Every agency owner I know has heard scary words from clients over the past two months, similar to the ones I suffered multiple times: “we’re pausing work for now.”
Others had experienced worse, including the total loss of a client because that respective client’s business had shut down.
The situation appears tougher on my sole-proprietor friends working as writers or SEO professionals – especially the ones working within the entertainment and food businesses.
My company’s client situation was favorable until the first week of April. That’s when the pausing began, including a few of my larger clients.
April, for me, has always begun positive, the month setting off the second quarter that is planned thoroughly in regards to my client’s SEO and content marketing strategies.
But suddenly, the words of T.S. Eliot rang out: “April is the cruelest month…”
Anxiety – something I have trained myself over the past decade to deal with head on – set in heavier than ever.
Initially, one client paused. Then two. Then come May, which became another cruel month.
I wasn’t about to drown myself in fear, which was compounded every minute by the media.
I regrouped and put a plan together for myself and my company, the latter including a plan for the many freelancers who took a significant hit in pay.
Anxiety and I don’t jive; back in 2008, anxiety helped fuel what would become a nervous breakdown.
Never again. Though this time, the cause was far from my fault.
As Vonnegut says over 100 times as a reflection on mortality in Slaughterhouse-Five, “so it goes.”
After taking some downtime to myself to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic, and figure out what solutions I can create, I drafted some thoughts.
Many of those thoughts turned into bullet points for this Friday Focus article that can help other agency owners and sole proprietors deal with the wackiness of modernity.
Coping with COVID-19: For Yourself
Take Time to Yourself
Most of us rarely take time to ourselves, even before the pandemic.
But now, more than ever, stenciling out you-time is vital. This could mean a weekend away from it all, a day of zero work, or chunks of time taken for yourself daily.
The time allotment doesn’t matter – it only matters that you do it.
Being alone, engrossed in your thoughts, allows time for self-reflection and deeper thinking.
Don’t think you have to sit cross-legged meditating on some mountain.
Being alone could mean various things, from jogging five miles to reading a book.
My personal favorites are riding motorcycle rides at “spirited” speeds, and writing with zero distraction (a.k.a., no internet or phone).
After that first client paused in April, I took an evening to myself with a blank tablet and started writing about not only the plans for my clients and employees but also myself.
Write a book about something I’m genuinely passionate about – writing.
I finished the first draft of roughly 50,000 words in six-consecutive Wednesday evenings and took some blocked daytime hours here and there to complete the edits.
The book is with my editor and will be published shortly.
The act of writing helped me focus so intently that I was able to block the worries of the world.
And every Thursday when I awoke – sometimes mid-mornings due to losing track of time the night and early morning before – my focus was sharper than ever.
Take your top passions and religiously focus on them – alone, if possible.
I have some friends that rejuvenated their love for cycling and restoring classic cars.
This practice of alone time also teaches self-discipline for the future when this is over, allowing you to garner more value out of life in the little time we have.
Demanding alone time helps increase the proficiency and happiness of other elements of life, including relationships and the work/life balance.
Yeah – work/life balance idea sounds counterintuitive, but the more time you spend with yourself away from it all, the more productivity and quality work you’ll get done.
Understand That This Will Pass
Remember the H1N1 Swine Flu pandemic of 2009/2010 that originated in Mexico before spreading worldwide?
The CDC says it affected as many as 1.4 billion people and killed, on the high end of the statistic, over 575,000 people.
The H1N1 vaccine is now part of the flu vaccine, and it has passed.
Go further back to the Spanish Flu of 1918-1920, also known as the 1918 Flu Pandemic.
Lasting about 15 months, the CDC says that over 500 million people were affected – back then, a third of the world’s population – with an estimated 50 million dying (675,000 of those in the United States).
Remember, these two examples are pandemics that are spreadable throughout the world and not epidemics that affect a single region or community.
They do pass, though as history proves itself over and over, pandemic also returns.
