Adam sets out practical advice for small businesses during COVID 19
These are strange and difficult times for us all. New words have entered the national vocabulary – “lockdown”, “furlough” “social distancing” and “phased return”. We find ourselves cut off from family friends and colleagues and, in the case of many small businesses, from our customers and clients.
It’s true that COVID 19 has given us an unexpected gift of time at home with our families. Employees who are furloughed are finding new and productive ways to use this time but I have been speaking to numerous people who are still at the coal front, trying to run their business, in a time when the future is so uncertain. Stress and worry are now constant companions to many business owners as they worry about future income, their staff and their customers.
We’re all trying to find new ways to stay connected with our clients and customers but some of us, those that rely on face to face contact and people visiting their premises, are particularly vulnerable just now. Hairdressers, hoteliers, publicans, restaurateurs, gym and salon owners are all cut off from their clients and, vitally, from their revenue stream. Rates holidays and VAT and tax deferrals have certainly helped. The £10,000 grant for small business within a defined rates bracket, together with the £25,000 hospitality grant, have also assisted but some businesses have been left behind or fallen through the cracks of the aid package. If you are not sure if there are grants or loans available to you, you can check here. I am aware that some have not received grants, have no current income and have no clear idea of when their customers might return or if they will return at all.
What can a small business do during these uncertain times?
I would urge you to look ahead, to plan for the future and to use any spare time available to you to take an honest look at your business and assess how it might perform, and grow, in the next 6 months. We need to be resilient, hopeful and available. I would suggest that key areas to look at are:
None of us would be in business if it not for our customers and clients.
- Keep in touch with your customers. Reach out by phone, text, email or social media. Be empathetic, open and honest
- Stay visible and connected. Can your clients reach you by telephone or do they get your answering machine simply informing them you are closed? Do your website and social media posts provide a clear explanation of your trading position with information on how to get in touch? Don’t disappear.
- Acknowledge those who are still with you. Have you thanked those who continue to pay you for non-existent or truncated services? If the DD remains in place have you explained to those customers who much you appreciate that payment in difficult times? Remember – loyalty cuts both ways. Clients and customers have long memories.
- Diversify and offer value. Now is the time to give freely and openly. Everyone needs a little help right now. If you’re a hairdresser – can you post a video on how to cut hair at home? Could your bar give online cocktail classes? Can you provide literature, samples, advice and stay engaged and available or do you simply expect your customer to find their way back to your door when things go back to ‘normal’? I think that what we give now, in a time of need, will resonate later. All of the local businesses, who have provided free delivery, stayed open to supply needed produce or provided valuable online content and support, should be applauded. I’ll certainly stick with those businesses that have made themselves available when I needed them most. Those that simply shut up shop and disappeared might have to convince me that they need my business going forward.
- Are you available or have you retreated? Seeking to sell rather than engage? Relevant and visible?
- Ask your customers what they need – it might surprise you. Can you use your existing structure to source different products or an alternative service?
Again seek to be honest, connected and visible. We all know that the future is uncertain and difficult decisions may lie ahead. It’s hard to predict income or demand for services now and this makes it hard to predict what your staffing levels might be later.
- Acknowledge key workers who have continued to allow your business to trade.
- Do as much as you can now. It is better to be proactive than reactive, where Decisions concerning staff will need to be carefully planned and made in a calm, reasoned manner.
- Identify key staff early and give them as much notice as you can about any phased return to work. People will need time to adjust to the idea of going back out into a post COVID 19 world
- Communicate the steps you have taken to safeguard your staff before their return
- If some of your staff are not part of the first phased return to work it will be important to set out clearly to them the reasons why they are not yet required. Make sure your criteria for selection is sound. It will be important that staff are aware of the economic forces which might keep them out of work. Be clear that any decision is driven by economics, not personalities.
- If you do find that you have to reduce your workforce take specialist employment advice. There is a reason why large companies have in-house HR departments and there is a reason why there are lawyers who specialise in employment law. The time, energy and money dealing with an employment claim could be crippling. Employment law is complex and ever-changing. The internet provides general guidance but cannot cater to individual cases. We don’t provide employment law services – I’m not trying to sell my services –but please, please, please seek advice if making any changes to your staffing levels. If you would like a referral to a specialist, let me know. Otherwise, you will find many competent practitioners online.
I was once told that “there’s never a nice way to talk about money” but now, more than ever, you need to take care of your billing. We all value our work, our time and our product; it’s only fair that we receive the agreed remuneration for it.
- Know your customer. Credit check them before doing business. Make sure you have their correct details, especially their address – it will invaluable if you have to issue proceedings. Consider a guarantee for limited companies. Be certain that the person placing the order is authorised to do so and make sure that you have confirmed the order in writing. A quick email confirming a telephone call will be invaluable in the event of a later dispute.
- Bill promptly whilst the goodwill is still in the room and your customer is still appreciative of the work you have completed or the product you have
- Have clear terms of business. Put them front and centre.
- Acknowledge the situation. We’re all in the same position and whilst you may find it difficult to approach customers who owe you money it can be done in an empathetic and reasonable way. Remember – any communication you have with a debtor may be rehearsed to a Judge later. Stay calm, professional and reasonable. Know your rights and remedies
- Take legal advice on what options might be open to you.
I know it’s hard to think about fine-tuning your business right now, especially if it has shrunk or disappeared, but now is the time for us to get to all those projects we put off last year because we were too busy. Even when running our businesses remotely we can still make time to get organised. You could consider:-
- Review (or create) your terms of business. Do you need retention of goods clauses? Have you excluded liability where appropriate? Can you charge penalties or interest? Are your returns policies clear? Is there a clear termination/cancellation policy?
- Updating (or creating) staff contracts, handbooks, disciplinary and grievance procedures. I know that they are not glamorous and I appreciate that many business owners feel that their business is “too small” or “we’re like a family here” but having clear procedures in place is invaluable when a problem arises.
- Get your Health and Safety documentation and training in place. If your staff training needs updated (or started!) consider preparing training which can be emailed to staff whilst furloughed or provide it by video.
- Revisit your accounting practices. Speak to your accountants and your book-keeper. Ask if there are improvements which could be made to your procedures or software. Use this quiet time to iron out any recurring problems. Run those reports, identify key markets and clients, weed out the underperforming sectors and find out if you have debts to collect. Find out what those longstanding Direct Debits are for – do you still need them or are there cheaper alternatives? Think of it as a financial spring clean!
- Look at your systems, your software, your support team. Suppliers are keen to sell and are waiting for someone to knock their door. Ask for demonstrations, request the literature and see what improvements you can discover which will make your business more robust on the other side.
- Work on your customer lists. If you have a database now is the time to use it and refine it. If you don’t then now is the time to assemble the means to contact and support clients and customers, old and new. Please be sure you comply with GDPR!
Be hopeful, resilient and visible
I hope that some of these ideas are helpful. I’m not a marketer, an advertiser or a social influencer. I am instead a lawyer who runs a local business with my dedicated partners and my exemplary team. Together we have worked with and assisted local businesses for 20 years, adding value and providing advice wherever we can.
All business owners are trying to make a living, to keep afloat, to support our families and those that we care about. For that reason I hope that you can take even one point from this post and find it of use; we’re here to help if you need us.
Let’s all thank our customers, our staff and suppliers for sticking with us. Let’s get out there and make new connections, find new customers and build for the future.
Stay safe, stay healthy and let’s look after each other.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 02892601421 (option 1) or more information is available here