Time for Plan “B”…

March 31, 2020

(NOTE: Most of this post was originally the contents of an email to the Milford Business Association members in Milford, Michigan.)

Anytime a crisis hits people quite naturally formulate a quick plan to deal with it. If you recall, I wrote about having a plan way back on March 20 in my post “What is your plan?” Doesn’t that seem like a long time ago? The Corona Virus crisis is turning out to be one in which that plan (we’ll call it plan “A”) isn’t working out for most. It’s time for plan “B”.

Plan “A” is the one that most bought into initially, which said, “I’ll just wait out the next two weeks” or “I’ll just close until April 3 or April 13”. That last plan was what many small business owners used as Plan “A” in my area. Plan “A” was a very passive plan – the hunker down and wait it out plan.

Now we have been told it will be at least April or May before we can even think about easing the restrictions on travel, crowd gatherings and working. It is clear that at least half of the year will be gone before America starts the road back to something approaching “normal”. No matter what you may have believed going into this crisis, it is clear that it is time for Plan “B”.

For the small business person, Plan B is a proactive one that deals with the reality that this situation is liable to be with us until late summer and that you need to figure out how to do business under the rules that have been imposed by government. For almost all, that means finding a way to do business without being able to welcome visitors into your physical stores.

Many small businesses already had a web site or a presence on Facebook and other social media sites. Now is the time to expand and leverage that presence to allow your customers to do business with you. If your web site didn’t have an eCommerce capability before, now is the time to add it or highlight your alternative. You need a way for customers to order and pay through your web site or via a phone call. It is also the time to figure out how you are going to deliver products to customers – on-site pickup or delivery, somehow.

For some small businesses in the services industries, it may well mean delivering your services via on-line sessions, either interactive in real-time or pre-recorded. Churches are using both methods during the shutdown and some fitness and health related businesses, such as personal training and yoga have already launched on-line classes.

The keys to creating a Plan “B” that will get you through this is understanding the needs of your customers and making it as easy as possible to do business with you while the shutdown lasts. You can do that through advertising, offering incentives and making the shopping and delivery experiences as easy as possible.

You can start with the assumption that the customers do not know what you are doing during the crisis. Begin your road back by informing them of your plan B – how to do business with you; what your hours of “operation” will be; where to go on line (web site or Facebook) to see your goods and how to order products; what incentives you will be offering; and how they will get the goods or services that you provide. For some, it is also about informing the customers about your new, spring product lines. This crisis hit right when that seasonal transition was to take place.

In the same “What’s your plan” blog post I described the four phases that people go through in crisis situations. Most are now exiting phase three and entering phase four. They are starting to put some creative thought into how they will live under the constraints imposed by this crisis and they are looking for ways to get the things that they need and want. It is up to you to tell them how to get those things from you.

Communications with your customer base is more important now than ever. Using ads in your local paper (like the Spinal Column in the Milford, Michigan area) to reach your local base is a critical part of that communications. People are home all day and have time to read those papers. Your ad in the local paper can tell the customer base many things – “I am still here”, “I am open for business”, “I am working hard to help you get through this crisis”, and “We will get through this together”.

So, take some time to craft your message for plan “B” and get it out there to your customer base. I think you’ll find a very receptive audience that is ready to find a way to do business with you.


What to do, what to do…

March 27, 2020

Many of you already know that I am a Realtor®, in addition to doing some sales work for a local paper and a bunch of volunteer work. The Michigan Governor’s stay home executive order has had a dramatic impact on that aspect of my life.

We all know that we are supposed to stay home, wash our hands a lot and practice social distancing. We can do that. The real estate market has been effectively shut down by the Governor’s stay home order. Realtors are not considered to be essential components of the infrastructure under this order and, thus, are not allowed to show homes during the shutdown or to visit homes in order to list them. It’s disappointing, but a logical precaution to take.

 What if you are a would-be home seller or buyer? What else could you be doing, while you wait out the government mandated self-quarantine?

