Coronavirus emergency action plan: Stage 1

A top-level guide to formulate your strategic response to COVID-19.

by Andy Clayton
Last Updated: 23 Mar 2020

COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the business landscape. There is no business not affected by it. Some of those changes may be temporary, while some present long-term opportunities and challenges.

Either way, the question we all face is: how to respond?

Response Strategies

The strategy you adopt will depend on your industry and how the pandemic affects your market. Like any shift, there are natural winners and losers from the COVID-19 epidemic. Each has its own maximisation strategy:

Beneficiary

Sectors such as medical, online, and providers of virtual services are enjoying a boom right now. Take the Cambridge Mask company, run by CEO Chris Dobbing. Their single issue in this situation is how to ramp up production in order to meet supply. We have clients in sectors diverse as tinned food, hospital AI, and medical partitions, who are all experiencing spikes in demand.

Disrupted

This is where most companies sit. The temptation for these businesses is, like a turtle facing danger, to retract and sit it out. However, this approach foregoes opportunity, and leaves spaces for nimble competitors to occupy.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit China, some companies were quick to respond, and able to turn the situation to their advantage. For example, the dairy producer Yili, realising that people were no longer going to coffee shops, heavily promoted their ready-to-drink coffee range for home consumption instead.

Harmed

Some sectors are being hit very hard. Anyone with a business in travel, events, hospitality or tourism is facing an existential crisis right now. Similarly, offline retail is experiencing a heady mix of spikes in certain products and collapse in others. Some of the most badly affected sectors could have to wait until the fourth quarter of this year for a recovery, according to a recent impact assessment from Boston Consulting Group on the impact of COVID-19.

The response strategy you adopt will depend on which of these categories you are in. Here is a high-level guide to your approach:

BeneficiaryDisruptedHarmed
Offensive

Identify and rapidly remove bottlenecks, e.g. production and marketing capacity. Be prepared to throw money at problems and take forceful, executive action.

Brainstorm with the team and customers to find opportunity. Shift or develop products and services to reflect new demand, such as virtual services.

N/A.
DefensiveAnticipate the demand curve to be careful of over-production or over-capacity.Finance team to remodel forecasts and update cashflow planning. Immediate cost review.Immediate, significant cost reduction, and application for support. Cash is king.

Your first response

The first thing any company needs to do is to assemble the team, in order to establish a response strategy, ensuring there is someone responsible for leading efforts to handle the firm’s response. Reassure everyone that you will all get through this period together. Emphasise your company values to show how they will guide your response. 

Your next task is to focus on preparing the team for remote working, including:

-- Confirm the technology platforms you will use, specifically for video conference calls, and task management 

-- Communication rhythms. When people are working from home, it’s especially important to give their day and week structure and rhythm, and to ensure communication is maintained, such as through a daily huddle

-- Confirming policies on travel, sick pay, and working schedules

-- The priority is to make sure that people maintain alignment and focus. 

Once these basics are in place, you can then consider your strategic response to the situation, which will depend on industry, and can be divided into offensive and defensive strategies.

Offensive Strategies

Consider a couple of key questions: ‘Where do the opportunities lie in this situation for you?’, and ‘How do you need to amend your strategy in order to be of value to customers in these new times?’

Your business strategy needs to update based on this situation. This includes which products you promote, how you communicate to the market, and your production and supply chain strategy.

Market shifts

COVID-19 has a huge impact on people’s behaviour. Schools and offices close, people are being encouraged to ‘socially distance’, and many families end up stuck at home. Think about what this will mean for your customers: teams working remotely, products and services (from counselling to cookery classes) being delivered online rather than purchased in person, and people being highly conscious of their health.

Key question: ‘What changes in customer behaviour do you observe, and how do you need to respond?’

Marketing & sales channels

How you communicate with your customers during this period will have to change. Marketing is about following eyeballs, and they have moved. Reduce external communications, such as billboards, and focus on on-line and direct-to-home. 

Here is an example of how US chocolate company Hershey’s amended their marketing communications in China, in response to this shift (courtesy Hershey's/Petra Coach):

The same is true for sales channels. Based on changing patterns of customer purchase, such as increase in home delivery, do you need to open new sales channels in order for people to purchase from you?

Key Questions: ‘How do you need to shift marketing and sales channels in order to match changing customer behaviour patterns?’

Products and services

Given changes in your customers’ situation, can you amend or update your products and services to best meet this need? For example, if you are a services business do you have, or can you quickly develop, a virtual version of your service to offer to customers?

For example, Tencent is a large Chinese provider of online and mobile services, such as the dominant mobile platform WeChat. They have used the recent shift in the market to optimise and promote their video conferencing platform ‘Tencent Meeting’.

Key questions: ‘Which of your products or services will be most relevant at this time? Are there products in development or mothballed that would fit the new environment? Do you need to re-package or emphasise different elements of the product range?’

CSR

This is a time not just to worry about your own situation, but also to reach out to help those in more dire straits. 

Take the example of Yan Zhi,  the richest man from Hubei province, heart of the original epidemic. He mobilised his team and company to purchase and fly in enough supplies to construct an entire quarantine facility.

It’s not just the recipients that benefit from this. It mobilises the team, and shows the world that you care and are willing to help when help is required.

There has been an outpouring of such support across China, with companies donating money, materials, and all forms of support to areas most stricken.

Key question: ‘Who can you help, and how?’

Defensive

You have to ensure that the business survives this period with its core intact, so that you can bounce back when normal trading conditions return. This means taking action across several fronts:

Costs

Re-assess budgets. Review cost items and make difficult decisions fast. Remember that cash is absolutely king in these situations, and ensuring a strong cash runway is paramount.

Key Question: ‘Which costs can we eliminate in order to extend our cash runway?’

Supply chain

Plan inventory levels and prepare to increase stock levels to avoid supply chain disruption. Identify and anticipate bottlenecks. Reach out to suppliers to confirm their situation; if necessary identify and contact alternatives

Key Question: ‘Where is our single largest point of risk in our supply chain?’

Build relationships

Now is the time to reach out to customers, suppliers and partners to understand how this situation is affecting them, and share what changes you’re making to help. If partners are struggling and you’re able to help, such as with payment terms, now is the time to do that.

Key Question: How is this affecting our partners, suppliers, and customers?

Andy Clayton is lead coach, Europe at Petra Coach. He previously lived and worked for 15 years in China

Image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

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