Meredith Schmidt of Salesforce: Cash, Connectivity and Creativity Help SMBs Survive Crisis

During the Covid-19 pandemic I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with executives from a number of companies providing assistance to small businesses who are desperately trying to hold on and survive in hopes of better days in the future.  Salesforce is one of those companies, announcing their Salesforce Care initiative last month that offers small businesses a mix of product, resources and financial support – including grants of $10,000 per small business with a total financial commitment of up to $5M.

Meredith Schmidt, Salesforce EVP & GM for Essentials and SMB,  recently joined me for a LinkedIn Live conversation to share how Salesforce is helping small businesses in these difficult times, what she’s hearing directly from small businesses during the pandemic, the importance of using technology in more creative ways to stay connected with customers, and the role Salesforce is looking to play to help small businesses to not only survive Covid-19 but position themselves to succeed once we get past the crisis.

How Can Small Businesses Survive the Pandemic?

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.  To hear the full convo watch the video or click on the embedded SoundCloud player below.

Small Business Trends: What are you hearing from the small businesses that you guys help and cater to?

Meredith Schmidt: I think there’s camps right now. Those who are just looking to make payroll, keep their employees, keep going for the next three months, is one thing. It just breaks my heart. Not just our customers, but walking around my neighborhood in San Francisco, there’s so many small businesses that are closed. There’s so many who have pivoted to do something really creative. Our butcher, who I love, started stocking fresh vegetables and fruit and bread and eggs. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing.” So I could actually get groceries, and not have to go to the massive grocery store. So you see a lot of that. You see small businesses pivoting, I think is the other.

I think there’s another camp who’s looking at, how can technology help? How do I mobilize a remote workforce? How do I stay connected? How do I share data? I guess I said two, maybe three. One is, how do I even just get through this? Some who are pivoting to even new models that are getting really creative, and then others who are doubling down and saying, the business is actually going well, let me make sure we keep it going.

Small Business Trends: Let’s talk about what Salesforce is doing, with respect to helping small businesses now.

Meredith Schmidt: There’s three things we’re really doing. One is getting thought leadership and content; how to get to resources, what does it mean for your taxes, how do you connect with customers, why do you want to connect with customers? We’ve got a lot of content that we’ve been creating, and just trying to help small businesses, not just our customers.

We also have a Salesforce Care offering that’s specific to small business. This is really about product, and how can we help you use Essentials to connect to your customers and stay connected. How can you do mass emailing? We have increased the limits on how many emails can be sent today to your contacts. I think right now more than ever, it’s about connecting and communicating.

You want to know your customers are there when you come back. And myself as a small business customer to many small businesses, I love the connections I’m getting. I’m loving the updates for the stores that are closed, and for the stores that are were not closed. But being informed and having that connection to the small business, I think is just crucial right now. And that’s one of the things that our product offering can do for you.

I actually think the most exciting thing we were able to do was to secure the small business grant fund. This is millions of dollars we were able to donate as grants to small businesses. The application process went live with our partner, an awesome small business community. Ureeka, and they’re also offering free service. Their community is all about mentorship, getting to resources. Their main community has been women, people of underrepresented minorities, people of color. And how do you help folks who don’t know how to get to the resources? And I think that’s really important.

The grant application went live last week, and we’re really looking to help as many folks as we can with the money we have. And all the criteria is online. It’s an exhaustive list, I won’t name it all, but we really want to know who’s impacted, how can this money help you, and what will you do with it? And Ureeka is actually running the entire process for us, from application to selection, and which we actually distributing the grant money, which will be $10,000 to small businesses by June.

Small Business Trends: We know they need money, but what are some of the additional things they should be doing now, to make sure that they’re in the best position to get as up to speed as fast as possible?

