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When COVID-19 shuttered nonessential businesses this March, most business owners felt the sting quickly, with its sudden impact on sales, supply chains, employees and customers. But, many of these same businesses also were able to quickly shift their strategies to continue to bring in revenue, pay expenses and even grow.

One banking expert who has witnessed many of these changes is Kristyn Squires, Small Business National Sales Leader for KeyBank, who supports Key's 1,100 branches nationwide as they work with small businesses.

Kristyn says business owners and their bankers have been asking more of each other during this challenging time. And with that, the bank has been able to help small business owners take advantage of more capabilities and resources than ever before.

"We’ve been approaching every one of our clients and finding out how this pandemic has affected them both personally and professionally," Kristyn says. "We want to know what has changed so we can support them through these hard times and offer traditional and nontraditional solutions."

To that end, a sampling of business owners around the country who are currently working with Key recently shared some of the unique challenges they faced and how they overcame them. Many say they adopted solutions they might not have dreamed of before.

Key Takeaways

  • Work closely with your business banker to find new solutions to manage capital and cash flow.
  • Use technology to keep in close contact with suppliers, employees and loyal customers.
  • Review and adapt traditional policies to better serve customers now.

Quick Negotiations

A key lesson that Claudia Trzeciak, owner of Wilbraham Flowers, Wilbraham, Mass., learned this year: that simply working with her vendors was one of the best things she could do.

When Claudia’s business was required to close this spring, she negotiated a more feasible rent payment schedule with her landlord. She also continued to keep in touch with suppliers, employees and her loyal customers.

Those efforts paid off when the store was permitted to reopen just four days before Mother’s Day. Claudia’s suppliers and a core group of employees didn’t hesitate to support her efforts, which allowed Claudia to stock up and fill orders in time for one of the busiest flower holidays of the year.

Kristyn says the bank has taken a similar approach when it comes to working with small business owners on ways to manage their capital and cash flow.

"We’re encouraging our teams to have holistic conversations with their small business clients, because there are so many ways we can help, and they might not be aware of all the options," she says. "For example, it might be managing capital in ways that go beyond reducing payments or interest rates. Nine times out of ten, we are able to help small business clients find new solutions that can save them hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a month."

Using Social Media

Another major shift, Kristyn says, has been a willingness among small business owners to embrace technology like never before, especially for those who found it necessary to rethink their delivery model, or to begin selling products and services online.

"We are able to provide them with support such as how to build their website, how to offer their products online, and how to take payments online," she says. "It’s been a lot of fun offering e-commerce services that we didn’t always have an opportunity to talk about before. Now, everyone is becoming more aware of and open to those solutions and we’re sharing them as much as we can."

To that end, Evelyn Caruso, owner of The Cotton Cupboard Quilt Shop in Bangor, Maine, was surprised at the power social media could have on her business, which sells fabric and quilting supplies. Initially, when the state mandated that the store close, Evelyn and her sister Lori, a co-owner, had to lay off staff members. Fortunately, that did not last long as customers continued to call and email the shop requesting shipments of fabric for masks.

Evelyn and Lori soon decided to sell their products online via hour-long Facebook Live events on Saturdays, after a business colleague suggested the idea. The virtual events proved to be quite successful, allowing the business to reach a much larger client base, including new customers outside the state.

"Using technology was a huge pivot for us – but the challenge was well worth it," Evelyn says. "In one event, we produced the sales of an entire day pre-COVID."

Sheri Seroka, owner of Wild Iris Home in Avon, Ohio, also found social media to be an important business builder. The proprietor of a newly opened store specializing in custom-made furniture and unique home furnishings, Sheri decided to promote the store’s products through Instagram and Facebook and on its website. Sheri says posting on Instagram regularly, with the help of her daughter Ashley, also involved in the business, helped them increase followers by leaps and bounds. Some followers shared posts or inquired about purchasing background items in posted photos, Sheri says.

"During the lockdown we have sold many items through social media to people who have never even been in the store," Sheri says. The store also has picked up many new and non-local customers and has received support from customers reading about the business online.

"Many people love the fact that this is a mother-daughter business, and they often tell us they love supporting women-owned businesses," says Sheri. "They may not know us but have read about our business and find it inspiring."

Keeping a Connection with Customers

Staying in touch with customers via phone, email and regular mail during business shutdowns has been another tactic to fuel sales, especially for those unable to do business online.

Becca Sanford, owner of Becca’s 3700 Hair Studio in Dayton, Ohio, specializes in both hairdressing and hair replacement services, many for clients suffering from cancer, alopecia or other types of hair loss. Sanford had to close for more than two months beginning in March. This meant many customers – some of whom had purchased wigs for the first time – could not come in to pick up their wigs or receive a custom fitting, one of the salon’s specialties.

So, during the pandemic, Becca opted to ship many clients their wigs, either because the store was closed or because her clients, while eager to receive their wigs, also wanted or needed to stay home.

"Our salon ended up mailing over a dozen pieces to clients to accommodate their needs, although this has been against our usual business practices," Becca says.

One of the best moves Becca made, she says, has been forwarding salon phone calls to her personal cell phone.

"I didn’t want to miss any client calls and really needed to make sure I was available to at least answer the phone," she says.

When she finally reopened the store in mid-May, Becca found customer connections to be as strong as ever.

"Being able to reopen with little interruption in my business has been the best reward," Becca says.

Always on the Move

One of the most surprising effects of the pandemic, Kristyn says, has been seeing businesses move beyond survival mode to creating sales growth. For some that has meant buying real estate, and even acquiring other businesses, she adds. "The pandemic has pushed many business owners outside of their comfort zone to think differently about the business and about their future."

For example, Sheri of Wild Iris Home decided to offer customers the opportunity to shop the store virtually, by scheduling FaceTime calls by appointment. Besides using the calls to provide virtual tours of the store, Sheri also used the calls to tour customers’ homes, looking for opportunities to style and furnish rooms or spaces. And for local customers, Sheri made the process even easier by packaging their purchases for curbside pickup.

"It’s amazing how many customers have embraced that," Sheri says. "I think with being locked down in their homes, people became very aware of their surroundings, and many people started to realize they could use a little something to hang up or put in their homes to breathe new excitement into a space."

These days, she adds, the virtual tour service has evolved into a fee-based consultation service. "We are so honored that people value our opinions and our brand and are inviting us into their homes." Claudia also added a new service option by offering contactless, free delivery of flowers to nursing home residents, which she schedules on a regular basis.

"I offer that to people who have family members in nursing homes and want to send a bouquet of flowers," she says.

New Ways of Doing Business

There’s no doubt the pandemic has changed the way small business operate. But it’s also confirmed that small business owners are just as resilient as ever, Kristyn notes.

"We’ve seen business owners engaging with us like never before, and in many ways that’s where we’ve seen a turn of events, to where many began to thrive in this environment," she says. "They’ve decided they are not going to let these changes take away their dreams. They are going to use this opportunity to do things differently so they can grow."

Talk to a Branch Manager in your neighborhood to see how Key can help your business.

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