COVID-19 Retail Store Closure Sign Credit: Tanya Thompson

12 Survival Tips for Small Business during the COVID-19 crisis

Business Management

Starting in October 2019, I was attending a six month training programme offered by ISME (i.e., the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association) on helping business owners and managers to develop and put in place a practical strategy for transforming their businesses. The Transform Your Business workshop was led by Damien O'Brien of SME Matters, who has spent years in helping business owners and managers of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to grow their companies.

So, why did my business partners and I choose to attend this workshop you ask? With two small businesses and other personal obligations, we find ourselves constantly distracted by the many different things that we need to do on a day-to-day basis. In practice, we often divert a bit from our long-term plans, which inevitable hurts our business. We wanted to use these Transform Your Business workshops to keep us diligent in sticking to our plans, so that we could properly launch and grow our Sluamor platform. And, thankfully it worked, until we were faced with a new distraction, and the biggest we've ever encountered in our careers. You all know what I'm talking about. Yes, it's the COVID-19 crisis that's affecting us all across the world.

As it turned out, our last training session was scheduled for the end of March. It was to be held:

  • One month after the first report of a COVID-19 case on the island of Ireland;
  • Two weeks after the first reported death;
  • Two weeks after school closures in the Republic of Ireland, and the announcement of the Irish government's recommendation that we all work from home in-so-far as possible.

As such, Damien scrambled to make arrangements to support our Transform Your Business group via a webinar using an online video-conferencing platform.

By the time of our training session, it was absolutely clear that a lot of us as SMEs were going to suffer for the next foreseeable future. Our objectives had quickly shifted from business growth to business survival. Some of us felt a loss of all possible sources of income in less than a day. Thankfully, as an SME himself, Damien focused our discussion on how our individual businesses were being affected. In addition, using our collaborative experience and knowledge, he identified actions that we could all take in our efforts to survive the inevitable economic recession.

The following are the 10 practical tips that Damien shared with our group of 11 SME's after the webinar, with a touch of artistic license applied by me. Hopefully, some of these tips will prove invaluable to you in helping your business to survive the coming months.

1. Cash is King

  1. Quickly doing all you can to secure any cash owed to you is key to the survival of most businesses just now. Work with your customers to ensure a continuation of payment even if it means stretching out the payment terms.
  2. Borrow enough money to balance your shortfall in working capital. Most governments have put facilities in place to support businesses. For example, in Ireland, you could check out the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland (SBCI), and the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation (DBEI). You can also talk directly with your bank.
  3. Move old stock, even if you have to take a haircut on it. It's now better as cash, rather than sitting on a shelf. Have open dialogue with your own suppliers to get extended payment terms.
  4. Review your Direct Debits. If you plan to cancel any, talk to the supplier first and let them know. You may be able to come to an arrangement to get a continued service but with different payment terms. Most will understand and appreciate this, as they are probably doing this themselves.
  5. Talk to your landlord about a rent break. It’s worth asking. Many businesses have already secured this.
  6. See if you can file your returns without paying. Some governments, including Ireland, have put such measures in place to help businesses in their country.

2. Reinvent yourselves

  1. If you haven't done so, have a pow-wow session with your staff to focus on short-term revenue making opportunities. Seriously revisit your delivery model if needed. Don't exclude your staff, they'll be happy to help so that they guarantee their jobs both during and after the COVID-19 crisis, when the situation could get incredibly bleak. Where possible, find new ways to offer your products and/or services to your customers. Develop alternative options if needed. If you're left with nothing, at least find ways to stay relevant to them. Doing so could be critical in retaining their business once you're able to get back on your feet.
  2. Many have already found innovative ways to cope with the new ways of working that we've been forced into because of the COVID-19 crisis. For example:
    1. Training companies are running webinars or webcasts instead of face-to-face training sessions.
    2. Distilleries are producing hand sanitisers.
    3. Retailers and restaurants are providing home delivery or call-and-collect services.
    4. Night clubs and entertainers are offering online parties.
  3. Once you've nailed down your new delivery model, share it with your target market.

