RSPA Members Adapt to Pandemic, Share Lessons Learned

Members of RSPA’s STS Committee recount their experiences regarding how their businesses and their partners adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. Committee members offering their insights are:

Kevin Kogler, MicroBiz
Nick D’Alessio, Brother Mobile
Deepak Satya, Stealth Start-up
Kalon Welch, FastSensor
Uwe von Sehrwald, Truno
Thomas Greenman, Skurla’s POS
Josh Sullivan, Magnolia Solutions
David Gosman, HP

How has the COVID pandemic affected your business positively or negatively?  What have you done to adapt to these changes?

Nick: Certainly, social distancing and looking after the well-being of employees working in our warehouse has been a new and challenging task. We have successfully separated three shifts so that they use different entrances, break areas and restrooms where possible. Work tasks have also been separated so that workers stay the recommended distance apart. If anyone on any of the shifts should become ill or test positive, only that shift would need to be quarantined, allowing the other shifts to continue operating.

Uwe: It has affected us both positively and negatively. Parts of our business have exploded while some retail-focused projects have been put on hold. Grocery retailers are extremely focused on managing the increased sales, labor issues, inventory management — anything to enhance frictionless checkout. Making it easier to manage existing staff, being efficient in e-commerce and providing solutions is big. Same for self-checkout. This pandemic has gotten people “off the fence” for many of these solutions.

David: My employer HP always has a focus on responsive support and maximum uptime of its point of sale products and that hasn’t changed. A new focus, however, has been developing guidance for cleaning of equipment. Many businesses are tempted to wipe down point of sale and payment hardware with whatever random cleaning chemicals they have access to. Some chemicals, however, can damage hardware, especially after repeated cleanings. HP has released guidance on which chemicals and wipes are approved for repeated cleaning along with instructions of how businesses should properly wipe, clean and disinfect their equipment.

Josh: I have had a couple of clients tell me that they are closing. That is heartbreaking, but it’s hard to ride out something, emotionally, financially, etc. for so long. For others, I have tried not to push on overdue invoices. I know this is a difficult time for everyone.

Kevin: The impact has been mixed. We did have several clients close or ask for financial relief, and some deals have been pushed out. On the other hand, some retailers had to quickly pivot to roll out e-commerce sites or better tools for online or phone orders. Many retailers are using this break to reevaluate their operational efficiency and have decided to upgrade their POS system as part of this review.

Deepak: As a budding startup developing next generation AI-based operational analytic solutions for small retail, restaurant and hospitality businesses, our target market has significantly shrunk. While we have not abandoned this target market, we plan to expand our focus to medium-size businesses which have been comparatively less impacted.

Has COVID changed your opinion of working from home?  What have you done to manage remote employees better? 

Kevin: Our operations in the U.S. were already WFH, so all our management apps are “in the cloud,” and we heavily use online communication tools such as Slack, Ryver and Skype. When we moved our European operations to WFH following COVID-19, we set -up the newly remote employees with a time tracking and productivity monitoring tool named Hubstaff. This allows us to measure keyboard activity and view periodic screen shots of what employees are working on.

Deepak: As a startup with globally distributed workforce, we have always practiced remote working and working from home. However, the current situation has significantly limited face-to-face access to our prospects and customers.

Kalon: We were already a work-from-home company, so no major changes were required. But this definitely reinforced our decision not to require our employees to work at an office. We have noted more challenges for WFH with more members of their families suddenly present. Managing remote employees is done via correct hiring. If we have to “manage” them, they aren’t a fit for our organization.

Thomas: COVID put some of our disaster plan scenarios to the test and beyond – thankfully we had moved to a mostly cloud-based office in the past few years, which enabled us to work from home without much issue.  Managing employees from home was a challenge in some ways, but having a daily check in meeting via video helped out a lot as well as having a team “to do” list so that we could all see what each other was working on.  I think we all feel great about being back in the office (at least at this time) but it does bring up some interesting thoughts on what our business presence is when we are working from home and how that translates to the customer experience.  For the time being, we don’t have any plan for having staff work completely from home.

