Help Wanted: Business professor advises how to navigate the latest economic challenges

November 15, 2021

Lecturer Patrick Keyes, who teaches UM-Dearborn’s Small Business Management course and is an entrepreneur, understands struggles associated with business ownership and has a few ideas on how to work through them.

A graphic that features Lecturer Patrick Keyes and his business expertise.
A graphic that features Lecturer Patrick Keyes and his business expertise.

“Out of stock" messages on websites have risen 250 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels. Almost half of small business owners say they are finding it harder to find employees with the right skill sets to fill their positions. Heading into the holiday season, the optimism felt earlier this year isn’t as shiny and bright.

College of Business faculty member Patrick Keyes, who teaches UM-Dearborn’s Small Business Management course and has owned a business, understands struggles associated with ownership and wants people to know that there are ways through them.

“Our local economy is still being impacted by pandemic-related challenges. The U.S. economy as a whole is out of equilibrium. The country is working to correct it, but we’ll continue to feel these swings — having too much or too little — with each correction until the right balance is found,” he says. “Things like Small Business Saturday (which is Nov. 27) and help getting access to capital are good, but those don’t really address the larger issues.”

Talking with Keyes recently, he shared a few tips on how to navigate challenges and find success within the ever-present change.

Find partnerships in the community.

At one time, businesses did not talk to their competition. That’s no longer the case — Keyes says people need to put aside old thinking and find ways to work with other businesses in your area, even if they offer similar products and services.

Here’s why: You want to learn what’s working for them and what’s not. It’s also important to see what they offer and learn how you can help each other.

For example, if a customer calls your restaurant to inquire about a large lunch order, but your hours start at 4 p.m., refer the caller to a restaurant that’s open. Or if your schedule doesn’t work for a potential client’s fast-track project, connect them with another person whose services may be a fit. That creates a solution for the customer from a trusted source, and may give a financial boost to a small business in the community, and pave the way for that owner to reciprocate the referral. 

“It is always better to have half of something than all of nothing,” Keyes says. “This is an uncertain time for a lot of people. Remember that you aren’t alone in this. Other businesses are feeling it too.”

He says partnerships can lead to more than customer referrals. There’s also cross-promotional marketing, shared costs for events, larger talent pool reach and more perspective when it comes to idea generation. “We need to be working together. Business partnerships are critical for local economies.”

When it comes to relationship building, focus your attention online. 

Keyes says before people patronize or work for a business, they often are already familiar with it. “People typically don’t buy big-ticket items or hand a $300,000 contract to just anyone. Those go to people who are trusted.” He says it’s all about long-term relationships. Those take time, but the good news is that anyone can cultivate them. 

This typically begins online by hearing about someone’s positive experience or seeing a business’ social media posts. “Without a relationship, you are just another store or service,” Keyes says. Active social media channels and thought-out social strategies are a must for relationship cultivation. (UM-Dearborn students are often looking for opportunities like these for internships. Contact the Internship and Career Management Center if interested.)

Also important? Maintaining an updated “storefront” presence where people can browse and purchase, and an employment area for people to see available positions and apply. For small businesses that don’t have the resources to create a comprehensive website at the moment, Keyes says there are alternatives like an Etsy Shop or Amazon Storefront for retail and DoorDash Storefront or Grubhub for restaurants. For general services that don’t have direct up-front ordering, like construction work or consulting, post to local Facebook Marketplace sites or create an profile. If owners are looking for talent, sites like Flexjobs or Indeed can help.

No matter what you do, Keyes says look for ways to expand your web presence and budget for it. “There are third-party sites that are good to use, but if you can bring people to one place — like your website — to interact with you, that’s even better. If you have a well-managed online presence, it builds credibility and trust.”

Trust also plays a major role in hiring and employee retention. In general, loyalty isn’t the same as it once was on either side of the employer/employee relationship, Keyes says. Today employees are ultimately looking for the highest wage available and flexible remote work, but employers can’t always offer those. Even when owners have financial and location constraints, transparent and trusted workplaces make up a lot of ground.

Market and sell what you do have.

Billions of dollars in supplies are sitting in backed up U.S. ports. It’s wreaking havoc on many of the country’s industries and economists say the effect of this will likely be felt into mid-2022. Keyes understands the frustration of overcoming challenging situations...just to find more obstacles. 

However, small businesses have entrepreneurial thinking on their side, he says. The strategy and creativity that led to business development will help get them through this challenging chapter. 

One Dearborn business, I Say It with Cafe, expanded its coffee-themed gift item selection when some of the farm-sourced Puerto Rican coffee beans, a staple product, was temporarily out of stock. Hookah Love, another locally owned business, created a mobile party service that travels to businesses or homes so people can more easily gather in ways that are comfortable for them. Having a mobile service also reduces overhead costs that go with a brick-and-mortar location.

“Don’t be too focused on the hurdles or trying to go back to the way things were prior to the pandemic. If you do that, you will miss opportunities. I promise there are opportunities out there, but to get them you probably need to change how you do things. What that looks like depends on your business and its goals,” says Keyes, who says COB faculty can assist business owners with change management and new business strategies. “But what’s the same for all of us is knowing that our lives have forever changed. What worked for you three or four years ago doesn’t always work for you today. It’s the same for your customer. Embracing change is the best way forward.”

Article by Sarah Tuxbury. Want assistance with your business? Reach out to the College of Business iLabs Center for Innovation Research or email Professor Keyes directly.