knowing they'll receive value fro their purchase in the coming months. Square's commerce platform makes selling gift cards a breeze.
The nice thing about gift cards is, customers don't use them all at once. They use them as time affords. A gift card can go unused for a year or more, allowing a business to earn new revenue while also paying back unearned revenue – gift card sales – at an even pace. Everyone wins.
Go to your customers
A business doesn't literally have to go to its customers. However, the value it provides must be consumable at the customer's residence. What was once a single point of consumption – a business – is now many points of consumption as individual homes. Notably, the transfer of value can still happen as a business's location, meaning the customer can still pick-up purchased products at a business's location. Value can still be created at the business's location and distributed.
Avoid bars, restaurants, and food courts–use pick-up, drive-thru, or delivery.
Restaurants and gyms can still operate, but they need to get creative. In doing so, they'll provide a level of normalcy to interrupted life.
Dine-in restaurants need to offer to-go meals. They should let their customers call-in or and order online. They'll be a learning curve, but customers already know and expect that. When a business discloses that, they'll find a mostly sympathetic audience. If there's a silver lining to a pandemic, it's that everyone is experiencing it together. Change and challenges are expected. For businesses that aren't already equipped for a to-go business model, Square for Restaurants can ease the transition.
There's more relief for restaurants. Uber Eats is waiving delivery fees for independent restaurants in the United States and Canada. For establishments that want to augment curbside pick-up with at-home delivery, it's a great way to scale quickly to meet demand.
Because we know our small businesses have an urgent need, we have waived delivery fees on all Uber Eats orders from independent restaurants across the US & Canada in an effort to drive sales to local favorites. We have also introduced a new functionality to enable same‑day payouts for any Uber Eats restaurants who request it, to increase cash flow certainty.
Membership growth while gyms are closed will be hard. Gyms are a subscription service though. Their objective is to slow cancellations. Gyms can offer multiple online classes for their members. They have an opportunity to create connections with their members by offering weightlifting, cardio, yoga, and other classes using the things their customers have at home. They could also loan or rent small gym equipment to members. Either way, they can live stream on YouTube Live or across multiple platforms using Restream.
As a twist, entire families can join in on the fun during the quarantine. Everyone's home, making children a new and relevant audience. Parents will want to keep their kids distracted while they try to work. Children will have lots of pent-up energy with gym classes and afterschool sports programs canceled, so parents will be grateful. Some workouts could even focus on binging families together; to exercise together. Gyms willing to widen their audience can even partner with schools that are working to institute remote learning.
Webinars are powerful tools for financial advisors, insurance agents (health, commercial, and personal), and retirement planners. There's a ton of fear in the market. People have questions. A person's kneejerk response, to abandon their investment strategy and pull their money out of investment vehicles during a market downturn, might not be a good idea.
Financial services professionals can field questions in advance of a webinar, then answer them during the webinar through prepared content. This will allow them to respond to client concerns, maintain relationships and trust, and importantly phrase answers in a way that complies with government regulations.
Merchandise and services
The internet lets businesses do more than market their existing products and services online. It lets them start selling entirely new products and services relatively quickly. Businesses should look to satisfy new consumer demand. Example products include t-shirts, totes, and mugs.
Leverage merchandise to create emotional connections between your brand and your customers. Everyone's having a tough time. Bring some joy into the lives of your customers.
Around the world, people are working from home. They're not getting dressed up for work anymore. A local restaurant could sell pajamas and mugs that joke about the new definition of business casual: working in your pajamas. A gym might sell weights and workout gear. Depending on your brand image, you can adapt your message and use of humor to fit.
Patreon is a membership platform. It lets creators connect with and accept money from engaged consumers.
Start a membership business to develop a direct relationship with your biggest fans and generate predictable, recurring revenue from your creative work.
Patreon is a good fit for artists and artisans. An artist can teach a group of students how to paint. A baker can teach people how to make and decorate some of the cakes it sells in its shop. In doing so, creators can expose some of the care that goes into their products and build brand loyalty. The people they teach may become brand advocates. Further, if Patreon works out, a business can keep using it after the pandemic has subsided.
Messaging on food safety
Before continuing, it's important to highlight some of the unique challenges faced by restaurants. The order to close restaurants was the right thing to do, but has resulted in some confusion about food safety.
Closing restaurants is about maximizing social distance and limiting the number of people that spend time together and the amount of time they spend together. It does not mean that cooked food is unsafe to eat or that restaurants can't operate; that they can't sell food. They can.
Customers care about food safety, and customer-centric language has been sorely lacking. Restaurant and foodservice businesses need to answer the following questions in a way that's easy for customers to understand. Weirdly, I haven't seen any business answer the first question and it's an important one.
- Is it safe to eat food prepared by restaurants?
- What are you (business) doing to protect customer safety?
- What can I do to keep safe after bringing my food in the house?
To answer the above, it's important to refer to the experts.
