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Roundup: How Small Businesses are Staying Open and Serving Customers During COVID-19

Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen a radical shift in how businesses operate due to the coronavirus pandemic. Business owners across every industry have had to change their business models and adopt new protocols seemingly overnight so that they can continue serving customers with as little disruption as possible.

Whether it’s by working at home, offering virtual services, or completely changing the business premise, companies are finding creative ways to stick around. Take a look at the varied approaches that businesses are using to survive, and maybe you’ll glean a bit of inspiration on how you can keep your small business relevant in the current economy.

Healthcare

One of the industries most affected by the COVID-19 outbreak is the healthcare industry. Hospitals are overrun and supplies are quickly depleting, but patients still need care. In order to protect the safety of employees and patients, hospitals have introduced protocols that seem straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. Nurses, doctors and staff are covered head to toe in protective gear, while patients are isolated in cornered-off floors and sections of the hospital. And, to help keep up with the rising demand for hospital space and resources, thousands of temporary medical facilities have been popping up all over the country. Even medical students and retired physicians are being approached to help out.

While some hospital staff may not be able to work from the safety of their homes, many medical professionals have begun using telemedicine for routine check ups and exams, and encouraging patients to connect via online apps to help limit in-person interaction. For small physician and family medicine practices, seeing a doctor through video may even be better in some respects, not just for keep germs at bay. There are no waiting rooms or delays, and that makes it possible to see more patients in a day than the office would normally see in person. Virtual services will also enable you to reduce some overhead costs, such as medical supplies and utility bills. With many practices temporarily down-staffing, the extra patient load and limited expenses will ensure that employees can remain on payroll and insurance while we wait for the country to slowly reopen.

Telecommunications

Cable and Internet providers are also facing a challenging task, and without them, none of us would be able to successfully work from home or stay connected with each other. While customer service, sales and admin staff can telecommute, service technicians still need to be available for house calls. Here’s how telecom providers are making it work:

  • Extending network capacity: With the amount of people now working from home and relying on online resources, strong Internet connectivity is a requirement for just about everyone. So, telecom companies have extended network capacity to support businesses working from home, to virtually connect teachers and students, and to provide high-speed devices for healthcare workers, among others.
  • Offering digital tools: Offering online tools is an efficient way to let customers help themselves. Many service providers offer apps where users can check account balances, make payments, switch service levels, or check outage statuses, all in just a few seconds.
  • Virtual troubleshooting: For basic connectivity issues that customers may experience, troubleshooting can easily be done over the phone.
  • Staying outside of the home: When technicians do need to come out to a customer’s house for service, they’re often able to assist without ever having to come inside. For example, when I moved to a new house a few weeks ago, a service technician from Comcast arrived at my house, dropped off the new equipment at my doorstep, and switched the cable wires outside.

During a time where staying connected is as important as ever, some phone and Internet providers have also been prohibited from terminating service for customers who are unable to pay. Despite encountering any financial hardships that so many across America are feeling, small business staff can still have access to the resources needed for telework, whether they are connecting via an existing Internet connection or using mobile hotspots to get the job done. That is one less headache for businesses that are doing their best to shift to a work-from-home model in hopes of retaining revenue.

Manufacturing

Across the country, textile factories, and leading design and luxury companies are putting their time, talents and materials to use by creating personal protective equipment for medical workers on the front line. And they’re not the only ones switching gears to take care of those in need. It doesn’t take much Googling to find a whole slew of small businesses doing everything they can to make a difference. Here are just a few!

  • Just because you used to make amusement park props, doesn’t mean you can’t drop the props and become a mask and shield manufacturer to help heroes work. That’s what one company did in Fresno, California.
  • A liquor distillery in Chicago started making hand sanitizer, which had become so scarce that even hospitals were running out.
  • A Los Angeles clothing designer stopped sewing clothing and began using their fabric to sew face masks. They’ve even offered free sewing for individuals with pre-cut material who need the extra protection.
  • This Chicago bridal shop’s employees are making cotton masks for jails, hospitals, and residents.
  • Two Los Angeles chefs have turned into pasta makers, donating an equal amount of pasta to the Los Angeles Food Bank and offering free pasta to hospitality workers who have lost their jobs and are struggling amidst the crisis.

Education

Schools and universities may be closed, but teachers and students throughout all levels have been hard at work trying to maintain some sense of normalcy. Educators are meeting with students virtually through applications such as Zoom and GoToMeeting, and using platforms such as Google Classrooms and Microsoft Teams to share assignments, homework, and resources.

Educators around the nation have been trying to stay connected with students in a creative way. In Georgia, band practice has gone digital, and PE teachers are still expecting their students to stay active. And we’re not just talking about grade school, high school, and university. If you run a small business that is centered on providing education – from language tutoring to software training to music lessons, and everything in between – implementing sessions using FaceTime, Skype, and a host of other platforms will give you the freedom to continue to reach your students, regardless of physical locale. This California bar took their Bar 101 class virtual and turned it into a Whiskeys of the World experience!

Veterinary Medicine

Similarly to the healthcare industry, veterinarians are making adjustments so that they can still see patients safely and keep our pets happy and healthy. While most veterinary clinics are open and accepting new appointments, they are operating with limited office hours. And now that several animals have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, telehealth for veterinary practices is spiking. If your local vet is scheduling, you’ll likely need to make a few adjustments to have your pet examined.

