From people to products: how to drive business recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic
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Startups and small business owners looking for insights and ideas on bouncing back from the pandemic disruption will find a wealth of tips in the book Coming Back From COVID, by Evian Gutman.
Key themes are addressed in six chapters, each of which has 10 methods in five sections. Put together, the 300 tips make for a useful checklist as well as a creativity soundboard for resilience.
More real-life examples and case studies would have helped reinforce the book’s messages. See also YourStory’s Pivot and Persist section for case studies, and our compilation of 60 Quotes on Coping with a Crisis.
Based in Australia, Evian Gutman is the founder of two startups, Padlifter and Ringcommend. He was earlier a management consultant and digital marketing head. He has worked across the US and the Middle East as well.
“When backed into a corner, survival implores new and better ways of doing things,” Evian explains. Business improvement and innovation are the need of the hour now more than ever before.
Here are my six key clusters of takeaways from this valuable 290-page book, summarised as well in Table 1. See also my reviews of the related books The Resilient Organisation, Do Better with Less, The Other ‘F’ Word, and The Messy Middle.
Lockdowns, slowdowns, job losses, social distancing and separation from one another have had an emotional toll on employees, the author cautions. In these tough and uncertain times, employees need security, assurance and empathy.
High-performance teams are needed to resolve new problems, which calls for identification of new talent and capability, alignment, and engagement. Goalposts have moved, and companies need unwavering discipline to achieve new targets and projections, the author explains.
Metrics and KPIs need to be revised and revisited more often, as compared to earlier annual cycles. Digital dashboards can help give live snapshots of performance. Mentoring, upskilling courses, and knowledge-sharing sessions can help in fast-tracking career growth.
The need for new initiatives during the pandemic opens up fresh opportunities for leadership and talent to emerge. Business owners should trust and empower these new leaders, Evian advises.
Formal and informal shows of gratitude by peers as well as leadership will be appreciated, the author emphasises. Sharing of customer testimonials and gamification activities also help, e.g. during festivals.
Celebrating wins can improve morale and energise the workforce. Fun and socialisation can be promoted in structured and informal ways, e.g. birthday and anniversary celebrations, weekly ‘Happy Hours’. A mix of professional and personal milestones should be highlighted, the author describes.
Work from home has led to new arrangements of flexibility while also increasing workloads and burnout. Employees should be given good internet connections and ergonomic equipment, Evian emphasises. There should be frequent check-ins on employee health and moods, especially when there are pay cuts and fewer bonuses.
“Team members should be free to chat about whatever is on their mind – personal or professional,” Evian recommends. Additional leave should be granted where necessary.
Business plans, structure and processes should be modified to the new realities as industries and consumer behaviours change, Evian explains. New internal capabilities and roles will be needed to match changes in product mix and supplier relationships.
“COVID-19 revealed a number of supply-chain vulnerabilities,” the author observes. It has become hard for companies to provide assurances and guarantees. New plans should be data-driven and granular, with new goals and roles.
Companies should eventually move from ‘doing less with less’ to ‘doing more with less.’ Decision-making should be decentralised, with more autonomy and flexibility.
Business processes should be re-mapped and revisited for improvement via automation, e.g. ecommerce, invoicing, payment gateway, reporting. Documented processes should have a centralised repository.
“Encourage idea sharing,” Evian urges; there should be increased collaboration and cooperation across functional and product lines. New pockets of talent and areas of expertise should be spotted.
Business communication efficiency can be improved by “making meetings matter” and fine-tuning their frequency, duration and purpose, Evian explains. People should prepare in advance for meetings, and avoid “scope creep.” Active listening can help reduce misunderstandings and frustrations.
“COVID lockdowns gave many their first real experience with videoconferencing software,” Evian explains. He asks: “Who’d heard of Zoom prior to 2020?” Project management software helps as well, to make progress visible, schedule activities, and forecast resource utilisation.
“Invest in knowledge repositories,” Evian emphasises. They help find answers efficiently, and should be updated and promoted regularly.
