“I don’t get it Jim. I’m just not getting the business I used to. I don’t know if it’s the recession or what but the phone’s just not ringing as much. I may have to shut down my business. (and the problem with that is that I just have no idea what I would do next!)”
Over the course of the last four months I’ve heard quotes and comments like this more than I’ve ever heard them before. Once thriving small businesses are dying. Proprietors are trying all of the tricks, but nothing seems to work. Is the business dead, or is there something they haven’t tried? Can I help?
The first thing I say in any of these situations is pretty simple. Business is business. It has to start and end there. I know, for many, it’s not as simple as that. Their business isn’t just their business, it’s their life. Their dream was to pass it on to their kids. It is their endowment to their world. The thing is that while it may feel that way to you, to most of the folks who walk through the door it’s a business. The first step to the next step is to take a deep breath and see the business through their eyes. The stunning realization that comes after that is, sometimes, that the business in its original form is dead. The world moved on. The business did not. It’s time to move on.
More often though, to borrow a line from “The Princess Bride,” the business isn’t actually dead, it’s “only mostly dead,” and as Billy Crystal put it, “there is a big difference!” Sadly, there isn’t a gigantic pill to swallow to bring it back, but if you had the energy to start the business in the first place, chances are, you’ll have the energy to bring it back. You just have to be prepared to change.
The most common mistake small businesses make is stagnancy. The business is started and the founder/owner puts all of their creative energy into growing it and making it a success. Adjustments are made to tailor the business to customers’ needs and wishes. The business begins to succeed. The founder/owner continues to serve customers with passion. It’s fun, a dream fulfilled.
Then one day the business owner realizes that profits are down. When the world outside is complaining about recession it’s easy to assume that’s the problem. Of course profits are down. “It’s the economy stupid.” But what if it’s not?
In these cases there are two critical things the owner must do to revive their business. The most important is to interact with customers. Get in touch with the regulars, or the regulars of the past. Take them to coffee. Ask them what they think about the business. Listen. Be ready to change. That all small businesses get the lion’s share of their new customers via word of mouth is axiomatic. If your ‘regulars’ aren’t excited about your business, you can bet they won’t be talking about it. If they aren’t excited now, what would they be excited about? How can you make the business more convenient, more relevant, more inline with what is needed today? No better person to ask than a customer. When they begin to see changes, they’ll tell their friends.
The second critical thing is to gain an understanding of how the new world of marketing works. Wait - don’t jump ship. This doesn’t mean you have to establish a Pinterest page or learn to tweet (though you may), but it does mean that if you are still relying on that yellow pages ad then you’re in trouble, even if it comes with a “free web listing” and “listings on all of the major search engines.” The new world of marketing isn’t about the internet. The internet is just a tool. The new world of marketing is about connection. There are many ways that you can drive connection without ever logging on.
Let’s talk about that tomorrow.