As the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic ravage across the world, many businesses, including electrical contractors and estimators, are finding themselves doing business in a new way.

Here in the UK and across the world, projects within the construction sector have often been permitted to continue, as long as they can follow new health and safety guidelines for reducing virus exposure.

One of the tricky things that businesses face, along with their employees, is that there is no certainty around when this will end. Is “back to normal” ever going to be an option? We don’t have any answers, but we do know from pandemics of the past that eventually, this too will pass.

Some businesses will continue to do well. Others, sadly, won’t make it. What separates the two? History shows us that it’s often the ability to innovate…

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Innovating during hard times

Whenever disaster strikes – pandemics, economic downturns, depressions – many companies ramp down any programs or initiatives that help them to be innovative. There’s a sense of battening down the hatches and trying to ride it out by sticking with what they already know well.

The problem with this approach is that novel situations often call for novel measures. If you hunker down and try to wait things out, the business landscape may move on without you. Here’s an example from the technology sector:

The companies whose business model remained focused on hardware have had a difficult time growing.  By 2001, Compaq merged with HP.  A decade later, Dell took itself private in order to refocus its business.  The companies that fared best were ones that took the opportunity to focus on the future rather than optimizing current business.  IBM is a great example.  They elected to get out of the hardware business and to focus on providing business services.”

Another example can be found from the Great Depression, when two cereal companies were the dominant choices in the United States – Kellogg and Post. Of the two, Post reigned in expenses as a reaction to the economic climate. They cut back on advertising and took a “ride it out” approach. On the other hand, Kellogg doubled its advertising budget and heavily promoted their new cereal, Rice Krispies. Their innovation paid off – by 1933, their profits had risen by 30% even as the economy tanked. They became the dominant cereal company and are still huge today.

So, while the temptation to lie low, cut back and try to ride things out can be strong, history tells us that taking the opposite approach can pay off. The question for electrical businesses is, how can you innovate?

How can electrical businesses innovate?

We’re already seeing many electrical businesses move to make changes to how they work during the pandemic. For example, many are having to find ways to do the tasks that they usually perform, but with added measures for social distancing or disinfecting areas.

In some cases, it has involved a complete re-think of how they’d usually do things. There are many construction-related tasks which become unsafe if everyone is forced to maintain six feet distance from one another, so companies are evaluating and putting in place new ways to get the job done.

In terms of meeting with clients, providing quotations or getting the usual, everyday office work done, a large number have turned to technology solutions that they may not have used previously. For example, client meetings, even walk-throughs of houses or building sites, can be done using video conferencing apps such as Zoom or WhatsApp. These are also great innovations for being considerate of the customer – there are many people out there for whom meeting in-person would cause serious anxiety, or can be a significant risk.

Cloud-based software has an important role to play because it allows electrical estimators and other employees to get on with their work from anywhere they have an internet or data connection. Work can easily be shared among colleagues and everyone knows they’re looking at the most up-to-date version, since saving to the cloud happens immediately. For example, check out Ronan Carroll of Lucid Electric, who has continued working steadily from home, producing electrical estimates with Countfire.

Innovations such as these don’t need to stop when the pandemic is over, particularly where they can actually provide added convenience to the business and customers. For example, meetings via video conferencing app might suit a lot of busy, or vulnerable clients better no matter what is going on in the world.

What about working from home? Could enabling that ability in the long-term actually be beneficial for your business? Various studies indicate it could be advantageous, with benefits such as improved employee productivity and lower overheads. Some electrical estimators we have spoken with have been working from home for a long time, even prior to COVID. They enjoy not having a commute and their companies don’t need to spend as much on office supplies and equipment.

Cloud-based software, electrical estimation software, takeoff software

How else might electrical businesses innovate? Here are a few thoughts:

Define customer needs

Are the needs of your customers the same today as they were pre-COVID? Are they likely to change in the future? Some of the most successful businesses are those that are able to meet clearly defined needs – and do it well. If you can anticipate any future trends, even better. For example, could there be more of a market for “touchless” technology, especially as many have become used to it during the pandemic?

Don’t die on the hill of “that’s how we’ve always done things”

Now might be the right time to assess your operations, look for anything that can be improved, streamlined or cut and look to innovate your processes. Sometimes there is resistance among contractors of all types, with a protest of “but that’s how we’ve always done things,” or, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

There are multiple ways in which tasks that you do every day can be made more efficient with the right systems and processes. Of course, our example is counting takeoffs. Automated counting can help you to create quicker, more accurate estimates than doing a manual count of drawings.

Keep promoting your business and talking to your clients

You don’t want to be Post of the 1930s – if you keep promoting your business and communicating with your clients, you’ll stay on top of what’s happening and possibly find opportunities to innovate and stay ahead.

It’s also important to stay visible so that you don’t then have to build your profile back up post-COVID. In all likelihood, many businesses will be struggling. It could be to your advantage to have kept up your visibility once things return back to normal.

Look at the policies you might want to keep

You’ve probably got all sorts of new policies in place to ensure COVID requirements are met – are there any that might be useful to keep afterwards? What about during flu seasons? For example many job sites put in extra handwashing facilities to ensure they were easily accessible to workers. Could something like this help your crews to stay healthier in the future?

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Final thoughts

In difficult times such as we’re experiencing with COVID, the most innovative businesses often come out on top. For electrical businesses, we see a real opportunity to update systems and processes and ensure that you’re keeping up with what customers really need.

There’s a sense of “innovate, or be left behind.” That doesn’t mean you need the latest bells and whistles for everything – it’s more of a mindset. What opportunities do you see to get ahead by doing something slightly different? How can you serve clients better than the competition? These are great starting points to stay relevant well past COVID.