How the Swine Flu United My Company

Article by:
Eric Keiles EO Philadelphia
Luis F. Gonzalez-Aspuru
EO Queretaro

It was April 2009. My business was ramping up, employee morale was high and things couldn’t get any better— and then life happened.

In my training business, much of our work involves face-to-face meetings. On one occasion, we were preparing for an important session with one of our best clients. I remember thinking at the time how lucky and grateful I was to have such a thriving business during tumultuous economic times. 

Before things got underway, my phone rang. It was my wife. She called to tell me about a “swine flu” that was affecting people in our country. While I tried to stay calm, I was unsure how this news would directly affect my business. My fear was that our clients would cancel or postpone our training sessions because of the outbreak. I was about to tell my staff the news when my client’s human resources director ran up to me.

“Luis, I have bad news. The training is cancelled, and we don’t know when we are resuming operations, so don’t ask,” she said. “I’m sorry, but please pick up your stuff. We will call you later.”

And then she left, taking all of her 100 employees with her. What was supposed to be a huge training had just been put on the backburner. We were stunned, to say the least. I thought about the nine other client sessions we had scheduled for the coming weeks. What would happen to them? What would happen to my business?

I was worried, and I wasn’t sure I could handle such a hit. And then I thought about what one of my mentors taught me long ago: When emotion goes up, intelligence goes down. I immediately walked out of the conference room, sat down and started figuring out what to do.

It was then that I realized people were waiting for my instructions. I had to be a leader. I had to make hard decisions in a time of emergency. People counted on me. I walked back to the room and did what entrepreneurs do best: I led. I sent my staff home and told them to meet me at a specific restaurant at a later time, no exceptions.

When I arrived at the restaurant, the atmosphere was bleak. Everybody was speculating about the flu and the implications it could potentially have on the business. If the government ruled against mass meetings due to the possible spread of swine flu, we would be out of business.

I looked my employees in the eyes and spoke from the heart. I told them that we weren’t leaving the restaurant until three things happened. First, we had to change our mood and keep the energy up.

Second, we had to brainstorm ideas on how to continue to train our clients. Finally, we had to come up with other business products and services that did not require the gathering of people.

Within minutes, everybody was writing and yelling enthusiastically. A flipchart appeared out of nowhere, coffee never stopped pouring and we were back in business. By uniting as a team in a time of uncertainty, we were able to leverage one another’s experiences and come up with three basic actions that would help us stay afloat. They included:

  • Immediately communicate our contingency plan to all of our clients; they needed to be kept in the loop when it came to our services
  • Create an “objection handling” process for the specific crisis; we needed to know what we were up against and how to best address the issue
  • Conceptualize and create a new online marketing product for training within the next three weeks

In the end, everything worked out for the best. Fear over the swine flu dissipated, we were able to reschedule the trainings and we even created a new product that was never on our radar screens. More importantly, we learned that together we can overcome anything.

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