Yes, it’s harder to do business now than it was. I do not think it will ever get easy again. We reached a tipping point this time which has yet to be recognized. Most managers are waiting for a recovery that might never come. I think it’s smarter to change the way you do business now. If the economy does fully recover, you’ll be even better off. If it doesn’t recover, you’ll survive, your competitors won’t.

If I might use a ship analogy, we hit an ice-berg which caused a lot of damage. In turn, we took on a lot of water. We used much of our resources to patch the hole enough to slow the intake of water and prevent sinking. Further, to stay afloat, we threw a lot of good stuff overboard. Things are better and will continue to improve but we’re still on a badly damaged ship weighed down by more water than we’ll ever pump out.

Short version. We mismanaged our economy. We let much of our industrial base go overseas. We incurred a lot of debt.

So what can your business do to gain an edge?

1. Build Community.  Buyers are nervous. If you spend the time (not money) to develop relationships, you’ll build loyal followers.

2. Communicate. Not only are your customers nervous, your employees are scared out of their wits. Will they lose their job? If they offer a suggestion that gets rejected, will they been seen as a loser? If they bring attention to a problem will they be seen as a “trouble maker”? Fear causes people to shut down. That’s the last thing you want if you are a smart manager. So communicate. Tell your people how things are going. Tell them that you notice their extra effort. Guide them if they are moving contrary to the direction you desire—good employees want to please you and it doesn’t mean they are immature or ‘weak’ if they require your input. They do, after all, work for you no matter how level you believe your management structure is. Communicate.

3. Service. Amazingly, service stinks at most businesses. Cut backs, fear of being cut and stress to perform has put more pressure on employees. In turn, employees convey that fear and stress to your customers and prospects. Sales people press harder. Service people lose patience. Little extras that could impress a customer become a huge annoyance. The ball gets dropped on customer service because people are busy (focused) pleasing the boss instead of the customer. There is a huge opportunity in improving service. Pick any industry. Service stinks.

4. Listen to Prospects. Too often the selling starts before the need is understood. Teach your sales personnel to listen. Remember, fear of making a wrong decision is lurking within each prospect. Listing feature after feature won’t overcome that fear. Listen. Fear of buying subsides as the prospect believes they are understood. In short, shut up and listen.

5. Listen to Your Employees. One clear sign of a company in decline is a management team that doesn’t want to hear what employees have to say. (“How the Mighty Fall” Jim Collins) The people doing the job have ‘close to the line’ understanding of what is happening. Listen to them. No, don’t open the flood gate of bitch sessions. But always be willing to hear suggestions—encourage your people to give them. If you don’t have time to listen to your people, there is something seriously wrong with your own time management.

And, if you don’t like a particular idea, don’t kill it on the spot. Tell them you’ll give their idea some thought and get back to them. Then, provide a concrete reason why you are rejecting their idea along with an expression of thanks for submitting it. 

Wrong: We don’t need to change that, it works fine.
Right: Making the change might be a good idea later. Right now we need to focus on improving service. You’ve got some great thoughts in your idea and I appreciate your suggestion.

You’re smart, you can do it.

Chris Reich, Author of TeachU’s Business Talk Blog
[email protected]