Many small business owners are experiencing a downturn for the first time; and what a downturn to start! Nevertheless there are a few simple rules that they can follow which will help them survive and even thrive in this most difficult of business environments.
In describing what can be done I’ve employed the analogy of a football team which simultaneously has to employ both good defensive and offensive strategies to win.
Let’s look at those activities that are defensive in nature. These will protect their client base against other competitors and will assess the fitness of their organisation. Secondly, there are those activities that can be considered offensive, in an attempt to win more business or win more customers.
Defensive actions can be split into external facing and internal activities. Externally you need to be looking to strengthening and at the very least maintaining your relationship with your best customers. Obviously this can be initiated by phone calls, but must include more face to face visits, and more overt proactive activity which can be in the form of newsletters, emails or calls.
Also its worth considering particularly in the service industry whether you can get your clients on some sort of regular payment plan. Inevitably this will mean that they start paying for service in advance, making it much more difficult for them to be poached by competitors.
Moving out to the next level of customers they need to be undertaking similar activity. Clearly less important customers warrant a lower level of investment but once you’ve categorised your customer base all those you want to retain should benefit from increased sales and marketing activity.
The priority is clearly best customers first, the least important customers, last. Customer importance should be related to the opportunity of income growth as well as the amount of business you currently get.
Most importantly you should not be afraid of firing difficult and unprofitable customers. With every £ of profit under pressure you can’t afford to be carrying loss makers.
Internally business owners should be reviewing all their business and management processes. My experience is that for most businesses their internal processes are at best passable, but very often for SME’s (Mom & Pop businesses)they’re hand crafted and reliant upon the knowledge of the current personnel to make them happen making them clunky and often counter intuitive and hence very inefficient.
If we treat the recession as a get fit regime, then we need to be “going to the Gym” by removing the inefficiency from all our internal processes to get to the cost of production down and increase gross profits. So review all internal processes from sales and marketing to credit control and it will be possible to quickly discover where the business is inefficient and free those improvements across the board to extract additional profit for the firm. This is not an easy process as people are resistant to change. It requires conviction and dedication to implement these new processes but the results can be staggering.
Let’s turn now to offensive actions. Most of these activities relate to business development. The business needs to organise, systematise and implement regular sales and marketing campaigns in its chosen areas. Initially it will meet increased competition as all savvy business in their market will be doing the same. In addition struggling firms will be attempting to stay afloat by “buying” business. This classically leads to a situation when revenues come under pressure and marketing costs rise. Successful businesses resist the temptation to slash sales & marketing budgets as that creates a vicious circle of decline. However, as the recession bites, those firms who can’t manage the fitness regime will fall by the wayside reducing competition and opening up more new business opportunities for those left.
For those businesses with a strong constitution, there is also the opportunity to grow by acquisition. There are bound to be a significant number of businesses that would be only too pleased to run into the arms of a competitor rather than face extinction. If you do take this route be ruthless extract the maximum value from the acquisition but beware the urge to overstaff.
As an alternative you can build up a relationship with some local insolvency practitioners who may provide opportunities for cheap acquisitions post failure.