Think for a minute about how long real change takes in normal times. Imagine (pre-COVID-19) that the US public school system decided to move even a portion of their learning online. How long would that have taken to iron out all the details, hear from all the constituents, come to some compromise, and then roll it out? It could have taken decades. COVID-19 hit and within a matter of weeks, students were attending online classes in America. It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t without barriers, concerns, and mistakes, but it happened. During a crisis we adapt quickly. Outside of a crisis, it is very hard to get humans to adapt.  

It doesn’t make sense to waste a good crisis, but it also hurts us when we are only concerned with them.

—Seth Godin, The Useful Crisis

Print businesses across America sent some or all of their non-essential employees home to work remotely. It didn’t happen perfectly, it had a lot of mistakes and missteps, but people adapted. COVID-19 is a huge challenge for the globe but it can have some “useful” attributes as well. I was speaking with the owner of a labels and packaging printer. He had been trying to drive the adoption of his Print MIS for years. In just the last six months, he has completely re-implemented his Print MIS, installed a prepress automation system, and launched online ordering for 800 of his customers! When I asked him why he was moving so aggressively on all fronts at once, he said that he had been trying to implement this “digital transformation” of his business for years, but was faced with extreme resistance from his long-term employees.

When COVID-19 hit, he saw it as a “useful crisis” because his employees needed/wanted to work from home and therefore had to be connected with systems, not relying on paper-based communication or face-to-face interactions. As soon as his employees were remote, all the systems he’d been trying to implement became mission-critical. Prior to 2020, he described his shop as having no real system of record because so much of the business process was happening verbally, via paper job tickets, or other non-trackable communications. Now his Print MIS is the true system of record: a centralized system whose access can be finely controlled. Anyone working from anywhere can find the exact status of any job at any time.

Adaptations during a crisis do not disappear when the crisis subsides. The adaptations become part of the post-crisis new-normal.

Any crisis can be useful. It requires us to see past the hard parts and look for the silver lining. The curious thing about COVID-19 is that it’s not hitting all industries equally. So, your response to it cannot be unilateral. Some of your customers will stop buying all together, others might accelerate their spend—and everything in between. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard about business-to-business sales during COVID-19 was from Jeff Winters in his Harvard Business Reviewarticle titled: “How to Keep Closing B2B Deals During the Pandemic.” In it he talks about understanding your prospect’s customer:

Your prospect’s customer now holds the key to your success. If your prospect’s customer is doing okay financially, then your prospect is likely more inclined to buy from you. If they’re not, your prospect’s buying behavior will change, too.

—Jeff Winters, HBR

If your prospect is a technology firm, figuring out what industry they sell their technology to will help you determine their propensity to buy during COVID-19. The crisis can be a useful reminder to diversify. If your print business services one industry that has been hit by COVID-19, 2020 has been disastrous for you. If your business is spread across multiple industries where some are up and others are down, you’re in a good position to survive 2020. It is a good idea to evaluate your business’s diversity by looking at your customer’s customer. This will give you a better sense of how diverse you really are. You could be servicing multiple industries but have consolidation within your customer’s customer.

The COVID-19 crisis is accelerating trends that were already underway. For example, remote selling, work from home, decline of email, millennials taking over the workplace, adoption of online tools, acceleration of mobile Internet access. When the COVID-19 crisis is “over,” none of these trends are going back to where they were pre-COVID. A new normal will be established. How will your business compete in this new normal? Your job as a business leader is to look at the crisis and figure out its “usefulness” so you can ride the wave of accelerated adaptation that will not be available to you post-crisis.