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5 Ways to Become a Stronger Business Amidst Crisis



October 20, 2020 8 min read

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Many companies, both large and small, are understandably focused on surviving the global health crisis. It’s a rational fear — it’s an invisible bugaboo that nobody seems to know much about — but smart business people aren’t as worried about the NOW and are more concerned with emerging from adversity stronger, more flexible, and robust with a clear business advantage.

For many professionals, looking past the global health crisis is too enigmatic. It seems impossible to predict the future and therefore pointless to try to plan for what is essentially un-plannable. But several smart entrepreneurs are already making the strategic moves to emerge as juggernauts. Here are just some of the things that they are doing that you can do too:

Train your staff

Training is one of those things that businesses always seem to struggle with. Either there is plenty of money and no time for training, or there is no money but plenty of time for training. Unfortunately, there is never a time when there is plenty of money and plenty of time for training. Effectively training employees creates a safer, high-performance workforce with engaged employees. Training is an investment in your staff and one that will pay off beyond your wildest expectations. Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to train your supervisors and managers in addition to your front-line workers. And speaking of investing in workers…

Related: How to Manage During A Crisis: Sort Everything Into “Now, Next, or Later”

Invest in your staff

I’ve interviewed hundreds of CEOs and asked each of them for five bits of advice they wish someone had given them before they led their companies. One of the more consistent responses was, “hire slowly, then fire quickly.” That may sound like the anathema of investing in your staff but in reality, it is a huge investment in getting the right people. Hiring slowly takes a lot of preparation — like crafting job descriptions such that they describe not just the skills a person must have but also traits an individual must possess to enjoy the job and thrive in the position. In too many cases companies wait too long to pull the trigger on hiring and find themselves behind the proverbial eightball. Business surges and the companies find themselves desperately trying to find “a body.” If you are looking for the talent you need to anticipate your future needs and start looking to fill positions BEFORE you need them urgently. If you think hiring slowly is expensive you ought to consider the price of firing too slowly. An incompetent, belligerent, or just plain cultural misfit that is allowed to spread the fertilizer of a dysfunctional culture can do an incredible amount of damage in a relatively short time. From driving away top-performing employees to losing key accounts, the longer it takes to weed out the bad actors the damage they do grows exponentially. And while you are handing out pink slips, take a hard look at your supervisors and HR department. They hired and managed these bad actors and they bear at least a modicum of culpability.

The term, “unicorn” is recruiter-speak for the candidate that just doesn’t exist; people who have diverse talents, lengthy experience, and a willingness to work for a wage that is not commensurate with their qualifications. They’re called unicorns because they don’t exist. But unicorns can be developed. Your company can be filled with unicorns —well almost. Because highly skilled and experienced employees can easily find work elsewhere it’s not enough to develop one and then try to shame them into staying. They deserve to be paid what they are worth and if you aren’t willing to pay the appropriate wage someone else will. This is a double-edged sword: You lose one of your top performers who, like it or not, will end up working for your competition.

Related: How to Survive a Crisis as an Entrepreneur

Focus on customer service

We don’t know what the future holds, but two things are certain: Conditions will disrupt our operations, and people will judge us by how efficiently we react to the disruption. Cutting our service and reacting to customer complaints by shrugging and saying, “what do you want, it’s a health crisis” is wrong-headed and short-sighted. Whenever your problems become the customer’s problems you are doomed to abject failure. Customers always have options — even if that option is to do without what the goods or services they are seeking. When businesses ignore the fact that customers have choices (often many choices) some sharp entrepreneurs will ultimately step up to the challenge and fill the void.  Focusing on customer service — making your goal not only to satisfy the customer but also to delight the customer — is the single most effective thing you can do now. Satisfied customers will turn away from you as soon as you cease to satisfy them, but delighted customers will not only stand by you but they will also evangelize FOR you. They will tell their friends and even strangers what a great company you are.

Use this crisis to identify and correct system flaws

For the most part, the global health crisis isn’t the reason companies are struggling. Sure there are government restrictions that may put the proverbial fly in the ointment, but, by and large, the biggest complaints people have is poor execution by the companies. Little things like a four-hour wait for a pizza delivery, getting the wrong order from a website after waiting six weeks for delivery, or a marked degradation in the quality of goods or services are opportunities to improve. I care less about whether or not a restaurant employee has touched my pizza than I do that I have to wait for half a workday to get my dinner. 

Even many of the companies who should have shined during the global health crisis just plain blew it. Manufacturers of everything from hand sanitizer to masks to toilet paper were unable to meet a major surge in demand. Now ask yourself this: What would you do if, overnight, there was a major surge in the demand for your products or services? Would you be nimble enough to expand your capacity without making major infrastructure improvements? Would you be able to outsource your additional business to other companies while still ensuring quality? Is your supply chain capable of increasing your orders on short notice? In short, would you be able to meet the surge in demand in such a way that it would be invisible to your customers?

Now is the time to inventory all of the limitations of your current business systems and fix them so that in the wake of the next disaster — whatever that may be — you have contingency plans that you can execute at a moment’s notice.

Foment loyalty

Business people bemoan the lack of employee loyalty when they themselves, acting out of greed, chose to put profits over people. Yes, corporate boards have a responsibility to act in the best interests of their stockholders, but building a company of employees who are empowered and fiercely loyal to their employers tends to build a customer base that is also fiercely loyal to your business and your brand. This loyalty is priceless and is far more valuable in the long term than the profits shown on your quarterly report. Pay a livable wage. Reverse the 50-year trend of boosting profits by stealing employee benefits. Happy and loyal customers translate into efficiency and ultimately larger profits.

Related: 5 Lessons That Will Help Your Business Get Through a Crisis

But better treatment (and thus retention) of your employees isn’t enough, you also have to foment customer loyalty. Begin by sincerely thanking your existing customers for their patronage during the global health crisis. Make them feel appreciated. Don’t get so wrapped up in your own financial turmoil that you forget that many and most of your customers are feeling a financial pinch as well. Without the twin loyalties of your staff and your customers, you have already failed. Think of ways to show your customers and your employees that you recognize that they are the two things that keep your business afloat. And don’t just give it lip service, recognize it, ponder it until you see the absolute truth behind it.



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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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