Uwe: I have worked from home for a long time when I don’t travel.  I am generally more productive and work more hours from home as ‘drive time’ to and from the office does not eat into my workday.

For my employer Truno, nothing has changed other than to reinforce best practices.  Having kids at home does present challenges to some.  That has to be managed.   Does this change people’s thinking about office space?  I would think that more people than not WFH can work for them.

Josh: I’ve been working remotely for about three years now. Not much changed for me with COVID, but it is now more difficult to find a quiet place to work, take calls, etc. with the kids home all day. 

What was the most unexpected impact on your business or your customers’ business? 

Josh: I think it was remarkable to see how quickly retailers turned to online sales. I pivoted my company to accommodate their needs, and the response has been great.

Deepak: Lack of clarity on how long it would take for the businesses to recover after the COVID pandemic and how unprepared are the businesses to survive during COVID.

Kalon: Most unexpected was the positive impact!  We didn’t know if our product would gain traction, but it did and has done well in promoting our business awareness.

Uwe: In the grocery market, it was like a volcano erupted.  How do manage inventory, labor, and increased sales while providing a safe environment.  From our business perspective, how to manage support help desk when people work from home versus a secure data center and managing the tickets.  We were able to do this very easily because of infrastructure and security in place already.  We also had to adjust for how to provide on-site service with new social distancing rules.

How have your employees adapted to change?  How have you helped them deal with change?

Kalon:  Not much has changed due to WFH previously.  Morale initially dipped but as we launched our new product to measure social distancing and it gained momentum, I would say it has increased morale for our company.  

Nick: We started holding online virtual Zoom Happy Hours with our team so that the spirit of camaraderie and teaming can continue, even though we are all working from home. We have actually gotten to know one another better and still have an outlet for open and frank discussion. Executives have joined as well and benefitted greatly in understanding the feelings, attitudes and challenges of the team.

Deepak: Future is unknown but the employees are motivated by the challenge of overcoming the situation with innovation and creativity. It has also helped us reassess our business and personal priorities.

Thomas: As a small business, we are a close-knit team and taking away that closeness was a challenge.  We all worked long hours, struggling to keep up with all the requests for online ordering and other technologies that our restaurant customers needed to survive.  Morale took a hit with everyone.  Our daily meetings certainly helped, and we threw in a few fun things in those meetings that helped to take the edge off.  We also “closed” on some days a few hours early to help. 

What lessons have you learned?  What would you have done differently?

Uwe: Being patient, for sure. Learning to accept that this the “new way” for the foreseeable future and then having a plan to manage back when things open-up. Also, I needed to make sure to reinforce what I already know: listening to the customer and providing what they need, not what you think they need. What would we have done differently? Ordered face masks, Clorox wipes and always keep some on hand. Also, we need to be more prepared with a strategy to make sure our agendas can rapidly deviate from preplanned goals.

Thomas: Not having a diversified portfolio of customers was a lesson that we will carry with us forever.  We are working heavily to balance that but it will take some time before we get there.  We probably would have started our outreach on utilizing technology (like OLO) a whole lot sooner.  We used to make a big deal out of customers having a disaster plan, but it was not given much attention over the past few years.  Moving forward, it will play a large part in our sales and implementation phases.

Deepak: It was enticing to pursue new markets and opportunities that are perceived to be safer in the short-term. However, upon deep introspection and reassessment of our capabilities, we concluded that while it may be harder and longer to recover, it is better to focus on our core strengths and capabilities. We also concluded that with our deep understanding of markets and the customers that we currently address, we are better positioned than anyone else to help our own customers through this difficult journey.

Kalon: Be nimble.  The obstacle or challenge presents an opportunity if you know where to look…  Differently?  Not much but if we knew how much traction we would get, we may have staffed up sooner – but that is a risky move in these uncertain times and we preferred to protect our team.

