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Local Business – Opportunity in Surviving COVID-19

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By Anurag Sangal

This piece is probably fueled by the Garhwal Post initiative to promote local brands.

Last week, there was a flurry of SMS and WhatsApp messages from our Local establishments, like –
“We are now Open; Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.”
“Ready to serve you again; Tue, Thu, Sat from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.”
This week, they generally changed to –
“Now Open all days of the week; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.”

And then I received this simple 2 minute video from the Kempegowda International Airport in Hyderabad; No, it is not open as yet. But the video message is so inviting and reassuring that I wish it was. The video just tells you how they are getting ready to Open; with great visuals and sub-titles – no voice over – of the detailed measures being put in place for our safety and convenience in the Corona times; my personal favourite is a Big Red Cross pasted on every alternate seat! Simple, direct and powerful.

Is there a learning there? For the Local to get Vocal about themselves? With the right message and strategy? To even survive before going Global?

The Message
Local and small businesses may not find the video as the most appropriate mode, but the message is no less important to them. In addition to taste, style, ambience, location, parking, branding and what have you, the new great differentiator for every consumer is safety; personal safety; safety from Corona when he steps out of his house and enters a shop or office. In these times, every consumer is bound to opt for and enter the shop and office that he ‘thinks’ is safe.

Our Local businesses need to make us ‘think’ that they are safe for us to enter and shop and do work with. It is not that they do not know the importance of being safe and/or are not taking measures to be safe. To the contrary, I am told of at least one popular place – which has always been smart and ahead of the times – that has taken exemplary measures beginning with compulsory thermal scanning on entry, etc. But there are many more that have to get their act together.

In addition to becoming safe; they must invest time and attention – and some money, too – in making us, the consumer, know and ‘think’ that they are safe. That ‘think’ safe is of critical importance; the wheels of my vehicle will automatically reach the place that is stored as safe in my mind. And opt out of other places. Save for the family Doctor, Chartered Accountant and the Hairdresser (seriously) everyone else is an easily replaceable destination; with the entire market open and offering more than one option to buy anything and everything, whether a product or service. If you don’t look after your customer and make him feel safe; someone else will.

The Strategy

Even though “Change is the only constant”, the human mind is inherently resistant to change and therefore, the biggest obstacle in implementing a new strategy. Even the most fancy of Business Executives like to implement strategies with a single order; that is simple – easy, one time decisions to make things happen. The problem arises when the success – or making it happen – of the strategy requires people to change their behaviour.

And, presently, this problem is compounded many times over for the businesses because while they struggle with the change for the requisite mind-set and/or behaviour of their staff, their consumer has already gone through the change of behaviour, automatically, rather naturally. This new behaviour of the consumer makes him expect a new business operating system and procedure; visible to be safe, always and every time. This is easier said than done.

Businesses are the sum total of their people – staff and customers; local businesses even more so; in fact, smaller the business, more the ‘people’ part in its total. The strategy to make it happen must include and address each and every ‘people’ in the business and their role in the warranted new business operating system.

The staff must be made to understand the reason and co-own the purpose of the new ‘safety procedures’ which may otherwise be a deterrent, slow down the system and reduce their productivity or just plain exasperate them with its requisite repetition. Professional training is known to make staff committed to the purpose by making them know how to contribute towards achieving that purpose. More so in the present times, when achieving that purpose is a daily journey and not a destination!

Customers are anyhow the wiser; even more in present times with their new outlook, behaviour and expectations. Earlier, they kept coming back for any number of reasons; today, you will have to remind them of all those reasons and more, to keep coming back. Engagement and conversation hold the key to building customer loyalty. Technology has levelled the playing field; it can be harnessed to build data bases; catch the customer in your computer the first time s/he comes in – whether a transaction is made or not; simple analytical tools will tell you preferences in addition to ‘celebration causa’ birthdays and anniversaries, etc. Hyderabad is not on my regular travel route; I do not even remember when I used that Airport last; must have used my mobile number and email to access the free WiFi; lo and behold, I receive their ‘We are getting ready for you’ video message. So powerful and impactful, that I actually want to visit to experience the new systems and procedures.

The Local Brand

A Brand is much more than its name and/or the particular way you write it or represent it by your Logo, to identify and differentiate the product from other products. A ‘good’ Brand is a holding out and a promise and a reassurance of that ‘certain’ kind of service or product identified and represented by it; and delivering upon it consistently, always and every time. In the new and increasingly competitive market of Corona times, the inclusion of the ‘safety’ attribute in the local Brand may give it a major differentiating edge.

There shall be an expectation of transparency in hygiene and cleanliness: businesses will have to be extremely mindful of the cleanliness and no compromise can be made on hygiene, while key operating things and areas will have to be sanitised.

Businesses may like to convey to their customers that they are adopting scientifically based cleaning, disinfection and infectious disease prevention procedures that will focus on establishing environments that are sanitary, safe and healthy.

Integrating this attribute of ‘safety’ in their belief, action and communication shall build and/or enhance their Brand – shop, office, product, service or what have you. It shall be gratifying and wonderful when a local water product can be talked of in the same light like as a ‘Bisleri’, that is sought after as ‘safe water’ in the plethora of other water bottles even when cheaper.

I remember reading somewhere, ‘If you do what you always did, you will get what you always got’.
These are different times, extraordinarily difficult, uncertain and unsafe for everyone; but the economic activity must continue, survive and flourish as it is the only elixir for the well being of the family and society. Local economic activity is critical to our region and with some focus on the Message, Strategy and Brand Building, who knows, we may soon see the Local going Global with us being Vocal about it.

(Anurag Sangal is a Chartered Accountant, Teacher, Education Development Consultant and Social Entrepreneur.)