Things To Do When Times Are Tough

I preached a "stick-to-basics" survival strategy in my March 19 column.

I preached a "stick-to-basics" survival strategy in my March 19 column. It struck a chord with several readers, including one who wrote: "It is refreshing to see an industry print article that is not preaching the latest spin-shot on how to survive in the New Economy." (Thanks, Bruce.) He adds, "Do one thing, do it right, and focus your business and customers on it." Hes right.

What one thing should you do right during tough economic times? Your customers are scared; they dont want to take chances on high-risk IT initiatives like e-commerce. They want to trim costs, work more productively, and hold on tightly to the customers they have. And so do you, of course.

Trimming costs and holding on to customers can be conflicting goals. When revenues are falling, too many shops cut "expense" items like customer support staff. I cant think of a faster way to lose hard-earned customers than to make them wait longer when they need help.

Training is another "luxury" thats often cut during hard times. But how can your staff be more productive and keep customers satisfied if you dont continually invest in your staffs competence? That point was driven home by Laura Fischer, accounting manager for Next Model Management, in our March 26 "Solutions" feature (see "Out of the Shadow, Onto the Catwalk,". She said of solutions provider RDA Enterprises, "When they come out to fix a problem, they have great response time and attention to detail." Fischer dumped a less-attentive, less-competent solutions provider for RDA.

Customer-relations training also is important for everyone who ever has contact with customers—including you, the boss.

"All of RDAs employees seem really happy," Fischer added. "When they show up, they talk about our solutions, not problems theyre having back at their office." Complaints about work are like flatulence: Everybody has some, and nobody wants to hear it (except, perhaps, during happy hour at the local pub).

Morale is often the cheapest thing to maintain. You dont have to throw weekly beer parties to keep employees happy. All you have to do is keep yourself positive. Make sure that all of your employees feel free to direct their complaints to you, rather than to your customers.

As for what you should be selling during these penny-pinching times, stick with solutions that improve existing business processes and reduce existing costs. Examples include computer telephony integration; supply chain automation; wireless LANs for frequently changing networks; outsourced IT management services; and storage solutions.

To whom should you be selling during this economic downturn? In addition to your current customers, look for industries that thrive during hard times. Collection agencies, business liquidators, foreclosed mortgage brokers and employment agencies come to mind. You get the idea.

Finally, get the word out to current and prospective customers that you are in business to help them survive and prosper. All of your marketing collateral should specify how you save customers money and help them do more business with fewer resources. Forget the starry-eyed wonders of the Internet Economy; nobodys buying that pipe dream anymore.