Business Unusual: Round Table Discussion

In this edition of Business Unusual, Ruby’s own Director of Strategic Communications, Katie Hurst, talks COVID-19 with entrepreneurs. The panel discusses new technologies, strategies, setbacks, and wins. 

Katie Hurst:
Hi. My name is Katie Hurst and I’m the Director of Communications here at Ruby. And I’m really excited today to host the panel on Moving forward; discussing what comes next and how businesses are planning ahead. We have a fantastic group of panelists here for you and let’s go ahead and get started. I’m going to start and have everyone introduce themselves. Let’s go ahead and start with Robin.

Robin DeTrude:
Hi. I’m Robin DeTrude. I am the owner of Elaine’s Salon located in Fishers, Indiana.

Katie Hurst:
Thank you. And Robust Promotion.

Greg Seei:
Hi. I’m Greg. I’m with Robust Promotions. We’re a sweepstakes and promotions agency for retailers.

Leslie Allison:
And I’m his wife, Leslie, and we’ve been doing this business for 14 years now.

Katie Hurst:
Awesome. All right. And Joshua.

Joshua Zissman:
Hi. I am the Chief Operating Officer for an oral surgery practice outside of Philadelphia.

Katie Hurst:
All right. So we’ve got folks from just about everywhere. I’m so excited. We’re going to start with a really simple question, although it is a little bit loaded, which is, has your business survived a disaster or crisis before and how is this different? Let’s go ahead and start with Leslie and Greg. Have you experienced a crisis like this? And if so, why is COVID different?

Greg Seei:
Yeah, I think we failed to say we’re outside of Chicago in the suburbs, but we sell nationwide. Mostly to restaurant chains, but we have other retailers. And in the great recession, we had a bounce back that wasn’t V-shaped. We at our best seven months in 2009 after a goose egg for the first five months, and we did more in those seven months than we’ve done in any year in the 14 years we’ve been in business. So we spiked straight up. Once people got past the fear, we got flooded.

Katie Hurst:
Okay. Robin, how about you? With the salon business, have you guys been pretty much weatherproof in terms of disaster or crisis, or have you experienced something like this before?

Robin DeTrude:
I have to tell you, we are so lucky. We have never ever experienced anything like we’ve just been through. Even throughout some of the leanest times for clients, we always seem to make it through okay.

Katie Hurst:
And similarly, Joshua, as an oral surgery, have you guys experienced anything that would have affected your business related to disaster or crisis?

Joshua Zissman:
I’m relatively new to the business a little over two years, but as I understand it in the 30 years at the practice is that it’s never experienced anything like this, where basically we were forced to close and then allowed to open up to just deal with emergent and urgent patients at a very, very, very limited basis. So, not really.

Katie Hurst:
And you guys are still on a limited basis of being able to interact and take client appointments, correct?

Joshua Zissman:
Actually, no. In Pennsylvania, they’ve just allowed or maintained the dentist offices were allowed to open up for full-service of course observing all PPE and social distancing and all that stuff. But we are now back up and running. As an oral surgery practice we’re looking for [inaudible 00:03:08]. General dentists, we don’t do hygiene and things like that, which are actually still somewhat limited.

Katie Hurst:
Right. And it’s so interesting you guys being from all different parts of the country talking about different types of reopening schedules that are happening right now. We’ll get to that a little bit later. Let’s talk a little bit about what’s a fundamental of your business that you’ve had to completely rethink? And let’s go to Robin for this question first.

Robin DeTrude:
I really liked this question because it really made me think about what all we had to do. And I have to say the first and foremost it was the safety of my staff and clients. Having safety protocols in place, policies, procedures for staff and clients I found is huge in what we just went through and what we’re still going through, quite frankly.

Katie Hurst:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). And going back to Joshua. I’d imagine that’s something, even though you guys are… Dentists’ offices are very aware of PPE and making sure that everything’s hygenic. have you had to rethink how you interact and do appointments?

Joshua Zissman:
Oh absolutely. We’re doing telemedicine appointments, the staff is much more dressed up in PPE than they ever were before. We didn’t do face shields and goggles and full gowns and all that stuff, which is definitely part of what’s going on now, no magazines in our waiting room anymore. All those things that people touch, the cleaning procedures though always were very meticulous, are even more so. I mean, every surface is getting wiped down now whereas before we may not have wiped down a countertop because the patient wasn’t going anywhere near, that kind of thing.

Joshua Zissman:
So, yes. It’s definitely given us a lot more to think about and quite frankly a lot more for the staff to deal with on a minute-by-minute basis. And that PPE that we’re wearing, it’s very hot actually. For anyone who’s been in an oral surgeon’s office, they like to keep it really cold. And even as chilly as the offices are kept, the staff gets hot after dealing with four or five, six patients. So yes. Definitely has had an impact.

Katie Hurst:
Oh, that’s interesting. I wouldn’t have thought of that before. It’s acting like a sweatsuit and now the patients should come in a little bit more dressed in warm clothes since the air might be turned down a little bit more it sounds like.

