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SALT LAKE CITY — As confirmed novel coronavirus cases swept the nation in the spring of 2020, businesses were left scrambling to find ways to adapt to new restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the deadly virus.
Restaurants shifted focus to curbside orders and small businesses across all industries struggled to keep their head above water in the unfamiliar territory.
While businesses have started using alternative methods of communication and payment out of pandemic-driven necessity, Eric Rea, CEO and co-founder of Utah-based fintech company Podium, thinks the change is here to stay — and the data backs him up.
Podium recently surveyed 1,004 men and women across the country between the ages of 18 and 75 and found that 80.3% of respondents don't want pandemic-adapted services like curbside pickup or contactless payments to end even after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Even though Podium's clients are businesses, Rea said they always wanted to build a product that helped consumers have the best experience.
"Our whole theory was that if we can drive a really frictionless, convenient experience for the consumer when they go to a tire shop, or have a plumber come over to their house, or buy a car, or go to the dentist, that value translates into more revenue for local businesses," he said. "Because if you have a great experience, you share it; you want to work with that business again the next time you have a need."
Rea saw the changing landscape and found a way for Podium to help. The company, which provides messaging tools to businesses, had just launched its new text-to-pay option right before COVID-19 hit Utah in March, and the timing couldn't have been better.
After witnessing the toll the pandemic had on restaurants, Rea decided to launch Podium Starter (a freemium version of the company's platform) to local Utah restaurants at the end of April.
More than 100 Utah businesses signed up for the free service within one week of its launch. After seeing massive success, it has since expanded to be available to any business in the U.S., Australia and Canada. Now, tens of thousands of businesses use the free service — from orthodontist offices to bridal shops.
The free platform helped WGM Orthodontics in Lexington, Kentucky, turn their parking lot into a waiting room. They use texts to communicate with patients and avoid crowds in the office.
Prior to the pandemic, the Bridal Collection in Denver, Colorado, sold a majority of its dresses at fitting parties for brides. But the pandemic made the business model impossible to uphold.
"The financial ramifications for small businesses are huge, and we were just trying to hold on," owner Lynn Crandall said in a statement. "We were still paying all of our full-time and salaried employees, and I was literally praying each day: 'God, provide for us.'"
Crandall decided to bring dresses into the brides' homes through curbside, no-contact pickup. "We're giving brides an at-home gown viewing celebration," she said. "They get to have a dress try-on party at home."
Thanks to payment via text, The Bridal Collection was able to easily transition to the temporary remote model.
Rea's vision for the company always included some version of a freemium option to customers — all the pandemic did was speed up that vision, he said.
"Now all of a sudden, the convenient ways of communicating, like text messaging, are so much more mainstream for even local businesses and that's just great for everyone," he said.
The pandemic might have changed the way business is done permanently, with 85.5% of survey respondents saying COVID-19 has changed their expectations of local businesses, and that they expect them to offer more convenient communication and service options now.
Communicating with businesses via the phone can be a hassle on both ends: customers are left playing phone tag and listening to voicemails while employees are busy making phone calls instead of being able to help more customers at a time. Texting knocks a lot of those issues out, according to Rea.
"Now that businesses have been forced to offer that — and consumers have experienced — it's not going away," he said. "With local businesses, they just can't go back; the consumers won't tolerate it."