Business survival in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can be difficult for certain business sectors. If your business is affected, learn these practical business tips and strategies on how your business can survive in the new normal.
A growing number of businesses are reopening their doors to the public after almost two months of inactivity due the Movement Control Order (MCO), enforced by the government to contain COVID-19.
The impact of the pandemic is expected to be hard on the local private sector and industry, particularly on Micro and Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs) who are likely to be severely affected with less resources to absorb the shock, according to the World Bank. This poses a huge problem for the country’s economy as SMEs constitute about 98.5% of total businesses in the country.
The pandemic has shifted customer behavior, needs and demands, many of which businesses worldwide weren’t ready to fulfill. Businesses must now reinvent and adapt their product offerings and operations with test-and-learn business approaches, as consumers become more risk-averse.
Some other businesses, on the other hand, are merely trying to survive and recover. But it’s not all bleak - some of the most successful businesses often emerge during downturns because behavioral changes during a pandemic could present a rare opportunity to provide meaningful services. For example, successful startups like Instagram, WhatsApp, Pinterest and Slack, were all founded during what was considered one of the worst economic downturn - the 2008 recession.
In order to thrive in the new normal, companies must balance between understanding and fulfilling their customers’ and employees’ emotional needs. Brands that can do this with ease will emerge as winners with increased customer and employee satisfaction and loyalty - two key ingredients to success. How brands treat their customers and employees in these trying times will have a lasting effect on their brand. We take a deeper look into these pointers below.
1. Rapidly embrace changes and be more flexible
COVID-19 has forced brands to rethink their brand positioning and values. (Image source: Ogilvy)
The success of a business in the new normal will be highly dependent on how agile and strategic they can be when dealing with novel challenges of the new normal.
Businesses whose livelihoods depend on in-person appointments or physical meetups, for example, must be flexible enough to consider adopting new ways of service in order to survive, or risk losing out on deals because customers aren’t able to meet them - in this case leaving home due to the quarantine.
To put it into real world context - psychology centres whose business models rely heavily on traditional walk-in or appointments may consider adopting telehealth or telemedicine as an alternative. This technology allows health-related services and information to be channelled to patients via electronic information and technology like via a computer or smartphone etc. Since services are administered remotely via the internet, it’s much safer, and perhaps even cheaper (minus gas from travelling).
Businesses that previously functioned on Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) disallowed in today’s new normal, must quickly revise those SOPs to ensure it adheres to social distancing and strict hygiene.
To be able to adapt effectively and quickly, it’s crucial that businesses be nimble enough to pivot and adopt new approaches or business models. Businesses may have to do extra homework to be constantly updated on the latest insights on customer behavior.
2. Understand your customer’s shift in behavior
With social distancing and strict hygiene part of the norm in today’s society, the way we work, eat, play and socialize will be different from how we have been wired and accustomed to.
For many, work or school is now done virtually or remotely. This effectively changes the demands and needs of society as well. For instance, reliance on digital tools may increase, as the dependence on technology at home increases.
Before businesses can cater to different needs or demands in the market, they must first conduct market research or a corridor research to better understand the types of shifts in existing or potential customer’s behavior, needs, preferences, as well as discerning the factors influencing these changes.
Some good questions to ask when starting this process:
- How has the customers’ needs changed, if any?
- Why has it changed and what’s causing it?
- How can we help customers address this change in needs?
- Which part of our current service or products needs to be enhanced or completely revised to meet our customers’ needs?
It might be messy to just scribble these information on an empty note, so instead, consider using tools like a “value proposition canvas” or a “persona template” which are simple solutions to better understand your customers.
Conduct surveys or polls, or read on trends in social media to get a better gauge of current customer sentiment within the relevant industry. Businesses must always research and read on current trends to understand constantly shifting audience perceptions, while using this opportunity to showcase their businesses' unique response or providing a solution to the gap in society's needs.
According to Sinclair, a PR, social media, digital and experiential communications agency, current sentiment shows that customers' behavior are more likely to be home-based. They are likely to reduce spending on non-essentials, especially luxury and lifestyle items as a way to cushion the economic impact of COVID-19; they are also looking for new ways to be entertained at home.
The same report advises brands to pivot to an increasingly homebound economy where healthcare, wellness, hygiene, FMCG and insurance are not only in high demand, but are the priority.
