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Top tips to help SMEs survive the lockdown

05 May 2020 Christiaan Steyn, Head of Business Insurance at MiWay

The next few months will be a testing time particularly for smaller businesses. Best to see it as a stress test, a way to make your business stronger.

We all know that the next few months will be something of a crucible for all of us and smaller businesses will take strain. That being said, entrepreneurs are tough minded by nature and now is the time to put all your energy into ensuring your business not only survives but is well placed to take advantage of the upturn, which will come. Those businesses that are prepared for the bounce, which some market analysts expect will be as steep as the drop was, stand to score heavily.

Here are some issues you should be considering now:

• Watch cash flow and manage your credit. Time to do some forward planning and work out how you will meet your monthly overheads if your receipts are lower than usual. Some financial institutions are giving credit holidays for a limited period, so make sure you understand the terms being offered by any institutions where you have outstanding loans and get their advice. Put your realistic cash flow projections down on paper and if you are not going to be able to meet current obligations, talk to your creditors now – most will be obliging in this time of national emergency.

The President has announced various initiatives to help SMEs and their employees who have been impacted by the COVID-19 – make sure you take advantage of them if you can. Registration for government’s Debt Relief Fund is found at: http://www.smmesa.gov.za/

• Keep your core business functions running if possible. If your business can continue trading by working remotely, then put solid plans in place to ensure that your staff members have the right equipment and Apps to allow them to access your business systems. This will include ensuring they have enough data. Managing a remote work force can be challenging: there is lots of advice on the Web, but the key is to have regular collaboration/ update sessions via Zoom, Team, Skype, WhatsApp or any of the other social media or collaboration platforms.

Aside from regular online update sessions, you will need to adapt your management style. As staff is not under your eye, you will need to communicate clearly what they need to deliver and by when, and then trust them to meet their commitments. Make sure that everybody knows you are there for them if they need advice, support or encouragement.

• Communicate, communicate, communicate. Customers are any business’s crown jewels, and cost time and money to acquire. During this time, reach out to them and spell out what your plans are for the lockdown and beyond. If you have any ongoing projects with a particular customer, you must keep them updated and manage expectations. Remember to touch base with other important stakeholders – for example, neighbouring businesses, business partners and so on.

This may sound obvious, but it is easy to forget the need to stay in touch – think of it as crisis communications. Experience from previous crises shows that those businesses that communicate well with their stakeholders during a crisis are more likely to recover.

• Strategise for the future. Things will improve and the economy will start to move forward again, we just don’t know how long it will take. Now is the time to begin forming a view of where the new opportunities will come from and how to prepare to seize them.

• Maintain your insurance cover. Your risk profile has just changed. Equipment is being used at home; your premises are likely locked and empty. It is very important that you communicate all this to your insurer and there is a very good chance your premium could reduce. Above all, do not be tempted to “save” money by allowing your insurance to lapse – your cash flow is unlikely to be able to cover any losses and you do not want to jeopardise your business’s future.

• Look after your staff. Yes, your customers are extremely important, but your employees are probably your biggest asset. As noted above, those that can work remotely will need dedicated support and management but there may also be staff members who are not working because some jobs cannot be done remotely – they should also be kept in the loop. Recognise that this is a trying time for all your people. Make sure they understand the situation regarding wages, salaries and commission, and that they have access to the right information to keep themselves and their loved ones free of infection. Some people will find being confined to home challenging in all sorts of ways, so find ways to provide emotional support, perhaps by regular messages and updates.

The Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) has made a special National Disaster Relief Fund available to help ensure that workers whose wages have been impacted by the lockdown and subsequent economic fallout receive UIF benefits for up to three months. SMEs will pay the workers direct and then claim back from the UIF. The Department of Employment and Labour’s information brochure is available at https://www.fasa.co.za/corona/corona-uif-info.pdf.

• Keep yourself safe and motivated. Smaller businesses depend heavily on one or two people, often the founder/s. The strain can be intense, so make sure you get enough sleep, exercise regularly and get the emotional support you need.

It is at times like these that one finds out what people – and businesses – are made of. Make sure your business not only survives but emerges ready to take off.

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