A common theme emerged as four women entrepreneurs shared their experiences adapting in a changing business landscape — aka through the coronavirus.
It's all about connecting with customers, both with technology and by using a personal touch.
"The pandemic threw us for a loop, but also gave us the opportunity to do two things," said Dena Breslin, author, mindset coach and founder of DenaB Coaching. "Reevaluate and get really clear again in terms of our customers and who we were serving.
"It's really about the customer's pain and solving for their pain, and how you uniquely do that is what's gonna set you apart."
Breslin is one of four professionals who spoke Wednesday at the fifth-annual women's panel for Entrepreneurship Week at Kutztown University, joined by Jennifer Lau, owner of Farmhouse Flowers in Kutztown; Talia McKinney, a residential real estate agent in New York City and KU alumnus; and Amy Miller, esquire, managing partner at Miller Thielen, PC law firm in Fleetwood.
All four acknowledged technology's rising prominence in how business is conducted during the pandemic, noting some of those changes are likely permanent.
But there was also unanimous agreement on the importance of building and maintaining relationships with prospective customers.
"I kept in touch with my clients and would just communicate with them," McKinney said, "Just talking about what they're going through, how are their families.
"A lot of clients did appreciate that I was reaching out, not just talking real estate, but seeing how they're doing."
Communication is key
McKinney, who's also known for her work as an agent on TV's "Million Dollar Listing" on the Bravo network, noted how the industry underwent massive changes from in-person showings to digital walkthroughs.
Even if people couldn't physically visit a prospective residence though, she felt the key was to be completely up front about the pros and cons of any property.
"New York City is not cheap, so it's being able to communicate and point out the positives, but also be honest and transparent about things that might not work," McKinney said.
Returning to Breslin's earlier point, it was essential to talk to customers to get a deeper understanding of their needs.
"Really stepping into the client's shoes thinking about what they're going through," Breslin said. "That kind of human-to-human connection was so missing that it made all the difference in the world with providing hope and inspiration."
While that could be through a phone call, email, even a video posted to social media, that connection didn't necessarily have to be technology-based, either.
"What we found is we were actually going back to things we let go of, like postcards, actual mail, gift boxes or recognition in that way, because we couldn't connect," Breslin said.
"It's a whole new world, but if we're gonna be on Zoom and connecting this way, how can we make it real? How can we make that personal connection happen?"
Digital business practices are here to stay
While technology can make business feel impersonal at times, it has made things easier for customers, too, noted Miller.
As the threat of COVID-19 subsides, courts and law firms that pivoted to digital meetings and hearings where possible will eventually move back to more in-person proceedings. However, some of the advantageous aspects technology provides will undoubtedly remain in use in the legal system well after the pandemic ends.
"What the pandemic taught us is we're going to use a hybrid now," Miller said.
"We started offering more video conferences and consults and, honestly, it's been really beneficial for clients. It makes some things in the practice harder, but for clients, it's more cost effective. Every time you have a hearing or have to meet with an attorney, they have to take off work. Now, they can take an hour off instead of a day."
Miller practices family law and observed in more contentious cases, a digital set-up helped put some clients' nerves at ease.
"We'll look at how we're meeting and if there's a better way to schedule things," Miller said.
And in the fast-moving world of residential real estate, where properties can move in the blink of an eye, digital walkthroughs can level the playing field.
"So many people bought properties that weren't even in the space and just walked through on these 3D videos," McKinney said. "It sort of became the norm now. They're out of town or just want to get a better sense of what the space is before going to see it.
"It's something good that came from this that's helping our business, and it's a time saver for myself and for buyers."
'Clients turned into friends'
Innovating business models on the fly was huge for brick-and-mortar retailers as well, said Lau, recalling how Farmhouse Flowers shifted to events and other promotions to generate business. The store also upgraded its website to accommodate online ordering.
But particularly at the local business level, partnerships turned out to be a great resource as well.
"It's very important to collaborate with other small businesses," Lau said, discussing a Mother's Day offer Farmhouse Flowers did in conjunction with a nearby hair salon. "We made gift boxes with flowers, salon products, gift certificates and it worked out really well."
Lau said they were considering running the promotion again in 2021.
"It's just a way to support each other, especially for small businesses," Lau said.
Even some of those ideas were a direct result of conversing with customers and listening to what services they wanted or would be interesting in trying though.
The running theme of the nearly hour-long chat — moderated by Lori Donofrio-Galley of the Northeast Berks Chamber of Commerce and, appropriately, held on Zoom — was communicating and connecting at every level, but especially with clients.
"A lot of my communication with clients is just hearing what they're going through," Miller said. "What they're facing, custody cases, every school district was different with how they handled shutdown, virtual schooling, and it greatly affected parents.
"My communication transitioned from the legal world to the human aspect of how are they dealing with it."
And those who found a way to build those bridges with clients sometimes found more than a sale or success.
"My clients still reach out, and clients turned into friends because of this," McKinney said.