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COVID-19: Can the Internet save your small business?

Coronavirus can kill your business even if nobody you know is ill. Don't sit back, fight back.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with any of the companies or products mentioned in this article, and will not benefit should you choose to do business with them - unless you hire me to do it for you 😉

I’m uniquely qualified to dispense this advice because I’ve been working from home for over a decade, most of my clients have never met me in person, and even co-workers only see me up close a few times a year, if at all.

No matter what you do for a living, there are a few smart moves you can make to keep things moving during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You should look for articles targeting your industry or your specific vertical, but this is a generalist’s first pass. I’ve included some links at the end of this article to get you started.

So… what to do?

Advertise! Promote!

Promoting posts on Facebook is inexpensive and surprisingly effective, especially if you’re a business targeting a small geographic area, like a town, region or municipality.

Google Ads, though slightly more expensive on average, can be just as effective and offer similarly tight geographic and demographic targeting options, plus keyword targeting. Almost all of the social media platforms offer similar alternatives. Put ads in the local papers, host Video “Webinars” advising your customers on your area of expertise, put your business top of mind and reach out to new audiences.

For a start, make sure to update all of your Social Media channels with a link to a page on your Website or Blog that lets people know you’re open for business, how to do business with you during the COVID-19 lockdown, ways to contact you, and how to stay up-to-date with what’s going on with your business.

Grow Your Mailing List

This is a great time to grow your mailing list, so be sure to include a “sign up for our newsletter” form to capture email addresses. While you’re at it, give your customers the option of filling out a questionnaire that you can then use to craft your online presence to serve them better. Reward them with something free for filling it out, it doesn’t have to be anything much, a coupon, an article, even a free download is often incentive enough and doesn’t cost anything to reproduce. You can get creative with this, people love free stuff!

You can also set up chat tools and Video Conferencing to maintain team communication and substitute for face-to-face client consultations, set up an E-Commerce solution to sell your products remotely or allow your clientele to easily book and pay for your time, and use online Project Management tools to keep everything on track. There are of course other ways to maximize productivity and minimize losses during the pandemic, but I’ll focus on these today.

Social Media

You should be monitoring your company’s Social Media presence closely during this time, and sending out updates as frequently as makes sense for your audience. Do a bit of research before deciding how often that is and what to say – your gut may be right, but do your best to get outside verification of what it’s telling you.

Assign someone to watch for mentions and direct contact via Social Media and respond appropriately.

Text Chat:

For communicating with customers, you may want a chat solution that’s tailor-made for the purpose. A tiny chat window on the lower right-hand side of your site gives the impression that you’re going the extra mile in supporting your customers – and allows you to actually do so without spending a lot of money. Most live chat tools for websites are quick and easy to set up, and you can have a few employees keep an eye out for incoming messages.

There’s a fantastic array of chat tools available that should serve your team’s needs well. Many of them include secure Video Conferencing as part of their standard service. I’m not convinced that your text chat tool and your Video Conferencing tool should be one and the same, though. You may be using them for some very different scenarios, depending on the nature of your business.

Text chat for business purposes is subject to the same privacy and liability concerns as I discuss below. For most uses, in the absence of stringent requirements due to liability concerns, any one of the commonly available consumer chat products is adequate.

Video Conferencing:

Doctors, Lawyers, Therapists, Coaches, Consultants, Teachers/Instructors

If your business is a service that usually requires a lot of face-to-face meetings or a classroom setting, the quick no-brainer solution is video conferencing.

There’s a LOT you can do with video to keep your clients engaged and using your services. Consultations can easily happen online. Classes can happen in real-time or be recorded and streamed, either at fixed times or on-demand.

Which Video tool should I use?

For one-on-one conversations, you can’t always demand that your customers install new software or create new accounts just to talk to you, so for their convenience you may want to offer a range of options that match what they’re already using.

There are a few that are likely to be familiar to many of your customers and freely available to you. Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, whatsapp, and others offer end-to-end encryption and decent feature sets, with easy interfaces and support options. There are also web-based video conferencing tools that don’t require any software to be installed on your customer’s computer. You’ll need to think carefully about your client base and select the solution that best meets their needs.

Privacy and Liability

Some industries have more security concerns; for instance Law Firms, Financial services and other professionals dealing with sensitive subjects will need to minimize their clients’ exposure to risk and provide legal assurances that their communications are secure, even from the companies providing the software.

Most consumer and even business solutions have user agreements that require surrendering the right to such protections – the software wants access to contact lists, permission for all sorts of device interactions, and may be percieved as a giant security risk. Check out a timeline of Facebook and Facebook Messenger’s privacy issues, for instance.

Luckily, there are video conferencing solutions targeted at companies and individuals with heightened sensitivity to privacy concerns.

A bit of research and careful reading of Privacy Policies and Terms of Service is required, but for every industry there’s an answer.

Look for solutions that specifically target your profession and are based in your own country, or in a jurisdiction with a reasonable prospect of success if there’s a need to take legal action. Some places offer a better chance of enforcement than others.

