By Clint Taylor, OD
Oct. 14, 2020
No one could have been completely prepared for COVID-19. It seemed to come out of nowhere, things have changed quickly, and the situation continues to evolve. Along the way, we have all learned lessons – sometimes the hard way. The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned from trying to steer my practice through a pandemic.
To succeed in any business, you have to be willing to take risks. Businesses that don’t take risks will miss out on opportunities for growth. The key, however, is to take on an acceptable level of risk without leaving yourself vulnerable in times of crisis or downturn. When considering an office expansion, a new hire, or a major equipment purchase, run projections to make sure these moves leave you with an acceptable level of cash flow and without an unacceptable level of debt. And when running those projections, be conservative with your numbers. After all, if COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s that the business climate isn’t always friendly.
It’s also a good idea to keep an emergency fund of cash in reserve. Ask yourself this question – how long could you have afforded to pay your staff, keep the lights on, and make other necessary payments to keep your business running, without funds from the Paycheck Protection Program? PPP helped sustain many businesses, including mine, during a difficult time. But there is no guarantee that the government will be willing or able to provide assistance in the case of future downturns. So, have some cash put away in reserve. Warren Buffet once said, “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Be ready the next time the tide goes out.
In difficult times, people get scared. When COVID hit, our staff members were afraid for their safety and were concerned about their jobs. Our patients were afraid, too. Their fears that were related to eyecare (could we see them in an emergency, would they lose vision if they missed their usual exams?) were only one set of fears they were facing, as COVID affected numerous aspects of all of our lives.
Communication goes a long way toward calming fear. In difficult times, make a point to err on the side of over-communication. In a crisis like the pandemic, let your staff know what steps you’re taking to ensure a safe working environment. Better yet, get their input on the specific steps that could be taken to make things as safe as possible for staff and patients. Then, relay these safety measures to your patients. Various methods of communication may be used – social media, e-mails, texts, letters, postcards and any other way you can reach your patients. Just make sure everyone – patients and staff – knows what you’re doing to help keep them safe.
I would also recommend keeping your staff informed about the financial health and future prospects of the business. Each business owner/leader is going to have their own comfort level regarding how much information to share with staff – it is an individual decision. The point is to communicate with them. Let them know where you stand and what your plans are. Even better, include them in the planning process and talk through problems together, as a team.
Relationships are Everything
Having strong relationships with key people makes crisis management much, much easier. For example, my existing relationship with my local bank made applying for and receiving PPP funds easy. My bank has been an advocate for my business during the pandemic, and I have been thankful for my relationship with them.
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I am also a member of a study group of other ODs from various parts of the country, and this group has been very helpful, as well. Not only were we able to share COVID information and rebound strategies with each other, but we were able to encourage one another, as we all went through the stages of the pandemic together. Being able to talk with these friends made a difficult situation much easier.
Finally, and most importantly, having a strong relationship with patients makes it much easier to navigate difficult times. If you don’t have a relationship with your patients, what’s going to stop them from buying their contacts or glasses online? If you’re forced to close, what’s going to stop them from going to an office that’s still able to be open? If you’re just the place they “get their eyes checked,” the answer is: nothing. But if your patients know you genuinely care about them, if they trust you, and if you have a real relationship with them, they will remain loyal to your office during tough times.
Times aren’t always easy and there will be bumps in the road. We should be thankful – not only for the good times, but for the difficult ones, as well. The lessons learned during tough times help us to grow and better prepare us for the next difficult situation.
Clint Taylor, OD, is the owner of Taylor Eye Care in Carmi, Ill., a one-OD, one-location practice with eight support-staff members that delivered about 3,000 comprehensive eye exams in 2019. To contact him: firstname.lastname@example.org