12 strategies to help the process
Over the years I’ve done a lot of work in areas that have faced destructive cyclones, floods and devastating droughts. In all of these instances, there are tens of thousands of small businesses affected and the road to recovery can be anything from a few days to years. In reality, a large proportion of the businesses impacted by a natural disaster, never recover.
Now of course, the horrendous fires have done damage at a scale that is almost impossible to comprehend. There are so many layers of complexity in the recovery process, that this is most certainly going to take years to get back to any sense of normality. At the same time though, businesses that are in a state of shock need some strategies to get the rebuilding process started.
Below are my 12 key steps to getting a business back on track after a natural disaster:
1.Set up communication to the outside world.
The first step in the rebuilding process is to make sure you are connected to the outside world and this normally means a working telephone. It might just be your mobile for now, but you can get your main business line diverted to the mobile for the time being. At least you can get calls and stay in touch with people trying to contact you.
Having an internet connection and email is also important to get set up. It might mean hiring some computer equipment or getting your mobile phone set up for internet connection (if you haven’t already) but much of the rebuilding information will come via the internet. With social media such as Twitter and Facebook, there is some incredibly helpful information coming through all the time and if you are connected, you can benefit from it.
Even setting up a TV in your building helps. It feels like you are connected to the outside world and not feeling quite as isolated. Do whatever you can to get connected and in touch with the outside world, even by doing something as simple as talking to a neighbour you haven’t met before.
2. Break the rebuilding process into smaller, more manageable chunks
When standing in ashes of a devastated office, shop of factory, the sheer number of things that need to be done can be totally overwhelming. The best way to deal with this is to break the big and overwhelming “to do’s” into small more manageable chunks.
This is a great philosophy for life and it will certainly help at a time like this. Whenever you find yourself starting to feel overwhelmed about what needs to be done – start on the smaller jobs, one by one, and you will start to get progress.
3. Let your suppliers know what is going on – they will want to help
Remember that if your business is not making money neither are your suppliers, so it is in their best interest to help you get up and running as quickly as possible. Even though it might be a few weeks (or months) before you are ready for stock or replacement equipment, place the order now so that you are in the system.
If promotional material is destroyed, let them know so you can get some more on the way. Talk about payments for outstanding bills – it is better to be upfront and clarify what you need, especially if there is an insurance claim pending. You might be surprised how flexible your suppliers will be. The more you communicate with them the better off you will be.
4. Talk to your bank and credit card providers
Cash flow is going to be a big issue, particularly in the short term. Make the call to your bank and to any institution where you have credit and let them know what has happened. Most of the time they will be incredibly supportive by deferring repayments. Regardless of whether you need this right now or not, it is good to know that you have it available. Remember, business is probably going to be tough for the foreseeable future and you’re probably going to need access to cash.
On another note, if you take credit cards in your business you might want to get a hold of a manual machine to at least be able to process credit card payments with the old “click-clack machine”. It is very likely that there will be many power interruptions once the rebuilding process starts. Downtime due to power cuts or telephone line upgrades can mean lost sales – clearly the last thing you need now.
And remember, it’s not just about interruptions now. As infrastructure gets rebuilt, things like power, NBN, electricity – all will be impacted in the months ahead. Having a backup plan in place is always a good idea.
5. Talk to the ATO
The ATO might be the last people you want to talk to in the midst of a major disaster, but from my experience they can really help. They will be able to give you advice, support and in reality, they can take some of the financial burden from you with revised payment plans for paying tax.
Why is this so important now? One of the biggest fears for business owners facing a rebuild of their business is the cost. Who knows how much money will be needed or how long it will take to start trading again? The less pressure you have on you, particularly financial, the better. If you don’t have to worry about your mortgage for three months, that is a big relief. Likewise if you can defer your tax payments, you get some breathing space. Sure, you still have to pay, but right now the focus is on getting the business operation again so you can some cash flow.
6. Keep your staff informed
This is a tough time for employees in small businesses in particular. They know that the business owner generally doesn’t have a lot of money and with no one customers coming in the front door, their job is in jeopardy. Which is of course the truth.
Tell your staff what is happening, be honest and lay it on the line. As hard as it is, the pressure of doing what you need to do as well as trying to protect your staff from hard news is simply too much. You might just be surprised by the response from your staff – most will roll up their sleeves and do what they can to help, regardless of whether they are getting paid or not.
Talk to the Government relief organisations – they might be able to give your staff some funding and let them keep working to help you rebuild the business.