If you want to sell your home, use the time to work on the little things that can increase its value or allow it to sell faster, once the government releases the market from this shutdown. There are lots of advice articles (some in posts to this blog) on the things that home owners should do to get their homes ready for market. Most of the time homeowners just don’t have (or take) the time to do therm. The result is a house that is really not ready for visitors or which leaves a bad first impression because of those little things. You have the time now that you are confined to your home to get those things done. Walk through your house with an eye to identifying all of those little things that you know are there, but which you have trained yourself to ignore. Things to look for and make note of include:

  • Declutter each room – what can you take out of the room to make it look bigger and cleaner?
  • Cleanliness – what needs dusting, cleaning , vacuuming, or wiping – just do it
  • Small repairs – replace those missing or worn/dirty plug covers or light switch covers
  • Larger repairs – fix those tape and nail pops in the drywall, especially those along the ceilings
  • Paint touchups – either touch up or repaint areas of wear or areas that you just repaired
  • Replace missing handles/pulls on kitchen and bath cabinets and drawers and any doors
  • Wash windows and, if you can,  replace any cracked glass and repair windows with broken seals
  • Clean or re-grout  bathroom tubs and showers and replace worn out fixtures as needed
  • Trim exterior hedges and bushes, especially around the front door
  • Fill and smooth any basement floor or wall cracks in unfinished basements

There are many more things that you might start to notice that you need to do, once you start working your way down that list. The whole point of the exercise it to deal with the things that might distract a buyer later or cause them to back off from making an offer.

Either buyers will make lists, in writing or mentally, when they go through your house of all of the things that they see that need to be done to make the house “perfect” for them. If they make an offer, they will use that list in two ways – as a negotiating tool to get those repairs made prior to closing or as justification for reducing their offer price (sometimes both). You have the time right now, while you are on lockdown to shorten that list. Anything that you can do to take items off their list will help your home sell faster and for more money.

If you are a would-be buyer, this is a frustrating time. Due to the stay at home order, homes may not be visited; so, what are you to do?

Some Realtors are experimenting with so-call “virtual showings”. These are usually video based and offer the “visitor “a virtual walkthrough of the home, sometimes accompanied by audio remarks by the seller to explain what you are seeing. At a minimum there are usually lots of pictures available that have been posted by the listing agent. It is important that you use the right real estate web site to get access to the most pictures. Some sites restrict the number of pictures that can be posted. I recommend using the Realtor.com site, which taps into the local Multi-list Services (MLS) and usually provides access to all of the pictures that are on the MLS.

The reason for doing virtual visits or going through the web-site pictures is to give yourself practice on what to look for and to help you refine what it is that you are really looking for in a new home. Make note s as you view the virtual tour or pictures of features that you liked and did not like. If you are a buying couple discuss each home you look at that way, so that you begin to understand each other’s point of view. Discuss the features on which one or both of you are willing to compromise and which are “show stoppers” for one or both of you. This will help you narrow your search when you actually can start to make visits.

Learn and practice what to look for when you walk through a real house. You have to train yourself to ignore some things, like the current  paint colors or furnishings that are there now, and start looking instead for things that might indicate problems that will need to be resolved:

  • Scan the wall-ceiling lines to look for any signs of water intrusion
  • Also look for ghosting on the exterior walls and ceiling that indicate possible insulation issues – just google ceiling ghosting to see what this is
  • Look closely at the windows for cracks or cloudy glass that indicates an issue with the seals
  • Look for evidence of leaking fixtures under the sinks and around tubs and toilets
  • Look for obvious signs that maintenance has been delayed or ignored (those missing switch plates or cabinet pulls are a telltale sign)
  • Look past clutter, but take lack of cleanliness into consideration, which is another sign of of a homeowner who hasn’t maintained things well.
  • Check the age and condition of the furnace and water heater and look for signs that they have been maintained – both have limited lifespans and the owner may be trying to pass off the need to replace them to you.
  • Check with the FEMA database to see if the property is in a FEMA flood zone You may be required to buy expensive flood insurance if it is.

