Is it possible to recession proof your business?

Probably not, but here are ten ways you can increase your odds of survival

By Kevin Fisher, happytails | December 2008

One thing I’ve realized after 15 years as a business owner "You can do everything right and still fail" there are no foolproof strategies. I know, that may not be the encouraging rah rah you had hoped to hear but it’s the truth. Business climate, bad luck and unforeseen problems can all scuttle your excellent endeavor faster than you can say "Bear Sterns". With so much out of your control doesn’t it make sense to pay particular attention to those things you can control. While it may be true that the best plan in the world is no guarantee of success the lack of a plan is a certain road to failure.

( I’m gonna to bypass the obvious caveats regarding budgeting, expenses, costing and forecasting etc as I assume these things all go without saying, today I want to focus on a few more intangible items)

Here a few thoughts on how you can increase your chances of riding out the current storm.

1. Discover your customer: Have a clear idea who your customer is and target them specifically. Don’t try to be all things to all people, that’s the best way to lose any distinctiveness and personality your business may have.

2. Stand out by being different: How are you going to set yourself apart from your competition? What is unique about your store, your service, your employees? In an overcrowded marketplace where everyone is trying to sell you something this is a live or die imperative. As the world grows ever smaller it’s the niche players who exploit the "long tail" that will weather the ups and downs. (what’s the long tail?) If you’re looking for distinctiveness sell products that aren’t sold at every big box retailer…products like Happytails :-)

3. Create an energetic team who all believe in what your selling. Every employee or associate must be great value for money, contributing to the excitement and personality of your company. Tip: If you cringe when an employee interacts with a customer it’s time to rethink their employment.

4. Be reliable: Do what you say your gonna do when you say you’re gonna do it. In business, if you promise something there are only two acceptable outcomes: either the thing gets done as promised or the customer is informed in time to make other arrangements. There is no third option… at least there isn’t if you want to keep your business alive.

5. Express your gratitude. To your employees, to your customers, to your vendors. Business may be full of charts, graphs and Excel spreadsheets but in the end it’s all about people, and people are more likely to extend themselves for you if you’ve extended yourself to them first.

6. Be consistent. No, not boring but consistently good. Every interaction you have with a customer whether it’s a phone call, an e-mail, an order delivery should be consistently excellent. I know, that’s an impossibly high bar to reach but if you make that your goal it will give you a standard for which to strive. I’m not telling you anything new when I say that it’s exponentially harder to find new customers than to keep the ones you have…but don’t strive to keep them, strive to astound them, if you don’t someone else will.

7. Smile (make the world wonder what you’ve been up to). So you think people buy from you because of price, quality, convenience? Every study ever done on successful selling says that people buy because they like the salesperson, they feel a personal connection that fosters trust….and speaking of selling:

8. Don’t sell. Before I started this business I thought that selling was about tips and tricks and convincing people to buy, I quickly learned that pressuring people to buy is a losing proposition…it’s short sighted because you’re looking to create a customer not a single sale. I believe that the best salespeople communicate their enthusiasm for the product and educate prospective customers on how the product will improve their lives. Period. If the product or service doesn’t improve your customers life in some way why on earth would they chose to buy it again?

9. Be uncomfortable: In a world of constant change it’s not a good idea to get too attached. Just because you’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way. Keep abreast of the trends in your industry and take advantage of new innovations. Who knows the next internet may be just around the corner. (scary isn’t it?)

10. Be optimistic. Attitude is contagious, people want to hitch their wagon to a successful star so even when you don’t feel it -be positive.

The way ahead is going to be difficult for all of us but if I can insert one small sliver of silver lining here I do believe that the companies that survive the next few years will emerge as better, leaner, more capable organizations. I know that already we have rebalanced our own company to be leaner, more agile and more focused on our customers and the reality of business today. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that as the world changes around us we can evolve enough to out-run extinction.

