YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — As the coronavirus has spread and upended almost every facet of normal life, companies that provide essential services to other businesses have seen their role as educators become more important than ever, even as they work simultaneously to keep their own businesses afloat.
“To keep salespeople busy, we’ve had them calling on our current base and offering free IT security courses to people working remotely,” says Bryan Blakeman, general manager of Valley Office Solutions and Peak IT, Boardman.“We know they’ve got more spare time because not everyone’s day is filled like it would be if they were at the office. We want to use that time to help better our customers, to stay in front of them and build relationships.”
The IT company also dedicated considerable time to help clients make the transition from offices to remote workspaces, he says. In the first couple of weeks of the coronavirus crisis, as millions of Americans started to work from home, connecting clients with the equipment they needed was one of the first and hardest steps.
“Normally, we might be able to order a laptop and have it there the next day. Now, it’s gone to two to five days before we get physical products,” Blakeman says. “Whenever we found distributors that had [equipment clients needed], we bought them in bulk just so that we’d have it. I was thinking about, ‘What if I overbuy?’ Then I’m stuck with something that we won’t need any time soon. But I’d rather have that just in case for our customers so they don’t go down.”
Technology is vital to how businesses work during the stay-at-home order and provide professional services companies a steady line of communication with clients.
For example, 898 Marketing sends a weekly e-newsletter to provide resources that can help its clients. Topics include accounting information and health tips.
“It’s who to go to with questions, what’s available for assistance and just tips that they can rely on. Hopefully, it helps them get through this,” says Jeff Ryznar, founder of the marketing firm in Canfield.
The agency also works with clients to develop plans for what their operations will look like when the pandemic wanes – and possibly surges this year or next.
“We need to prepare for a return to the state we’re in right now,” Ryznar says, referring to some medical models that have projected a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall or even as far out as 2022.
“I tell clients that it takes as much energy to hope as it does to plan. We’re helping them with content strategies, marketing strategies, operational strategies that help them get back to full production in a normal world, but with the contingency that this comes around again.”
At insurance agencies, staying in touch with clients is at the top of their to-do lists, especially for companies that have closed their doors because of the virus.
“Are there changes we can make to their policy? Some are asking if they even need [certain coverages] right now. There’s lots of discussion of premium relief and moving back payment dates,” says Ron Nanosky, founder of The Agent Insurance Services, Boardman. “If someone was going into cancellation, the insurance companies are being more lenient and pushing that back because they understand it takes more effort to re-sign somebody than it does to help them through this and keep that policy in force.”
One of the most common questions, Nanosky says, comes from restaurants that have been forced into offering delivery options as customers are barred from dining in.
Most restaurants that previously offered delivery, such as pizzerias, have insurance policies that covered either a company vehicle or drivers who used their personal vehicles.
“If they’re using their personal vehicle, that can cause problems,” he says. “Some businesses definitely need to look at their exposure if they’re doing something different.”
L. Calvin Jones Insurance Co. President Jim Klingensmith says his staff has been in constant communication with policy carriers whenever new situations arise or clients have questions about their coverages.
Right now, Klingensmith says, one of the most important things businesses can do is file any potential claims on loss-of-income insurance policies. Such coverage is, by the language of the policies, limited to physical damages, such as water or fire. But with so many businesses stopping operations during the outbreak, there is a push to have insurance carriers offer some sort of relief.
“In your contract, it says that you are to notify [the carrier] immediately upon the suspicion of a claim. The language may be cut and dry, but if the government forces their hand, you could have violated part of your contract by not notifying the carrier,” Klingensmith says. “We’re telling clients, ‘Send us the email that [says] you think you have a claim and we’ll put the carrier on notice.’ It may get denied; but it’s on record that you gave notice.”
In the legal sector, RothBlair attorney Elizabeth Farbman says the move to remote work hasn’t changed too much of the day-to-day operations of the law firm. Emails, PDFs and other digital documents have long been commonplace.
“If we went from fax machines to this, it’d be a problem. There’s been 30-odd years of becoming digital dominant. That’s allowed professionals to conduct the majority of their work at home seamlessly,” she says.
Still, the biggest concern at the RothBlair team is digital security, Farbman continues. In early April, it was reported that the video conferencing platform Zoom wasn’t encrypting its communications. For the time being, official business is being conducted by phone as the law firm searches for a secure video platform.
In the long run, she says, what’s happened over the past month will force big changes for the legal system, because courts haven’t yet adopted the technologies required to operate remotely.
“They’ll figure out the logistics. There will be less in-person status conferences and hearings that don’t require clients. It sounds clunky to do it over the phone, but it’s worked remarkably well,” Farbman says.
“And there will be less need for in-person meetings, whether existing clients or new clients,” she adds. “We’ll move to a more efficient model because we’re all getting more and more used to this.”
Pictured: L. Calvin Jones and The Magic Tree Pub and Eatery teamed up April 16 to deliver food and supplies to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Boardman. From left are Brian Battaglia, vice president at L. Calvin Jones; Jim Klingensmith, president at L. Calvin Jones; John Rudy, owner of Magic Tree Pub and Eatery; and Keith Miller, vice president at L. Calvin Jones.