What the FDA says
Q: Can I get sick with COVID-19 from touching food, the food packaging, or food contact surfaces, if the coronavirus was present on it?
A: Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. Like other viruses, it is possible that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces or objects. For that reason, it is critical to follow the 4 key steps of food safety—clean, separate, cook, and chill.
Q: Can I get COVID-19 from a food worker handling my food?
A: Currently, there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. However, the virus that causes COVID-19 is spreading from person-to-person in some communities in the U.S. The CDC recommends that if you are sick, stay home until you are better and no longer pose a risk of infecting others.
Anyone handling, preparing and serving food should always follow safe food handling procedures, such as washing hands and surfaces often.
The FDA responses do more than assuage the valid concerns of a restaurant's customers. They provide an authoritative reference source as if to say,
This isn't coming from me. It's coming from a reputable source of information on food safety – one that you trust – the FDA. Like any reputable restaurant, we comply with FDA guidelines. We're taking extra precautions to protect your safety and the safety of our staff.
That last bit about staff safety is important for two reasons. First, a business obviously wants to protect its staff for humane reasons. Second, it highlights a shared incentive with a restaurant's customers. If the business doesn't protect customer and staff health, it can't operate. It's motivated by more than smart marketing.
The articles linked in the FDA's, "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions," document are a good resource. They can inform the design of a food service provider's messaging to its customers.
What the CDC says
In the U.S. we've been hearing a lot form the CDC. They're a trusted, authoritative source of information on the topic of disease and the Coronavirus. The CDC's, "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions," document provides a response that aligned to answers provided by the FDA.
Can the virus that causes COVID-19 be spread through food, including refrigerated or frozen food?
Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. Before preparing or eating food it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for general food safety. Throughout the day wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom.
It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.
Learn what is known about the spread of COVID-19.
Saving money and connecting with customers
Tech has been really stepping up to help during the Coronavirus pandemic. Several companies are offering free or discounted services to help consumers and small businesses connect with others through technology.
Zoom is online meeting software. Using the free version of its software, businesses can host online meetings with up to 100 people at 40-minutes in length.
To help schools deal with the Coronavirus and deliver remote learning to their students, Zoom erased the 40-minute limit for grades K-12.
For its part, Google has raised the limits on Hangouts Meet for G-Suite and G-Suite for Education customers. Businesses and educational institutions can now host video calls with up to 250 participants.
Lots of people are working from home. Their children are also attending school from home, and everyone's streaming more video. Comcast has eliminated all data caps.
Comcast has also made its Xfinity WiFi hotspots across the United States free for everyone, including people who aren't Xfinity customers. Its network of hotspots is enormous.
Further, Comcast is making its Internet Essentials plan free to new customers for 60-days and is permanently increasing the plan's speed for all other customers.
Internet Essentials Free to New Customers: ...It’s even easier for low-income families who live in a Comcast service area to sign-up for Internet Essentials, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive broadband adoption program. New customers will receive 60 days of complimentary Internet Essentials service, which is normally available to all qualified low-income households for $9.95/month. Additionally, for all new and existing Internet Essentials customers, the speed of the program’s Internet service was increased to 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. That increase will go into effect for no additional fee and it will become the new base speed for the program going forward.
Open for Business Hub
Square is taking a number of steps to provide short-term relief to businesses. Here are some highlights.
...We're releasing curbside pickup, and adding a local delivery feature that will be available later this week. We are also waiving curbside pickup and delivery fees for the next 3 months. We already offer online orders for in-store pickup with no monthly fee.
All software subscription fees will be refunded for the month of March, which includes Appointments, Retail, Restaurants, Loyalty, Team Management, Payroll, Marketing, and Online Store. Square will manage the process for you—there’s no need to do anything.
Businesses are struggling. They're going to continue struggling, and no businesses will be hit harder than local businesses. There are resources to help. In the United States, one such resource is the SBA (Small Business Administration).
Local businesses can obtain low-interest loans through the SBA. Businesses that need capital can apply though the SBA's dedicated website for disaster relief.
SBA offices are located throughout the country. They make it easy to find local assistance. Business owners should take advantage of the SBA office. It's why they exist, and they sincerely want to help.
The SBA is communicating a lot of valuable information and resources. Follow them on Twitter.
Coronavirus (COVID-19): Small Business Guidance & Loan Resources
Finally, the SBA has a dedicated resource page for businesses that are dealing with the impact that the Coronavirus is having on their business. Businesses should read through the page to understand what resources are available to them, even if they don't think they'll need them.
After much scrambling, businesses may find themselves with some lulls or extra time. They can fill the gap by catching up on training and certifications. They can also help other people and businesses. A rising tide lifts all boats.
It's also an opportunity to pay down technical debt. If a business wants to add a fresh coat of paint or refinish its floors, doing so now may not be too disruptive to its day-to-day business.
I'll update this article as I become aware of new resources. In the meantime, feel free to hit the chat bubble to ask questions or share a tool that's been useful to you or your business. Stay safe and practice social distancing.