June 2, 2020 10:23:57 AM
On Monday, the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce hosted the first of a series of virtual network luncheons, with local business people sharing their experiences on how they have adapted to the challenges of COVID-19.
Moderated by chamber president Lisa James, seven business people, representing a variety of goods and services, shared their "peaks" and "pits" since COVID-19 began to alter the business landscape in mid-March.
David Vega, assistant vice president for commercial lending at BancorpSouth, said the low point was something all seven participants mentioned.
"The low is just not getting to see people face-to-face, (not) going to ribbon cuttings, getting out into the community and being involved in the community," Vega said. "We had to do a lot of things virtually, but nothing really takes the place of that personal contact.
Joining Vega in the luncheon were Jennifer Jones (Statewide Federal Credit Union in Starkville), Amy Bogue (Allegro Family Clinic in Columbus), Ty Robinson (Robinson Marketing in Tupelo), Daisy Jones-Brown (Born Beautiful Products in Columbus), Katrina Sunivelle (Contact Helpline in Columbus) and Stephanie Taylor (Community Counseling Services in Columbus).
All seven businesses managed to stay open, albeit in greatly altered circumstances.
That, they agreed, created an opportunity for innovation.
"I think for us, it was an opportunity to really expand our digital platforms," Jones said. "We don't have a drive-through window and our lobby wasn't open. So we really put a lot of effort into our digital platforms, not only improving them but helping clients navigate them. A lot of our clients had never used our digital services before, so this was an opportunity for us to show them more ways to access our services."
For Jones-Brown, the last two-plus months meant learning how to shift sales to online.
"It's been difficult, because we want to be with people, let them try it and see if they like it," she said. "So we had to try a different strategy."
Jones-Brown said she started immersing herself in social media and online marketing.
"I've spent more time on social media these last two months than I've ever done in my life," she said.
She also took a free marketing course -- "Ed To Go" offered by Mississippi State -- and participated in a lot of webinars.
"I've learned a lot," she said. "Online sales have really picked up."
While most said business was down appreciably during COVID-19, that wasn't true for Vega and Jones.
"We've handled a lot of PPP loans," Vega said. "I think probably about 85 percent of small businesses applied. At BancorpSouth, we handled about $1 billion in PPP loans across all our branches."
Jones said her business is up, too.
"I think people may have a little more money in their pockets and want to use it," said. "Car loans and mortgage loans have been up."
As a health care provider, Bogue faced challenges others did not.
"Early in this, one of the biggest lows was fear," she said. "Our staff was afraid. Our patients were afraid in those early days because there was just so much no one knew."
She said the clinics' doctors were instrumental in easing those fears, reading constantly all COVID-19 materials as they became available and sharing that information with both staff and patients.
"It was really hard at first. We had some patients who really needed to come in stay at home because they were afraid of getting the virus," she said. "But heart attacks don't go away just because the coronavirus is here. A big part of our challenge was helping people realize when their conditions required that they come in and letting them know it was safe."
Almost all of the business people said they used the slow time to step up professional development and training.
"That's something that every business has a need for," James noted. "So this was a great use of that down time."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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