Severe weather is bad news for UK business, especially SMEs. A loss of a week’s trading, or even longer, can cause revenues to freefall. Bad weather conditions could push a business that is on the brink, over the edge.
Business continuity problems come in many different shapes and sizes. Typically these problems are either technological, for example, a phone line crashing or an IT system failure, or caused by a human factor.
During winter the biggest challenge is that extremes of weather can mean that staff may be unable to access the business premises. In this case most organisations simply have to run at reduced capacity or, worse, shut down completely.
Those businesses that suffer are not alone. 66% of small businesses have been affected by flooding, water shortages or snow in the past three years and 13% reported being “seriously” impacted by heavy snowfall.
Trust your customers
While weather problems can halt any business in its tracks causing irate customers, it is much worse if those customers can’t get through to a busy phone line to find out what the problem is. A failure can be a devastating blow to a business but the knock out punch comes from a communications vacuum.
Customers can be surprisingly patient if they are updated of a problem and kept in the loop. This is especially true during periods of bad weather because they can empathise that the situation is out of a company’s control.
Sure, they might be frustrated and get a little angry, but in the cold light of day, customers are rational and realise that sometimes things are out of your control. It’s the times when customers are unable to speak to someone which are the most damaging to customer loyalty.
Severe weather plans
Yet, despite the experience of recent years, 59% of small businesses still have no severe weather contingency plans and, of those that do, how many include communication in their planning?
The good news is that there are simple changes SMEs can make to communication technology and their approach to contingency planning that will improve resilience and flexibility.
The first thing any small business must do is take time to prepare and plan for potential crises. It is key to role-play any potential problems and then identify strategies to mitigate the problem.
Three areas should be looked at: resilience (e.g. can systems take the strain in the event of a crisis?), recovery (e.g. what processes do we have in place to recover?) and contingency (e.g what contingency services does the business need?).
Managers need to ask themselves, “What will we do if the server goes down or a key application which is the backbone of the business?”, “What happens if a certain supplier lets us down which means that contract obligations can’t be fulfilled?”, “Who will answer the phones if our staff can’t get to work due to bad weather?”, “How will we handle big spikes in customer calls or inquiries?”
Once problems have been identified it is much easier to make plans to tackle these issues.
Many businesses now use cloud computing, virtual hosting services or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) which mean that staff can access their key applications and files from home should the office be out-of-bounds.
Call answering services are another handy solutions and can play a crucial role. By diverting phone lines to a call answering service, calls can be fielded by expert PAs who can explain the problem to customers, field messages, take critical information and either email or text messages onto staff, or divert calls to the right person. Far from being a impersonal service, all staff are trained to understand your business and they are so effective that some companies even use these services as their normal PA.
Once a contingency plan is formulated it is critical that staff are trained so they know what to do when a crisis arrives. At first a crisis, such as a bad weather event, might not appear to be a major issue. In fact snow days might appear to some members of staff as a novelty or an opportunity to take their foot off the gas.
There need to be metrics in place to understand when minor inconveniences become a crisis. Some sort of early warning system is needed to highlight problems early – maybe even before they occur. For example, how do you know that calls aren’t being answered? Do you know exactly how long customers are waiting on the phone? Who alerts management if IT systems are falling over? Someone should be in charge of business continuity and everyone in the business, from the top, to the shop floor, should know what to do.
Businesses need to be careful though. Business continuity issues don’t always occur during an obvious moment of crisis. Sometimes these issues occur during normal trading, completely out of sight and mind of senior management. For example where phone lines are busy for small short periods of the day, say over lunch or out of hours. It only takes one unanswered call to lose a sale, irritate a client or disrupt a complex manufacturing or supply chain process. These everyday issues are business continuity failures too.
Any company that leaves calls and email messages unanswered for even a few days is storing up problems from which it can take a long time – if ever – to recover. According to the FPB (Forum of Private Business) while a company is struggling to resume normal trading, dissatisfied clients, customers and partners can take their business elsewhere “leading to unsustainable losses and potentially undoing years of hard work spent building the business up”.
If SMEs start to think like corporates and start to think about every business continuity problem, no matter how small or large, then when crisis occurs they will be much better placed to avoid business Armageddon.