3. Reduce your headcount

  1. We all know that last thing you want to do is let staff go. You have spent a lot of time getting your workforce to where it is but this is an exceptional time. However, in order to survive, you need to make decisions that can guarantee that people have a business to return to after the lockdown period. Meet with your staff frequently to keep them updated on the company position. Be honest with them, let them know how long your existing cash flow will last.
  2. Email all your staff to explain the measures that you are taking to deal with the crisis and how it might affect them. Let them know that you are making taking these steps to ensure there is a business to return to when all of this passes.
  3. Call your staff to follow up and answer as best you can the questions they have. Remember, you won’t have all the answers and don’t be afraid to let them know that is the position. Reassure them that you will do everything possible to secure the business and have jobs for them as soon as possible.
  4. Review your staff requirements, and make the decisions early about those that will need to be put on temporary layoff. Let them know how to access to any available government supports. Support them with their applications for such support.
  5. Meet with any and all of your employees that you will be putting on short term lay off. Call them individually, or use online technology (e.g., WhatsApp, Skype, Google Meet, Zoom, Cisco WebEx). Let them know how to access to any available government supports.
  6. For your staff who will be staying, ensure that they are clear on their priorities while working from home. Touch base with them regularly, daily if required.
  7. Use any available government supports for subsidising staff who you plan to keep on the payrol.
  8. Ensure that you always get any advice you need from your Accountant / Legal Consultant.

4. Keep your remaining staff productive

  1. Ensure that you have a mechanism for checking in on the progress of staff that you'll be retaining, especially those who'll be working from home. Get continual updates on staff workloads. Mobilise your management team. You need to be there to support your workers as required.
  2. If there is talent inside your organisation that you can use for developing content for marketing your essential services, set them to work. Get them to write blogs, record vlogs, create white papers or industry knowledge pieces, and prepare and run your social media or email campaigns.
  3. Put in place a business transformation program that either focuses on revenue growth, cost reduction, and/or business efficiency depending on your ability to meet the company's cashflow requirements. Don't just plan for supporting the business during the COVID-19 panademic lockdown. Think ahead to when it's finally behind us.

5. Develop a clear message for how you will support your customers.

  1. We are all looking to those we trust for guidance, support and advice and we need to know there are companies we can still rely on to deliver.
  2. Prepare your message on how the business can support your customers. For some businesses, you may not know this just yet. However, while you're rethinking your go-to-market strategy, you can still let your customers know that you're working on developing options, and possibly the options you're considering. They may even help you in making your decision.
  3. Get your key staff to review and edit your message, once you are happy.
  4. Send out your message to your customer base via your website and email.

6. Educate your staff about the virus to keep them safe.

In Ireland, the government has issued some useful information about COVID-19, how to identify the symptoms, how to protect yourself and those around you, how testing is carried out, and what they are doing to protect us all. This valuable information can be found in locations such as the following:

  1. On the Department of Health's (DOH's) YouTube channel.
  2. On the HSE's website.
  3. On Irish government's central portal for government services and information.
  4. On the DOH's section of the Irish government's portal.

You can check out information issued by organisations who monitor the COVID-19 crisis across the world, and provide supporting guidelines for countries to follow.

  1. The World Health Organisation.
  2. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Key statistics can be found on:

  1. Worldometer.
  2. The Irish government's central portal.

7. Focus on Cost Reduction

  1. Set up a task force with 2 or more of your employees to look at each of the company outgoings and assess its importance.
  2. Identify costs that can be reduced and action immediately.
  3. Get progress updates every other day.

8. Focus on your current customers

  1. Account Management is the practice of consolidating and growing your existing accounts. In this climate, most of us will all probably be settling for consolidation.
    1. Tier your clients strategically into 5 tiers, based on how much they spend with you and their strategic importance to the business.
    2. Allocate a member of your sales team to each account from Tier 1 – 3, and centralise the support of your Tier 4 & 5 customers.
    3. Start calling your Tier 1 – 3 customers to see how you can support them.
    4. Work with your Tier 1 – 3 customers in terms of payments and ordering.
    5. Remember not to overlook government contracts. They are typically a very reliable source of income. Check out any relevent government tendering platforms for your business to see if there any bid opportunities available to you. Think you can meet some but not all of the requirements, add a pitch on to find any companies willing to partner with you.
  2. Crank up your marketing machine, and if you don’t have one, get one.
    1. Start communicating with your customers more regularly with the support services you are offering. There are lots of great email and CRM tools out there (e.g., Mailchimp, Hubspot, Agile, Zoho). Don't forget the social media channels.
    2. Push the hard sell, offer support and guidance, and show where your products or services can help.
    3. There are lots of newly laid off marketing people looking for work! Ask your network to make recommendations, or use to find the right marketing firm for your business.
  3. Remember, the more sticky you are, the harder it is for them to do without you.

