It’s been an unpredictable and disruptive year for small businesses. From shifting to remote work in a matter of weeks to unexpected loss in revenue, many companies have experienced hardship. At the same time, others have discovered a silver lining. Whether it’s an increase in efficiency and productivity or simply learning more about their customers and their needs, almost every small business has incorporated a new process from 2020 that they’ll be keeping indefinitely.
With this in mind, we wanted to provide some advice for 2021 that is informed by the successes of two small businesses. We consulted Karl Alexander, Marketing Director for Crown Bees and Marc Fishman, Director of Sales and Marketing for Call Center Sales Pro. Crown Bees is the leading provider of materials and training for solitary-nesting bees, with the mission of increasing food production. Call Center Sales Pro is an answering service and call center provider with offices across the country. Both Karl and Marc have managed to help their businesses flourish in a difficult year, showing that listening to customers and increasing efficiency and efficacy go a long way. Here they’ve shared their top advice for business planning in the new year.
What set your businesses apart in 2020?
Karl: “We re-focused on our existing customers. That simplified many business practices, and we found new ways to reach new customers along the way.”
Marc: “We stemmed the tide of the pandemic—we did not have to furlough anyone, there were no pay cuts, and while we did have to send some folks home to work remotely, we were very prepared for that. We were lucky in that our business is built on the ability to be agile and scale. It’s really a matter of having the right tech and the right infrastructure, which we have. Outside of that, just before the pandemic, we had a major shift in some of our revenue, and it set a new, higher goal for the rest of the year. We were able to still hit that goal, maybe a little less easily than we would’ve thought in February versus November, but we still made it. Long story short, we’ve added more customers than we’ve lost and we’re much better for it.”
What aspect of your business helped you adapt the most?
Karl: “We are a small, nimble team. We were able to correct course quickly and effectively thanks to the technology that we have built our business on.”
Marc: “Being agile has helped our business adapt the most. Everything that can live in the cloud, lives in the cloud. In terms of how we operate the business day, having the infrastructure, the laptops, the network, and all the data at our fingertips helps us respond to things quickly. In some cases we’ve even had growing pains and have learned to think clearer now when it comes to how we approach things. When a portion of your staff moves to remote work, having a cloud-based platform for them to work on is crucial.”
With everything that has happened due to COVID, do you see your business remaining remote, going back to the office, or exercising a hybrid model?
Karl: “Crown Bees will be exercising a hybrid work-from-home and office model. Employees only come into the office when they are physically needed there.”
Marc: “Most of our leadership team works remotely, and has since before COVID, but because our business requires literal ‘butts in seats’ at our call centers, it’s already a hybrid. Once people were safe to return back to work, they did, and we have installed more safety protocols to keep social distancing. Masks are required upon entering our building, we’ve built all the new cubicles six feet apart from each other, and we have hand sanitizer at every station.”
Advice for other SMBs in 2021?
Karl: “Get to know your customers all over again. Everyone’s lives, habits, and needs have changed in some way and you need to understand how that has affected your customers. For businesses looking to grow, think about new distribution channels and ways to promote your business. Old channels may have closed or narrowed, but others may have just opened up.”
Marc: “Some normalcy will return to the country eventually, but don’t think things will go back to the way they used to be! Any holes that the pandemic opened in your business could happen again, so load up on resources and planning and make sure that you can respond if something like that ever happens again. For businesses just getting started and looking to grow, having a consistent marketing message and brand platform to jump off of are key. Your brand, more than anything now, is going to be digital first. People need to be sold on the brand they buy, and that brand is going to be introduced to them online.”
What technology practices saved you in 2020?
Karl: “Cloud computing, video conferencing, aggressive SEO, and data-driven marketing campaigns.”
Marc: “Zoho SalesIQ, a live chat tool for our website. Outside of that, just being able to start working in Zoho Sites, a drag-and-drop website builder, helps us take advantage of more tools going forward, and be more hands-on from within marketing. We’re re-doing our entire sales process to be inside Zoho from start to finish because we’ve seen the impact of having all our data in one place.”
What are your goals for 2021?
Karl: “We are expanding our distribution channels and our sales team to maximize our new channels.”
Marc: “Inside CCSP, it’s really about defining our brand, whether we keep our current idea or explore some different directions. We’re also going to be proactively looking at new areas to market to and distinguish niches within our major verticals, as well as doing more webinars. Additionally, we’re looking to improve our open rates on email drip campaigns and increase the organic leads from all sources to ultimately represent a minimum of 25% of all the leads that we add to the pipeline each year. Lastly, we’re going to be investing in SEO and re-marketing for our sister business.”
What was your silver lining for 2020 when it comes to your business?
Karl: “We learned that our business model and management team can weather a big storm and after the dust settles, we will be stronger and more agile moving forward.”
Marc: “Silver lining for me is that this time a year ago, we didn’t have a sales team. I took over and now we have four strong voices—smart people. And for me especially, I get to worry less about pushing pixels and doing things ad-hoc. Now it can really be about strategic planning, following those plans through, and actually capturing data to take action on instead of being so reactive. In 2020, you had to be so reactive—in 2021, we might be lucky enough to work with foresight.”
As Karl said, small businesses weathered a massive storm this year, but taking both the blows and the triumphs into consideration for the next year will help your business become more agile and resilient. Take time to reflect on this year and assess where your focus should go and how to simplify whenever possible. There’s no telling what’s ahead in the next year, but with due diligence and a little luck, your small business can outlast any storms on the horizon.