Any business owner affected by the lockdowns and social distancing restrictions of COVID-19, will likely tell you that the pandemic has been the greatest challenge they’ve ever faced in business. For the entrepreneurs among us — those who have nurtured fledgling business ideas from infancy and watched first steps and other achievements with parental pride — the setbacks of the past few months have caused more than a few sleepless nights.
But the experience has not been without its learnings and, while it may have been a crash course in risk management, pivoting and resiliency, I have no doubt that my experiences during COVID-19 will benefit me as a businessperson in time.
The lessons learned during this pandemic will be essential for businesses in a post COVID-world.
The COVID effect
Since its earliest days, Be Fit Food has had a very active and large online community group of customers (called Be Fit Foodies) who regularly share tips, challenges and feedback with one another on Facebook. What we’ve learnt overtime is that the behaviours of these community members are very much reflective of the thoughts and behaviours of people who are generally more health and weight conscious.
When the pandemic struck, we learned from these community members that there was an inclination to turn to survival mode with their eating habits; disrupting their hard-earned gains (or losses, if we’re talking about their weight goals). There was also an increased focus on immunity boosting and what foods could offer them some protection from COVID-19.
By the second month of lockdown, our community was telling us that they were turning to comfort foods and alcohol in isolation (something most of us will relate to!). And this soon turned to feelings of guilt and disappointment if they had gained weight or not met their health goals. At the same time, we knew that the discretionary spend of our customers was affected by job losses (their own or a family member’s) and there was a discernible shift in priorities to focus on family first in a time of uncertainty.
All of these shifts had the potential to affect our bottom line and ‘business as usual’ was no longer an option. So, we listened to what our customers were telling us and, like many other businesses have had to do in these circumstances, we pivoted our operations.
Give them what they want
We determined that there were three key things that our customers (existing and prospective) were really looking for during the COVID-19 crisis: immunity from the threat of illness; reassurance and help with self-care; and support to help get them back on track with their health goals.
To address these three things, we created bulk-buying options that would give them easy access to nutritious meals — we waived delivery fees and we introduced motivational challenges in our community supported by expert dietitian advice.
Staying engaged with our customers was critical during lockdown and a personalised approach was imperative. We increased our communications via phone calls, SMS and emails, and made our personalised dietitian support service more accessible.
Our online social communities became more active as people sought contact and community during isolation, so we ramped up our activity in this space.
Connectivity is key
Keeping all of our communication channels dynamic and connected meant that it was important for us to automate these processes, so we sought systems that could do this in an integrated way across all the platforms that we were using. An invaluable learning was that there really is an app for everything these days — from managing your website speed and coordinating collection points for products, to stock control and customer communications.
Explore your inbox
You know all those unsolicited emails that hit your inbox each day destined for the deleted folder? Well, as we learned during our business pivot, yesterday’s spam may very well be today’s business opportunity.
Take some time to look at approaches from other businesses and services with a new lens. Your business has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic and so have your needs, so keep this in mind when you next open your inbox. A new business connection could very well lead to cross referrals and new sales channels, as it did for us.
I can’t emphasise enough just how important it has been to remain visible as a business during the COVID-19 lockdown.
At a time when we may have been tempted to cut our spend on marketing, advertising and PR, it turned out that activities such as our live online events, podcasts and workshops, radio and TV appearances, as well as print and online marketing, were the best ways for our business to remain valid and visible to customers.
So, while you may need to consider making some savings in your budget when you’re forced to pivot operations, make sure it’s not at the expense of your brand’s visibility and relevance to its customers.
Build the base and seek ROI
Ramping up our online activity meant experimenting with some of the advertising channels available to us and admittedly it took a bit of trial and error to get this formula right. The investment paid off in the end though, and the first-person data that we were able to collect through GoogleAds meant that we could be very targeted when following up on customer leads.
Build trust and loyalty
Building customer trust isn’t a new concept but, in disrupted times, it’s a currency that can’t be over-valued. I suspect that in a post-COVID era, people will be even more discerning when it comes to choosing brands with values that reflect their own and they will remember how these brands held up during the crisis.
It goes without saying that trust must be earned and when it is, loyalty follows. During the COVID crisis, it has been particularly important that our customers can trust our products and our advice. It’s equally important that we respond to their loyalty with genuine rewards, something we have focused on during lockdown.
After all, a pandemic may be temporary but the good reputation of your business endures.