In another report, GroupM shares that consumer spending on crowd-dependent activities may lessen as less people will favour congregating as to avoid large crowds in enclosed spaces. Socializing, hobbies and interest, may now become home-based or more focused on smaller groups. So do away with large crowd events, instead utilize digital marketing to attract and target customers.
Companies that depended on physical cash payment solutions may need to evaluate other payment models that are safer and contactless seeing how social distancing is the new norm. Consumers are also more cautious about hygiene and cleanliness.
Similarly, brands that move or extend their businesses online will attract customers who may be turned off by the long queues caused by controlled access at physical retail shops; these folks are more likely to shift their behavior to online shopping.
The key takeaway for businesses is to align their products and offering with society’s changing needs, customer behavior, and constantly come up with strategic approaches to ensure that the business can adapt quickly and effectively.
3. Tap on various financial aids
In an effort to cushion the economic blow of COVID-19 on Micro and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), various organizations from both public and private sectors are providing aids to help businesses sustain business operations, safeguard jobs and encourage domestic investments. If your business is in dire need of extra help, consider these options:
Bank Negara Malaysia
- Special Relief Facility (SRF) - CLOSED
- All Economic Sectors (AES) Facility - to enhance access to financing for SMEs and to support growth.
- Agrofood Facility (AF) - to increase food production for Malaysia and for export purposes.
- SME Automation and Digitalisation Facility (ADF) - to incentivise SMEs to automate processes and digitalise operations to improve productivity and efficiency.
- Micro Enterprises Facility (MEF) - to increase access to collateral-free financing for micro enterprises.
Understand the complete features and full requirements of BNM’s aid for SMEs here. (Image source: BNM)
How to apply for the financing:
- Call or email the participating financial institutions (PFIs) a.k.a. commercial banks, Islamic banks and development financial institutions regulated by BNM, to apply for the financing.
- Look through the business financing referral platform at IMSME.COM.MY to apply for the financing.
- SMEs may also avail themselves to Credit Guarantee Corporation Malaysia Berhad’s (CGC) BizMula-i and BizWanita-i schemes for financing of up to RM300,000. CGC.COM.MY
Click here for a whole suite of financing assistance for SMEs. (Image source: BNM)
The PENJANA Micros and SMEs E-commerce Campaign
The purpose of this scheme is to encourage adoption of e-commerce by micro enterprises and SMEs in order to widen their market reach as a way to weather the financial restraints caused by COVID-19.
Eligible micro enterprises and SMEs will be onboarded to shift their operations towards business digitalization through a co-funded programme with MDEC and e-commerce platforms. Fresh food producers such as farmers and fishermen are also encouraged to join the campaign.
Participating e-commerce platforms will provide the following to eligible micro enterprises and SMEs:
- On-boarding training
- Seller subsidy
- Sales support
Participating agencies include Lazada, Shopee, Fave, Zalora among others.
CIMB’s COVID-19 Financial Relief Assistance Programme For SMEs
CIMB SME Banking has introduced a few relief measures to help businesses get back on track and ease their cash flow problems.
CIMB Digital Partners’ Relief Measures
SMEs can drive businesses online by accessing digital solutions from CIMB’s partners including Shopmatic, MondeB2B, Exbytes and Exabytes Digital.
Free e-commerce webinars with Shopmatic
Now you can learn to build your own store in 60 mins and start selling online. Click here.
Retail Digital Financial Relief Packages
Transform your business by going online within 3 days. Click here.
For a full list of assistance by CIMB, click here.
SME Corp also compiled a full list of measures by the government to help the SMEs to sustain their business operations. Click here to view.
4. Invest in digital technology and build meaningful digital experiences
Though COVID-19 hasn’t destroyed the brick and mortar industry, it has made visitations to physical stores an unpopular option due to the inconvenience (albeit necessary) contact tracing procedures which have caused long queues and delays. Consumers are also more likely to avoid physical stories out of caution because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.
This will be particularly difficult for the retail sector, who because of their unessential status, may see fewer customers. During the MCO, Malaysian retail sales fell by 60.7% in April as non-essential stores were forced to close, while it’s estimated that retail sales for the full year will drop by 5.5%, according to Retail Group Malaysia, which calculates data on behalf of the Malaysia Retailers Association.
