– by Craig Wilson (This post originally appeared in Newcastle Herald on 10 June, 2020)

My dad, a successful business person and very handy golfer, often told me “you can tell the character of a person by the way they conduct themselves on the golf course.”

He used to invite potential business partners for a round of golf to help him determine their ethics and temperament before committing to a business relationship with them.

Likewise, the pressures of the current pandemic-affected business environment have revealed a lot about the character of many businesses owners.

As we have collectively experienced sudden and unprecedented interruption and change to our economy, businesses have been forced to respond rapidly and deal with loss of revenue and other stresses. Nearly everyone has been affected but the reactions have been wide and varied.

In my experience, the businesses that responded with empathy will emerge from this period in better shape than those who haven’t.

My agency, like many, took a big hit early when clients paused their marketing or cut ties with all suppliers to quickly reduce their overheads. While it hurt to lose revenue, we appreciated the situation our clients faced and offered flexible solutions to ease them out of contractual obligations.

I then instructed my team to continue serving most of these clients in any way we could to help them through this period of crisis, even if we weren’t being paid.

Why?

Because I valued their business and wanted to have the best possible chance of working with them when things improved.

So we contacted all our clients early on to ask them how their business was coping and how we could best help them. We ran free webinars to brainstorm ideas to help business owners. We took calls and just helped wherever we could, whether they were clients or not.

And it worked.

Despite the initial dip, we steadily saw clients come back to us much sooner than expected. Several of them referred new clients to us. We’ve actually won more new clients during the “shutdown” than we had the previous year.

Another local business owner I know, a photographer specialising in products for the tourism industry, saw his revenue evaporate overnight. But he realised he had a way of helping other photographers and artists improve and grow their businesses, so he quickly started helping them instead. He understood the situation freelance photographers were in and quickly put together a consultancy offering to help guide them through the current environment to generate more income.

He told me that May saw “100% growth on his previous 6 month average monthly turnover and that June will be even bigger.”

On the other hand, I have seen businesses who have been far less empathetic.

Imagine, in a time when we have all been instructed to work from home, receiving invoices from a supplier of resources you can’t even use with the threat of penalty fees if you pay it just 2 days late?! That is one example I have seen from a local business, which was very disappointing.

The owners knew many of their clients would have been unable to use their services during this period. But instead of reaching out to clients they conducted communication via invoice.

They would have been much better served by contacting their clients, discussing their situation and then offering some type of concession or solution to “work together” through these difficult times. Empathy.

An even smarter idea for this particular business would have been to offer to help their clients set up home office or remote working solutions for their teams. Empathy and opportunity.

Sadly, some businesses panicked about potential loss of revenue and took an aggressive or antagonistic approach to defend their bottom line. They showed their true character under pressure and I expect it has done them no favours in the long run.

My dear old dad gave me another piece of advice. He said most people in business only look at transactions from their own point of view, but to build long and valuable business relationships you need to look at the transaction from the other person’s perspective too.

That seems like great advice now more than ever.

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