What did we learn and what will we do differently?
If you're anything like me, you’ve probably repeated this sentiment more than a few times over the last couple of months: “If I can just make it through 2020!” Well, we’ve made it, but now I find myself asking a different question: “So, what now?” I’ve spent time reflecting on 2020 through a variety of lenses. What were the worst parts we had to endure and how did we manage them? On the other hand, what were the positives that came out of last year and how can we sustain them? This contemplation motivated me to ask two fundamental questions: “What lessons did I learn from my experiences in 2020?” and “What will I do differently in 2021?”
Let’s first acknowledge that in spite of our collective goal to “just make it through 2020,” the turn of the calendar did not, in fact, fix all of our problems. It’s still tough going out there. I’m certainly unqualified to determine a date or time when things will be back to “normal” (whatever that looks like), but I do feel optimistic. With vaccine distributions, unemployment rates lowering, the stock market climbing, and other positive indicators, I do believe the latter part of this year will look and feel much differently than our current state.
Although there are a number of topics we could discuss in regard to the past year, we’re going to focus on customers and employees.
What did I learn?
First and foremost, I learned that in the midst of crisis, your customers are more important than ever. As I reflect on some of the most difficult economic challenges we’ve faced – not only in 2020 but in years past – we sometimes focus on the macro issues such as the economy, unemployment, and business and economic forecasts, and we neglect to focus on the one thing staring us right in the face – taking care of our customers.
During these challenging times you may feel powerless over of the loss of sales and, as such, you could inadvertently neglect your customers’ needs. It may not be on the forefront of your strategy and it might even feel counterintuitive, but these are opportunities to provide the best customer service possible and focus on establishing those long-term relationships with your clients. Remember, they’re probably experiencing similar struggles and they may need your help.
What will I do differently?
During the recession years of 2009 and 2010, like many other businesses, we were struggling with sales and cash flow. One of our largest vendors reached out and wanted to meet. Knowing we were behind in our account payments and fearing the worst, I reluctantly agreed. They expressed how much they valued our relationship over the years and wanted to know how they could help. They obviously knew we were struggling as they had seen lower volumes and slower payments. It was an extremely helpful and upbeat conversation. I could tell they were truly wanting to help us as a business and were not just worried about getting paid. We worked out a couple of ideas and a plan moving forward that would be easier for us to manage without jeopardizing our operations. I’ve never forgotten that and have remained loyal to that vendor.
During 2021, we at Signs.com want to make sure our commitment to our customers is unwavering. Our goal is to provide them with solutions that will help them deal with the struggles they’re encountering. I know we can’t solve all of their problems, but we want to be flexible and adaptive to their needs. Our customers should know that in both good times and bad we will be there for them. We want to be more than a vendor or a supplier – we want to be their partner.
What did I learn?
At the beginning of last year, I was feeling very positive about my relationship with our employees. We numbered approximately 130 and, as their CEO, I prided myself on knowing all of our employees’ names on all three shifts. With the exception of an occasional stupor of thought, which coincides with my current stage of life, I could look each employee in the eye, call them by name, and wish them a good morning or enjoy some conversation. For the most part, I felt like I really knew our staff members. But as 2020 “happened,” I soon realized I didn’t know them nearly as well as I thought.
Like so many of you, in mid-March, as our sales numbers dropped dramatically, we quickly recognized that we would need to introduce some drastic cost cutting measures. Instead of laying off personnel, we decided to cut our work hours back to six hour days and apply a 25 percent salary reduction across the board. I know a lot of you were implementing the same types of policies with your own companies. It was my anticipation, as well as most of our senior management teams’, that we would experience several different types of reactions from our employees with this announcement. There would likely be shock, dismay, sadness, resolution, or perhaps even anger. That’s to be expected. We were also prepared to lose some of our staff.
To our delight, they met this news with amazing attitudes and complete understanding. Fear and anxiety were ruling the day, back in the bleak weeks of March and April, but our team was determined to figure out a way to succeed. We had 80-plus people who began to work from home. They did a great job dealing with all the challenges that went along with that scenario. As we later began producing COVID-19 signage, masks, etc., we were confronted with a new problem: not enough time in the day to fulfill the orders. Without dragging you into the details, I will say the rest of the year proved time and time again to be the same. When confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, our team members rose to the occasion and surpassed all of our expectations. Not one of our employees left us.
Another example of our team strength occurred during the period of severe social unrest. Many of our staff felt very passionate and equally frustrated about the issues at hand and wanted their voices to be heard. As business owners, typically we’ve avoided taking any particular stance in politics, social issues, religion, etc. However, 2020 was different. Members of our team questioned whether we were doing enough to make sure our business was a place of sufficient diversity and equality. Based on great feedback from some of our team members we were able to start a dialogue. Ultimately, we formed a Diversity, Equality & Inclusion Committee. With the help of this committee we were able to develop some better policies and provide training to all of our team members to help ensure that we are, in fact, striving to provide a diverse and inclusive workplace.
You’re probably tired of me bragging about my team. Please pardon my indulgence. But know that I don’t for a minute believe that our company has a monopoly on great employees. I am certain that most, if not all of you, have similar stories about how amazing your staff has been through these past difficult months. And I suspect you also hold them in higher regard than ever.
“My wish is that you take some time early this year to look back on the valuable lessons that made you a better manager and a better person.”
What will I do differently?
After our 2020 experiences, and even amidst the current challenges, this question is an easy one for me to answer. I’ve learned that I need to trust and rely upon our team at all times and in all circumstances, no matter how dire they may be. I will continue to remind myself that while we have made mistakes along the way and will continue to do so, the quality and character of our employees will enable us to attack and conquer any challenge we will face. I have no doubt that many of you experienced very similar circumstances in regard to your own employees. I now feel like I truly know and understand our employees at a level like never before and consider our business extremely fortunate to have a team like ours to embrace the future challenges. I am certain that most of you feel the same.
I hope we never have to endure a year as difficult as 2020 proved to be. It’s easy for us to reflect on all the difficulties, but perhaps you’ll realize there were many opportunities for you, your employees, and your entire business to grow. There are likely many other areas of your company where you’ve learned to work more effectively. It might be retaining sales, managing your cash flow, or improving relationships with your bankers, accountants, or other service providers. My wish is that you take some time early this year to look back on the valuable lessons that made you a better manager and a better person. Apply those lessons now and you’ll not only do things differently in 2021, but more importantly, you will do things better.