Reading up on the history of pandemics and epidemics during some time to myself helped reassure me that this will pass – and sooner than I expect.
This historical data helps relieve anxiety when you take into consideration all the previous pandemics and epidemics throughout history.
Kill the Media
I worked the news circuit for five years in the early part of this century.
And though I respect everyone for what they do, once engulfed in a newsy story, it’s hard to walk away.
When pandemic talks on every website, podcast, and TV channel you see, you must give yourself a break. It’s imperative for your psyche.
When I was a night reporter at a newspaper in my younger days, I was so hurting to break a story I listened to everything.
Those years also helped drive me towards my nervous breakdown. But during my last year, I learned to block it out.
I eventually blocked it out so much I realized it wasn’t my thing, and ultimately fled the current-events news industry.
Walk away for a few moments, or hours, or days if you have enough patience and discipline – two attributes that will make everyone stronger within any life journey.
I love the news and follow it daily. But enough is enough sometimes.
I now allow myself a tiny window between the days when I see what’s going on.
Yes, news is vital and extremely essential to our existence, especially on a day-by-day basis.
But if you leave yourself gaps throughout the day – work up to four or five hours – you’ll be more productive and produce more quality work, something not only you will thank you for, but so will your clients, friends, and family.
Speaking of family…
With my five-year-old Enzo running around, my wife and I were forced to kill our doses of morning news.
We both work from home, and typically have some morning news time after our “Miracle Mornings” (thanks Hal Elrod!).
But now that Enzo is home, we were forced to kill much more of that hour we allowed ourselves.
And it’s been heavenly. Find a trusted source. Check it a few times daily. Forget the rest.
Coping with COVID-19: For Paused & Lost Clients
Add Client Incentive to ‘Paused’ Clients
I’ve become super close with my clients due to the relationships we had built.
It was as hard for them to say they needed to pause as much as it was for them to tell me so.
Again, we’re family. Money flows in both directions.
My agency provides results and constant ROI for them, and they do the same.
Immediately when the first client paused, I responded that I’d provide the most work possible to keep their rankings healthy and the money flowing.
For example, my agency had produced substantial content marketing for a finance client, which involved not only SEO and five blogs monthly for their website but also ghostwriting for major publications.
After their website was technically sound and optimized, month-after-month, the reports showed direct ROI due to my agency’s services.
And then boom, they had to pause. Not many were investing in their type of business when the pandemic hit.
I understood. They understood.
So I offered free blogs and some technical maintenance for the website. And as an incentive to my employees, I paid them for the “free” blogs for the client.
This situation happened for more than one of my clients.
Those clients are super thankful, and one is already talking about “doubling down” on services because it wants to come of the gate screaming when regular business returns – and it will.
Because all of this will soon pass.
Stay in Contact Without Being Pushy
Do this to both paused and lost clients.
One thing I learned in business – only work with clients I respect and enjoy dealing with. This has created a family-like bond with most of them.
When clients paused or have to cease work due to them shutting their proverbial doors down, don’t lose contact.
I initially felt terrible emailing them, but I learned every single one wanted to talk.
And I didn’t email asking about work; instead, I asked them how they, their friends, and their families are doing.
Everyone responded with positive vibes. Everyone wants to talk – more now than ever. And 80% of them wanted to talk via phone.
That’s a good deal for both sides. Once you realize everyone understands this wackiness, the comfort kicks in.
And so does the probability of returning to business.
Coping with COVID-19: For Your Business & Employees
Back Into the Trenches
Every successful business owner knows the famed Michael Gerber’s lesson of working on the business versus working in the business.
And yes – that’s always needed, even under dire times.
But for many agency owners that are crushed by this pandemic, sometimes you must return to working in the business to remain alive.
I lost touch with various portions of the business, including editing, but COVID-19 brought some areas back that I’m truly passionate about.
I’ve been editing and remembered the pure uncynical focus I once had on creating the best content for my clients.
