The coronavirus pandemic has placed an enormous strain on businesses of all sizes, with many forced to enter a period of hibernation and others closing the doors of their ‘bricks and mortar’ shops for good.
As the restrictions begin to ease and business owners look to reopen, there are fears that many of the challenges that came with the slowdown could linger, driven by the changes that were thrust on to consumers who were forced to change their usual shopping patterns.
Amid the unprecedented impact on business, opportunities have arisen for many to adapt to survive, and, in some cases, thrive.
Management lecturer at Federation University Australia’s Business School, Ben Wills, said the COVID-19 crisis provided an opportunity for businesses to get thinking about entrepreneurship and innovation.
Dr Wills and Professor Christina Lee, Dean of the Federation Business School, recently presented a webinar with Commerce Ballarat, offering insights on entrepreneurship and marketing, and their implications for business.
“We essentially posed the idea that entrepreneurship is the search for a viable business model and for many businesses, their current business model has been rendered unviable in this environment, so it's forcing many people into that mode of entrepreneurship where they're out there searching and testing and trying to build a viable model,” Dr Wills said.
“And for those that have been in ‘hibernation’ where they haven't been able to keep going at some modified or lesser level, maybe it's something that they should be thinking about as well, in terms of can they modify their offering in some way and get it out there.”
Key to this is understanding how their market has changed and how their consumers are modifying their behaviour, while at the same time empathising with their customers’ situation.
Tools such as ‘empathy mapping’ can be a useful way for businesses to work to get a clearer picture of what is happening for their consumers, how to help them and add value for them.
“Empathy mapping is a discrete activity. Essentially there's a canvas that has a number of dimensions. For example, it challenges you to go through and consider what it is that your consumer is thinking at any point. So you would essentially have a persona of a typical consumer that you might give a name and a few biographical details about, and go through a number of categories – what is she saying, what is she thinking, what is she doing, what is she feeling, for example,” Dr Wills said.
“Then you might verbalise the things that you think they might say and then what is the internal dialogue – what are the things that they're doing, that they are changing.”
Dr Wills said the upheaval in the industry meant now might be a good time to consider focusing on a minimum viable product, rather than needing to have a fully functioning “bells and whistles” new business model up and running.
“If you get an inkling of something that you think might work with a change direction, then going out there and trying it and trying to build something that works at a basic level initially is a good way to go, to get your toe in the water so to speak,” Dr Wills said.
“We see it in businesses like pubs and dining, the higher-end dine-in restaurant transitioning to take away sales. This wasn't a market they previously explored before but through necessity and inclination they're having a go at it, or they’re moving their business, or some level of their business, into an online environment.
“Essentially these businesses are focusing on trying to deliver an offer that works at a basic level and after you've achieved that, you can then build from there and make it more elaborate, make it more functional.” Dr Ben Wills
Professor Lee said marketing was key for businesses to stay connected with their customers and to maintain their brand presence.
But the key question for businesses was whether marketing was viewed as a function or a philosophy.
“To me, marketing is a philosophy, a mindset, a perspective, whatever you’d like to call it – viewing marketing as a philosophy centres our business on fulfilling customers’ needs. If you view marketing as a function, I think you'll be really frustrated because you haven’t been able to do a lot of the things that you normally do, especially for businesses who are totally reliant on physical presence or a physical contact with the customers,” Professor Lee said.
“That transactional, very functional view just suggests that if I don't have anything of value to give to my customers, they're not going to give me anything back. It's all about a relationship between you and your customers and if you view it as that, I think you begin to see there are a whole lot of different things you can do at this time with your customers.”