I won’t go any deeper than that for now, but I may in a future article.

E-Commerce:

One of my clients, a small business that sells and fixes computers with a focus on laptops and peripherals, has taken the COVID-19 crisis as an incentive to take inventory and get his products into his e-commerce site.

If you’re a service professional, or your business sells physical products and you don’t have an e-commerce option in place, get something up FAST.

There are a few good options readily available. You can use Shopify, etsy, eBay, Amazon and others to quickly get up and running with e-commerce with a relatively low barrier to entry, there are even options for Facebook pages, but you’ll probably want to use your own domain name and/or your existing site.

For those of you who are using WordPress for your website – either a WordPress.com site or a self-hosted WordPress.org installation – you’re in luck. There are a number of easily configurable Plugins for WordPress that make setting up an e-commerce site a breeze for any competent Web Developer. Personally I recommend WooCommerce, it’s a mature Plugin with a large user-base and a virtually endless array of commercial add-ons that will let you customize it to your heart’s content.

In addition to WooCommerce, there are Plugins available for all of the major e-commerce platforms. You’ll want to be careful about what you select though; don’t just go for the free options available in the WordPress repository. You should be looking for a Premium (commercial) Plugin built by a reputable company with a large installed user base, that treats you like a valued customer and has a premium support option, as well as a support forum where users help each other out.

With a few notable exceptions which you’ll need a good developer to identify with confidence, when it comes to e-commerce, free plugins from unknown sources are worth what you paid for them.

A good place to find Premium Plugins is “CodeCanyon” they aggregate thousands of Themes and Plugins by a wide selection of companies, with user reviews and sales figures publicly available. Codecanyon is part of a collection of sites called “envato market” that share an SSO (Single Sgn On) solution that lets you manage all your memberships with a single login. They offer Themes, Templates, Code, Video, Audio, Graphics, Photos and 3D files for a variety of uses. Look for good reviews, a large user base, a company website and a good reputation for support.

Mature e-commerce tools will allow you to process payments using your own Merchant Account, PayPal, Stripe, or other solutions if you don’t have one already in place. It’s possible your particular preference isn’t available, but also likely that in those cases, your existing credit card/payment processing provider will suggest their own solution for e-commerce.

Of course, WordPress isn’t the only option for self-hosted e-commerce, but it’s the option you’re most likely to be able to quickly find a competent developer for. Depending on who you ask, WordPress underpins 1/4 to 1/3 of Websites on the Internet today. That means a LOT of support.

Heck, ask me if you’re stuck.

Management:

I’ve got decades of experience managing remote workers and working as part of geographically diverse teams. One thing that’s proven absolutely essential to keeping things on track is a Project Management solution.

I’ve used many over the years, but with the advent of cloud computing the options have increased immensely.

You’ve probably already heard of some of the most cost-effective solutions for small business, and I’m not going to pretend to know everything about all of them. I’ve learned, however, that the best way to keep things on track is to use SOMETHING that allows you to track projects, tasks, and deliverables.

Whether your team produces a tangible product, a process, or something virtual like software, a Project Management tool allows managers to have an overview of what’s going on. It’s helpful even in situations where the whole team is in the same room, but it becomes absolutely essential when the team is scattered – working from home or around the globe as the case may be. You might be able to get by without one, but attempting to do so adds a huge number of hours to the workload as management finds themselves tasked with manually reproducing what a PM system is designed for.

If you have a VPN or some other way to access your office network, your solution can be self-hosted, but for most small businesses a software as a service solution hosted in the cloud and accessible via a web site is the best option.

You may have heard of a few, including Monday.com, Asana.com, Jira, Zoho Projects, and Wrike. There are others, so I’ve linked to a few lists with reviews at the end of this article to help you choose.

Why do you need this?

For groups who are used to working in the same room, the lack of face-to-face communications can be a productivity killer. Even using video conferencing won’t close this gap, because anything on-screen is a much bigger distraction and interruption than a quick question from the next cubicle.

Should you use CRM Software? (Customer Relationship Management Software)

I’m a big fan of this. Coding integrations for CRM tools is a big part of my business, and it pays off for my clients.

If you’re already using one, a CRM tool gives you a wealth of insight into your target market and how to reach out to them. You’re probably strategizing about ways to capitalize on the information you’ve already collected, but you may want to consider COVID-19 specific information collection, like which of your customers is still going to work, how they’re adapting to the crisis, and what changes they’d like to see in your digital offerings.

A simple web-based form can be a great starting point for making that data available in your CRM, and a few carefully crafted questions can yield actionable data that will guide your efforts in the coming weeks.

Summing up:

There’s a lot you can do online to shore up your bricks and mortar business in the absence of walk-in customers.

If you don’t have an e-commerce site, build one NOW.

If you have one but it doesn’t have your stock in it, time to take inventory.

To stay in touch, use online tools, to manage teams, ditto. Be careful but be proactive.

COVID-19 might be just the incentive you need to take your business to the next level!

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