Joshua Zissman:
This is true.

Katie Hurst:
All right. So Greg and Leslie, talk to us a little bit about what has changed about your business?

Greg Seei:
Well, when we started 14 years ago, we built out two offices and we thought that the clients would come to us and they didn’t. The only one that enjoyed our offices were us and the UPS guy.

Leslie Allison:
And the dog.

Greg Seei:
So we toned it about halfway through and we still have nice offices. We’re there now, but what we relied on in the interim was face-to-face, so airplanes basically to get to clients and prospects. And now that’s out.

Leslie Allison:
Right, trade shows.

Greg Seei:
Yeah, trade shows, conventions, conferences, and then on-site with clients, and that’s gone. So everything’s changed.

Katie Hurst:
Yeah. And going onto the next question, since you guys specifically brought this up, I’ll stick with you guys. COVID and the idea of a post-COVID world, how has it changed the way you approach your business? You guys mentioned you had thought about some of this stuff, but had put it off, put it off. So talk to me a little bit about how are you approaching your business planning now?

Greg Seei:
Well yeah, we thought mistakenly that restaurants were a recession-proof industry because you have to eat three times a day. And as we know, because of the lockdown, restaurants have been hit about as hard as anything, maybe cruise ships and airlines. So that business has come to a complete stop. So we’ve pivoted into C stores and other retail and we’re doing stuff with charities and nonprofits because they can’t do events and that’s how they make their money and raise revenue for their causes. So we’ve had to be agile and shift on the fly, but we’re a small agency say four people fast.

Leslie Allison:
Few retailers.

Greg Seei:
Yeah, few retailers, convenience stores. The retailers that are still operating but even fuel retailers are not operating to the extent that they were before, because people are going out and driving as much as they were. So it’s just been challenging.

Leslie Allison:
And for our core business, it’s been a real challenge for me. I’m basically our marketing arm so to speak of our business. And I’ve been busier, even though we haven’t had a lot of sweepstakes and promotions going on right now, I’ve actually been busier with the webinars that I’ve been attending, just trying to keep abreast of what their new policies and what the restaurant industry is thinking, how they’re going to proceed. And so now I’m pivoting that portion of our business to do more of a “thank you,” looking at doing thank you promotions, as opposed to bounce-back promotions. We have to figure out how to get people to actually come back into the restaurants, right?

Katie Hurst:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Leslie Allison:
Even once they open. Just because they open, people are not just running to those restaurants right now. So I’m switching our whole way of looking at the promotions and sweepstakes to go after thanking them for coming back, sticking with them, that type of thing.

Katie Hurst:
Yeah. Well, that’s interesting, that I could see it affecting Robin’s business as well. That even though salons are opening up, people may be a little bit reluctant to come in. So taking this question to you Robin, how have you changed the way that you approach business planning because of COVID?

Robin DeTrude:
Well, this has caused me to rethink the value of product sales, gift certificate sales. And the other thing is just how important it is to communicate with clients via social media, texting, all that kind of stuff. Even though the salon was closed, I still made sure clients were able to come and set up a time to pick up products that they needed. Some of our clients, God bless them, bought gift certificates just to keep money in the Elaine’s account. Just to help us stay fiscally sound while our doors were shut. So it has really caused me to come up within my staff interesting creative ways to keep some revenue, very small, but keep revenue still coming in during that time.

Katie Hurst:
Yeah. And it sounds like Leslie and Greg, there’s some overlap in terms of you guys are helping other restaurants with those promotions and Elaine is coming up with some new ways for her own salon. So there’s some overlap there. Going to Joshua, I mean, your business can’t do gift certificates and things like that. So how has COVID approached the way you do your business planning? Especially as you mentioned, being the CFO?

Joshua Zissman:
Well, that’s in many, many different ways. We’re doing a lot more virtual stuff with telemedicine. Our website, social media sites have all been enhanced greatly with interactive communications. As an oral surgery practice, we’re based a lot of our business comes from our referring dentists. Well, right now, half of our three quarter of our referring dentists still aren’t even open yet. So it’s a matter of how do we get patients through the door if their referring dentists aren’t seeing them? So direct marketing has become a bigger tool for us being able to, again, optimize our website for SEO and searches and Google reviews and all those kinds of things, which as an oral surgery medical practice, who the heck would ever thought that you’d need to do those things? It’s like, “Well, it will just come. Build it and they will come.” Well, it’s not happening anymore. So you’ve got to show people that you’ve got it built already. So it’s definitely changed our scheduling and everything we’re doing about marketing. We hired a marketing director. I mean-

Katie Hurst:
Wow, that’s a first. You guys haven’t had a marketing director before?

Joshua Zissman:
No, I was doing a rather poor job of it myself. I’m not a marketing person and I try not to have a Facebook and Instagram account, but you need to have those things. And we needed someone who understood how to navigate all that. And in addition to spending time on our website and optimizing the SEO and all of those things that I could scratch the surface of, but I was certainly not the person, the right person to be doing it.