Revisit your financial criteria and plans. Do some research on the cost to make common repairs or to renovate areas of a house.  There are many reports available on line of repair cost estimates and renovation costs. Ask your mortgage person about programs that they may offer to help with renovation costs, if you end up making a bid  on a house that needs renovations. Also as your mortgage person about programs that might be available in certain areas to allow for low, or no, down payment mortgages, which can save that money for the renovations that you see are needed. Arm yourself with all of this knowledge and practice by applying it to the homes that you visit virtually or through MLS pictures.

By using this down time in your home search to better educate yourself on these and other topics, you will be a more well informed buyer and will find the new home that you desire much faster. It is especially useful to hash out with your partner what it is that you are both really looking for in a new home. You can also develop a practice of looking at listings with a more discerning eye, which will save you time by eliminating those listing s that you would probably eliminate anyway of you visited them.

So, you see that there is plenty to do for both buyers and sellers during this stay at home time. Your Realtor will be happier, too, because you will not be wasting your time or his/hers visiting hoems that just won’t fit for you.


Life goes on in self-isolation

March 26, 2020

I remember a common phrase from my childhood that one could be “all dressed up with nowhere to go”. That phrase certainly is apropos for today’s mandated “stay home” environment. Unlike some that I see posting on Facebook, I just can’t sit around in my pajamas all day. To be fair some posted that they had “day pajamas” and “night pajamas”; so, I guess they did change for the day.

Personally, I just can’t seem to sit around in my PJ’s past noon. I have to have a shower and get dressed. Lately, I have admitted to myself that I’ve been putting on a normal business casual outfit each morning, but that I have no appointment or calls to make. I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go. Both of the jobs that I work at have been designated under the Executive Order as non-essential, so I am directed to stay home.

Zoom meetings on line have taken the place of real meetings. I had two yesterday and one scheduled for today. Meeting on-line like that take more discipline that most have, so these meetings can devolve into a calliope of people vying to be the one speaking at any time. The Zoom app allows for about 40 minutes of meeting time free; however, it can take almost that long to get everybody signed into the meeting and quieted down when it is first used.

My wife and I have ventured out to get gas and a few groceries that we needed – she stays in the car and I run in and get what we need. Then, there is always the search for toilet paper or other items that have struck the fantasy of hoarders, such as eggs. I wonder if the hoarders wrapping their eggs in toilet paper to keep them safer.  We also take rides through the local Metropark almost daily, just to get out of the house and to see if there are any deer out. I walk my dogs 4-5 times a day, which provide great opportunities for fresh air and a little exercise. It is amazing how many birds one can hear when there is so little road traffic to mask their songs.

We are in the mid to late fear and anxiety phase that I wrote about a few days ago (see March 20 post) . You may recall that I postulated that  there are four phases that we all will go through in this crisis – Phase 1 was shock and awe; Phase 2 is fear and anxiety, which most are in right now; Phase 3 is frustration and anger, which coming rapidly for many that have been forced to stay home (especially those with children).  The cute aspect in this situation probably wore off by day 2 of the stay at home experience. Next, we will all enter phase 4 and figure out how to live in this new reality. That will include businesses figuring out how to continue doing at least some business during this shutdown.

I can do some parts of both of my jobs from home, but both ultimately involve personal contact with clients – listing houses and showing houses or selling advertising for the paper.

The housing market has been impacted by the fears of sellers and buyers about visiting homes that are for sale. Would-be sellers are holding off because they fear showing visitors bringing the virus into their homes. Buyers are staying away because they are justifiably concerned about the sanitary conditions in homes that they might visit. The real estate industry is responding with virtual showing visit apps and other technology-based solutions.

There is no app-based solution for advertisers whose businesses have been shut down pulling their ads. They, too, will figure out how to do business during this time. Most have some Internet presence, which they ae beefing up or they are adding E-commerce apps and capabilities.

