What's the #1 thing you've done for your business during a downturn?

We asked small business owners, and here's what they said.
Updated on:

As a small business ourselves, we understand the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on industries worldwide, and especially small businesses. We asked small business owners what they are doing to help their businesses stay afloat and continue to thrive, and here are the top 5 tips they had, for any small business owner:

Cut out non-essential costs; focus on the 20% of your business that generates most of your revenue.

When there aren't as many sales being made, you have to more tightly manage your cash flow and your business budget. This is the time to evaluate and cut out anything non-essential to your business activities.

How do you decide what is essential or not? For Brad Bolnick of GCB Private Wealth, essential items are the 20% of your business that generate 80% of your revenue. If your business is built on person-to-person relationships (as a lot of long sales cycle-focused, or service businesses are) essential costs are those that enable you to maintain those relationships -- your conferencing tools, your CRMs, your project management tools.

"Keep your overhead low. Make sure you identify revenue generating activities and really understand the 20% of your activities that generate the 80% of your revenues."

- Brad Bolnick,  GCB Private Wealth

Things that aren't as essential? That depends on your business, of course, but some low-hanging fruit to consider are the things that you are no longer doing (either by choice or as a consequence). For example, if you have team members who regularly traveled for in-person meetings and conferences, all in-person gatherings for the next two months are likely to have been postponed or digitized. Any regularly-scheduled monthly travel stipend or budget can therefore be cancelled temporarily.

If you're a solopreneur or working alone, it might feel like you have to cut down on absolutely everything all at once. But being entirely in charge of, and also the only one dependent on, a budget can have its benefits. If you're drastically cutting costs, move any money saved into a high-yield savings account so that even if you're not spending, you're earning interest on the money saved. The best thing you can do for now is to position yourself for a strong return once business starts to pick up again, and a bit of extra money in the pocket will go a long way.

"Conserve cash -- cash is the life blood of a business and staying on top of receivables is the first step to survival."

- Thomas Wolf, Wolf and Wolf Coaching

Take advantage of the government's stimulus packages for small businesses before you need it; don't immediately lay off your team.

The federal government's  CARES Act contains generous aid for small business owners. Apply for these low-interest loans via the Small Business Administration website, but remember that some loans like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) require you to maintain your payroll in order to qualify for forgiven loans. Furthermore, the IRS has extended the tax filing deadline to July 15, 2020, so if necessary, defer your tax payments to conserve your money without penalties or interest.  

"Trim most unnecessary expenses and take advantage of the current stimulus packages if it makes sense to do so and make sure to apply before you desperately need it."

- Shane Copeland,  Transworld Business Brokers

The government's stimulus packages were passed to help small business owners during difficult times, and as Shane Copeland of Transworld Business Brokers recommends: make sure to apply before you need it. There is no guarantee as to the turnaround time for the application process, and a representative from the SBA will review your documents in order to process the applications. Even if you're not bleeding cash currently, these stimulus packages are intended to help you recover from any potential lost sales during this emergency period. So apply early to make sure you're on solid ground when it's time to get the tires turning again.

Also be sure to be on the lookout for loans and financial aid from small business communities within your city. Local small business support groups may be offering their own financial support to business owners, and your local government as well might have additional aid to provide. In St. Louis, for example (where Less Annoying CRM is), the St. Louis Economic Department Partnership is offering their own resources and guidance. Look to your local government programs and take advantage of any program that can help you retain your team and keep your business afloat.

Market with empathy; focus your efforts on providing help to existing customers instead of converting prospects.

Marketing is the biggest thing you can do for your business now. Stay in contact with your clients, put feelers out for any possible prospect growth but realize that everyone in the world is experiencing this pandemic. Empathizing and providing help during this time goes a long way to building out good relationships that can turn into revenue-generating partnerships in the future.

"When communicating with customers, focus on what is important & provide relief when possible. Focus on empathy rather than trying to create selling opportunities."

- Stephanie Baldwin,  SoftSmiths

Especially if your business is built on person-to-person relationships, staying front of mind with a client means being sympathetic to your shared situations and knowing that they're not looking to buy. So there's nothing you should be selling to them. What you want to communicate is that you are reliable, unobtrusive, and also here to weather the storm with them.  

"During COVID-19, [stay] in touch with customers. [Make] sure your clients, and their families, are safe and sound during these trying times. [Let] them know you're there and ready to help once things are up and running. It's a good opportunity to stay in touch."

- Marty Metzger,  ISP Painting, Inc.

