When business is slow, there's no need to re-invent the wheel.
When we bought our first (and only) home in late 1989, little did we know that we were at the tail end of the "Fat '80s." When you're living in the midst of prosperous times, it's hard to imagine what it would look like on the other side. Needless to say, we were stunned when the Northeast economy suddenly swung so far in the wrong direction that our home was barely worth what we paid for it.
What does that have to do with anything cabling? Well, after all that booming business, were you ready for this downturn? And what are you doing about it?
As with today's downward-sliding economic climate, our family learned to be creative in lean times so that we didn't go belly-up and lose the farm, so to speak. We cut expenses where we could, focusing on "things" as opposed to the needs of the people in our household. We also couldn't help but pay attention to how a few others were not only coping, they were thriving when their neighbors were struggling.
As a newspaper editor at the time, checking the pulse of the local business community was one way I got to pay attention. And like today, when many in the cabling and telecommunications profession are more than just a bit nervous about the future, many businesses in town back then struggled unnecessarily by making some pretty common mistakes:
- They tried to re-invent the wheel (at a time when nobody was interested in new wheels);
- They tried to use the same old survival tactics that worked before;
- They tried to ride out the storm by doing absolutely nothing.
But then there were who I'll call Bob and Betty. While other office supply competitors were laying off workers and having close-out sales to make ends meet, life at Bob and Betty's little shop was humming along almost as it had during the fattest of the '80s.
Bob and Betty are nice people. They are bright. They have good business sense. But there was one reason why Bob and Betty's business was thriving in a down economy. They were investors-in their employees, and in their customers.
People lined up for employment at Bob and Betty's. Problem was, the current superb staff was not interested in leaving. It's because the couple valued the people working with them, treating them as teammates rather than disposable commodities. (That sounds kind of cruel, but I've known of places like that.)
Now, as then, you may not have the cash flow to offer raises or enhanced health benefits. But you do have lips that can encourage, commend and teach, and you do have a heart that is capable of being flexible on occasion with work hours to help a valued team member meet demands at home. This isn't the first place you've read this, but it's worth repeating: happy employees perform better. That saves you money on many fronts, not the least of which is the time spent to continually train new employees to your methods.
Going hand-in-hand with retaining happy employees is retaining happy customers. Again, we can learn from the likes of Bob and Betty, who coupled their employee relations skills with customer relations par excellence. Many of those customers were not considered "big" in a volume sense, but each was treated as though they were the only ones.
In times like these, there is a tendency to focus so much on finding new revenue streams that we neglect the most valuable source of cash flow-satisfied customers. They're going through this downturn with you. So, can you offer them a break? Or do you unwittingly invoke the "no mercy" rule and insist that they meet your price, just like everybody else? Do you follow up to make sure there are no questions or problems, or do you do the job and go on to the next one? Are you including your customers in the decision-making process from the beginning, or are you leaning too much on your own expertise? Do you adopt the philosophy that "the customer is always right" or are you defensive when a completed job isn't what was expected?
"With the economy the way it is, satisfying your clients is more crucial than ever," says Tony Dudley of cabling contractor Td Communications in San Mateo, CA. "Statistics show that it is six times cheaper to keep an existing client than to solicit a new one."
But Dudley could have added that how you treat your customers and employees during leaner times like these will determine whether they'll still want to be your customers and employees when the economy swings back to "fat" status.
And somehow, you know that it will.
Steve Smith is Executive Editor with Cabling Installation & Maintenance.