The promised government intervention in the form of checks to everyone will help some and give the economy a little boost and the other programs of loans or loan payment hiatuses and other measures will help some. Just as the health system is prepared to enter triage mode, if the wave of Covid-19 cases overwhelms its capacity; the financial world and government emergency aid programs will have to triage the applications by small businesses for help. Some just will not make it.

This crisis is really an unprecedented test of the will of the people and the nation. We are used to weathering other types of crisis – hurricanes, tornadoes, other natural disasters and even wars. This is vastly different. We usually crank up the American business machine in response to those things, but this crisis threatens to shut that machine down completely. If, or when, that happens, it will be just the people vs. the disease. I have faith that the American people will prevail and then they will go restart and rebuild the American business machine. We are not hunkering down in fear; we are hunkering down in resolve to defeat this enemy.

God bless America and keep us all safe.


It’s time for that courage…

March 24, 2020

Some time ago, pastor Freed used this quote ion his blog Jack’s Winning Words

“Sometimes it takes courage not to be discouraged.”  (Ben Ferenze) 

That quote seems very appropriate right now, as we enter day two of our state’s lockdown order (I count yesterday as Day 1, even though the Governor’s Executive Order didn’t technically go into effect until Midnight). The events of the last 2-3 weeks have been like shoes dropping – you just kept waiting for the next one to drop. They were dropping so often and so fast that it began to sound like a tap dance number from a Broadway musical.

Now, we’ve all become virtual prisoners of the virus, confined to our homes. As I wrote a few days ago, that does not mean that we allow ourselves to become victims. We must summon up the courage not to be discouraged. One way to do that is to keep busy in positive and constructive ways. We may have been forced into situations that could seem to be boring, but it does not have to be. A good number of us have to try to work from home. All of us have those small projects or jobs around the house that we have been putting off. One of our church members has reported that she finally has the time to do the cleaning and pantry organizing that she has been putting off. I know that my workbench is a mess. I better get on that.

Most of us probably have family or friends that we’ve been meaning to talk with or write a letter to, if only there was time. Well, guess what? Now you have nothing but time. Get busy and knock out those projects and jobs, write those letters or make those calls. You will be surprised how welcome your letter or call is and good it makes yo feel to finally get around to doing it.

For those who don’t have a lots of the things listed above to keep them occupied, I would recommend creating some for yourself. If you belong to a church, organize a calling circle among the congregation members to keep in touch with and check up on fellow members. If you are a tech-savvy person , use Skype to make calls to other tech-savvy people. There is something uplifting about seeing and interacting with another person that way, even if it is on-line. There are groups that write letters to troops stationed in war zones – find a group in your area and start writing.

If you are well and able, volunteer for charity groups like Meals on Wheels or other groups that deliver goods to shut-ins. Even though you may have to talk to them through a closed door as a precaution, it is better than just sitting at home and talking to yourself. I’m assuming that Meals on Wheels is exempt from the shelter in place order – it certainly should be. I’m sure that there are otgher volunteer organizations that could use your help – if you are well and able to help.

For some this may be the opportunity to try something new that you’ve been putting off. I have an app that I bought over a year ago that I’ve just not taken the time to learn. Now is that time. If you’ve read this blog and thought to yourself that you might like to try blogging, if you had the time – now is the time.  There are all sorts of good advice blogs on how to write a blog.

Almost any of the ideas here will be more satisfying than sitting and mindlessly watching TV or playing endless games of solitaire. Many involve interacting with others, even if electronically or through a letter. Some just involve the self-gratification of finally accomplishing something that you have had in the back of your mind. None of them involve sitting around feeling sorry for yourself or seeing yourself as a victim.

Have the courage not to be discouraged and get busy! You’ve got things to do, people to talk to or write and maybe places to go. You don’t have time to be discouraged.