If you have a CRM tool, or are using Less Annoying CRM, a simple way to stay in touch with your customers is by creating a to-do list and sending thoughtful, personal check-in emails to a handful of them each day. If you haven't had the chance to really get to know some of your clients in the past, this is finally your chance. Marty Metzger of ISP Painting, Inc. reaches out to make sure that his clients' families are safe and sound. Longtime customers are not just dollars on a piece of paper -- take this as an opportunity to truly and genuinely express interest in their well-being.

"We've become even more active on social media and with timely, informative, not-at-all sales-y emails, just insights and offers to help."

- David Feldman,  Boulder View Capital

And if you have lots of customers? Make use of social media as David Feldman of Boulder View Capital has done. Utilize your Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter pages to send uplifting messages. Perhaps share a funny anecdote or two of something that has happened with a customer earlier in the year. Travel agents are regularly sharing pictures of their best trips, some dream vacations, to help their customers "get away" for a bit. This has a two-fold impact: it also builds up a sense of wanderlust that these customers can then act upon with that travel agent once travel restrictions are lifted. You've given them something to take their mind off the situation they are facing, and are also priming them to become good prospects for you once things pick back up again.

In your business, think about what can also have this two-fold impact for you: to let you both empathize with your clients and also generate demand. That will be your marketing message.

"Back in January I began posting weekly excerpts on my website telling the history of my work and practice over the last 20 years. The story is called  A Pilgrim in Art and Science. I wrote it to help people to better understand my work and also for folks like myself who are doing interdisciplinary work and come across similar triumphs and challenges in their own practice.

Now in the current climate it has become unexpectedly good way to give my collectors and colleagues both an engaging story to follow in this difficult time and a way to feel connected we me and each other through the social media posts I use in conjunction with it."

- Natalie Settles,  Natalie Settles Studios, LLC

For Natalie Settles at Natalie Settles Studios, LLC, this is personal. She had already been writing and sharing her experiences with the people she works with. So what she's found is that she can just leverage the existing writing she's done to help build stronger relationships and connect with her colleagues and collectors. By having a story to tell, she can both engage with her audience to keep their minds off the difficult times, and also position herself as a reliable, empathetic partner for any of their artistic needs.

"Reach out to customers and prospects to express sincere interest in their well-being."

- Dennis O'Toole,  SWISSS Field Service Technologies

Change the way you communicate with your clients and team; go digital.

With social distancing as the new norm to maintain public health, in-person face-to-face conversations are no longer the way to connect. Adapt by using virtual tools (Slack, Google Meet, Skype, LinkedIn etc.) to communicate with your prospects and clients, as well as your own team. There are a variety of ways that businesses and people are connecting over video but the most apparently popular one is Zoom. Even if you're not a regular Zoom user, it's useful to have and be familiar with how Zoom works so that you can meet your prospects and clients on a tool that they're already familiar with. It's already difficult not being able to talk in-person so reduce any other potential sources of friction in your communications by being adept at a tool your clients are using.

If you don't like Zoom or just want to use a different tool, how do you decide what to use? At Less Annoying CRM, we connect with one another and with our users via Google Meet and Join.Me. These are video conferencing and screen sharing tools that are not only straightforward for us to use, but very easy for our users to turn on, which is the biggest factor we take into consideration. If you're still evaluating digital conference and screen sharing tools, and find them all difficult to use, make your deciding factor the ease-of-use it affords the other user. If it's a tool that's difficult for both you and the person you're trying to connect with to use, it should be off the table immediately.

"I have ramped up virtual networking, connecting & reconnecting with people, and basically being a resource to distribute info SBA & other programs for small businesses. In my other business I have been able to use my Text Message Marketing platform to send out up to date communications to our local communities."

- Shane Copeland,  Transworld Business Brokers

In addition, digitize the way you work with productivity apps and ensure that everyone is on the same page as to how they should work with those tools. Now, more than ever, it's important for your team to be working and communicating together as seamlessly as possible. You can do this over email, but make things easier for yourself with productivity management tools like a CRM or a project tool like Todoist and ClickUp.

Whatever your team is using, the programs you use are only as useful as the data you put into it. So make sure that everyone on your team knows how the tool works, and knows how they should be working in the system. Should everyone be entering notes about every online conference they attend? Should a task be assigned to another team member whenever an email from a VIP client comes in? As Brad Bolnick of GCB Private Wealth recommends: have templates for yourself that outlines the processes you go through. This creates a structure for you and your team to follow, and if anything needs to change, adapt that process to how you've changed things so that your workflows continue to evolve.

