We come to the second part of our interview with Emma, where she offers her advice to SME’s during this difficult time.
What would be your advice to small businesses who might be struggling during COVID19?
Well my advice would always be to join the Federation of Small Businesses if you are not already a member. I joined the FSB as a Membership Advisor (MA) in August 2019, which means it is my job to advise non-members on the help and support we offer, as well as to guide my existing clients on the services and help them access the support included with their membership such as calling our legal hub if they have a query, where to find out the latest information on government loan schemes, accessing confidential tax advice, or even how to book a ticket to one of our online networking events for example. Knowing you have someone to go to and talk to for any and every business matter is what businesses need right now and is exactly what the FSB provide. I am also an FSB member, which allows me to experience first hand the services we offer and testify to their value.
As the FSB Membership Advisor for North London, I have been able to adapt my role, which was very face to face before the COVID19 crisis, and stay in constant contact with local FSB businesses; primarily through Social Media, video and phone conference, and WhatsApp now that the lockdown is in place, and I encourage them to do 3 things during this current COVID19 crisis.
Firstly, I encourage business owners to reach out for support, because there is support out there. The FSB not only provide experts for our members to talk to for advice and practical support, but we are able to signpost and guide members to the right people and external organisations where necessary.
Secondly, I try and remind business owners to stay positive, without sounding patronising because of course it’s not easy to remain positive when you are being faced with the prospect of possibly losing your livelihood. I strongly recommend having a Business Continuity Plan in place, which is designed specifically for companies when there is a crisis such as a national disaster, a flood, or a pandemic, and sets out clearly practical ways to continue doing business. I’m pleased to say that the FSB provide free business continuity planning and guidance for our members, which they can download on from the FSB website, and has proved to be invaluable to business owners during this time.
Many businesses in London have found very innovative ways of continuing to stay open for business during the pandemic and have acted quickly upon the realisation that that they have needed to radically change the way they operate in order to survive the crisis, and with hugely successful results. One FSB Member in Finchley, North London, whose business offered healthy food, products, treatments and remedies for sale, was forced to close her High Street premises after the lockdown was enforced. However, the owner made the bold decision to remarket 50% of the company’s products and services to fit the current climate, and now offers health remedies specifically for COVID19 related problems such as a low immune system, anxiety, depression, motivation, as well as providing a variety of online therapeutic classes; in addition to is providing homeopathic consultations over the phone or via video call, and then sending the remedies through the post.
This sort of adaptability is key to surviving the COVID19 crisis which leads me on to my last point which is the importance of digitalising your business as far as possible. I recently spoke to an F Plumber in Friern Barnet, in North London, who surprised me by saying that apart from some straight forward Health and Safety modifications he had needed to implement, he didn’t think that his business had been adversely affected by the COVID19, and if anything he has had even more work come in since the lockdown was announced. He explained that the reason for this was down to the fact that prior to the COVID19 crisis, he had digitalised his business as far as possible to save time and money by changing his operations:
“As a plumber for over 35 years, I feel like I’ve worked all over the UK, as I can get called out to anywhere pretty much. So to save time and money on diesel, I started asking customers to send me a picture of the problem where possible, such as a broken water meter or tap, and then send that picture to the suppliers merchants, who would then send the new parts, which I would then fit.
So when the lockdown hit, I was able to carry on pretty much as before, for emergency call outs in this way, and take up all the excess work that other plumbing firms who hadn’t done what I did before the lockdown, leading to more work. To be honest, the only problem I have at the minute is finding anyone who does as good a job as me and is willing to go out there during the pandemic.” (FSB Member, May 2020)
Staying visible and connected to your business network community takes courage and persistence. But having the courage to learn new IT Skills is imperative.
In your opinion, do you think things will change for businesses after the pandemic?
As with all change, which is never easy, there will be both positive and negative outcomes for businesses post the pandemic.
I think that for certain industries there will be a sudden surge in demand in sectors such as Finance and Debt Recovery, Health and IT.
There is also evidence to suggest that the way in which people work will drastically change, with more employers and employees seeing the benefits of working from home. Employees are already speaking to me about the increase in their productivity levels as a result of working from home, which can be attributed to factors such as the absence of a long, costly and exhausting commute to work and back, not to mention the lack of distractions from work colleagues, and the flexibility.
For Employers, with cash flow being a huge problem, reducing the cost of over heads is arguably going to incentivise the allowing their staff to work from home, and in turn potentially increasing a new and growing section of the working population of ‘Home Workers’. For example, no business premises means no property maintenance, cleaners, rent, insurances, furniture, equipment, etc). this will in turn have other implications, and so the ripple effects begin to reshape the way we work and conduct business in a huge way, giving way to new considerations from both parties such as who pays for the outgoings accumulated by the Home Worker, will companies start insisting on CCTV being installed in homes to be able check on their employees, giving way to Orwellian tendencies?
The negative impact I predict however, will most noteably be seen on the High Street if some drastic measures are not acted upon. High Streets were already struggling prior to the pandemic, and statistics show that the current trend in ecommerce is set to continue to rise even quicker as a result of the current economic crisis.
According to the latest Online National Statistics published by the UK government, “Online sales as a proportion of all retailing reached a record high of 22.3% in March 2020 as consumers switched to online purchasing following the pandemic.” (ons.gov.uk)
If we compare this to July 2019, whereby “online retailing accounted for 19.9% of total retailing” in the UK, we can see an already growing trend of consumers moving away from the High Street which I predict to accelerate during the COVID19 crisis.
I hope that Local Authorities will work together with local businesses and residents, to transform the High Street and City Centres into spaces that serve the needs of the local communities, on an individual borough by borough basis. Reinventing the High Street’s purpose is a huge necessity in my opinion, if we are going to avoid endless rows of empty, boarded up shops. Adding value, convenience and experiences other than just retail would be my suggestion. More public toilets, street entertainers, more public drinking fountains, seating, pop up businesses and greenery for instance would be a good place to start in my opinion.
How much of an impact has COVID19 had on the FSB?
The FSB have been effected like any other business in a multitude of ways, but being Nationwide, the effects differ from region to region, so I can only speak for London where I am based.
Firstly, we have seen a huge increase in new members looking for support and information. This has led to an increase in the demand for our services, all of which are successfully supporting members. The services which are most in demand in London at the moment are our Legal Hub, Finance and Funding Platforms, FSB Healthcare and an increase in attendance to our Online Networking Events.