When I called my local vet’s office to see if I could schedule an appointment for my new dog (hello quarantine adoption), they instructed me on their clinic’s COVID protocol. When I arrive at their facility, I’m to call them from the parking lot to let them know I’m there. A vet tech will then come out to bring Rosie inside while I wait in my car. They’ll perform their normal routine and then send her back outside to mama. Easy peasy! So, whether in-house or on video, pet parents can rest assured that their little ones will get the level of care they need.

Health & Fitness

Health and fitness professionals have quickly figured out how stay connected with clients from a distance while continuing to motivate and encourage an active lifestyle. Gyms and personal trainers have begun hosting online fitness classes both in group and one-on-one sessions. Video classes can be pre-recorded or done via Facebook and Instagram Live, and many businesses are even throwing in free classes to help motivate more people to join in and stay active.

Organizations that hold annual charitable marathons in the Spring have begun hosting virtual 5k races where participants download an app that tracks their total distance or miles run over a specific time period. Whether you fly solo as a personal trainer or own a small Pilates or yoga studio, you can get in on the action and keep your clients and your financial bottom line healthy.

HVAC

Aside from emergency situations, some HVAC companies have ceased all in-home appointments for the foreseeable future. While certain units can be serviced from outside of the home, many require a technician to come in. Here are some ways that HVAC businesses have adapted their work-from-home protocols:

  • Drive-thru parts pickup: If a piece of equipment requires a replacement part, service technicians can order online and pick up via drive-thru at their local warehouse.
  • Virtual diagnostic: Just like cable and Internet providers, a lot of HVAC issues can be solved through basic troubleshooting over the phone. For example, checking a thermostat, or cleaning or replacing a filter. Virtual diagnostics can also be used to help determine if a service request is routine and therefore can be scheduled for a less chaotic time or if it’s urgent and needs immediate service.
  • No contact service call: If a service technician needs to come out for an emergency, they are following a “no contact” policy. The homeowner will first open all necessary doors for the technician before they come through. The tech will go directly to the equipment that needs maintenance and leave the same way they came in. Any communication that needs to happen between the homeowner and the technician is done via cell phone from separate rooms. At the end of the job, the homeowner will receive their invoice online.

Retail

Brick-and-mortar stores may be closed to the public, but customers can shop online via websites, contact customer service, and receive assistance with questions, exchanges and refunds. Many retailers have even been offering discount COVID codes and other fun incentives to help encourage customers to shop.

For essential retail establishments such as grocery stores and pharmacies, new ways of shopping are being introduced every day, and stores have been reconfigured to help control the flow of foot traffic. Bicycle shops, also considered an essential business, are doing repairs via curbside drop off and have added bicycle delivery to the mix. In Connecticut, business owners of an old toy store have gotten creative by offering FaceTime appointments so customers can virtually browse the store.

Personal care businesses like salons, spas and barber shops have hopped on the inventive bandwagon, as well. Nail salons have begun selling personalized at-home manicure kits while hair salons and barber shops have been sharing video tutorials so customers can try cutting their own hair at home. Switching up product sales during lockdown and creating short videos will make your small business memorable. And, don’t worry. DIY nails and hair will be short-lived. Once doors reopen, people will be clamoring for beauty-done-right!

Food & Beverage

In an effort to keep both chain restaurants and mom-and-pop eateries in business and workers employed, many food and beverage establishments have continued to offer take out, drive-thru and delivery services, as well as curbside pick up options.

In addition, restaurateurs started creating DIY food kits that can be ordered online or over the phone to continue serving loyal patrons while keeping everyone safe. Customers can support the restaurants and eateries they love and keep the community going! Some food chains have turned their headquarters into a drive-thru safe haven for truckers and other essential big-rig delivery drivers who would not be able to fit through a normal sized drive-thru. Wine and spirits got in the game, too, with wineries offering virtual tastings and liquor stores offering curbside pick up. And this taco shop temporarily re-branded itself into a drive-up general supply store, maintaining job security for its employees and serving its community with pride.

Entertainment

In a time when everything feels uncertain and scary, we look to those who can help take our mind off of the negatives and instead encourage us to laugh and sing our way through life. Artists, athletes, and more are offering their support, raising money for pandemic relief and hosting a sweepstakes that benefits national food banks where you can win a chance to host the Ellen DeGeneres show, spend studio time with Ariana Grande, play golf with Bill Murray and Justin Timberlake, be in Scorsese’s next film, design and call a play at an Eagles game, and a bunch of other unbelievable experiences. Local artists are streaming live and using the proceeds to support other artists whose finances are stretched or nearly gone as venues remain closed. Disney is keeping kids smiling with a Family Singalong Event. Even the Grammy Museum has turned to an online model, featuring new artist public programs, education, and virtual exhibits.

While not all performers have celebrity status, all performers have a job, and that is to entertain an audience. If you’re a local artist or run your own entertainment business, you can utilize the same principles to continue amazing your own audiences virtually. In Hawaii, a local music producer along with other native Island musicians created a free concert for audience members to tune into. In Pennsylvania, a local band performed a social-distancing appropriate curbside concert for the neighborhood. And a prominent California muralist is inspiring people with art. So, laugh, sing, create – and we’ll all get through this together!

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