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How to run a resilient business during COVID-19

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A chartered accountant by trade and fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland, Tony Price has been a partner at PwC for 25 years, working with Sage for two decades helping small and medium-sized businesses grow.

We heard from the PwC partner, on the latest Sage Partner Podcast, about what his clients are learning from the coronavirus crisis to move forward and build resilience, and what you can learn from it.

What are the biggest challenges?

Before coronavirus, many businesses were tinkering with the cloud and slowly changing how they operated. Many had cloud strategies in the pipeline or on the drawing board and some firms had cloud and remote access solutions that only worked for a fraction of the full workforce.

So, over the many weeks of lockdown, businesses have learned to change, adapt, and embrace new technology and ways of working at breakneck speed. Some have stepped into a new way of working quickly, but with others, it has been more challenging and is taking more time.

What examples have you seen of businesses struggling with coronavirus?

When coronavirus hit, many businesses found their business support models were not resilient, as their IT was not scalable. I had a client who had tested all of their virtual systems, expecting that a small percentage of their people would need to connect at the same time.

When all of their employees had to use the system due to coronavirus, it could not cope. They had to prioritize availability to customer-facing staff and shut the whole back office down. It has taken them three months to get into a position of having the right scalability and infrastructure to allow their entire business to function.

I have also seen many finance functions too reliant on the knowledge of individual people. They had not documented their processes, which meant that if a member of the team was out of action, the finance function could not run properly. This seems like a simple fix, but over and over again, I saw businesses with employees that had been directly or indirectly affected by coronavirus, and nobody had any idea what they did. Having processes well documented and understood is crucial.

Can coronavirus be a catalyst for positive change?

We have all been hit pretty hard by coronavirus, and I do not want to belittle the human disasters it has brought to us. However, I like to step back and reflect on a quote from Winston Churchill that was extensively quoted after the financial crisis of 10 years ago – “Never waste a good crisis.”

The Churchill quote is just a reflection that I have seen things changing in a few weeks that haven’t moved forward for years. Coronavirus could be a point of focus – a catalyst for change to get on and use the technology that we have invested in to finally change our ways of working – or to invest in new technology.

Is every business a start-up right now?

Buying decisions have sped up frantically, creating an incredible opportunity for cloud transition. Over the years, I have been a keen observer of how decisions get made for businesses large and small. Usually, entrepreneurism loses out to a need for the long, drawn-out consensual process when making decisions that generally takes a very long time. But coronavirus has forced established companies to work like start-ups. They are making decisions faster than they have ever made them before. They are making big decisions around business transformation or replacing systems at speeds I have not seen in my 25 years of experience

I have a medium-sized client whose business and pipeline have almost disappeared due to the pandemic. I talk to them nearly every day, and they are saying, “Look, let us get on with it. We have a once in a generation opportunity to change our business, so let’s make those changes. Let’s get the right technology in place. Let’s get onto the cloud. Let’s get a model that is cost-effective, future-proofed, and will move us forward.”

Without coronavirus, I might have been sitting with the client in two years, waiting for them to make a decision. With coronavirus, the pace of decisions is swift, and the need for businesses need to change has never been more pressing.

Why does digital transformation matter in a post-coronavirus world?

Cloud projects that were on low on the agenda are suddenly at the top of it.. You have got to think about your customers – what is important to them at any minute? How do you engage customers and make your business work when there is no paper involved? How do you get one system to talk to another system? For me, the basic building block is to get your finance systems on the cloud and get it all connected.

In PwC, we can see our real pipeline daily, as we are connected to real-time information, with a standard data model right across our organization. We can see day to day what is impacting our business, and we can predict with reasonable certainty what our sales conversion is going to be. We know where all our people are. We know where all our debts are. We know what is happening with our clients.

Every business wants to be agile. Every company wants to be flexible, scalable, and robust. And those words now play heavily into the boardrooms of our clients and investors.

Businesses everywhere are accelerating digital transformation plans. And that means demand for good Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions that can be supported by robust infrastructure. The business can scale up instantly and scale it back down immediately, with costs that vary with use—allows firms to be agile, resilient and cost-effective.

The shutdown might be a perfect time to develop a better business model more quickly, cost-efficiently, and with minimal interference to your current customer base as you are ever likely to get.

How can businesses plan and strategize for the future?

Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until you get a punch in the mouth.” Coronavirus was the punch in the mouth. If there’s anything that the recent disruption has taught us, it’s that we can’t foresee everything. However, we can be ready for the unexpected. Cloud technologies offer businesses just that. The scalability, flexibility, and resilience to meet challenges as they happen.

The world was unpredictable before coronavirus and will be afterward. Any time we make a plan or a model, we stress test it and look at the risks and how to mitigate risk.

But for me, good businesses go back and look at the quality of the plans and the quality of contingencies. If you had contingency plans, did they work? What are the lessons you have learned, and what are you doing differently as a result?

Plan better and have better contingencies. Take this more seriously, because there’s a real chance that these contingency arrangements will be needed. That is the message I would give to all businesses. Do not use coronavirus as an excuse not to plan. Coronavirus is the reason to plan better.

What are your top three tips?

  1. Be resilient. What is your backup plan? Have you tested it? Is it credible? For example, we see a lot of businesses with overseas operations, who had no real ‘plan B’ and have suffered.
  2. Get everything on the cloud. There is no reason why you cannot use cloud systems, whether they are for sales, pipeline, accounting systems, or HR systems.. There are currently very few reasons not to use Cloud systems.
  3. Document your processes. How well established are all of your procedures? Are they written down? Are they optimal? Could someone run your business by reading your processes?

In recovering and thriving after coronavirus, you must plan for things not being as you expect, and assume that this is now the new way of doing business.

You can listen to the Sage Partner Podcast with Tony here.

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