9. Protect your cashflow with strategic pricing

  1. Are you in a very competitive market? Critically assess your business to determine your customers' willingness or ability to pay for the products and/or services you offer. Adjust prices as needed, bearing in mind your cost price and overheads. But, don't try to exploit your customers. Price gouging is illegal in most countries.
  2. Once you've decided on your offering, communicate these price changes to your staff and customers.
  3. Where price changes are deemed to be appropriate, communicate the changes with employees on the front line to ensure that they can explain the reason for the changes to customers. Bear these new prices in mind as you develop your marketing strategy.

10. Never waste a crisis

    1. Remember all the strategic plans you said you would make when you had time! Most business owners and managers have been working extremely hard to stabilise their businesses as best they can. However, once this period is over, there will be more time available for you to sit down and reflect on the plans you had for the business. Develop these plans and start putting them into action. Address the areas of your business that needed attention long before this crisis occurred. Do this, even if at the moment, you're relying solely on yourself to keep the business alive.
    2. As above, use the time to create your marketing plans, set up your online presence, commercialise your content online, research your existing customers and /or the customers you would like to have when all this is over, develop better sales collateral or processes, invest in your CRM, research foreign markets, and so on.
    3. The list can be endless, so my advice is to pick 3 Strategic actions and break them down into action plans. Take the actions you will complete and then delegate the remainder to those working from home. Treat them like separate / mini projects. Put realistic timelines on them with clear objectives. Make it happen! This type of focus will yield results over the long term.
    4. You can also use the opportunity to indulge in those various training sessions that you've always been too busy to do. For example, click here to learn more about the training courses offered by ISME to SMEs in Ireland. Some of these are currently FREE or heavily discounted. Take advantage while you can.

11. Know your supports and use them!

The Irish Government have great supports in place:

      1. The COVID-19 Income Support Scheme announced on 24 March.
      2. Investment And Working Capital Loans available with the SBCI's support.
      3. COVID1-19 supports referenced on the DBEI's webiste.
      4. Frequently asked questions and answers shared by the HSE and the HPSC via the Local Enterprise portal.
      5. Business Supports suggested by the Local Enterprise Office.
      6. A list of essential retail outlets provided by the Irish government portal.
      7. Details of the COVID-19 Employer Refund Scheme announced by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
      8. Details of the COVID-19 Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme issued by the Revenue Commissioner.
      9. Frequently asked questions and answers on the COVID-19 Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme provided by the Revenue Commissioner.
      10. Business continuity checklists for business to consider as issued by DBEI.

12. Look after your mental health

      1. It’s a stressful time so make sure you take some time for yourself.
      2. Start some form of Mindfulness.
        1. Concentrate - focus on one task and allow it to fill all your senses (i.e., Hear, Feel, Taste, See, Smell). For example, make lunch, play with your kids, or watch nature. This will stop noise from other events crowding your thoughts and give your mind a break.
        2. Create a board of all the things that make you smile and refer to it often.
        3. Spend time in nature. Nothing gets you relaxed more quickly than a walk, especially if you're lucky to be able to do so in the forest, on the beach, or on a country lane. Enjoy the quiet time.
      3. There are great mindfulness apps. Try one such as Calm.
      4. If it all gets too much, talk to someone you trust.
      5. Check out my Tips For Working From Home blog for more advice.


We wish you all the best during this most challenging time. We sincerely hope that most of us will still be in business when we finally return to norm. However, we need to be prepared for the worst, and take this into account as we prepare our business survival plan. There are many indicators predicting that it could be a very long run before some sense of normalcy returns for most businesses.

Remember, if you're looking to find new business partners to forget ahead in these unprecedented times, look no further than We'll help you to find partners for new business development ventures, and to obtain or provide products and/or support services.

Also, thanks once again to Damien O'Brien of SME Matters for allowing me to share these tips with you all, and the rest of my fellow Transform Your Business workshop participants for their contributions.

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