7. Keep new records, take photos, keep samples of damaged stock and equipment
When confronted with a pile of rubble, smouldering buildings or a foot of mud through your business, our initial desire is to get rid of it all so that we can start with a clean slate. But it is important to take photos along the way that show the extent of the damage to stock, to buildings and to equipment.
This is important for insurance claims, many of which won’t be paid unless there is some record or proof of damage and I hate to say it, insurance companies are very good at doing everything they can to avoid paying claims. Call your insurance company as soon as you can, make sure they know you are going to make a claim and ask exactly what information they need. Get the persons name that you spoke to, keep good records of the phone call and even ask to have the call recorded and all information sent to you.
My advice is to keep a small pile somewhere of damaged stock or equipment so that you can show if needed. Take as many photos as you can and keep a journal of what you throw out and when you threw it out.
8. Manage your physical and emotional wellbeing
It is very easy to get sick at a time like this. The emotional toll is enormous, something we can easily overlook. Add to this working long hours in less than ideal conditions and the potential to get really ill is extremely high. You simply have to take care of yourself as this is a marathon event.
This means eating as well as you can, drinking lots of water, resting and sleeping as often as possible. Once you have finished the rebuilding stage you will need your energy to drive the business forward. Reach out to other business owners who are going through the same thing and encourage them to take a break, have a drink and pace themselves.
Don’t be ashamed or hesitant to get some help from any of the support services around all kinds of health-related issues. This is no time to try and carry everything on your shoulders.
9. Let your customers know what is going on
As soon as you are operating again, even if it is in a reduced capacity, hang that shingle out, turn on the lights and yell it from the street corner. It is vital that you get customers coming back to your business and spending money as quickly as possible and believe me, they will want to support you and your business.
The key here is to keep your customers informed about the progress of your business restoration. When you do open up be sure to ask your customers to tell their friends that you are open and trading.
10. Take to social media
Apart from letting everyone know that you are open and operating (and you will get tired of telling people you’re open before they get the message – so keep telling them). Also make a point of explaining what is happening. But be honest.
Sometimes when things look a little desperate we can try and paint a pretty picture that isn’t the case and that leads to unhappy customers (I think of the Mayor in the movie Jaws, “shark attack? What shark attack? The beaches are safe”). Be honest, genuine and authentic.
Australians are the most incredibly generous people on the planet. Let them in, share your stories, the good and the bad, don’t be afraid to tell people what you need. Be raw, real and relevant and tell your stories. It is good for you and good for those who want to help.
11. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
The bigger the disaster, the more help that will hopefully be on offer. This will come from Government departments, friends and family, well-meaning individuals, industry groups, all kinds of support organisations – please don’t let pride get in the way of asking for help. We rally together at times like this and most of the people who need help in times of disaster will be the ones giving the help the next time a disaster hits somewhere in this giant and often challenging country.
You can do it all on your own, but it’s a much harder road to travel and hopefully one that isn’t necessary. I’m not good at asking for help for anything, I know what it’s like. But we have to move beyond this in tough times, and know that those around us, want to help, they want to offer support, kindness, money, food – whatever it might be, and the best thing for everyone is to accept it.
12. There is always an upside
In the midst of the rubble, it’s hard to think that there is an upside, but I think we need to find some kind of sense to the madness. If you look deep enough there is a potential opportunity, specifically to rebuild your business the way you have always wanted it to be.
I know that it is hard to see the upside or the bright side of things at a time like this, but life somehow always seems to give us an unexpected positive when faced by adversity.
I feel that in this instance it is a chance to think about your business, the changes you have been meaning to make but never quite seem to get around to. It is the opportune time to think about your future, what you want out of your business and where you are heading. It is a time to rebuild not just your business but your dreams and your goals.
Most importantly it is a time to think about what you have, not what you have lost, and to be grateful. I know that might seem like an easy thing to say from someone not caught up in the disaster, but my experience over the years has really shown me that this philosophy helps to get through the hardest of times and most horrible of experiences.
I send everyone faced with rebuilding their business, their town, their home, a great deal of love and support. You are not alone. You are in a country where regardless of the challenge, there are over 20 million people here to help and support you to get through.
DONATIONS – There are always people in need of help after natural disasters. I encourage you to give generously to those in need, by giving to a charity or not for profit of your choice. Be selective and research the charity that you think will be most beneficial and in alignment with how you would like to offer support. Be warned – sadly with every natural disaster low life scumbags appear, willing and very able to take money under false pretences – be careful, do your research and don’t be guilted into giving money to anyone in a spur of the moment call for help.