What happens when the phony war is over?
It still feels to me that we are in the coronavirus phony war. Please do get me wrong: every death has been a tragedy and every job lost and business closed a smaller one, but painful nonetheless.
With luck, the death toll may now decline. That should be a cause for celebration when we can be sure it has happened. But I fear that the toll of job losses and business failures is going to last for a long time to come.
I know what that stress looks like: much of my own business model, which has primarily been based on securing research grants, is now obsolete. Grants are going to be like hen’s teeth right now. Along with millions of others, I am now wondering about what’s next. But precisely because the crisis has yet hit as hard as it might, I suspect that many are putting off the difficult task of facing a future that will be very different from the one that they imagined.
To get competitive advantage, this is precisely the time to do the hard thinking.
As a starting point, it’s extraordinary that the coronavirus has created the crisis that it has. Our fear of death is very high: the price we will have paid for avoiding it will, however, be enormous. That equation has to be put in context. The government’s doing very well right now: quite frankly, I could never have imagined people coming out to clap government employees. And the government can continue to do well because it can get all the money it needs to fund its response to the crisis. That’s because, unlike the rest of us, it has its own bank that can lend it money without demanding repayment, ever, if need be.
What’s more that bank (the Bank of England) does not even need to charge it interest. So, before we panic the point that I am making is that the state is going to see us through this, somehow or other.
I am not suggesting that prospects for the private sector are great. Sure some sectors are doing weel – it’s a great time to be in the protective equipment industry. But maybe not aviation or hospitality.
What really matters in any business is understanding what your business supplies. Back around 1990, I was heading a new, young and ambitious accountancy practice. We were having a bit of a recession back then. Nothing like now, but some things, like interest rates, were pretty ugly. And we grew by working out what we really did.
We worked out that we really did was not sell accounting and tax services, even if 80% or more of the fees sent suggested that was what we’d done. What we actually sold was reassurance that everything was under control. If we could offer that reassurance the client would pay. In fact, they’d pay over the odds.
But that required us to always understand the client’s concern; always answer the question they’d really asked - which sometimes took some working out - in terms they’d understand and to never cause them anxiety by delay. So service had to be prompt or we’d increase their stress and the fee could be lost.
And this matters right now. We can all say what we are, like being an accountant. But people take that claim for granted: they’ll assume that we can do whatever it is that we put as the label on our tin. But they’ll only buy if what we supply meets their need. Like supplying reassurance in the case of an accountant. Or, if you’re a restaurateur for example, a feel good night out. Or stopping the water from flowing and causing damage in the case of a plumber and so on.
Right now I’m facing that challenge again. At this stage in my career what can I supply that is not what I am known for, but is what people want? That’s the ultimate survival question. When times are going to be tough people want value for money. Our job is to work out what that means and how we can deliver it.
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Richard Murphy is a practising chartered accountant and director of the Corporate Accountability Network. After twenty years in industry and commerce, he co-founded the Tax Justice Network and Fair Tax Mark before moving into academia as a professor of political economy. He co-authored the original Green New Deal in 2008 and is still engaged on...