And the process has helped me revive the passion I have for being there with a client’s content.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve found peace within the more granular processes, such as editing and creating ad content for existing clients.
This peace may not always be the case – hey, I still don’t want to write blogs about fashionable bras or rodents.
But to remain profitably during this pandemic, you must sometimes get back into the trenches and work within the business.
I know this will pass soon, so during the meantime, I’m going to garner as much value as possible.
Getting granular again has helped me refocus some of my client’s SEO and content strategies.
Refocusing is something we all can use from time-to-time.
Refocus on Business Plan
Do you know how many businesses I deal with that don’t have a business plan?
Some don’t have any goals set – not for 10 years, five years, or three months.
This includes many of my agency friends who simply “go with the flow.”
Of course, this is toxic and helps push the numbers of businesses failing – which is many.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), approximately 20% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 45% during the first five years, and 65% during the first 10 years.
Take these uncertain times and refocus your business plans.
I was forced to refocus my shorter-term strategies due to the paused clients, and this process forced me to revisit my five-, seven-, and 10-year plans.
A business plan is never set and forget; it’s always a work in progress.
This pandemic helped reinforce that sentiment, and much has changed, including the need for a more aggressive slimming of service offerings and precisely what types of prospective clients I need to target again.
Revisit Company Values
As part of yearly business development, I used to revisit my company’s core values every October.
Since I launched in March 2017, I had a list of five:
- Go Against Status Quo
- Creativity First
- Open to Arguments
- Be Your Best
But while revisiting business plans over the past few weeks, I realized these need some minor adjustments, and, more importantly, need to be revisited quarterly versus yearly.
My new list goes as follows:
- Creativity Over Complacency
- Strive for Only Quality
- Always Go Against Status Quo
- Never Listen to Non-Believers
- Ethical Honesty
- True Belief in Long-term Growth
- Adhere to Project Management and Timely Client Deliverables
- Constant Learning
As you can see, the core values have evolved – and this is what happens as a company grows.
I realized the double growth year-over-year has only occurred because my company has adhered to these new values.
I also realized I should be sharing these with all freelancers, and not just the ones I’m in contact with a few times a month after they turn in assignments.
I’m sure these will grow, but I’ll always cap them off at 10 or less.
A list of anything longer likely gets monotonous. And when monotony sets in, people lose interest and focus.
Over the past few weeks, I had two writers who were sporadic with quality. One week I’d offer praise; the next week, a full rewrite of the work.
As I mentioned above, because my agency had suffered a significant revenue loss, I was forced to return to some deeper trenches of the workflow.
I remained the visionary and leader, but this “new normalcy” also returned me to not just editing duties, but final editing duties, along with implementing on-page and technical SEO duties.
This process helped me refocus on the workflow coming in – and realized just how much work my editors must do with a few writers.
I know these writers are beyond capable; I handpicked every one. I also realized they were also going through the same BS as everyone else.
To make things easier by providing more input. I sent books, offered more profound editorial thoughts, and, for one, purchased some online training – the cashflow not coming from my business, but my savings.
I care that much. Not only because that writer will perform better for my clients, but his other freelance work.
Hell, I even provided another publication that’s booming with one of my best writers.
Yes – that writer will make some serious cash to compensate during this downtime.
But I also trust that writer always to put my work first because I’m the one that not only provided the first break but also continually educated.
Yes, losing clients, or having them pause, depletes energy, and causes severe anxiety.
I initially felt myself heading towards the abyss of unsettled nerves in early April but remembered some lessons from my nervous breakdown back in 2008.
I promised myself I’d never go off the deep edge again – regardless of what’s before me.
This situation was different because I had zero influence on it – but still, I had to remain true to myself.
I took the “me” time and discovered some solutions that have also helped some of my agency and sole proprietor friends.
I hope the thoughts above can help you cope with COVID-19 client anxiety as they had for me.