Meredith Schmidt: I think one is, what is the physical work environment going to look like for you? What is your business? Do you need to think about space, as a restaurant? We’re hearing a lot of restaurants are taking tables out. If that’s your business. If you have a hair salon, what are you going to do? How many customers do you want to have in there at one time? Who’s wearing a mask? So I think there’s the physical aspect of how you reopen, and what’s the social distancing you want to bring to your store. Or if you’re all remote, and maybe remote’s working for you. That’s some stories we’ve heard too, is I’ve seen some businesses who will not go back to a brick and mortar, who are saying, “This is actually cost effective, and we’re effective as a team working remotely.”

I think people are finding and inventing new ways to work. So I think part of it is, is there a new business model that is working for you now that you want to adjust to? Is there a hybrid model you want to go to?

We have a good family friend who has an amazing flower shop up in Sonoma County, does all these weddings and wineries. He had to lay off all his employees. So I ordered flowers for some of my friends, and had them all delivered here in San Francisco, which was fun. And it was a little gesture I could do, but I was talking to him with my mask on, of course. And he’s thinking about just opening a warehouse space, and bringing the employees there versus a storefront. He’s just kind of looking at, “How am I going to be profitable in the future?” So I think a lot of it is thinking about how can your business model evolve? I think there’s a lot of e-commerce, we’re seeing obviously a huge uptake in our e-commerce products, usage, transactions going through that right now. And there’s so many great products out there too, that can just help small businesses think differently. I think as we come out of this and start to accelerate again, we’re going to be hitting the holiday season. What does that look for a lot of physical goods small businesses?

So I think those are kind of two thing; what does your physical presence look like? Some people are not going to be comfortable coming into stores that don’t have, haven’t thought through space, personal space. And I think that’s really important. And then I think again, what’s your new business model? Is there something that’s working for you right now that you should continue to do and double down on? And maybe bring back some of the other. I’m so hoping that my butcher keeps the produce and the veggies and the fruit, because it’s a one stop shop for me. I would love that. And I keep telling him that, too. I’m like, “Don’t get rid of this.” He’s actually gone from 90 customers a day to 600 a day.

Small Business Trends: Wow.

Meredith Schmidt: Which is incredible. And so I think there’s some… Yeah, I know, but there’s people who are pivoting to really interesting things, and just embrace that.

And I think right now too, for those folks who had to close down, what are you doing right now? How are you connected to customers? Keep those customers connected, but what’s the technology? And I think right now when we do maybe have a little more time than we want on our hands, implementing a tool like Essentials or any other CRM, honestly, I just want small businesses to succeed. I would love for you to use Salesforce. You don’t have to, but use technology. And now when you have the time, play with it. We’re, as part of the Essentials, offering you 90 days free, possibly to extend. I can’t say that or not right now, but I anticipate we’ll continue to extend it. We’re offering free workshops. We’ve got all hands on deck, we’re doing office hours, we’re doing one on one consulting, we’ve got chat enabled in the product. I mean, we are 100% focused on getting you up and running quickly, and your time to value.

And so we’re not just giving you the product, we’re actually surrounding you with every piece of customer success and support I could possibly give right now, to engage you and to help you know what job we can help you do. I think that’s part of the thing, is your CRM for small business? And you’re like, “What is that? I don’t know what CRM even stands for.” And so we’re really trying to talk with the language of the customers, which is what’s the job we can help you do?

Small Business Trends: These long-term behavioral changes, customer expectation changes that are taking place because of the pandemic. But these things are going to be long-term changes, because people are getting used to doing things they never did before. They got forced into doing it, and now they’ve figure out, you know, this isn’t bad.

Meredith Schmidt: Right. I have personally been an Instacart user for maybe four years. I think the day they opened, I downloaded the app and I was all in it, because I don’t have to carry my groceries to my front door in San Francisco. This is amazing. And I order all my wine through there. So I was a big fan before, and I was so upset when this all happened because I used to get two hour delivery windows. Now it’s like three days. But I’ll go back to it. I am believer of it. But what’s different is I still went to the butcher down the street. There were still small businesses that I think offer a specialization. And it’s also, I feel a sense of community with the small businesses around me. And I think that’s why I keep saying the word connection, but it’s building that connection with your customers.

