3rd August 2020

At Nottingham Business School we have continued to support businesses throughout the pandemic with our established programmes: Upscaler, Women in Leadership and the Big House, all of which have unique aims and initiatives, but share a common theme in helping businesses grow.

We quickly had to adapt these programmes for virtual, real-time delivery, and have now been continually supporting the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire business community online since March.

We’ve found that many local businesses have very specific challenges, but key themes are presenting themselves. Here’s what some businesses have told us they are struggling with during this time, and how we are helping to address them:

Taking the time to reflect and review

We’ve worked with businesses who have seen their leads and clientele dramatically decrease as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak. Whole industries suddenly paused, and their customers hesitated to buy, leaving our once busy clients with far more time on their hands than they would like. This led to feelings of redundancy about their work, and anxiety and confusion about what their next steps should be. Some have been re-evaluating their situation and finding their new place on the map.

Through the Big House programme, we’ve invited sole traders and freelancers in the creative and digital sectors to join us virtually on Microsoft Teams. We have also helped businesses to explore tools such as the Business Model Canvas and to refresh their value propositions, which we consider the essentials to pivoting and getting to grips with refocused services and offers.

Loneliness and the importance of candid communication in networking

Being on your own at the top can already be a lonely and daunting experience for small business owners, and unfortunately, the Coronavirus outbreak has only exacerbated this feeling. It is a novel experience and we are all uncertain in this, so it may feel natural to want to hold your cards close to your chest.

However, our remedy is to talk openly about your business in a supportive space with others, be it about challenges – or to share its successes. We encourage virtual business networking, through workshops, mentoring, or even better, facilitated peer learning group sessions. We invited participants to drive the sessions by choosing to address common challenges and discussion points that will empower everybody in the group. Participants use the GROW model (Goal, Reality, Options and Willingness) to build up action plans for their business with the help of others. The group continues to reconvene, with the intention that they will encourage each other and eventually begin to facilitate the session constructively amongst themselves.

Communication with key customers and suppliers

Our more established SME clients reflected on the benefits of keeping close to their most important customers and suppliers during a series of virtual lockdown workshops covering a range of topics including marketing communications and reducing supply chain risk. The UpScaler project helped 20 SMEs to focus on leading their way out of crisis, from which some key lessons were identified.

Mick Stoves, of scale-up marketing consultancy, M4G, spoke about communicating with customers. He suggested considering the challenges your clients, prospects and markets are going to face, post Coronavirus. Gain some insights, talk to customers and put yourselves in their shoes ready to develop your new and improved offers, ready to meet their needs as soon as the crisis starts to ease. In the process, let them know that you are there, resilient and ready to serve.

Rob Johnston, supply chain consultant, facilitated a dialogue about reducing supply chain risk. Rob recommended mapping key suppliers to make sure that your efforts are geared towards strengthening relationships with those that are most important to your business or would be hardest to replace. Working with suppliers is more likely to ensure consistent supply during and after the crisis, or at least facilitate good contingency planning. 

In summary, here are our top tips, which you should be doing now to help grow or pivot your business:

  • Network. Isolation can be difficult for business owners, so we encourage businesses to keep connecting and keep networking virtually. Sharing (virtually) with peers and advisors helps you to decide what to do next, identify your priorities and actions, and build your knowledge and capability to go forward.

  • Reflect. Take the time to review your business: its practices, its processes, and its proposition.

  • Working with suppliers and customers can keep you at the top of the list, ready for when you need to be able to respond.

By Dr Lynn Oxborrow, Principal Lecturer in Small Business and Supply Chain Management, and Mary Dansie, Business Growth Coordinator, The Big House, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.