Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

7 COVID-19 crisis management tips for small businesses

A digital commerce data scientist and technology pioneer, who is also a small business owner, shares his advice on what companies can do to survive during the COVID-19 crisis.

Management tips in coronavirus times

"Things turn out the best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out." - John Wooden

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Vinod Kumar is the Head of Business Insights for Salesforce Commerce Cloud.

Business as we know it will change after the COVID-19 pandemic. This year will be the year that changed the trajectory of e-commerce, telemedicine and remote work. I have the privilege to work with one of the true pioneers in the world of digital commerce. So, naturally, I wanted to learn more about his thoughts regarding e-commerce. But surprisingly, the more I engaged with my friend and colleague, I found myself more interested in his point of view on how small business owners can coping with these unsettling and difficult times. 

Vinod Kumar is the Head of Business Insights for Salesforce Commerce Cloud. As an early member of the Demandware team, the fastest-growing enterprise e-commerce platform that was acquired by Salesforce in 2016 to become Salesforce Commerce Cloud, Kumar has had courtside seats to the evolution of ecommerce. He led the roll-out of industry-first E-commerce Benchmarking that enabled Commerce Cloud customers to compare their business performance with an anonymized peer group of sites. His responsibilities include leveraging data science to distill actionable insights from anonymized shopping behavior gleaned from almost a billion online shoppers. He is an occasional blogger and frequent keynote speaker at industry conferences.

When not pouring through digital commerce data, Kumar can be found pouring cappuccino in his local coffee shop that he owns and manages along with his wife in the town of Stoneham, Mass. So by day, he is a digital commerce scientist, technologist, and futurist, guiding some of the biggest global brands on the Salesforce customer success platform, and by weekends he is working alongside his wife to own and operate a small business during a major crisis. I asked Kumar to share his advice with other businesses owners during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Vinod Kumar is also the owner of Kushala Sip coffee house. 

Crises, at any level, are disruptive. During times of intense disruption, like the COVID-19 pandemic that we are experiencing, two things are important: 1. Navigating the immediate risks posed by the crisis intelligently, to emerge with minimal damage; 2. Preparing for a post-crisis world that might look distinctly different from the world we live in today.

Every crisis is also an opportunity to earn the trust and credibility of our customers, partners, community, and family (not necessarily in that order) by helping them deal with the crisis. 

Businesses large and small are showing their resiliency and their commitment to seeing this crisis through, in the right way. Patagonia, the OG of conscious commerce, announced that they will be closing their physical and online stores in an abundance of caution to help stem the spread of the virus. During the announcement, the closure was for a duration of two weeks and all employees continue to get paid during the time. In an effort to help small businesses, Square announced that they will be refunding all software subscription fees for the month of March.

In times like these, uncertainty and a vacuum of accurate information causes as much anxiety as the crisis itself. To counter that, Salesforce and Tableau launched an online data and visualization resource hub on the coronavirus and public response. Salesforce also launched a Care Response Solution to help healthcare systems deal with the huge influx of requests due to the pandemic, in addition to making their collaboration platform -- Quip -- free for any customers and nonprofits to help with the teleworking mandates being issued. This is especially relevant if you are a small business that's traditionally operated from a physical office that suddenly has to switch to teleworking.

Individuals are stepping in as well. Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian bought a billboard in Times Square urging people to help #FlattenTheCurve by staying home.

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Reddit Cofounder Alexis Ohanian Bought A Billboard in Times Square to inform people about COVID-19.

As a small business owner himself, Kumar sees small businesses in his community react and respond in their own way. Kumar has assembled a list of suggestions that businesses should follow to navigate these unchartered waters. These are immediately actionable and not time intensive.

  1. Provide reassurance. Everybody's life is being disrupted. Some more unfairly than others. The news cycle is not necessarily calming people down. In your online and social media presence, spread a message of optimism, about getting through this as a community. Also, equally important, that your place of business is taking extra precautions to maintain a clean environment (and mean it). Leverage social media to your advantage to spread the message. The Salesforce Shopping Index shows that people, especially with Gen-Z consumers, look to social channels as an information resource (up to 34%)

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    Total addressable classic food delivery market.

  3. People are craving for some normalcy to return. Help provide some of that for them. In the state of Massachusetts, at the time of writing this, restaurants and food establishments (e.g. coffee shops) are restricted to take-out and delivery only. Customers' routines are disrupted. In this situation, delivery service providers like GrubHub and UberEats are lowering the barrier for food establishments to serve off-premise customers. Level up your customer service game by having a remote / off-premise service game plan. According to McKinsey, this market has been experiencing consistent growth and this crisis will only accelerate this trend. 

  4. Reach out to your lenders to negotiate short-term relief. This could either be in the form of deferred payments or extended credit lines. The median small business holds 27 cash buffer days in reserve. Federal and State government agencies have announced several relief programs, which make it easier for lenders to have these conversations with small businesses. But as a small business owner, you need to be proactive in reaching out before the situation snowballs into a bigger financial challenge. Power tip: Follow your state government Twitter feed for timely relief information announcements. Also, follow NFIB to stay on top of emerging regulations that you will need to be compliant with. NFIB is the voice of small business, advocating on behalf of America's small and independent business owners. 

  5. Reach out to your vendors to confirm supply continuity. Some of these could be small businesses as well and could be facing their own hardships. Some of them could offer you deferred payment terms as well. And while you are at it, please consider doing the same for your customers if you happen to be a business-to-business shop.

  6. Discounts are a win-win. While discounts are typically used as an instrument to promote store traffic, remember that several of your customers may have had their employment hours cut and are probably facing a personal cash flow crunch. Any discounts that help customers manage their expenses better, even for a short while, is bound to earn you loyalty in the long run.

  7. Wear gloves. While this may seem obvious, it may be tempting to do this only while handling food or any consumables (if your business happens to be in that space). All employees wear gloves, especially at the point of sale -- you want your customers to be comfortable with the physical proximity of exchanging cash at the point of transaction. You can also place floor markers to show a minimum separation per social distancing guidelines (6 to 10 feet) while patrons are in your business for pickup and delivery. 

  8. Be empathetic in reducing employee hours. Inevitably, you will reach a stage where some of your employees' hours will need reduction. If you are one of those businesses fortunate enough to stay open and not fully shut down, talk to your employees about their financial situation. You may be pleasantly surprised by the solidarity that people display during tough times by self electing to reduced hours, thereby, saving you from cutting down the hours for those who may be more dependent on the income from your business.

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Floor markers in stores provide reinforcement for social distancing guidelines

And, as active contributing members of your respective communities, please consider shopping small and local during this time of crisis, while prioritizing your safety and well-being. 

In a future article, Kumar and I will share our point of view about how small businesses can proactively invest in technologies like an e-commerce platform, mobile applications, social collaboration documents, and community and social platforms to better position themselves for growth and new business models. 

This article was co-authored by Vinod Kumar, head of Business Insights for Salesforce Commerce Cloud.