Launch Tennessee sporadically publishes essays written by entrepreneurs, investors, and supporters of the startup ecosystem here in Tennessee and across the southeast region, sharing thoughtful and unique observations and perspectives on the business landscape and the challenges they’re encountering.
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Covid-19 changed the game for businesses, and the big question now is: How much of that change is permanent, and how much is temporary? Several Tennessee startups are betting that the changes we’ve seen to consumer preferences and business operations during the pandemic will be permanent. In other words, there’s no going back.
These shifts leave the landscape changed, but they are not entirely new concepts. What we’ve seen is a compression—changes that would have naturally taken two to three years have happened practically overnight, and that’s propelling growth and market expansion for many tech companies in our own backyard.
Customers want digital-first engagement.
Businesses have had to switch from in-person customer engagement to virtual. It’s been a big shift for many small businesses, but a welcomed one for consumers, who value the speed and convenience of digital engagement.
“In our world, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the status quo of how customers interact with self storage facilities,” says Matt Huddleston, CEO of the made-for-self storage website platform StoragePug, based in Knoxville. “The need for contactless rentals meant a lot of self storage investors and operators scrambled to find tech solutions that quickly and efficiently moved their business online.
“Prior to the pandemic, our clients saw us as a tool that gave them a competitive advantage. With Covid-19, we quickly went from a cool-to-have tool to a necessity to meet the needs of your customers. We’re lucky to get to do this, and it’s truly amazing to read story after story of how operators use our digital tools to find customers, rent units online, and keep their staff safe.”
This change applies beyond self storage web platforms to most customer engagement. Curbside pick-up and mobile shopping are often better and most satisfying experiences than walking into a restaurant or store. Video calls are more convenient than traveling long distances to meet face-to-face, and, as any millennial will testify, texting fits into schedules better than calling. Consumers will not unlearn these habits, and in many cases, this shift to digital-first in fact brings customers and businesses closer together. That’s a good thing.
“At the start of the pandemic,” says Brian Elrod, co-founder and CEO of Chattanooga’s business messaging software Text Request, “businesses were scrambling to quickly get lots of updates out to customers about whether they were open, safety precautions they were taking, changes in hours or operations, you name it.
“They turned to texting, because 95% of texts are read within three minutes, and, specifically, to Text Request to power those messages. Again and again, they saw engagement soar compared to the emails and social media posts on which they were relying before, not just for Covid-19 updates, but for sales and customer service, lead generation and scheduling. It’s how consumers want to interact with businesses, and consumers won’t unlearn this preference. It’s up to businesses to adapt, and we’re here to help them do that.”
On top of adapting to consumers’ new inclinations, small businesses have to keep employees’ needs top of mind, too.
Distributed workforces are the new norm.
Distributed workforces—working from home or across remote locations—became the norm in 2020 instead of the exception, and the speed at which companies adopted new technologies to keep employees productive skyrocketed.
“Prior to Covid-19,” says Brian Trautschold, co-founder and Chief Operations Officer of Ambition, the sales coaching and management software company with teams in Nashville and Chattanooga, “forward-thinking sales organizations were already investing in ‘digital transformation’ and how they could enable more effective and productive sales people.
“They (and we) never expected a truly overnight transition to ‘work from home,’ but after the infrastructure layer was secured–making sure sales reps had laptops and click-to-call solutions, Zoom, and so on–we saw a huge new priority to invest in sales insights, employee engagement, and manager workflows. So many of these tasks had offline or manual processes before. In the new remote world, companies had to have better systems to achieve their objectives and build amazing sales cultures—wherever they happen to be working from.”
But as employers have learned throughout this pandemic, keeping employees productive while geographically distant is just one part of the equation. Another challenge, particularly for frontline workers and those with less collaborative roles, is proactively responding to employee sentiment.
Max Farrell, co-founder and CEO of employee retention and engagement software WorkHound, based in Chattanooga, says, “At WorkHound, we help companies keep a pulse on their distributed workforce. This has only increased in importance since the pandemic. With situations regularly changing in the world, the most innovative companies have become their employees’ co-pilot.
“They are showing extra empathy to ensure their workforce is aware of changing dynamics out in the world. For example, trucking companies have used feedback from their drivers to create more frequent communication strategies. People will remember the companies that had their back during this pandemic, long after this is all over.”
Kenneth Burke is Vice President of Marketing for Text Request, a high-growth business messaging software company. He’s received awards for his work in psychology research and in sales and has helped dozens of businesses, from pre-launch startups to billion-dollar companies, achieve their goals.