Friday, November 21, 2014

Business Lessons: Buffalo Blizzard 2014

The greater Buffalo, NY area has been socked with 6-8 feet of snow in the last 4 days. The first 5 fell in the first 24 hours.  Most of the southern half of the area has been under a travel ban. The interstates are closed. Over a thousand motorists were stranded in their vehicles according to local news casts. Buildings are collapsing under the weight of the snow, and there is a substantial flood risk for over 200,000 people. So naturally, businesses have had a very unusual work week. What are we learning?

The good lessons:

1) Take advantage of technology! Many companies changed their websites and voice mail systems to a message like, "We are sorry for the inconvenience, but we are closed today due to severe weather conditions. We look forward to serving you as soon as we are able to reach the office." Some had calls re-routed to cell phones. Many others listed home phone numbers of employees to manage customer service calls and take orders which will be fulfilled after the state of emergency passes. These calls are being answered, and business ties are being maintained.

2) We love the companies who were able to stay open, and made creative use of their time and their space. Serving customers isn't just about making money at every moment. In the first two days of the storm, some folks slept at work, and kept their buildings open to people who were walking in from abandoned vehicles. They offered food, drink, and shelter while the storm raged on. These companies instantly became cornerstones of their communities.

3) Companies have supplied "good Samaritan" goods like food, water and blankets to rescue crews who are snowmobiling into the hardest hit areas. Other companies are donating to the rescue crews themselves, trying to keep the thousands of first responders fed, clothed, and comfortable. Using your professional network to support your community is a classy act. The kindness will be remembered for years.

4) Some companies have called employees and explained that employees will be paid for the missed work time, and that checks will go out as soon as weather allows. Employees are, understandably, very relieved. This is another classy move being made by some of the larger employers in the area. Some small, family businesses cannot afford this benefit, and are calling to check on the well being of their employees. Recipients of these calls feel very appreciated and respected. They will reap benefits in future employee loyalty.

5)  People are walking in to work, sometimes miles, and shoveling, manning phones, and clearing emails so that the company will be ready get back to work when the weather clears. These are the employees we all wish we had, and most of us aspire to be. This level of dedication and service, even in the face of disaster, makes their companies benchmarks of reliability and professionalism.

6) Business people have cleared email from home, called colleagues to postpone meetings and deliveries, and telecommuted whenever possible to keep up with, or get ahead of, their workload. These employees set an example, and make their businesses the standard to beat.

The bad lessons:

1) Bureaucratic red tape held up the ability for people to access the nearby pharmacies if their prescription was already housed at a different (unreachable) pharmacy. If your community needs medical care, execute emergency protocols as soon as possible.

2) Appointments are not being kept, but no one called or sent an email to their colleagues to let them know. With the amount of technology available, most could have made contact if they had tried. For those they were supposed to be meeting, their time was wasted. Keep in touch whenever possible!

3) Phone messages and websites have not been updated to indicate the business has temporarily closed. People have walked for miles to find gas (for generators and snow blowers) or food, only to discover the business was closed. Update your phone message at a minimum! Most systems can be accessed remotely for this purpose.

4) Although they are located in an area where snow makes travel impossible at least once, and sometimes several times per year, many companies had no emergency protocols in place. This left management and staff scrambling to create a cohesive and effective plan on the fly. Guess how well that worked out? Create an emergency plan, and communicate it to all levels of management. Your emergency may not be snow, but fire, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes are just some of the emergencies faced by communities every day.

5) Lastly, many bosses insisted their staff report to work in spite of the travel bans. Bad idea! Those employees who tried to drive in were rewarded with some very expensive tickets from police, and many were stranded in impassable road conditions. People are angry. It will take a long time to rebuild goodwill among these employees. Respect local law enforcement, and let your staff do the same.

The difference between the good and bad lessons, in general, is thoughtfulness.  Those who view themselves as in service to others have made their customers, employees and businesses a priority in any way they can. Those who did not will pay the price.

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