"Build templates! Review your processes and write them down into a step by step process (use LACRM). Review each step and see how/if it needs to be modified for the current environment we are in. Use this to improve your processes and make changes as appropriate. For example, how we on-board new customers has to change - as sitting down with them in person is no longer an option."

- Brad Bolnick,  GCB Private Wealth.

Work on the biggest things you didn't have time to work on before; be flexible with new ideas.

If you and your team have some extra time on your hands, take this as an opportunity to catch up on any work or research that you didn't have time for in the past. This positions your business for growth once things start picking up again (and it will!). Kathy from Proactive Seniors Ltd. uses this work-from-home period as an opportunity to catch up on any projects that she didn't have time to work on in the past. These non-revenue generating projects didn't use to be a priority, but now that revenue-generating projects are temporarily on hold, this is a chance to get those cleared out before getting the business gears turning again.

"[I've] caught up on outstanding non-revenue generating projects."

- Kathy, Proactive Seniors Ltd.

Other kinds of work you can focus on are the administrative tasks you may have set aside previously. Documentation, reorganization etc. are tedious parts of the job, but necessary to help keep things tidy. Clean out the dead leads from your CRM, clear out the file drawers with old, irrelevant information, and go through your financial documents with a fine-toothed comb to track inconsistencies (helpful if you're also planning to apply for financial relief packages we talked about previously). Doing all the grunt work now will not only help you stay productive, it'll better position you for the bounce back that's due to come. As my mom would always say when it comes to chores: If you do it now, you won't have to do it later!

"Maximize efficiency by helping them organize every aspect of the company, document procedures and prioritize core business functions to eliminate waste and position for growth."

- Rick Bertino,  G.E.A.R.S Business Solutions

Another thing this downturn has forced many small business owners to do is to think a little more creatively. More small businesses are partnering up with one another (some florists and restaurants are partnering up to provide beautiful carryout meals), and others are even temporarily pivoting to a new industry (some craft breweries are making hand sanitizer). Perhaps it's not feasible for your business to do anything drastic during this period of time, but one thing you can do is analyze your past data. Take a look at your previous trends (if your business also went through the 2008 recession, perhaps those will be relevant data points to look at) to see if there's anything unexpected that peaked -- if you're in retail, did certain items become more popular? If you're in a service on consulting business, did your clients start coming to you for a different type of assistance? What about immediately after a recession? Did their needs change?

Looking at your own business' past data can help you project and more adequately prepare for what's to come. People tend to be predictable (unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) and when faced with the same trials and tribulations, they normally react and overcome the same way. As obvious as it may sound, knowing how your clients are likely to act is a good way to prep yourself for how they will act.

"When there is a downturn in business, I try to investigate new ways of using analytics to move forward."

- Judi McCormick,  Judi McCormick Jewelry

Take care of your physical and mental health.

At the end of the day, the most important thing you have is your health. When the business you're in is in flux, it's easy to get stressed and frustrated, and de-prioritize your own health. But when this pandemic ends, you need yourself to be mentally and physically capable of bringing your business up-to-speed. You're doing the best you can, and part of it taking the best care of yourself too.

"[Keep] to the same routine: up early, exercise, work til late afternoon, and then out for a 3 mile walk to keep the stress at bay."

- Camille Cerria,  Smooth Sailing Celebrations

For Camille Cerria of Smooth Sailing Celebrations, and Anne Karabin of Realty ONE Group Gold Standard, this is about routine. Do the same active workouts or walks every day, and keep your mind engaged and focused on work. If you need a break, give yourself a break. We're in the midst of a global pandemic. It's perfectly fine to need to take a pause to catch your breath.

If you've got some extra time now that you're home more often, learn something new like Anne does. Brush up on the Spanish you've been learning for a while, or pick up a new bread-making hobby. Everyone seems to be making sourdough bread, and I bet you can find a good recipe out there for you too.

"[Stay] active everyday and [learn] something new."

- Anne Karabin,  Realty ONE Group Gold Standard

Your business is important and worth investing the time and money you have put into it, but moreso is your mental and physical health. Keep laughing, spend time with your families, and stay connected with your team, partners, and clients. This too shall pass.  

"I truly believe in taking my business seriously and taking myself lightly. Maintaining my humor as well as my faith in humanity."

- T.Marni Vos,  Laughter's Echo

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