History shows that companies that invest in technology during or immediately following economic downturns may emerge stronger. (Image source: Bain & Company)
With uncertainty still surrounding COVID-19, especially with no vaccine in sight and with social distancing expected to continue in the remaining months, it’s clear that businesses must consider digitizing and getting on digital transformation in order for their business to survive. Now more than ever businesses must consider putting their money into digital technology if they are to stay relevant in the market, according to Bain & Company.
We share some great tips on how to digitize your business in this in-depth piece. But the gist of it is:
- Set up a proper website
- Tap on e-commerce store on platforms like Lazada and Shopee
- Utilize social media platforms
- Create a WhatsApp business account
- Set up a simple e-payment system like iPay88 or PayPal
- Create an automated response system on your website
- Choose an e-wallet payment system to encourage contactless payment, like GrabPay or Boost
- Engage a logistics service provider like Lalamove or J & T Express to deliver packages.
By the way, if you need any help with financing your business operations, it wouldn’t hurt to browse through some financing options available on our site to see which would suit your budget and limitations. You can browse them here.
Latest figures also show that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in e-commerce businesses booming globally as people shift their spending habits towards online platforms. There was a reported surge of 149% year-on-year Gross Merchandise Volume (GMV) growth in the first quarter since the MCO, according to the Commerce.Asia Group of Companies, an e-commerce ecosystem of technology and big data solutions.
The case for a more digitized economy is also supported by the fact that the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) reported a 23.5% higher Internet traffic nationwide during the first week of the MCO, while the second week of the MCO saw a further increase of 8.6% as people continued to remain indoors during the MCO.
These trends may continue until the end of the year as consumers remain cautious about the pandemic.
If you need extra resources or help when setting up your digital business, try exploring MDEC's #digitalvscovid campaign, where they collaborate with close to 80 Malaysian tech companies to offer services to SMEs on a pro-bono basis or discounted rates during this period of economic uncertainty.
5. Market your new product offering or business model
Effective and strategic online marketing can help brands reach their targeted audience with ease.
It’s important that brands invest as much energy and time into marketing and advertising their products, especially after all the hard work of adapting it to the new normal. Without robust and strategic marketing, the product or service wouldn't be able to reach out to the right audience in the mass market.
But before you can market your product, you must first identify the right target audience. Only then can you come up with the right strategies and methods to engage with your customers. Below are some tips on knowing your customers we shared in this previous piece as well:
- knowing how to angle your messages in a language that they understand,
- knowing how to target your ads to the right audience, and
- knowing how to give them what they need.
Here is another great resource to look into if you need more tips on identifying the right audience.
But knowing your audience is just the basics to marketing. Brands must also get the word out in compelling and relatable ways. Try tapping on various social media and digital channels or tools to help amplify your message.
Social media contests and giveaway contests are great ways to engage customers and build brand awareness. (Image source: HeyOrca, Social Media Examiner)
If you’re an owner of a restaurant who just launched a new delivery service, for example, you may want to promote this new service through a multi-channel campaign. This can include social media campaigns via Instagram, YouTube and Facebook, and also by sending out newsletters to inform and educate your customers about how your brand cares about customer health and safety by embracing new technology to empower the continuous practice of social distancing.
If your restaurant has always been offline, it’s time to bring it online. Utilize Instagram to market your dishes, couple this with resonating and compelling photo and content to make it relatable to readers.
Some basic smart tools to consider include:
Content Management Systems
This software application is used to publish and manage the creation and modification of digital content - a key tool if you want to create content digitally. But CMSs have more complex functionality that we won’t go into great detail here. We suggest checking this piece for a better understanding of CMSs.
The most popular out of all the options out there, and the only one that we would recommend, Wordpress boasts the largest market share among its competitors by far. It's easy to use, and easily customizable via its plugins and themes.
To help you understand and get to know your customers better, and what they do on your website. These smart tools can analyze data to provide better insight on customer behavior.
- Google Analytics
Got a brand new product that needs attention from customers? Well this is where email marketing comes into the picture. According to Neil Patel, email marketing technology is used by more than 80% of B2B and B2C companies.
With more than 12 million customers, it offers a free plan for those with less than 2,000 subscribers and those who don’t send more than 12,000 emails per month. Great for your SME!
