How small businesses can survive pandemic

The coronavirus outbreak is challenging all aspects of our lives. From working at home to social distancing from our peers, everyone is trying to figure out how to adjust their way of life to the times we are living in. Small businesses have rapidly had to do the same. So what’s working for them?

We surveyed Knoxville small businesses to assess how they are pivoting in response to the pandemic and are encouraged to find that 93% are confident they will weather this storm. That optimism is fueling action, with small businesses brainstorming and implementing new and creative ways to keep their workforce productive and motivated, stay connected with their customers, and generate revenue during this time.

Remote working requires better internal communication

The shift to a remote workforce was new for the majority of businesses surveyed; 61% hadn’t deployed it before, and new concerns and challenges have emerged. Cybersecurity risks have increased, 28% of businesses surveyed have run into connectivity and technical issues, generational technology gaps have surfaced, and new technology costs such as virtual meeting license fees and additional IT capacity have been incurred. But one month in, 65% of businesses say they’re now working effectively in a remote capacity. The two leading concerns remain employee productivity (34%) and how to effectively communicate with staff (23%) — but many businesses are taking a hugely important step in addressing that: 67% say they’re communicating more frequently with their employees than they did prior to the pandemic (one company’s creative idea: virtual lunches!) and focusing on employee morale to improve productivity.

Direct communication shows leadership

Businesses also aren’t shying away from being in regular contact with their customers about COVID-19-related business challenges, with 30% saying they do so daily, 32% a few times a week, and 18% weekly. They’re relying on more regular phone calls, emails, and social media, and turning to webinars and Zoom meetings. From public utilities to banking, some business leaders are also speaking directly to customers through highly personal video content instead of relying on traditional marketing channels and communication plans. For example, SmartBank President and CEO Billy Carroll has begun filming brief video updates that are shared through the company’s social channels. They communicate a message of reassurance and calm while sharing resources and tips for customers and updating them on useful information like a freeze on certain penalties and fees. Other CEOs looking to do the same should remember that in a time of crisis, empathy and optimism are key.

Pay-off for sophisticated marketing approach

Businesses that have previously implemented a strategic approach to customer communication are best suited to survive, while businesses that rely solely on advertising are getting drowned out. Higher education has been hit particularly hard by having to close campuses, however colleges and universities that are quickly rethinking their tried-and-true outreach methods are finding they are able to reach prospective students as they make their enrollment decision. Pivoting to an online admitted-students weekend, hosting one-on-one Zoom meetings with accepted students and their parents, and creating new video content on social media incorporating student ambassadors are ways to reach applicants where they are and maintain a true connection with them.

Traditional fundraising looks different

Small businesses and nonprofits cannot afford to be closed for an indefinite period, causing them to turn to online fundraisers as their main source of income. Since many depend on charity events, auctions, and dinners to raise money for their programs, moving the fundraisers and auctions online still allow donors to give. Video is being used to connect with loyalists for everything from luncheons to programspecific short content— consider hosting a virtual dinner party featuring a guest speaker or a virtual race that runners can participate in using their treadmill or their neighborhood roads. Now is the time to make those who can still give feel like heroes — proactively seek their support and explain what a difference they’re making for your organization in this time of crisis.

New business models emerge

We were impressed with the number of small businesses that expressed they were taking creative actions to weather the storm in terms of their business model. Restaurants, now limited to delivery and curbside pickups, are also offering bundles and 2- and 4-person dinner specials for families. Some businesses are teaming up in an effort to help each other, as in the case of a Knoxville restaurant that is hosting “popups” with its egg and meat providers during some of its curbside pickup hours so that customers can purchase some grocery items and extend their support to other local businesses. We heard from businesses that are making e-commerce available for the first time or introducing package deals for online shopping, coming up with more relaxed payment terms for new customers, and posting more upbeat content and PSAs.

No matter what avenue your business chooses to pursue — online fundraiser, webinar, or to-go service — it is important to continuously keep customers engaged. By staying at the forefront of customers’ minds, small businesses can generate revenue even while everyone is stuck at home. It is also important to remember that this situation is only temporary. Many businesses have taken to saying “we will look for all of you on the other side of this.” Because soon enough we will be on the other side, with consumers buying and small businesses thriving once more.

By staying at the forefront of customers’ minds, small businesses can generate revenue even while everyone is stuck at home.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Cathy Ackermann

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit


Published April 21, 2020