It’s there if you look for it…

March 23, 2020

It is easy in these unsettling times to allow yourself to be dragged down into the doom and gloom that seem to be all around. Many find comfort and guidance in music and song. I found this classic performance by Judy Garland with a message of perseverance and hope. The words are simple and straightforward , set in the context of a housewife engaged in the daily drudge of washing dishes.

As I wash my dishes, I’ll be following a plan

Till I see the brightness in every pot and pan

I am sure this point of view will ease the daily grind

So I’ll keep repeating in my mind

Look for the silver lining

Whenever a cloud appears in the blue

Remember somewhere the sun is shining

And so the right thing to do is make it shine for you

A heart full of joy and gladness

Will always banish sadness and strife

So always look for the silver lining

And try to find the sunny side of life

In this time of unprecedented disruption in our daily lives, it is perhaps hard for some to see a silver lining or find he sunny side of life. Perhaps the key to finding the silver lining amidst the gloom that surrounds us is knowing where to look.  A good starting point is the Bible. The silver lining that is revealed in the Bible is not a sunny day, nor does the Bible promise that all of the troubles that you face will magically go away. What is does promise is relief from fear and anxiety for those who believe.

Belief in Jesus, and why He was sent to earth by God, takes away the fear of death. That doesn’t mean that you have license to do foolhardy things. It just means that you don’t have to waste your energy worrying about death, because you know what happens next. A strong belief frees you to do positive things with your life and not spend it hunkered down in fear.

You could choose to spend your time while you are sequestered at home  watching movies or reruns of TV shows or you could revisit your Bible and find the silver lining in the words that you will find there. Just Google “Bible verses dealing with adversity”, if you need help getting started.

The silver lining in this and all things is there if you know where to look.


Without church, but not without faith…

March 22, 2020

This is the second weekend without a church service, due to the Corona Virus pandemic. Like most other churches, Holy Spirit Lutheran Church of West Bloomfield is offering an alternative, on-line services for members to watch from home. It is a shortened version of a regular service, with some music, a few of the prayers that would normally be used in a service, the Bible readings for the week and the sermon that the pastor would have delivered in church. I create a video of it during the week and post it on YouTube. (click here to see our first post) It is better than nothing, but it is still less satisfying than actually attending church. It is what we have for now.

What is lost in the process of sheltering in place during this crisis is both the social aspect of church and the sense of being a part of a community of faith. There is something reassuring and reinforcing about seeing others who are experiencing and professing the same beliefs that you have. There is also a sort of mindless crowd mentality about church services. Most church services have become so predictable in their format and execution that one just sort of shuffles along with the crowd through the service. Even the homilies or sermons have in many churches become uninspiring and, in their care not to be politically incorrect, blandly predictable. Eyes glaze over like they do when listening to an insurance salesman.

The current crisis has forced us into isolation in our religious lives as it has in the rest of our lives. What that really lays bare is the faith that underpins all religion, no matter what name or denomination the religion goes by. Rather than just sit there, passively allowing a church service to take place around us, we are now forced to ponder our faith and make whatever effort we can to express or practice that faith. For most, that may take the form of quiet prayer or perhaps reading the Bible. For others, the realization of their faith may spur them into some action that expresses their faith, like volunteering to help others during this crisis.

The point is that we all still have whatever underlying faith was there to begin with and now must find ways to express and practice that faith outside the structure of a church service. Perhaps that is a good thing. How many of us would take the time to contemplate our faith were we now in self-imposed isolation? How many normally take time to open their Bibles and search for the reassurance that can be found there? How many might watch the sermon sitting in church with the same attentiveness that one devotes to watching a video?  This crisis and the isolation that has come with it has forced a change in our lives that allows us to refocus upon our faith and to create a new and more meaningful expression of that faith than we had become used to in a “normal” church service.

