Everybody is talking about the Wuhan virus now.
Also known as the 2019-nCoV (novel coronavirus) and now COVID-19, it brought domestic travel to a virtual standstill in China during the peak Chinese New Year period. The entire Hubei province is locked down, affecting some 60 million residents.
Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it an international emergency. Regionally, the novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on our tourism economy, and its expected to shave a couple of percentage points off our tourism receipts.
The fear of crowds is palpable as everybody seeks to shield themselves from this SARS-like pneumonia-inducing virus. Insanely long queues form to buy masks, gloves and hand disinfectants. Tempers flare when the masks run out of stock at department stores, pharmacies and supermarkets.
Even the Singapore government’s recent move to supply four surgical masks to every household—an unprecedented move by any nation—was met with some dissatisfaction. (Read MOH’s advisory on what you should and should not do.)
The Business Impact of the COVID-19
One expert predicted that the economic impact of the Wuhan virus could be three to four times more than the US$40 billion (S$54.5 billion) caused by the SARS virus back in 2003.
Here in Singapore, the negative effect of the coronavirus on our economy is felt to be limited. However, businesses in the retail, tourism and hospitality sectors which depend heavily on foreign visitors are likely to suffer a bigger hit.
While signs of community transmission is not evident here in Singapore, locals may still be fearful of congregating at venues with large crowds.
Given this scenario, what should companies and businesses do?
Allay Public Fears of Coronaviral Infection
The first thing you need to do is to set your potential customer’s mind at ease.
Take extra precautionary measures to disinfect your premises regularly, and let them know that you do. Put up notices to show that you have doubled or even tripled your regular cleaning regime.
Have a dozen or so masks ready for visitors who need them. Standby a thermometer to measure their temperatures—or make it mandatory for them to declare if they’re feeling unwell.
Ensure that anybody who has traveled to China and the affected regions in the last 14 days should not visit your premises. If they’re already at the gate, you can politely let them know that you’re following the public health advisory best practices.
For staff that will come into contact with lots of people, consider providing them with masks. Read this advisory on how to wear masks properly and who should do so.
Delay Mass Marketing and PR Activities
At this point of time, nobody would pay attention to your PR efforts.
“But wait. Wouldn’t there be an opportunity here if other businesses are scaling down on their public relations activity?”
Well, even if you managed to garner some media intention—or engaged influencers to ‘gram your brand—the chances are that your target audience may be too distracted or concerned about their well-being.
Of course, this varies from industry to industry.
If you’re in the healthcare or wellness related sector, you could newsjack on this crisis to provide helpful content to your followers. A good strategy here is to debunk the numerous myths and fake news surrounding this health issue.
(Just make sure that you do it tastefully and accurately without unnecessary fear-mongering.)
Offer Online or Service/Product Delivery Options
For certain businesses, offering your customers an online, teleconferencing, or home delivery option may be necessary.
Now this does depend on what your customer expects, and how you can best fulfill that customer experience when meeting face-to-face isn’t feasible.
Naturally, the goal here isn’t to completely substitute what you normally provide at your shop or office. However, it helps you to continue maintaining that relationship.
Allow Staff to Work From Home (Where Possible)
What about companies with office staff?
Depending on the security and confidentiality of the work, it probably makes sense for you to allow them to telecommute more flexibly during this period.
There are two reasons why:
- Health and safety: This probably applies more to workplaces that could possibly be exposed to the spread of the coronavirus
- Reduced business: This could be relevant for companies that are exposed to China clients, suppliers, or distributors
If business slows down significantly due to exposure to your Chinese customers (or suppliers), you may even want to consider granting your staff additional unpaid leave during this period. Or offer them reduced work hours.
Just make sure that you explain to them why this is necessary, and do it with compassion and empathy.
Invest in Staff Training and Development
Should business turn southwards—this could be the case for tourism or educational businesses dependent on Chinese patronage—your employees are likely to have more time on their hands.
If your company can afford it, consider sending your team for training. This can be in either vocational or soft skills, depending on your need.
And don’t forget about yourself too! Times of business slowdown could give you that much needed breather to sharpen on your skills, read up on the latest strategies or techniques in your industry, and learn from others.
Renovate, Refurbish, Restock and Refresh
If you are running a retail, F&B, personal service, education or hospitality business, you may wish to take advantage of the slowdown to update your facilities.
Repaint your peeling walls and give it a fresh and cheerful coat of paint. Replace old and broken furniture. Change that irritating static-filled PA system.
You may even wish to remodel your office layout, or upgrade your kitchen. Or review your inventory of unsold merchandise and see how you can streamline it.
The key thing is for you to spend some time reflecting on your business, and consider how you can improve it when things start turning around—and they would!
Upgrade Your Website—and Plan Your Content Calendar!
Finally, and very importantly—especially since everybody is online these days—you should spend time refreshing your online platforms.
Start with your website. Relook at your online home, and see how you can redesign it to improve conversions. Or consider how you can update your landing pages to strengthen brand trust and improve design and content so that you can attract more leads.
Do also take the opportunity to think through your social media content calendar. What topics should you focus on for the next few weeks and months? How should you tweak your strategy in light of the prevailing conditions?
Conclusion—Seek the Opportunity in Times of Crisis (危机）
The Chinese words for crisis—危机 (wēi jī)—is often used to inspire people to find the opportunity (机会）in times of danger (危险）.
While nobody would wish the Wuhan virus to happen, the fact that it already happened should trigger companies to do some soul-searching during this period.
Rather then bemoan the situation, seek proactive ways to remedy your business. Pivot your business and management practices to adapt and respond.
Sooner or later, things will turn around (and I’m optimistic that the Chinese and Singapore governments are doing whatever they can in this respect). When business starts coming back, you would be stronger and ready for the ride if you take these preparatory actions.
What else can you do to keep your company agile in times of crisis? I’d love to read your ideas!