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  1. Puparazzi! Pet Bow-tique is located in a resort area, with a very seasonal nature to our business to start with, and the recession has made things a lot tougher! I have started a newsletter, which I e-mail out to my customers, and I also print copies at the store to stuff in the bags. The newsletter always has helpful information, special sales and a coupon for products. Another thing is working together with other pet businesses in the area and other merchants in my shopping area. By marketing together, we can increase the impact by buying a large block of print advertising at a smaller cost per merchant. I offer a “Birthday Club” for the dogs, I get customer e-mails, and they get one of my custom dog bandannas free for their dog’s birthday, and are entered into a drawing for a gift certificate to the store. We hold parties at the store monthly, with a theme for each month – I serve light refreshments for the people & pets who attend, and we have games and a costume contest. I have a quirky twist to my ads – I encourage dogs to “leash up their human & drag them in” to the party. In the summer, when we have more visitors, we do the parties weekly. The party is free, and it does get people in my door. Once they see the store, they generally see something their dog needs. I have done events with my local SPCA, featuring an adoptable dog at one of the parties, fundraisers like our Pet Photos with Santa, and some other projects. My first year in business, we did a “Puparazzi! Walk of Fame” fund raiser for the SPCA. I decorated the store with some movie themed party decor, and sold stars (different colors for $1, $5, $10 and $20 donations). I filled up all my window frames, door frames and shelf edges with the stars that people put their dogs’ names on. That raised $1,500 for the SPCA, and was an easy “add on” sale. Working with a charity is definitely a good thing – it shows customers that you are not all about money for you, you stand for something. Since I choose not to sell animals, working with adoptions/the SPCA is a natural. I have had people come in to just look, they tell me they don’t have a dog, and I tell them that we can fix that – the SPCA has plenty of dogs looking for a new human!


  2. I think “recession proofing” your business is like the “indestructible dog toy.”
    You could say there is no such thing, but you can get pretty close and you can make your business “outlast” itself through these harsh economic times.
    These are some of the things that I have done at my store, London Dog.

    London Dog, is not located in London. It is located in a very unique town in Indiana. By unique, I mean it is a very small community where the people of this town are very closely connected to the small businesses and are also motivated by causes and social events.

    Here are some of the things that I have done this year.

    In December my numbers were not looking so good.

    I threw a party! I had gathered quite an extensive list of email addresses and invited everyone to a shopping party. We had some cheap (though still tasty) wine and also some delicious snacks for the humans as well as snacks for the dogs. I sent an RSVP through a wonderful service called E-vite.
    People were so excited about the event and would respond if they could make it or not. I also offered a very special discount: 20% store-wide. No exceptions. I think it created a “buzz” and we made well over $1000 that evening.

    Always surprise your customers. You are going to think we are crazy, but this summer we actually gave away merchandise. We have a local event called “Walk for the Animals” and we were one of the sponsors. In order to become one of the Diamond sponsors we had to donate either money or make an “in-kind” donation (meaning merchandise). We decided to sponsor a fashion show. We dressed up the contestants and had them walk the catwalk. We chose the winner by applause. At the end we announced that everyone was a winner, and they had all won their outfits!
    Every single contestant is now a regular customer of mine.
    It’s crazy, but we basically were able to write off part of the prizes as our in-kind sponsorship which was equal to lots of dollars in advertising.

    Network with your customers. Keep in touch with your customers via Facebook. I recently created a Facebook and now have over 50 fans. I update it much more frequently than our website, because it is so much easier. If it worked for Obama, it will probably also work for your store.

    Always treat every customer like they are special, even if they don’t buy anything. I like to “win” everyone over. By just doing something as simple as offering their dog a treat, you will make your customer feel good. I recently had a customer in the store who didn’t buy a single thing. She wrote an outstanding 2 page review that comes up when you google our name. The only think I can remember doing is offering her dog a treat and making a small conversation. I obviously made an impact and she wrote a review. That’s the best kind of advertising!

    Be friendly with your competition. What’s the harm? Neither of you is going to “go away” easily.
    Why not?
    I recently had someone ask me to donate a prize for their re-grand opening.
    They are up the street from us and sell pet supplies. I gave them something that is “unique” to our business. That way they did not feel that we were somehow trying to take away their customers. I don’t think any business gets anywhere by being nasty to their competitors. It cheapens your image to be that way. We like to think of ourselves as classy and are huge believers, like the British, in playing fair.

    Add a new service or work on promoting your on-line business.
    We recently added a pet photo studio and are working on adding a self-serve
    doggie wash. The pet photos have kept us busy all through January and into February. I also added a bunch of products to our much neglected on-line store and have had some results. Never stop working on all aspects of your business, whether it be something as simple as offering your customers custom birthday cakes (call all your bakery vendors and see who will let you special order birthday cakes or make your own). You can make a big deal out of even little things that you know they can’t get anywhere nearby.

    The most important thing that I’ve learned this year is, never give up!
    Even when there are no customers, clean and rearrange and think about getting ready for when they DO come in.
    I am a big believer in toy feng shui. Evertime I re-arrange my dog toys or put them in a different place, I sell one!


  3. This is a great topic to be giving people at the moment although I always think that there is so much that one can do with a website these days. Why wait for customers to come to you when technology means that you can go and find them.

    Optomise your website for the search engines, use facebook, my space and twitter, write articles like this one.

    All the best!


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