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How My Business Survived 2020

January 13, 2021

Being an entrepreneur comes with a lot of benefits, but it also comes with a lot of challenges. I have had many rewarding times watching my business grow, and many others staring at the ceiling fan into the long hours of the night worrying about a business issue. One thing is universal; in 2020 we reaffirmed that entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. 

My family business has been a leader in the telephone answering and call center industries since 1959. It all started with my father, who saw a huge opportunity to help clients answer their phones. From those humble beginnings we grew, and I am happy to report that our business today has agents answering in eight states for thousands of clients nationwide. We didn’t get there overnight or with great ease. We got there by being prepared. 

My father loved having the latest and greatest equipment and technology money could buy; as with many entrepreneurs, innovation fascinated him, and as we grew he was always pushing us to invest in better technology. When he unexpectedly passed away in 1974, I inherited the family business at the tender age of 18. After graduating from college, I found myself a full-time, hands-on entrepreneur.  Over the years I successfully grew the business and continued the legacy my father had entrusted to me. 

My industry, like many others, has seen ups and downs. Many Call Center and Answering Service owners were unwilling to innovate or improve the quality of their product, listen to their clients, or prepare for the future simply because it was too hard, too costly, or because they saw no wisdom in fixing that which was not broken. 

But not us. 

My father’s love of technology and innovation were woven into the fabric of our business and into my personal values. With that kind of focus naturally our market share grew. With the advent of personal computing and a ubiquitous and powerful internet, the possibilities for innovation multiplied infinitely, though one aspect of innovation was always elusive, namely work-from-home. Our industry did not embrace the remote workplace model and frankly, I was initially skeptical. The technology required to do our work didn’t seem to exist. There were issues with connectivity, quality assurance, and sound quality. Further, not being able to train and supervise a call center agent in a hands-on environment seemed impossible.  Fortunately, my thoughts on this evolved and I pushed my senior managers to find innovative ways to make it happen. After much trial and error, in 2018 we started moving more and more of our staff to a very sophisticated work from home model.  We perfected our abilities to recruit, vet, hire, train, manage and coach our staff all while they were safely tucked in the confines of their home office or workspace. We also invested time and resources in maintaining our culture – it was so essential to me that we do not lose the fabric of who we were as a company. Once we saw that this was working smoothly for our agents, we started moving our training staff from our call centers to the same work-from-home arrangement.  Then we moved our support staff, our sales staff, our IT staff, then finally our executive staff.  Just prior to the end of the lease for our corporate office space we had everyone successfully working from home.  Our business was booming, we were communicating with each other in a more substantive way, and there was literally no one in our office. 

Then COVID-19 hit.

We had always been a somewhat recession-proof business. We had survived two recessions and never missed a beat, but this was different. This smelled like a recession and looked like a pending depression.  This time I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, and I don’t think I was alone in that fear.  We lost about a dozen clients due to their loss of business, but at the same time, we gained more clients.  The new clients coming on service with us saw us as a way to keep the lines of communication open with their customers without having to have employees in their offices at risk of contracting the virus.  Early on we had a small dip in inbound call volumes but then our business spiked.  Our saving grace throughout was that all of our employees were working safely from home.  We have since discovered that other call centers and answering services that had not adopted a work-from-home model were not as lucky as us, with some even going out of business.

Not every business of course has the ability to allow all or even some of their employees to work from home as we did. But the lesson here is now that we have all gone through this, you need to look at your businesses a little differently.  Having a disaster recovery plan is more important now than ever.  In many cases, we have thought that a disaster can’t happen to us.  That only happens to companies that are in a flood plain or in a hurricane zone.  But now, we have to realize that disasters come in all shapes and sizes.  Not only in a reduction of or business stoppage, but in client loss, employee loss, revenue loss, rioting, looting, and yes, illness.  Now we have seen what can happen and we must be prepared for any and all types of disasters.  And, having a plan to be able to safeguard yourself, your employees all while keeping the lines of communication open with your clients can be the thing that keeps you from financial ruin.

I am very fortunate that in a crisis, I know my team will be there to weather it. I have been blessed to have wonderful, dedicated, long-term employees. I think one of the reasons they are so good is that I have always empowered them to make decisions and own the results. Because of this, these people spend every day working in my business like they are the owners, and that has made such a difference in the quality of our product and the lives of our customers. I know that in a crisis, they will deliver to me the honest truth about where we are and what we need to do. I will always maintain that your best investments are the investments made in your people. 

One other thing that I would encourage every business owner to do is to really know your banker.  So many entrepreneurs take a passive role in their banking relationship and knowing the right banker can make all the difference. If you don’t know them, I guarantee that if you have a business bank account, there is a business banker that is assigned to that account.  You may never have met them; you may have to dig a bit to find out who it is; but as difficult as you might find it, ask if you can buy them lunch or a least a cup of coffee.  Take that opportunity to tell them and sell them on how great your business is.  Tell them about your business hardships.  Tell them about your business dreams.  A business banker, the ones who sit in lofty towers, is there to find ways to help your business financially. The more they know about you and your business, the better.  A business banker can help you with an SBA loan, a line of credit, or even work with you to understand confusing but important PPP stimulus. 

My advice for surviving a pandemic continues to be very simple: push for innovation, have a backup plan for your business operations, trust your people, know your banker, and finally, be prepared. If you didn’t know how to make lemonade out of lemons, now is the time to learn. 

2020 was an enlightening and challenging moment in time, but there will be other challenging moments, and we owe it to our clients, our employees, and ourselves to be prepared for the future. 

Wishing you incredible health and success in 2021,

Malcolm Riggle
President and CEO
Call Management Resources