Give your marketing collaterals a professional look with Canva. In fact Forbes recently reported that Canva had raised new funding valuing the startup at $6 billion after a huge increased in demand in design software.
There are more marketing tools that we won’t exhaust in detail here, but for more helpful marketing tools, click here.
The key messaging here is to constantly find other and new creative ways to meet and effectively connect with your customer’s changing needs.
6. Support your community
When a global tragedy strikes humanity, brands should demonstrate their support towards local causes and corporate social responsibility by being of service to their community.
The tradeoffs can even help businesses survive the pandemic. Sinclair shares that customers often respond well to positive messaging and encouragement from brands that offer support.
Therefore, it’s crucial that business leaders not only be proactive changemakers in their communities, but also continue to show support towards society as well as understand the needs of their employees, customers and key stakeholders, as part of their own brand management.
Brands can contribute by funding or donating money to supplies to support stakeholders. For example e-commerce giant Alibaba Group donated RMB1 billion (RM604 million) for purchasing medical supplies and equipment to donate to medical institutions in Wuhan and Hubei province.
7. Gather feedback from customers
The pandemic, especially in this period of recovery, will test how businesses react to customer sentiment and feedback particularly on social media platforms. Poor community engagement could make or break organizations.
Many negative experiences with customers actually come down to unfilled expectations.
To do this, businesses should closely monitor feedback or all forms of online mentions on all platforms: website, email, social etc. Your business’ success could depend on how well you meet your customers’ changing needs. Similar to the previous points, gather feedback via polls or surveys to ensure you are on top of your customers’ needs.
Businesses that listen and adjust their strategies based on customer feedback will improve customer satisfaction, and provide that extra touch of making them feel heard.
8. Care for employees
Great companies listen to what their employees have to say.
Things are hard right now as unemployment and pay cuts are on the rise. A brand will be judged and remembered for years to come based on how they treat and respond to their employees’ needs in these unprecedented times, according to Bain & Company.
It’s easy to be a leader when things are running smoothly, it’s much difficult to lead when things go south. How brands respond to employees will also have lasting impacts and will determine their engagement, loyalty and productivity - all of which are crucial for a business’ success, particularly in the new normal.
Employers should address fears in health and well-being, financial stability, and job security - things that are considered top concerns for employees right now - in meaningful ways.
For example, because of COVID-19, Microsoft was one of the first companies to commit to paying its campus staff during the work-from-home period, even if they don’t need to work
9. Provide access to the masses
Does your company have access to a heap of resources that could be helpful for your customers? Now is the perfect opportunity to open up previously locked subscriptions or features for free, especially as consumers find ways to make life at home easier or are trying to stay preoccupied.
Closer to home, for example, to aid staff in government hospitals, police stations and healthcare’s first responders, glove maker Supermax - with logistical help from National Disaster Management Agency of Malaysia (Nadma) - distributed 1 million medical gloves.
It could be as simple as donating cookies to frontliners if you own a bakery. All gestures count, big or small, to the brand positioning of your business.
10. Be prepared for a potential second lockdown
God forbid we go through another round of lockdowns, but if it does happen, companies would, hopefully, be in better position to weather the storm and handle any form of emergency or crisis.
Besides the usual HR-obligated procedure of making sure the office is well-sanitized and readjusting the office to meet social distancing standards or providing employees with sanitizers and masks, companies will also need to relook into other factors like cash flow, headcounts, and redundancies if business survival is an issue.
It’s also important for businesses to address the need to integrate their staff with these lockdowns by providing them with enough resources to be able to perform their duties and tasks out of the office. Some companies even look into addressing employee mental health as the pandemic has undeniably caused a lot of stress and confusion especially as people’s livelihoods are affected.
Lastly, if another lockdown does happen, we hope your company has already embraced digitization as an alternative business approach. This on top of consolidating cash flow and making sure there’s enough savings to weather the storm until the end of the year.
Things may not be perfect, but they are definitely improving
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented event that no one saw coming - no business was ready to handle or absorb the shocks presented by the awful tragedy.
Right now, the best thing businesses can do now is to learn from the outcome of their past efforts, improve on their strategies, build resilience, and have faith in their people.
On the commercial end, they must listen to the changing needs and demands of their customers, and adapt to these changes quickly. Hopefully our insights will help you on your business’ journey to recovery.