So yeah, 2020 was a rough year — including for small businesses. We saw many of our clients struggle to adapt and stay afloat, and were inspired by their tenacity and creativity in the face of constantly evolving circumstances. The COVID-19 crisis has taken so much from small businesses and the customers who frequent them. Rather than dwell on those losses, we thought we’d focus on what we can take back from this tumultuous experience. We've learned some important lessons from our clients and fellow business owners, including these nuggets we’d like to share with you.

Stand By Your Small Business

We’ve long preached the importance of building relationships with customers to keep them coming back. The pandemic proved that customer loyalty can mean the difference between a business shuttering and surviving. We saw that with the Annex, a small, community-centric gym we’ve been members of for the past 11 years.

Our gym’s owners have spent countless hours creating a welcoming, close-knit community where every member feels like part of a supportive family. When COVID-19 forced them to stop in-person training, they reached out to their loyal member base with honesty, humility and transparency — asking for our patience, understanding and continued support. Then they quicky transitioned their community from in-person to online — with live-streamed classes, remote training, free nutrition challenges, lending programs for weights and equipment, educational resources, and even online Coffee with the Coach Zoom chats tackling a range of topics relevant to the current moment. The gym stepped up and their members stuck around.

The tireless work they've put in to build a loyal following has saved them during the pandemic. They’ve kept the vast majority of their members, and have even expanded their membership. If anything, we'd say their members are more loyal and their community tighter because of the challenges we’ve confronted together.

Lesson learned: The efforts and investment you make now into building a faithful customer base will eventually pay off, especially when times are hard.

Survival of the Flexible

Forget fittest; businesses with the flexibility to adapt on the fly are better equipped to withstand the ups and downs, openings and closures of the pandemic. Smart business owners quickly figured out that business as usual wasn’t going to cut it. They knew they had to be ready to shift gears and try something new on a moment’s notice.

When LA County abruptly ended outdoor as well as indoor dining in December, many restaurants went into panic mode. But Rasselbock Kitchen and Beer Garden near our house quickly came up with a brilliant idea to help keep their business open and their employees paid: they started selling Christmas trees on their outdoor patio. Lots and lots of Christmas trees. And those trees were snapped up by customers faster than you could sing O Tannenbaum.

Lesson learned: Don’t freeze in panic when things go awry; instead, be willing and able to shake up your business model to adapt.

Up Your Online Game

Businesses who were no longer able to serve customers or sell their wares in person realized that the safest place to do commerce was online. As such, many small business owners found themselves scrambling to build websites and add e-commerce capabilities, as well as figure out the logistics of fulfilling orders in a socially-distanced world. Professionals and consultants also had to quickly transition from in-person client services to web-based meetings and video conferences that offered the same quality and value.

Those who were able to nimbly move their business models online had a definite advantage over those who dragged their feet or struggled to adapt. At the start of the crisis, our client AACRAO Consulting reacted immediately to offer their clients remote mini-consultations at discounted rates. We helped them develop a quick-turn email and landing page campaign promoting this offer. Their fast thinking and action put them several steps ahead of their competition.

Lesson learned: Online stores and remote services are here to stay, so don’t wait to get your website up to speed and your online store up and running.

Put People First

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons we’ve learned during the pandemic is to just be human. This crisis has impacted all of us —customers and business owners alike. We truly are “in this together.” While grappling with their own financial woes, fears and uncertainties, it’s important for businesses to acknowledge and empathize with their customers who are experiencing many of the same emotions and hardships — not just because it makes good business sense but because it’s the decent, human thing to do.

Our client Rowntree Garden Senior Living Community offers a great example of showing this compassion and humanity. During the worst part of COVID-19, they were simply unable to accept new community members. So instead of marketing their community, they’ve turned the spotlight on their remarkable residents and the amazingly dedicated staff members who care for them (check out their Facebook page). The leadership at Rowntree Gardens understands that there are more important things than making money, especially in this moment. We firmly believe this will help them survive the crisis with their reputation, heart and soul intact.

Lesson learned: Know when to set aside the sales pitch and focus instead on helping, healing and connecting with people.

Don’t Get Complacent

With the roll-out of multiple vaccines, there’s a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. And businesses may be looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy. Vaccine or no, we’re not sure things will ever be normal again. It may take months, even years to recover from this crisis. And the next crisis may be even worse.

We don’t mean to be Debbie Downers. But if you’re a small business, we do think it’s essential to be ready for the next upheaval so it doesn’t catch you off guard. Think of COVID-19 as a test run: your opportunity to make a contingency plan and build your business resiliency. How are you preparing for the next time sales dry up? How will you reach and serve customers when the usual channels aren’t available to you? What are you doing to build your customer loyalty, your agility, your online presence right now? Don’t wait until after the fact to start planning for uncertainties.

Lesson learned: The next crisis is coming. Make sure you’re ready for it.

What’s Next?

We honestly don’t know. Maybe there’ll be a prolonged recession. Maybe the crisis will get much worse before it starts to get better. Maybe our economy, businesses and consumers will bounce back quickly. All we do know is that a lot of businesses are hurting, and have been for months. Part of our job is to support our clients through this grueling time so that they can come out stronger on the other side. We hope that these lessons gleaned from the pandemic may be of some help. Hang in there, and thanks for reading.

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