Chairman's Desk

Ready to reopen? Here’s how you do it right

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on May 6, 2020.

This month, Canadian provinces start hanging out the “open for business” signs. From retail stores in Quebec to restaurant patios in Manitoba, golf courses in Alberta to garden centres in Ontario, thousands of companies are welcoming back their customers. Each province has its own list, rules, and timetable, depending on how well it is “planking the curve” of COVID-19. And entrepreneurs face unprecedented challenges, as they consider how to comply with government strictures and still stay afloat.

Many business owners are confused or crying foul, about rules that complicate service or disadvantage certain firms. Manitoba, for example, does not permit gatherings of more than ten people. But how does this affect a restaurant? Are servers counted among the ten, even though they are not always present on the patio? Until May 8, Ontario’s garden centres were limited to curbside pickup and delivery. Yet grocery stores, some of which also sold plants, could have customers walk through and smell the roses. Why the double standard?

And even if businesses follow the rules, how do they reassure clients that it is indeed safe to return? Medical professionals, many of whom can now resume their practices, face an uphill battle. Because of this pandemic, hospitals have seen a dramatic drop in emergency room visits. If people are not seeking help for serious issues including heart attacks and appendicitis, are they really going to get in the dentist’s or optometrist’s chair for a routine cleaning or eye exam?

And then there are employees. Unless they feel their workplace is safe, many may not report back. Some unions, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers’ union, which represents employees at the Cargill meat processing plant in Alberta, have sought stop work orders. In other cases, workers may choose to remain on CERB or student aid rather than risk workplace exposure to the virus. Labour now commands a premium, even though business income is down.

In this new environment, your business needs to do more than just reopen. It needs a reopening strategy. You need to anticipate the expectations of your customers and employees. You need creative thinking to outperform the competition — just because coffee shops can open does not mean clients will patronize your coffee shop. You need to know what will draw them in – and what risks might be keeping them away.

Think of the debate around masks. Will mandatory masks make customers feel safer in your establishment or simply put them off? Already two grocery chains, T and T and Longo’s, have announced that shoppers will need to cover their faces. Should your business follow suit – and if so, what will the protocol look like? Will clients be expected to purchase masks if they don’t have one? Will they be physically turned away if they refuse?

As with every successful strategy, the key is information. With it, you can avoid costly mistakes like a public relations disaster or spending on unnecessary precautions. Thorough research, including focus groups, polling and analysis, can help shape your road map to recovery. But how do you obtain this information, particularly if you are a small to medium sized business already closely watching your bottom line?

That is where strategy and public affairs firms can provide a distinct advantage. Because they work with clients across a variety of industries, public affairs firms can conduct multi-sector research which is cost-effective and comprehensive. They can tease out the information for a specific business without losing sight of the big picture. They monitor trends in government and the private sector which impact your industry. They can connect you with other firms or institutions looking for partnerships which could benefit your business in the short or long term. They can advise you on how to best engage your employees so they feel safe on their return to work – and choose to stay on the job.

This type of strategic thinking is also crucial for supply chain management, which can make or break your reopening strategy. The worst possible move is to over-promise and under-deliver. Getting back to garden centres, many of their websites in Ontario feature plants which are not yet available, due to backlogs in the supply chain. To keep money coming in the door, a company could offer incentives—such as free delivery or bonus items—for customers who pre-purchase certain products. This would set them apart from the competition, as well as avoid frustrating customers who assume the products are already in stock.

Finally, it is crucial to remember that reopening is not a one-shot deal. What works one week may not work the next, and your business must have the agility to pivot as the pandemic runs its course. You need strategies for today but also for tomorrow, including contingency plans in case you are forced to close shop again for a second wave of the virus. The right advisors can help navigate the “new normal”, keep your bottom line healthy and ensure your customers and employees are safe. Everyone can use a hand as we stay apart – but move forward – together.