Josh: While cloud solutions have been front and center of my business for a long time, I think I would have put together vignettes on how to piece them together. If there is one area of my business I neglect, it is marketing.

Have you had to make any modifications to your long-term strategic plan or goals?

Thomas: For most of our years in business, we have had a good mix of both retail and hospitality customers.  However, in the past 5-7 years, retail has shrunk for us while hospitality has grown.  Coming into the pandemic, we have seen our revenues drop by a large percentage because hospitality was hit so hard.  We are actively moving forward with making retail more of a focus for us to build our portfolio to a better mix.  We are also looking at the reseller community to assimilate their “lessons learned” into our strategies.  I firmly believe that we will continue to pivot and shift for at least the next 9 months.

Deepak: We had to adjust our product roadmaps by reshuffling some of the features and functionality to address the immediate and long-term needs of our customers and target markets.

Kalon: Yes, adding in new verticals and solution sets for the new world.  We did defer a capital raise and opt for alternative growth financing options.

Uwe: Interestingly since we niche to grocery, we have been okay and I believe that as soon as things open we will be able to meet goals.   Not that we have not we just have done it in a different way as needs of our customers changed.

Nick: Clearly some market segments have had to pivot because of COVID19. Likewise, we have had to adjust/alter our marketing focus on the segments that are still making commercial purchases and de-focus on the ones that have cut back.

Josh: Definitely invest more in marketing and letting people know specifically how I can help them achieve their business goals.

Are you using any new products or technologies at your business because of COVID?

Nick: For us at Brother, we had just launched our HaaS (hardware as a service business) in April which allows our resellers to sell equipment to their end retailer customers on a subscription basis, rather than a capital purchase. This takes the pressure off the Retailer, but still allows the reseller to get paid upfront in full, while allowing the customer to expense the use of the hardware over time. This new program allows retailers to focus their precious capital on retaining employees, and still obtaining the technology they need.

Kalon: No, not really.  We were already WFH

Thomas: We have not been as involved as some other VAR’s with installing of shields and protective equipment. Instead we have been getting merchants to use the existing technologies we’ve had for years, like online ordering, contactless payments, tableside/curbside ordering, etc.  We were lucky that we were already selling or had sold these merchants these technologies and essentially just had to set them up or train the customer on how to use them.  In some cases, an old school restaurant who said that they would never use online ordering ended up being saved by the very technology they eschewed as little as 6 months prior.

Deepak: We are in the business of bringing leading edge cloud and AI technologies used by large enterprises to the SMB markets. Increased market-wide investments into new technologies and services has helped us in integrating them into our solutions. All our business applications have always been cloud-based to reduce the complexity and cost. We have now adopted Microsoft Teams for collaboration and remote working. We are also using pen tablets with Microsoft Teams for whiteboarding in online meetings.

Uwe:  Yes. We have introduced products to help with sanitation, protecting equipment, ecommerce.  Things that retailers desperately need and or needed.  We have developed apps to help count customers coming in and who can come in next.  

How has the RSPA helped you navigate this situation?

Deepak: RSPA’s efforts in educating the members on challenges our markets face and how to address them are very helpful. We are very excited about the newly launched “RSPA Solution Center” that provides opportunities for companies like ours to showcase products to a larger audience.

Kalon: RSPA has meant great knowledge share for smaller businesses, helping us understand SBA options and providing a forum to learn and share experiences.  Also, it helped us publicize our new products and gain exposure.  We love the RSPA so far!

Thomas: The information provided by the RSPA in its various methods was timely and essential in allowing us to pivot and move in what seemed like a daily basis during the pandemic.

Uwe: I have read the material coming out, taken notes and RSPA always is leading in providing good information and ideas in helping you navigate solutions. 

David: The dedicated staff at the RSPA has made it their mission to gather stories and knowledge from throughout the industry. They have combined this knowledge with their own professional and legal expertise and created many informative, digestible, actionable and educational articles and videos to share with the membership. The RSPA is the only single source for time-sensitive content that is so useful to our industry.