Photo by  Abhishek Yadav  on  Scopio

Many companies, both large and small, are understandably focused on surviving the COVID-19 pandemic.  It’s a rational fear—COVID is an invisible bugaboo that nobody seems to know much about—but smart business people aren’t as worried about the NOW and are more concerned with emerging from the pandemic stronger, more flexible, and robust with a clear business advantage.

For many professionals, looking past the pandemic is too enigmatic—it seems impossible to predict the future and therefore pointless to try to plan for what is essentially unplannable.  But several smart entrepreneurs are already making the strategic moves to emerge from the pandemic as juggernauts.  Here are just some of the things that they are doing that you can do too:

Train Your Staff

Training is one of those things that businesses always seem to struggle with.  Either there is plenty of money and no time for training, or there is no money but plenty of time for training.  Unfortunately, there is never a time when there is plenty of money and plenty of time for training.  Effectively training employees creates a safer, high-performance workforce with engaged employees.  Training is an investment in your staff and one that will pay off beyond your wildest expectations. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to train your supervisors and managers in addition to your front-line workers. And speaking of investing in workers…

Invest In Your Staff

I’ve interviewed hundreds of CEOs and asked each of them for five bits of advice they wish someone had given them before they led their companies. One of the more consistent responses was, “hire slowly, fire quickly”.  That may sound like the anathema of investing in your staff but in reality, it is a huge investment in getting the right people hiring slowly takes a lot of preparation—like crafting job descriptions such that they describe not just the skills a person must have but also traits an individual must possess to enjoy the job and thrive in the position. In too many cases companies wait too long to pull the trigger on hiring and find themselves behind the proverbial eightball.  Business surges and the companies find themselves desperately trying to find “a body”.  If you want to find a body, go to the morgue, but if you are looking for the talent you need to anticipate your future needs and start looking to fill positions BEFORE you need them urgently.  If you think hiring slowly is expensive you ought to consider the price of firing too slowly.  An incompetent, belligerent, or just plain cultural misfit that is allowed to spread the fertilizer of a dysfunctional culture can do an incredible amount of damage in a relatively short time.  From driving away top-performing employees to losing key accounts the longer it takes to weed out the bad actors the damage they do grows exponentially.  And while you are handing out pink slips, take a hard look at your supervisors and the HR department. They hired and managed these bad actors and they bear at least a modicum of culpability.

The term, “unicorn” is recruiter-speak for the candidate that just doesn’t exist: people who have diverse talents, lengthy experience, and a willingness to work for a wage that is not commensurate with their qualifications.  They’re called unicorns because they don’t exist.  But unicorns can be developed. Your company can be filled with unicorns—well almost. Because highly skilled and experienced employees can easily find work elsewhere it’s not enough to develop one and then try to shame them into staying; they deserve to be paid what they are worth and if you aren’t willing to pay the appropriate wage someone else will.  This is a double-edged sword: you lose one of your top performers who, like as not, will end up working for your competition.

Focus On Customer Service

We don’t know what the future holds, but two things are certain: 1) conditions will disrupt our operations, and 2) people will judge us by how efficiently we react to the disruption.  Cutting our service and reacting to customer complaints by shrugging and saying, “what do you want, it’s COVID” is wrong-headed and short-sighted.   Whenever your problems become the customer’s problems you are doomed to abject failure.  Customers always have options—even if that option is to do without what the goods or services they are seeking.  When businesses ignore the fact that customers have choices (often many choices) some sharp entrepreneur will ultimately step up to the challenge and fill the void.  Focusing on customer service—making your goal not to merely to satisfy the customer but to delight the customer—is the single most effective thing you can do now. Satisfied customers will turn away from you as soon as you cease to satisfy them, but delighted customers will not only stand by you but they will also evangelize FOR you.  They will tell their friends and even strangers what a great company you are.

Use The Pandemic To Identify and Correct System Flaws

For the most part the pandemic isn’t the reason companies are struggling. Sure there are government restrictions that may put the proverbial fly in the ointment, but by and large the biggest complaints people have is poor execution by the companies.  Little things like a four-hour wait for a pizza delivery, getting the wrong order from a website after waiting six weeks for delivery, or a marked degradation in the quality of goods or services are opportunities to improve.  I care less about whether or not a restaurant employee has touched my pizza than I do that I have to wait half a workday to get my dinner. 

Even many of the companies who should have shined during the pandemic just plain blew it.  Manufacturers of everything from hand sanitizer to masks to toilet paper were unable to meet a major surge in demand.  Now ask yourself this: what would you do if—overnight—there was a major surge in the demand for your products or services? Would you be nimble enough to expand your capacity without making major infrastructure improvements? Would you be able to outsource your additional business to other companies while still ensuring quality? Is your supply chain capable of increasing your orders on short notice? In short, would you be able to meet the surge in demand in such a way that it would be invisible to your customers?

Now is the time to inventory all of the limitations of your current business systems and fix them so that in the wake of the next disaster—whatever that may be—you have contingency plans that you can execute at a moment’s notice.

Foment Loyalty

Business people bemoan the lack of employee loyalty when they themselves, acting out of greed, chose to put profits over people.  Yes, corporate boards have a responsibility to act in the best interests of their stockholders, but building a company of employees who are empowered and fiercely loyal to their employers tends to build a customer base that is also fiercely loyal to your business and your brand.  This loyalty is priceless and is far more valuable in the long term than the profits shown on your quarterly report.  Pay a liveable wage. Reverse the 50-year trend of boosting profits by stealing employee benefits.  Happy and loyal customers translate into efficiency and ultimately larger profits.

But better treatment (and thus retention) of your employees isn’t enough, you also have to foment customer loyalty.  Begin by sincerely thanking your existing customers for their patronage during the pandemic.  Make them feel appreciated.  Don’t get so wrapped up in your own financial turmoil that you forget that many and most of your customers are feeling a financial pinch as well.  Without the twin loyalties of your staff and your customers, you have already failed. Think of ways to show your customers and your employees that you recognize that they are the two things that keep your business afloat. And don’t just give it lip service, recognize it, ponder it until you see the absolute truth behind it.