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7 Tips to SMEs in response to COVID-19

Many small businesses are under pressure, and access to the right advice is crucial. FedEx Express unearths the tips that matter most right now.  

Kawal Preet, president, FedEx Express, Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa

 It doesn’t matter if you are a company manager or business owner, been in business for decades or recently set up. Each of us faces unique challenges under the pressure of COVID-19. At times like these, it’s natural to seek insights via trusted experts – from economics professors and medical scientists to what we read in the daily news.

But – sifting through an avalanche of content is increasingly time-consuming and can lead to information fatigue. How do you filter out the small business advice for you?

Whether you’re pressing pause on your business or sitting at a fork in the road, here are 7 tips:

  1. Right now, there’s an abundance of small business resources – you just have to know where to look

Stay abreast of government assistance programs. These will vary depending on where you live or your business is registered. If there’s a deadline to apply, don’t miss it.

National and regional chambers of commerce or economic forums tend to offer resources and thought leadership in tough times. Traditional institutions such as banks, unions or trade associations will also have experience shepherding businesses through a crisis. Reach out.

Don’t say no to help for your business – personal initiatives such as mortgage holidays or childcare concessions could also ease the load financially and emotionally.

And if you don’t have all the answers, reach out to those that do. You can network with peers in a similar position in free webinars, or even start a chain of dialogue on LinkedIn.

  1. Allocate energy for your wellbeing and those close to you

In times of crisis, emotions can run especially high. It’s important not to burn out or use up all your personal energies worrying about the future. Maintaining balance and investing in mental wellbeing – and that of your employees – is crucial. Some companies are giving their workforce free access to mental focus and mental health apps to support anyone feeling anxious or adrift. The way businesses treat employees during a pandemic can be expected to affect brand perception in the future.

Many businesses are also seizing the opportunity to spring-clean outdated processes, simplify internal bureaucracy and streamline solutions, freeing up vital time to either grow the business in new and exciting directions or – of course – spend time on self-development, employee bonding or being with family.

  1. Maintain liquidity – weigh up your options for releasing cash flow

In times of uncertainty, take a long, hard look at your liquidity. Access to capital can be critical, as can a revolving line of credit to equip you with emergency cash if times get tough. Of course, not all businesses have a fund to fall back on, so tightening outgoings may be the best business continuity stopgap. All non-essential expenses should be cut. You’ll already be saving on travel budgets. Pipeline investments can be frozen for now, and talent hiring enacted only where necessary for long-term business growth.

Credit companies and lenders will be placing company spending habits under close lenses, so make sure yours stands up to scrutiny. If you operate across borders, understand regional initiatives to stimulate business – as well as barriers to trade that could potentially hold you back.

  1. Lean on loyalty

Many people have an unusual amount of time to focus on what really matters to them right now, and in many cases, it’s the small, dependable things. Whether you’re an e-merchant who stocks shoes that fit your customers perfectly, a manufacturer that makes parts integral to the working machinery of your customers or a family-run cosmetics company that loyalists swear by, chances are there are those out there who support you. And it’s in their best interests to prop you up in the near-term to extract benefits further down the road.

So, don’t put on a brave face if your reality is much bleaker. Many customers have resorted to crowdfunding, refusing refunds or purchasing future credit with a brand they love rather than see it go out of business. Genuine requests for help on social media have often been absorbed by a sympathetic and pragmatic audience. Some companies have launched COVID-19 crisis loan programs.

  1. Communication is crucial

A truism of the global pandemic is that many reportedly feel closer to others than we did before. With less freedom to physically interact, we are finding more meaningful ways to connect. Business owners previously sceptical about remote working have seen how effectively flexible working can be. The key is to stay in touch, as much as possible, and maintain transparency with all employees and stakeholders about what is going on.

During a crisis, it’s just as important to communicate internally as well as externally. Uncertainty and physical disconnection can place strain on a business, exposing the risk of key talents deciding to leave.

To help allay the anxiety of team members, FedEx implemented a step-up in employee communications throughout the Asia Pacific, so that no one drops out of the loop. Since the Lunar New Year, we’ve sent weekly employee updates, each a different snapshot of how employees are going above and beyond in an effort to deliver the FedEx Purple Promise of making every customer experience outstanding.

The updates recognize the human effort necessary to maintain business continuity for all FedEx customers vulnerable to supply chain disruption. The response has been phenomenal – employees love to see their colleagues’ efforts recognized.

  1. Remind yourself – and your customers – about available tech

 Even amongst customers that create shipments every day, old habits can be hard to break. We all know that one person who still refuses to sign-up for online banking! We’re constantly reminding long-term customers that automation can really help streamline their business. For example, e-merchants can use a digital tool, FedEx Delivery Manager International (FDMi) to offer customized deliveries, track shipments and choose signature options on any mobile device.

Driving customers toward online solutions is a no-brainer at any time, but during a time of social distancing, it is imperative. Improve customer convenience using technology, such as stocking more options for customization or fuller ranges online. The importance of digitization can’t be overstated – maintaining customer access to your product is crucial for businesses to survive.

And if you’re thinking big, don’t overlook the emergent tech that can help you map a more intuitive business model. Brad Smith, the President of Microsoft Corporation believes that AI has become the most critical technology of our time – and the data that powers it will be the 21st century’s most valuable resource. Early consultation with a tech partner could help future-proof your business for the long term.

  1. Flex your business model – don’t get left behind

The agility of small businesses globally has been astonishing, with many turning their business models on their head overnight. We’ve seen legacy brick-and-mortar stores morphing to e-commerce powered retailers, fine-dining restaurants shifting to home delivery dinners and traditional manufacturers retooling to move with the times – like a lock and key sellers shifting to non-contact door handles to support hygiene-critical infrastructure.

Singapore ride-hailing firm Grab, which operates in 8 countries and 339 cities in Asia, has suffered from social distancing and stay-home measures driving down demand for transportation. However, CEO Anthony Tan believes that Grab’s new diversified approach — food and grocery delivery, ride-hailing, payments — has helped it adjust to the new normal and attain stability and liquidity during the coronavirus pandemic.

What’s next?

We all want to pinpoint the exact time of recovery. We can look at previous epidemics, crises and trade wars and map their lifespan, but the future is impossible to predict. And the window during which a small business can afford to operate at a low level, or not operate at all, is extremely small. Difficult decision-making lies ahead.

Though all your instincts might be telling you to be cautious, that now is not the time for risk, it could actually be time for a seismic shake-up. Those that have weathered the crisis best have made tough decisions, quickly, for the greater good of all stakeholders.

According to the World Economic Forum, around 60% of global CEOs believe recovery from COVID-19 will be U-shaped, with a long period between recession and upturn. It’s a time for both legacy firms and more agile, lightweight start-ups to embrace more unusual ways to survive.

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