• John Bell

Five Priorities for Small Business in the Next Normal

Updated: Nov 20, 2020



New normal, next normal, not-so-normal – however you see the changes to our lives and businesses, the affects will be lasting, even transformative. For small businesses, the whipsaw of opening and closing restrictions is its own challenge only to be followed by an urgent need to reinvent that business to grow and thrive in new circumstances.

Small business can use a simple framework to guide an anything-but-simple adjustment. By this time, many have wrestled with what it may take to reopen their business aligned with public health needs. How should that business change to do better? Different ordering and delivery – digital, wherever possible; streamlined and automated operations, even different products and services that are suddenly more relevant. While at Travelers, we developed the Reopen, Reinvent and Grow Business Guide to help small business owners with key steps along the way.

But what are the lessons for marketing in the next normal to help that reinvented business grow, not just endure? What is realistic for a resource-strapped small business to effectively market? McKinsey sees a greater challenge for small business:

“Around the world, economies are cautiously reopening. Businesses are keeping one eye firmly on the here and now but also tentatively looking ahead to what’s shaping up as a great reset…Small businesses will confront some of these problems. But much as Ginger Rogers danced the same steps as Fred Astaire—only backward and wearing high heels—small businesses must make the necessary changes at a greater relative cost and with less working capital.”

While it’s tough to generalize between the great variety of B2C, B2B and B2whatever businesses in terms of new practices to focus on, here are four lessons that may serve as a guide. Romance and serve your current customers Whether you are a local restaurant, a massage therapist, or a hardware wholesaler serving the trades, now is the time to accelerate how you connect with existing customers.  This goes beyond the adage that retaining your existing customers can be more profitable than acquiring new ones (although that does tend to be true).

In our recent consumer pulse surveys at Travelers, after COVID-19 and the economic impact, people are worried about the unknown. They need businesses they can trust and rely on. Many customers want to see the businesses they regularly buy from endure. 

A recent Salesforce consumer survey revealed:

“55% of respondents noted the top priority they want small businesses to focus on is to make them feel safe. While most state mandates have issued safety guidance for small businesses to follow (keep those masks on!), customers appreciate seeing small businesses go above and beyond to ensure proper sanitation and responsible social distancing.”

This remains true now - months into the pandemic. People want to know what a retail business, restaurant or, even, hardware store, is doing to keep the place clean and reduce customers’ risks. With so much confusion from federal, state and local government and a lack of consensus about something as clear as wearing masks, people want reassurance that a local business is taking reasonable steps to try to keep them safer.


While no small business, Starbucks knows what it takes to build trust in their communities. Their blog is full of ways to help their customer cope with what’s going on and more confidently buy from Starbucks:

Now is the time to show you care about your customers based upon their concerns.


Create regular, meaningful and increasingly personalized communications with them Customers and agents want to know what you are doing to serve them and about relevant offers and services. Email marketing and organic social media marketing help you keep in touch. While these channels serve known customers (or agents) best, certainly organic social media (non-paid) also reaches prospects and communities. (According to a Salesforce survey, social media usage spiked — 54% of consumers noted spending more time on social media services, some with an increase as high as 25% as compared to pre-COVID times.)

Hartford Prints is a small design and printing retailer based in Hartford, CT. They are a quintessentially local business and retail storefront. With the lockdown, they had to figure out how to remain relevant. They serve up weekly emails to customers with timely offers, news about their community commitments and new offers like virtual classes.  They stuck to their knitting – going beyond selling letterpress cards to actual customer printing and mailing for customers.

At Travelers, we delivered personalized emails to our agents featuring useful content for their small and medium-sized business customers. Articles like: “Employee Training to Consider During COVID-19” and “Should You Pivot Your Business Model?” aim to help businesses with valuable content that’s a bit different than a lot of the same content being delivered out there. Quality over quantity. Everyone is overloaded with email and other digital communications. Building a steady cadence of genuinely valuable, highly relevant, personalized content is more important than delivering a high volume of content.


Build your 1st party data to personalize and market to your customers and sales agents This is foundational. That means it won’t feel that good doing it until you start applying it to marketing and achieving results. 1st party data is just the data you own about your customers – who they are, how to contact them, what they have bought, what they care about and more. It’s what makes personalized marketing even possible, and it’s the future of marketing.  If there is one thing that vexes non-digitally native companies big and small, it’s catching up on managing the data they have on their customers. Small business can leapfrog ahead and start collecting your customer information in a methodical way. You can do this via a simple CRM system or an email marketing platform.

  • Always get your customer’s email address(es)

  • Collect phone and text information as well as their contact preferences

  • Connect their contact information with purchase history

  • Allow for these customer data profiles to grow over time to include preferences, interests and other future information

Collect regular feedback and insights from your prospects and customers The consumer pulse surveys at Travelers helped us understand how people’s outlook changes over time. One of the top three concerns in the Spring had been the fear of the unknown. When uncertainty rules the day, it’s difficult to know when folks are ready to shop and buy or move ahead with that project. It’s hard to know just what they’re worried about, and it can change from day to day.

Andrew Reid, CEO Rival Technologies, summed this up in an article in Entrepreneur:

“Now is not the time to rely on assumptions. Any data you have from 6 weeks ago—let alone 6 months ago—is already out of date.”

Whether you have the capacity for regular surveys, analysis of call center logs or simply ask 1-2 questions following a transaction, getting real time feedback from customers will help guide your activity today and tomorrow. No business wants to appear tone-deaf to community or customer concerns. Regular feedback can help tell you how you can best communicate not just what you communicate. Upgrade your digital customer experience While obvious, it may be hard for smaller businesses to spend more to get a better Web site or experience. All I can say is try. People are adopting new digital habits for the long haul. That dodgy online ordering service can undermine your revenue.  

Aim towards a ‘friction-free’ way to get answers to prospects and customers, order and deliver products and services. Nothing alienates new, digitally native customers more than a crappy Web experience. The world just got suddenly more digital. Given choice and limited dollars to spend, many customers won’t do business with a company that hasn’t made their digital experience a seamless one.

Here are some simple suggestions:

If your goal is ecommerce (sales):

  • Create a more seamless purchase flow

  • Allow customers to get fulfillment alerts via any channel (e.g. SMS, Email)

  • Drive customers to enrollment in CRM for future marketing

If you are driving leads:

  • Work with custom landing pages so you can personalize the experience from ads and emails

  • Integrate interactions into campaign management (email+) & CRM system to re-market

If you want to improve consideration for your brand/company:

  • Do ongoing SEO research to better understand what people are looking for now

  • Publish better and more useful content to help them with current challenges

  • Always include clear calls-to-action (CTAs) to drive them to a next action


[This post originally published at The Digital Influence Mapping Project}

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