Maybe you can create your own “church service” to practice your faith. Watch the videos or streaming broadcasts that may be available. Go find your Bible and spend a little of the time that you have suddenly been given by your isolation to reacquaint yourself with it. Take time for prayer each day. I think you will find that some of the fear and anxiety that you may have been experiencing will melt away. Strengthening your faith allows you to also strengthen your hope and will give you the strength to get through this crisis.

Let God know that your faith is still strong, even if you cannot attend church services. Pray and ask God for the right thing – not that He make this go away; rather, that he strengthen your faith so that you can get through it. Where you can and where it is safe to do so, put your faith into action through volunteering to help others get through this crisis. We are only without church services during this epidemic, not without faith. Keep the faith!


Don’t permit yourself to be a victim…

March 21, 2020

In times as tough as the  ones that we are all currently experiencing there is a natural tendency to see yourself as a victim; however, that is something that you can fight and control. Don’t give yourself permission to be a victim, to wallow in self-pity and to let yourself be swept down into the pit of despair. Instead, see yourself as a fighter who will overcome the adversity at hand and defeat pessimism through courageous acts of defiance. Don’t permit yourself to be a victim.

Once you adopt the attitude that you refuse to lose, you can turn your energies and creativity to the task and hand – moving from surviving to thriving during these tough times. Hunkering down into survival mode is the first thing that most people and small businesses do. You start to notice almost immediately the people and businesses that have decided not to be victims. The people who have decided that fight rather than fright will rule their lives, start forming or joining volunteer organizations to help others. 

The small businesses who are on the offensive, rather than hunkered down in defense, shift to new and innovate ways of doing business and appealing to customers. I have already seen that locally with the Milford Pilates Club, where Tisha Ortiz was forced to close her gym, but has already begun leading Pilates workout using on-line streaming. Tisha refuses to give up and see herself as a victim. Is it easy? No. However, the alternative is much less attractive. Don’t permit yourself to be a victim.

There are lots of things that need to be done that this current lockdown situation actually facilitates. Taking this time to do those things that you’ve been putting off will help the time pass and reward you with a sense of accomplishment. My daughter used some of her downtime last week to finally get around to updating the scrapbooks that she has started years ago for each of her boys. That may sound silly or trivial to you, but there are tins of things that you’ve been putting off doing, both large and small, that you can get to right now. Don’t permit yourself to be a victim.

The same is true on the small business world. There are always tasks that we all push off because we think that there are more important uses of our time. We have time now. Boy, do we have time. So get that inventory done or clean up that storage space that you’ve just been tossing things into. Rearrange the displays that you’ve allowed to go stale. There may not be anyone in your store to see them right now, but that will change and you will be more ready for them that you have been. Now that you have time, sit down and plan for the months ahead – for the holidays, the events and the sales that you know that you’ll need to have. View this as a “time-out” opportunity to finally get caught up and to get ahead of the curve in your marketing.  Don’t permit yourself to be a victim.

An even more pro-active approach for the small business owner is to view this crisis as a reset opportunity. You most likely would not have voluntarily brought your on-going business to a halt; nor would you have challenged yourself to completely rethink your business model. This crisis has forced  and enabled both. Can you think outside the box and maybe move some of your business to the Internet, as Tisha did? Don’t permit yourself to be a victim.

If you already have an Internet presence, can you take it to the next level, so that it makes up for the reduction in traffic in your store? How can you present the same personal service experience on the internet that works for you in the store?  How can your Internet presence and your brick and mortar facility complement and enhance each other? How can you use modern technologies and media like streaming video, blows and podcasts, social media and instant messaging services to reach your potential customers and entice them into buying online or in your store? Don’t permit yourself to be a victim.

All of those ideas are much less expensive to implement that you might believe. Not all fit your retail or service environment. The key to getting started with any of these ideas is that initial decision not to see yourself as a victim. Victims don’t do these things…fighters do. Be a fighter. We might not all get through this crisis, but I can almost guarantee your that the ones who do make it through will be those who decided to  fight, not those who allow themselves to be victims. Don’t permit yourself to be a victim. Be a fighter!