COVID has caused companies to refine their product mix and adapt to changed consumer attitudes and behaviours, regulations, and financial constraints, Evian explains. Industries have shrunk, competitors are lowering prices, and customers have cut down on overall spends.
Product widths and lengths have to be modified, and new product lines added in some cases. “However, be cautious against the consequences of spreading yourself too thin with too many products. This runs the risk of causing brand damage,” the author warns.
A balance between short-term needs and long-term advantage needs to be negotiated, though some products may well be a “saving grace.”
Brands need to remain relevant, and brand values like safety, courage, trust and community may need to be reinforced. Cross-selling, up-selling and bundling of products will need to be pursued, along with tiered pricing and instalment payment plans, the author spells out.
At the same time, companies should come across as authentic and not gimmicky. Brand personality should be communicated through the website, language, and messaging. Assumptions about customers should be revisited through conversations and research, Evian advises.
Product faults and complaints should be resolved quicker, and customer touchpoints should be increased. Chatbots and live web chats should be leveraged along with website and social media analytics.
“Customer centricity is quality’s big brother,” the author evocatively describes. “As a result of COVID, certain products will have new quality standard expectations associated with them,” the author explains. This applies to food, retail, hospitality and cleaning industries, for example. Customers can be involved in early beta testing of new products as well.
4. Marketing and Sales
In the COVID-19 era, companies should understand their customers better by creating new buyer personas that include new pain points, needs and wants, the author emphasises. These should be augmented with offline and online research to find out what, why, and how customers buy.
As the world moves increasingly online, inbound marketing should be powered with relevant and actionable content across multiple channels. For example, blog post content can be delivered via a webinar, and whitepapers can be converted into infographics. Techniques like website optimisation, SEO, geo-targeting, device targeting, and call campaigns should also be adopted.
Such steps should address product awareness, consideration and decisions of customers. The author recommends the use of content audits and content release timelines in this regard. Companies should demonstrate relevance, credibility and authority.
“Reacquaint yourself with your sales pipeline,” the author suggests. Reviews should be conducted frequently and mapped onto sales dashboards.
Sales playbooks should be collaboratively developed, and include best practices, scripts and templates. The best practices should be standardised, updated regularly, and promoted, the author recommends. Centralised repositories should be kept relevant and refreshed. This will also help onboarding new talent better in future.
If the company recovers (or is already in a sweet spot depending on its sector), then growth strategies should be developed and pursued. This can involve new products, markets, customer segments, and partnerships, the author maps out. Supplier/distributor expansion and strategic alliances come into play here.
Breaking out of survival or safety mode requires going broader and deeper in the market. Strategy mapping tools like the Ansoff matrix help here, as well as Porter’s Five Forces framework.
Referrals for old and new customers should be incentivised, but should be pursued in a way that respects sensitivity and gratitude, the author advises. Content sharing should be made easy across social media.
“The era of post-COVID recovery demands connecting like never before with your target customers, as well as doing so in cost-effective ways,” Evian emphasises. ‘Social proof’ via customer reviews and testimonials helps spread the word.
Strategic alliances should build on complementary capabilities and resources. Goals and accountability should be clearly spelt out, the author advises. “Always be learning and adapting,” he adds.
6. Accounting and finance
“Build sustainability by managing your cash flow,” Evian emphasises. Data-driven budgeting and forecasting tools help manage the pipeline, spot risks, identify over-spending, and increase RoI.
Continuous research helps understand behaviour trends, customer acquisition costs, and new market sizes. Best, base, and worst case scenarios should be plotted. The author identifies a number of important KPIs, such as operating cash flow, profit margins, revenue growth rate, and inventory turnover.
Better payment terms should be negotiated with business partners, though they will most likely be facing similar pressures, Evian cautions. Rentals instead of ownership should be adopted to reduce operating expenses in the near term.
“Discount high-margin products to encourage additional sales,” he recommends. Debt and equity models of financing should also be pursued, along with government assistance measures such as paycheck protection programmes and tax credits.
“Most businesses will lament on the adversity of their reality. This is fair but unhelpful. Shrewd businesses will use this time to transform,” the author sums up.