Today at lunch ( what’s that again?) well, the time of day usually reserved for lunch anyway…I went to return a pair of shoes at a local department store. WHAAAAAATTT? I can just tell you, there was a lot of stimulus spending in the shoe department! WHO are these people?? I mean, seriously, there were not enough sales people to handle the crowd…it was a sale but nothing earthshatteringly great. I could not even get a place to park outside. Sure gas is high, consumer confidence is down, lending is tight..BUT THERE IS A SHOE SALE AT DILLIARDS!! Priorities, right? And this is not a exclusive store…there were working women, housewives, a few husbands, some retirees…at least that is what I perceived.

Ok, so about business. Here is my pep talk. Granted, at my shop, we are busy. Can’t even keep up with the work at the moment without working into the evenings. Knock on wood, or maybe ceasarstone…but the truth is business is up 40% from last year. I may be slinging hash at Waffle House in 6 months but right now I am grateful for the busy days and (some) evenings. Some of my subs are slower…but my REALLY good ones are busy too…partly because I am busy. It seems as if the good subcontractors DO indeed stay busy. But, For what it’s worth, this has been my plan of action for past year when the media started the recession hype and fuel prices became outrageous. Since I am a small business owner it mostly applys to smaller businesses.

  • DON’T stop advertising. BUT DO evaluate each advertising dollar carefully. Make sure your staff tracks the referrals. Make this non-negotiable. You must know what is driving the customer base. Then do a report on it and really see what you are getting in return for your investment.
  • DON’T give up the marketing and PR. I am differentiating from advertising because, well, it is different! Marketing is about building your “brand”…about putting forth the image of your business. It might mean that you as the owner or manager needs to be more involved but you have to keep building your brand even in a down market. In fact, even more important to illustrate staying power in the community. Work the committees, Trade associations, neighborhood gatherings…the more the better and make sure your staff does the same. Pay for them to go to events where they can help promote your “brand”..get them out in the community as well. For my business, this means I do NOT give up submitting projects for editorial, do NOT cut the photography budget ( prof photography is key to any designer publishing their work) and keep your website up to date.
  • Cut payroll if you can but make sure key people are well taken care of…reward them for their skills and “thinking outside the box” to help promote business. Get rid of slackers. You don’t need them and they will keep you from maximizing your sales. Not only that, slackers are cancerous to the rest of the staff. Cut out the cancer. Early detection is the key.
  • Treat each potential client like they might be your last. Don’t take anything for granted. this is the secret to small business success in my opinion. I CARE. My BUSINESS cares. We try and project this to our design clients as well as the retail customers. Even if it is for a 5 dollar hinge that some scroungy guy comes in and trys to find and we spend an hour searching for….that 5 dollar hinge can represent thousands of dollars in future sales if that scroungy guy turns out to be the lead trim guy at 3 million dollar house and YOU spent the time earning his business. True story.
  • True, some people will shop you for competitive pricing on the internet. They will use and abuse you and your good nature. Stop trying to fight the internet. DO start giving people a reason to buy “local”. Work with your sales people and staff to understand how important is to support local businesses…as local businesses support the community. Many sales people don’t get this and try to fight internet pricing on THEIR level….which is simply pricing. Don’t do it. Create your USP (unique selling point) on the merits of your business relationship…and you can always, without preaching, segue into the “buy local” mantra. And practice it yourself. I only buy internet when I cannot get it local. I am religious about supporting my local businesses. I “get” it and you can help your bottom line by making sure your people “get” it too. BUY LOCAL.
  • If you are a design oriented business, invest in good looking postcards to have a “leave behind” for customers and to drop off a stack at businesses that might refer people to you. Be reciprocal too. Modern postcards is a great site if you do not have a local printer to work with on printing. Put some good shots on the cards then have someone go around and ask to put them out in places that make sense. Cheap cheap cheap. Also, make sure every single person who ventures into your business takes one with them…never know who might see it on their counter!  Yard signs are also good…and cheap.
  • PR is important..send out press releases on contests, publications ..anything newsworthy. It takes little time and again, it’s free.
  • Don’t forget your most important advertising source..existing customer base! Keep in contact! Send a note pertaining to something relative to “remind” them you are there…don’t be afraid to ASK for referrals either….people LIKE TO HELP OTHERS when it is genuine…I myself bend over backward to help someone when they ask or give me the idea they value my business enough to ask for a referral.

Just as illustration: Friday I have appointment with new client in neighboring community. The referral? One of those postcards dropped off at local appliance store. Yes, it works. I have now, with the initial visit paid for the entire run of postcards. Good ROI!!

Most importantly, try not to buy into the hype and “woe is us” environment. Of course it is tougher times but your attitude towards the business impacts your employees’ attitudes too. Get creative and get going!