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Steering a safe course through the COVID-19 Crisis

The next few weeks and months will undoubtedly be extremely tough for all of us.  It is likely to be the fight of our lives and the defining moment of our generation. But there are positive steps you can take. There is no sugar coating it, as a practice owner, the immediate future looking pretty scary!  For many, the first instinct will be to simply batten down the hatches and wait for the storm pass.  Others may look to their key suppliers for a lead.  But in a crisis, taking personal and proactive responsibility for your business and your livelihood is without doubt always the best course to chart. 

EVERY STORM CLOUD HAS A SILVER LINING

One key positive of the likely downtime resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic is that you will have more time to reflect on how your business is performing and what the future will hold in a changed world.
It is also the perfect time to be creating new points of differentiation from your competitors so when things start returning to some semblance of normality, your business is best placed to reap the rewards.


FINANCIAL REVIEW 

The assumptions you may have used to produce this year’s budget and business plan are most likely no longer relevant because of the crisis so make the list of the possible impacts COVID-19 could have and re-do your budgets.  Include a range of possible previously unthinkable scenarios, such as a 50 to 80 per cent decline in sales over three to six months, or a supplier being unable to supply you a key item for six weeks. Carefully consider how each of those scenarios impacts your cash flow.

The government has already put initial measure in place to assist small businesses in relation to payment of sick pay to staff, business rates and ‘cash flow’ loans at very favourable rates and repayment terms - expect further measures to follow.  However rather than wait for the state, it always pays to be as proactive as possible. 

Work with your key suppliers on extending your payment terms to support your cash flow over the coming months and challenge yourself on any big-ticket commitments (business or personal) you may have that you can defer to build your cash reserves.  

During the last financial crisis [2007-2008] a number of our clients managed to negotiate discretionary rent reductions from their landlords.  Given the gravity of the current situation you may find that some landlords are receptive to short-term rent reductions or freezes [those with private rather than institutional landlords are more likely to be successful, but it does no harm to ask the question.]

PERSONAL & PERSONNEL REVIEW

Now might be a good time to consider taking that online course you’ve never had the time to do.  You will benefit from learning new skills that enhance the services you are able to offer to your customers.

The same applies to your staff.  Are there any online courses they would benefit from?  Alternatively, can you use the time to upskill and train them, or develop processes to allow you to delegate more of your nonclinical/administrative functions. 

Never an easy topic to raise, but never the less an important one; are there any staff who are not pulling their weight?  Most optical practice owners are naturally benevolent, but now is not the time to be carrying any passengers.  Making tough decisions and having some difficult conversations could be the difference between keeping your business afloat.  Short-term sacrifices for the long-term benefit of both staff and owners.  Do you need to take HR advice on reducing hours, or even asking staff to take an extended period of unpaid leave until the crisis has receded. 
 

MARKETING REVIEW

The impact of a new marketing initiative can often take many months to be effective so looking at your marketing strategy and making sure it is fit for the future is a great use of time. Start with your online presence using Google Analytics or similar to track the activity on your website to identify areas for improvement. Consider investing in SEO support from a professional provider so your website is fit for purpose as things start to return to normality.

Why not start a blog or vlog?  Posting a weekly or fortnightly message on your website or social media (Facebook / LinkedIn) will start to gain traction with customers and increase their engagement with you as their trusted optician.

Identify and plan to reach out to key influencers in your local area.  For example, is there a local independent audiologist or podiatrist who you could build a relationship with who has a similar patient profile. They too are likely to be struggling and will likely be responsive to offers of cross referral of patients or shared marketing initiatives once the crisis abates.  A word of caution here.  Don’t pick up the phone or send an email with a vague notion of collaboration, prepare a structured proposal for how you would work together.


CUSTOMER CONTACT

Most important is to stay actively and regularly in contact with your customers, especially the elderly who may be potentially isolated over the coming weeks and months.  Every little bit of contact with the outside world will be of immense value to them and they will remember your kindness and that you reached out to them when times were tough.

For those customers with appointments booked in the coming weeks, be proactive and seek to reassure them of the steps you are taking to keep the practice sterile and safe. If they still have concerns, offer to defer the appointment until the late summer – they will be more likely to still come and see you later in the year than if they have to call you and cancel themselves.  

How about offering a replacement glasses-by-post service?  A great way to show you are thinking about your customers and their immediate needs.  You might also consider a minor repair collection service to save them travelling to you.
 

SEIZE THE DAY

You should use the crisis as an opportunity to reflect on your business, how it is being run, how you would like it to run post crisis and whether it is still right for you.
Questions to ask yourself include:
•    Are you happy running your business today, is it fulfilling your personal goals?
•    Are you making the profit you want?
•    Is there adequate cashflow in the business now?
•    Do you get the return on investment you want from your business?
•    Can you afford to continue to run the business while your business is recovering?
•    Can you foresee any possible emerging opportunities for your business following the crisis?
•    Is it time to consider exiting your business?

If you want to chat through any of these ideas and initiatives, or for a more general discussion about how you can optimise your optical  business, please call Dominic Watson on 07788 99 6505 or email dwatson@myerslaroche.co.uk.  

In the meantime, good luck and safe passage. 
 
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