Katie Hurst:
So it sounds like there’s an opportunity out there for marketers, oral surgery practices may be in need of your assistance.

Joshua Zissman:
Well, I will tell you that it’s real interesting because dentists and oral surgeons are not necessarily the people who think in terms of what they need to do to market. And right now, COVID has made it absolutely essential that if you’re not ahead of the curve, you’re going to get buried under the wave. And we really try to stay ahead of it and I think we’re doing okay. But, let’s see what happens in three months. I mean, that’s…

Katie Hurst:
Yeah. And that’s actually… Let me follow up then with the next question which is, what are you changing in the short-term versus what you think will need to change in the long-term? Do you think marketing will be a continued long-term strategy for you guys? Or will you go back to relying on referring partners you think?

Joshua Zissman:
No. I think the world has changed. We think the world has changed. My managing partner is a very smart guy and he totally understands the fact that it’s a different world. I mean, up to this point, we had a fair number of people who came to us who were not referred, but at the same time the majority of our patients were. So how do we shift that from more unreferred patients to referred? Because at the same time, a lot of the dentists are now doing things that we do. I’m sure everyone on this call, besides me, has a dentist who says, “We’ll do your implants for you.” And reality is that they’re not oral surgeons. They don’t do implants the way oral surgeons do implants. So let me just make a recommendation. If you have oral surgeons in your area, go to your oral surgeon for an implant not your dentist.

Katie Hurst:
All right. So asking that same question which is, what are you changing short-term versus long-term? Since Greg and Leslie are on my screen right now, what are you guys changing the short-term versus long-term, and are things that you’re doing now thinking you’re going to continue doing them even after things reopen?

Greg Seei:
Yeah. We touched on it earlier. For a long time, I was intending to make the transition from the restaurant sector into convenience and fuel retail. And we just out of necessity were nudged that direction. And that was fortunate that we had 80% of our plans in place so we just had to dust off those plans, bring them to fruition, and go to market. So we’re right in the middle of that right now.

Katie Hurst:
Well, I’m very excited. I’ll have to follow up with you guys after to hear how that transition is going in a couple of months.

Greg Seei:
Sure.

Katie Hurst:
Robin, so short-term versus long-term. What changes did you make short-term and what things do you think will last through that you’ve changed into the long-term?

Robin DeTrude:
Well, the short-term things that we’ve done and put into place are, for instance, I won’t allow my stylist right now to double-book. Sometimes we will have one client in the chair, put them out and they’ll slap some color on them and put them over and wait and then do a haircut in between. There’s no more doing that. Clients need to stay in their car until the stylist texts them to come on in. No magazines, one of the things I love the most about Elaine’s is we take pride in Golly. We have soft drinks and coffees and we serve with ice and all those things, all that stuff is done. So we have to wear masks and all that good stuff. But I think in the long-term some of these things we’re going to stick with, because I just think Joshua was absolutely right. We are definitely in a new world. We’re going to get together and continue as a team to talk about things and just see what we come up with and what we’re all most comfortable with that keeps everyone safe at the same time.

Katie Hurst:
So this is a good question because you all are small business owners and as I was talking to Robin earlier, it sounds like you guys have communities of small business owners as well that you know and interact with. So what is something you’ve seen other businesses do that you admire or/and would like to implement and why? And we’ll just stick with Robin.

Robin DeTrude:
Okay. Well, for me, first of all… Gosh, I always keep my mind open for whatever comes down the pipe and what other people are doing. I think that’s very important to do that. Having said that, I truly feel like I was… Oh my goodness, I was ready to open the day they closed us down. I knew exactly what needed to happen. I prefer to lead if you will. I prefer to lead and I did take other peoples’ ideas and I also took… We have a fantastic source, it’s called Behind the Chair, that really I leaned on a lot to help me wrap around what I thought was the right thing to do and I was able to implement some of that.

Katie Hurst:
That’s awesome. I love, small business owners are often the trailblazers, right? So Greg and Leslie, have been maybe clients or other businesses that you guys admire and that you’ve implemented some of their ideas or would like to implement some of their ideas?

Greg Seei:
Yeah, because everyone’s scrambling and trying new things, an adjacent business, somebody that we’ve worked with before, reached out and asked if we could help with something that was happening with a star. And they’re going to put a sweepstakes around it and hand out a million dollar grand prize on sunset Boulevard days before the lockdown in California. So we were into planning that and I started looking into social influencers and seeing that that could be a real opportunity for what we do. You get most immediate PR out of it that lends credibility to it. It scales quickly because you’ve got a known entity behind it or entities. So I’d like to get into more of that because our initiatives and campaigns lend themselves to that and we just haven’t done anything in it in 14 years. It’s surprising because we work with big brands like Applebee’s and Popeye’s and we just have never tied that with George Clooney or Justin Bieber or whoever. So it seems like that’s a simple no-brainer. We just never have thought of that before.

Katie Hurst:
Yeah. It certainly seems that this time is bringing together…

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