The past few months during the coronavirus pandemic have been hard. Hard for people, hard for businesses, hard for the United States and the people here that are trying to hold back the spread of the virus. Now, though, there are a few glimmers of hope as parts of the country begin dusting off their “Open” signs and turn the lights back on. Not surprisingly, the process will be far more involved than just opening the doors after the shutdown, though, and will require thorough planning. So, as a small business owner, what’s the best way to approach reopening your business and establishing trust after COVID-19?
There are two sides to reopening: the physical (cleaning, reorganizing, hiring, managing the supply chain) and the conceptual (marketing, education). Both sides must be in place before a successful reopening can take place. We’ll touch on both, but the most important thing to remember is that any plan will need to be flexible and have the ability to handle a wide variety of scenarios.
Before you decide to jump into reopening with both feet, it’s important to understand what you’re up against and what you’ll be asking your customers to do by visiting your business. This goes beyond the “new normal” that we keep hearing in the media, we’re past that now. Research the guidance of your local public health officials and get a handle on the local regulations regarding masks, social distancing, and take the time to understand how you can best serve your customers under the new regulations. Different industries, and even different businesses within those industries can have wildly different requirements on what they can and can’t do, so don’t assume that what your neighbor is doing will apply to you as well.
Research also involves studying your competition and the other businesses around you, regardless of industry. While you can’t rely on them for cues on how best to reopen, you can get ideas for how best to reach your customers and to develop a marketing strategy that works for your business. Social media may work well in some cases, while print or television may work better in others. It’s important to be flexible in your approach and to be open to new ideas.
How will you handle a customer that refuses to comply with your business’ requirements? What will you do if you need to assist a sick employee? Are you providing masks for customers or requiring that they have one on upon entering? All of these are questions that you’re going to need to answer before you can open your doors, and while some of these things may seem like a “worst case scenario”, it’s much better to be prepared than be surprised by the things that can happen in the course of everyday business.
Beyond that, having a well thought out plan that is key to building trust with your employees and customers alike. Your employees aren’t going to want to work in a place that approaches reopening in such serious times with a carefree attitude, and your customers will feel the same, especially if your business offers a high-touch or high-risk service such as serving food or providing cosmetic services (hair, makeup, etc.).
Your reopening plan should not only outline your strategy for getting customers and employees in the door in the safest and most efficient manner, it should outline what you’ll do when something goes wrong. Your employees will want to know that you have safety protocols in place, and what you’ll do if there is another wave of infections that cause things to start closing down again. There could be a need to set up telework arrangements for your employees’ well-being, so getting them in touch with internet and phone service providers now will save you headaches down the road if the federal government or local officials place orders to have people back at home. You may need to furlough them again, but at least you’ll have been transparent about that process up front.
Prepare Your Facility and Operations
Even if you’re not running a restaurant or hair salon, there are plenty of opportunities for people to come in contact with harmful viruses and bacteria in your business. Take the time to understand how best to sanitize, disinfect, and properly clean anything that people will interact with while inside your facility. Understand that you may not be able to operate at full capacity for some time, so make sure that your building, furniture, and operational areas are set up in such a way that they allow people to have ample space and the ability to wash their hands or sanitize them in some way.
Offer hand sanitizer if it’s available and make sure that there is a hand washing station available. Personal protective equipment (PPE) may not be required, but it’s a good idea to offer backup face masks or face coverings for people who may have forgotten theirs. Keep in mind that almost no one alive today has been through a lockdown or stay-at-home orders like we’ve had in place during the coronavirus outbreak.
Educate and Communicate
Part of bringing employees back to work safely is retraining them not only your policies, but also best practices on general hygiene, personal interactions, and what to do if they feel ill. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has created a set of guidelines for how best to wash hands, handle sneezes/coughs, and how to handle the unruly customer – should one arise. Communicating what will happen if the guidelines are not followed is also important. If you intend to enforce the rules with any real seriousness, you’ll need to have a clearly defined disciplinary path for people that break them.
Reach out to the community around your business, not just to let them know you’re back in business, but to let them know that you’re still around and that you still care. The “we’re in this together” sentiment may seem to be getting a little old at this point in the game, but it’s a true message that resonates with a wide variety of people around the world. Share stories from your employees, helpful ideas that are relevant to your target audience, and even try partnering up with other businesses to offer a joint product or service that may benefit both of your operations equally.
Be resourceful and try to shift the focus to your digital channels, such as your website or social media accounts. These outlets will be your best bet for reaching people with new information about your business, sales information, and directions on how best to interact with your staff and facilities. You may be surprised to find out that people have forgotten about you while everything else has been going on, especially if you’re a well-established business, but most folks have a ton of other things on their minds at the moment.
In this same vein, it’s important to maintain the highest possible standards for customer service during this time. Understand that people will be stressed and scared about being in public around others and try to adapt your business practices to accommodate that uncertainty for your customers. Building bonds with people now will help you maintain a connection when things get better.
You might have been lucky enough to hold on to your entire workforce, but chances are the closure has left you with a few holes in your employee roster. You’ll first need to determine how you’re going to open and start planning to hire accordingly. A part-time opening will require different staff than if you decide to jump in and open with both feet. As odd as it sounds, it may actually be difficult to hire because of increased unemployment benefits and the discomfort people sometimes feel in the job search.
This applies to not only your communication plan and expectations for your employees, but also to how you operate your business once it’s open. Keep in mind that things can change rapidly, and there may not be a whole lot you or anyone else can do about it. Community leaders may determine that the best course of action involves partial closures or limited availability to certain businesses, so it’s important to not get caught without the ability to adapt to a new situation. This can also mean changing your way of doing business, from opening part time to opening with fewer employees on board to limit the potential for spread.
Financially, this also means being aware that your revenues are likely to be deeply impacted for a long time to come, which will require you to plan far enough ahead to have a cushion if you have to pay people or keep facilities rolling for a while with no money coming in the door. Banks and credit unions may be able to lend emergency funds to help you get over the hump but it’s not a good idea to rely on that for operating capital.
Now that you’re open and running, don’t forget the steps that you took to reopen successfully. Just because you may be feeling better about the world and the direction you’re heading, taking extra care to pay attention to your employees’ and customers’ needs will do wonders for your business when things aren’t bad. It never hurts to stay top of mind, either, because people will begin to instinctively turn to you for help going forward. Most of all, don’t feel pressure to stay open for the benefit of your financial bottom line of those of your employees. Safety and making every effort to reduce the spread takes front seat to any monetary gains, and it’s much better to return to a state of flux than it is to risk getting someone sick or worse. If you feel that the situation has reached a point of danger, it’s important to take steps to mitigate the risks and not wait for a government official to act.