Project Goal: Understand the impact of COVID-19 on small business customers and react quickly to provide assistance during the pandemic.
Client: Avista Utilities
Project Duration: April – May 2020
Participants: Small business customers (typically owners)
My Role: Research lead
Avista team members: Business managers, customer service, efficiency engineers
Methods: Open-ended interviews, survey, Opportunity Solution Tree
When COVID-19 hit the U.S., Avista Utilities jumped into action to alleviate economic hardship for customers, immediately suspending shut-offs and offering extended payment arrangements. In addition to emergency help for residential customers, Avista was concerned about the impact COVID was having on local, small- and medium-sized businesses. Avista knew many businesses were struggling financially and wanted to take action to help them survive the pandemic.
In the days following state orders that closed businesses and schools, I was asked to lead a research study with the goal of gaining insight into the experiences and pain points of small business customers. Time was of the essence. We focused on quickly discovering actionable insights and collecting stories so Avista could deeply connect with their business customers’ experiences.
From my kick-off meeting with the business team, I discovered that Avista wanted to learn:
- What are small businesses’ biggest concerns during COVID?
- What are their pain points and barriers?
- How can Avista help them stay in business?
Not enough time to formally recruit and schedule participants
Avista had pulled together a small team of Customer Service Reps (CSRs) to call business customers and offer financial assistance. We decided those outbound calls would be our best chance to interview business owners quickly and capture a representative sample of the group we wanted to study. The team talked to approximately 100 customers a week over seven weeks, and we were able to conduct in-depth interviews on about 20% of the calls.
The team was new to qualitative in-depth interviews
To make sure CSRs were prepared to conduct interviews and collect the data we needed, I created an interview guide, provided training on interviewing skills, and conducted pilot sessions as a demonstration. As the project progressed, I provided ongoing feedback to interviewers and improved their ability to collect valuable stories from participants.
Mixed Methods Study
I designed a mixed-methods approach to discover the problems businesses were facing and how widespread those problems were. Each call started with an open-ended interview, based on high-level focus questions, to learn what businesses were experiencing. Customers were encouraged to tell us their stories and lead the conversation. After the interviews, we asked a few survey questions to measure the scale of problems Avista hypothesized businesses were having.
When possible, the calls were recorded so other team members could listen later and survey data was recorded in a spreadsheet. After each call, interviewers spent a few minutes writing a summary of who they talked to and what they’d learned. Capturing data in these ways was immensely helpful to us in analyzing the research conducted by a large team.
Because learning quickly was our highest priority, the research team met weekly to discuss what we’d heard, synthesize our findings, and decide what stories and insights we’d report on for the week. With the team’s input, I compiled weekly briefs of actionable insights for Avista’s executive business team and created themed videos of customers talking about their experiences.
Additionally, I used the research team meetings to continue refining our process, provide
ongoing support to interviewers, and make sure everyone was caring for themselves during this stressful time.
Each week, we learned the evolving story of what small businesses experienced during the early months of the pandemic. We were in uncharted territory and the future was uncertain. Participants expressed feelings of anxiety, anger, panic, and disorientation. At the same time, we heard heartfelt concerns for the health of their families, employees, customers, and communities.
Many small businesses felt they were being unfairly labeled as “non-essential” and forced to close when big box stores remained open. Some predicted that if COVID went on long enough, it would be the end of small business in America. Indeed, the situation was dire for local restaurants, retail stores, and businesses that rely on tourists, schools, and events.
Themes and insights:
- Businesses experienced sudden, drastic losses of income, coupled with high overhead costs, they predicted could put them out of business within a few months if conditions didn’t change.
- Business owners were frustrated with the difficult process of trying to understand, apply for, and get PPP loans.
- Information about state orders and safety requirements from social media, TV news, and local newspapers was incomplete and changed daily, making it difficult to know if they were effectively following protocols.
- Businesses wanted to reduce electric and gas use to lower their utility bills, but didn’t know how to do so in ways that would significantly impact their bill amounts.
- Participants feared things might not be “back to normal” anytime soon and couldn’t predict when they’d have reliable income and be able to pay bills.
As part of this project, I created an Opportunity Solution Tree to track opportunities from our research insights and capture possible solutions the team brainstormed during weekly meetings. Using this tool, the business team was able to make quick decisions and conduct experiments with new solutions to help customers during COVID.
Our research insights informed Avista’s decisions about how and when to provide financial assistance to customers. The business team created informational resources to help businesses find and apply for grants and loans, reduce energy use, and meet safety guidelines during COVID. Additionally, the energy efficiency engineers piloted virtual energy audits via mobile phone to help businesses reduce energy use in their buildings.