Because I think the customers will come to you, who want that connection. And I think that where I see… Where I may have spent the extra money by going into a store was that last minute thing that was right in front of me at the checkout counter that I did not need. That’s what I’m not buying anymore. I’m not buying that as quickly anymore. No offense, Us weekly. But it’s those little vanity items that you kind of see as you’re walking out the store, and you’re like, “Oh okay, it’s on sale, I’ll buy it.” I think that isn’t going to be there anymore. And that’s actually one thing my family friend was talking about on the flower shop, is he had a lot of tchotchkes. They didn’t make a lot of money for him, but they made some extra money.

But maybe to let go of some of those things. So I think as you’re coming out of this and there’s a new norm, there’s a new way that people are used to now, and it’s not as scary as before to allow people to shop for you. That’s an odd feeling.

Small Business Trends: Right.

Meredith Schmidt: I think where… Clothing stores, I mean I need to try things on, personally. So I can’t wait for clothing stores to open back up. But I think there’s people who obviously have been getting online delivery of clothes, and I’m just… You know what it is, I have no patience to return anything. So I know I can’t get clothes delivered that won’t fit me, because I will never return them. They’ll never go to UPS. But I do think when I look at all the stores around me, and all the messaging they’re sending out, it’s heartfelt and it’s real people. So I do think that it’ll change, but I think it’s going to change in the bigger retail spaces, the bigger shopping, the Safeways, the grocery stores versus the smaller small businesses. I really think the small business, everybody wants to help right now, and I think there’s a time that this entire country, world, is embracing small business owners. And I think that as small businesses open up, every one of us wants to go be a patron again.

Small Business Trends: How do these small businesses start really putting themselves in a position to think transformatively about this technology, as opposed to leveraging automation to make processes more efficient, or the processes we already know about more efficient and more cost effective?

Meredith Schmidt: I think digital transformation is kind of like, “Oh, isn’t that just for big enterprise companies?” And I think you’re absolutely right, it’s for all size companies. And digital transformation is not just about process automation like you were just mentioning. We can definitely automate processes, and I think that’s a lot of what technology has done. But digital transformation, where are you in your digital presence?

A bakery down the street, I’ll give another example, is one of my favorite small businesses. Everybody in San Francisco right now wants to make sourdough bread. So they’ve actually put onto their Instagram feed, they started giving away sourdough starter packs;  plus dough, or plus flour on Sunday mornings. Two weeks in a row now they’ve sold out. It’s free, I should say.

But what’s brilliant about what they did is how they connected to what they were seeing, and connected to this phenomenon going on in San Francisco, where everybody’s posting sourdough bread, but they can’t make a starter.

What’s brilliant about this is as you go in to pick up your starter, you’re buying some cookies or a pie or a cake or a cupcake, because this bakery is fantastic. So they’re drawing in these customers in a different way with a social platform. I have personally resisted social. I actually don’t have a Facebook account, I should tell you that. But I do love Instagram, it’s super easy. I see my friends and families, and I do follow some local businesses.

So there is something to be said about how you get creative in even watching the trends, and how do you respond quickly. And I think digitally, there’s digital channels everywhere. People are talking everywhere about your business. You’ve got to be listening. And I think for small business in particular, you have to be listening to these channels. And that’s what some of the digital transformation can do for you is, is listening. Bringing these channels together, bringing them into one database, where I’m not searching through what’s being said on Twitter versus Facebook versus Instagram. It’s all coming into a central feed, and I can see my customer, I can see the sentiment about me as a business, in one spot. That’s about looking and thinking differently. Those things, especially as we can’t communicate in person right now, that’s changing. And I think these communication channels that are all out there, people need to be thinking about.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.