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How Data Can Power Businesses Through the COVID-19 Crisis

Organizations have been forced to pivot, but instead of seeing this as a cost of the pandemic, companies should treat the new stream of opportunities as a chance to generate growth.

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In times of crisis, decisions need to be better informed than ever before. This means bringing data into the picture to allow organizations to understand both the internal and external factors that could influence the path they take going forward. Making these insights comprehensible and cohesive for everyone through a visual analysis, no matter how data-literate they are, is vital to making sure they are actioned.

At Gramener, we wanted to uncover the level of preparedness of small businesses to COVID-19. We partnered with the NJ Tech Council to issue weekly surveys to business leaders and have compiled a summary of their responses in the form of different data visualizations. These insights, which are updated weekly, show how hard small businesses were hit by the pandemic and the swift actions they planned to maintain business continuity and growth.

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Looking ahead to the future, these businesses and others around the world must leverage data to inform the right decisions now and spot the opportunities for future growth. Let’s dive into what COVID-19 has meant for the small business community and the steps they can take going forward.

COVID-19 Was a Bolt From the Blue for Small Businesses

While experts have been warning the world about the potential of a contagious disease outbreak for years, few institutions or organizations, from governments to startups, had prioritized preparation for such an eventuality.

The small business community was caught off-guard by the fast-developing coronavirus pandemic and were, on the whole, unprepared for what it meant. The surveys found that 63 percent of those businesses did not have a business continuity plan before the outbreak and 34 percent were still not ready or creating one at the time of the survey.

While 18 percent of organizations surveyed have already reduced their workforce, the majority of the rest have no plans to make immediate layoffs. However, other drastic measures have taken place that may influence the post-crisis new normal: 57 percent of businesses now have a 100 percent remote workforce, while 64 percent of these are expecting to remain 100 percent remote for the foreseeable future.

In terms of technology that has aided remote work efforts, Zoom was found to be the most popular tool for small businesses, with Microsoft Teams, and Webex being a favorite for mid-sized companies. However, a lot of technology is still missing for small businesses: 75 percent of those asked said that work could be made more efficient with better bandwidth which could be delivered by 5G, while others said technology such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) would help them work from home more effectively.

Leveraging Data to Weather the Crisis and Come Out Stronger

Now that the pandemic has hit, businesses are pivoting their strategies and making vital decisions to ensure that they alleviate its impact as much as possible. What kind of approach is likely to stand small businesses in the best stead when it comes to maintaining continuity and emerging even stronger?

Small businesses are always faced with the challenge of choosing to focus on growth versus profitability. However, right now, it’s key that they maintain a healthy cash flow to see them through the next 12 months, with the hope that markets will stabilize sooner rather than later.

So, how can data help them along this path?

Stabilizing cash flow might mean making tough decisions, such as salary reductions and cuts to expenditures deemed “non-essential.” By harnessing the power of past company data, businesses can create cash flow simulations and scenario modeling to understand how to plan business operations and ensure positive cash flow is maintained. They can also conduct a liquidity analysis to get a clear picture of future financial capabilities.

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When it comes to customer relationships, small businesses should look to their client base, apply clustering techniques for targeted servicing and reach-outs based on customer profiles and their behaviors. Companies should also collect data on the key product or service features that are proving most relevant for their customers right now. Organizations should identify these so they can understand what is most attractive about their product and allow it to power upsells and potential sales.

In addition, companies can leverage data from an external analysis of market behavior to create a targeted outward sales strategy, anticipating which sectors and regions are likely to cause an increase or decrease in demand for their product.

Data can help businesses streamline internal operations too. Organizations can conduct a productivity analysis, in which they measure the time invested individually and collectively in certain meetings and tasks and compare this data to pre-pandemic performance. Where are employees doing better or worse than before, and what factors might be able to improve productivity?

For example, if the same amount of time is being spent in meetings as before, but output is lower, a team might be able to benefit from a collaboration software that includes features such as virtual whiteboards. Equally, if a company is finding that training on a certain skill is taking longer than usual, it might want to invest in digital classroom software.

Adapting to Focus on Long-Term Growth, During and Post-Pandemic

Organizations from across industries have been forced to pivot their business strategies in ways that they likely wouldn’t have otherwise explored. Instead of seeing this as a cost of the pandemic, companies should treat the new stream of opportunities as a chance to generate growth. This is a great time for business owners to stand out as true winners in building a sustainable business.

So, what kinds of opportunities exist that can enable businesses to contribute to long-term growth?

It goes without saying that transitioning to an online-friendly or digital model is the biggest challenge that many organizations are facing right now, particularly for ones that were heavily reliant on in-person interactions, such as retail stores, health care and real estate agents. However, digitization will present many long-term benefits, even after the crisis is over.

Retail, in particular, can leverage data from online customer behavior to hyper-focus its marketing efforts and explore new technologies, such as VR and AR, to recreate an in-person experience.

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Health care providers can continue to drive efficiency and minimize resources spent on travel using telemedicine, while manufacturing will see an increase in remote IoT monitoring and robotics in factories. Online businesses from across industries are automating processes in the face of COVID-19 by leveraging robot process automation (RPA) and AI technologies to minimize costs and free up humans for more value-adding work. In fact, the pandemic has widened chatbot usage within health care applications, and organizations and users alike are experiencing the benefits.

In turn, these digitization efforts will create invaluable data insights for businesses to leverage and channel to improve and optimize their operations further. Humans can augment their decision-making by using this data to power technologies such as AI, deep learning, augmented analytics and data storytelling.

The economic impact of COVID-19 should not be downplayed; those who are struggling to stay afloat through the crisis should seek help from the business community and do whatever it takes to keep from going under. It’s also vital that companies see the opportunities to come out from the rubble stronger. However, doing so in panic mode is unlikely to produce the best outcomes. Having the right data in hand is a must in order to make strategic choices that line up with long-term business goals.

Naveen Gattu is the COO and cofounder of Gramener, data science company. Naveen advises large enterprises in data-driven leadership strategies/roadmaps and is a regular speaker at industry and academic forums, like Open Data Conference, Nasscom, TiE and Big Data Conferences.

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