Surviving the Economic Jungle

It’s a jungle out there.  You’re surrounded.  Everywhere you look, there are enemies.  You are all stalking the same prey.  Some of the enemies are giants that tower over you.  They have more weapons and more money to spend on newer and better weapons than you could ever hope to have.  Some of them are well known in the jungle .  Just the mention of their name makes you shudder while you watch the same prey you are after bow before them.

Just as soon as one enemy is eliminated, new ones pop up.  Your enemies mean business.  They want your business, your customers, and your profits.  They want to put you out of business so they can have it all to themselves. 

Scary, isn’t it?  But it doesn’t have to be.  Your competitors may be bigger than you, have more money to spend than you, and even have created a brand that is promoted with full-color catalogs, expensive websites, and media ads.  But they can’t outspend you in ways that money can’t buy.

In today’s economy, the playing field is going to become even more level as customers spend less while seeking more for their money.   Even the giants in the industry are going to suffer – not necessarily as a result of just the economy but from their own failures to look ahead, tighten their belts, and determine what is important to their customers. 

Look at the graveyard of failures already in our national cemetery.  The behemoths, the giants, those we thought would never fall.  Enron, Fannie Mae, Merrill Lynch.  The list goes on even as more and more corporate giants are falling ill.

But you, as a micro business, have an advantage that these giants don’t have.  You aren’t blinded by the vastness of the territory.  Your vision isn’t hampered by numerous employees, marketing strategies, and owner greed.  You can zoom in on what is important to you as a reputable business owner and what is important to your customers.  You can make changes quickly.  You can offer benefits that the larger companies can’t.  You can create a very personal business that will make every customer feel as if he or she is your only customer. 

You don’t have a lot of money to spend, so with proper research and planning, you can spend it wisely.  You have the ability to look at your big picture while still zeroing in on the little things within your business that can increase your profit margin.  You can watch your bottom line as closely as your customers are watching theirs. You can easily implement high impact, low cost strategies for getting and keeping customers using more time, energy, and imagination than money.

Okay, so how do we do it?

The very first step is to determine what needs to be done and then list them by priority.  Don’t just charge into the jungle and make changes in your strategies without careful thought.  Step back and look at the overall jungle.  Look at the market with fresh eyes and learn everything you don’t already know about your business.  You already know that prices of everything, from products to shipping, are on the rise.  You know that customer resistance is going to be higher.  But also look at how other companies are handling the changes and see if you can handle them better.  How are other companies marketing their business and what can you do to make yours stand out in the crowd?

Look back on your own experiences as a customer.  What could have been done to make you a loyal customer instead of a “I’ll never buy one of those again” kind of customer.  Regardless of what is said, the customer is not always right.  But the successful customer service rep makes them feel satisfied even if they didn’t get exactly what they wanted. 

Determine what weapons you need to compete effectively.  Your competitors are getting smarter every day.  They’re reading industry and business books and magazines.  They’re attending seminars and tradeshows.  While they are learning, you can’t afford not to.  But you also can’t afford not to take action on what you know is needed.  And remind yourself that what you would like to have is not necessarily what is needed.

There are only two ways to increase profits.  Cut expenses or increase sales.  We’ll look at both but let’s start with expenses. 

Drag out your accounting records and look at each and every expense.  What could be cut without affecting your products or customers?   Slash every bit of fat in your business.  In the recent presidential election, one candidate said he would slash spending across the board while the other more wisely said he would do a line by line review, cutting the things that weren’t working while increasing spending on those that were.  This is the approach you should take.

It has been said that time is money.  The truth is time is far more important than money.  Time and energy can even be an effective trade for lack of money.  Are you buying packing materials when you could find local businesses that will save theirs for you?  Do you have too many employees doing things that you could do more efficiently?  Do you have systems in place that makes it easy for you or an employee to handle every aspect of your business?  But also are you hiring others to do those things that your time is too valuable to do?  If you overestimate your own abilities, your business may suffer just as much as if you underestimate them.

Look at what sells and what doesn’t.  If you offer a product line that gets very few sales, perhaps you should eliminate that line so that you can concentrate on what sells best.  Only you can do this because only you really know your business.

If you already have customers, they are your most valuable asset.  Nurture them and do everything you can to create their loyalty to you.  If a problem is even hinted at, address it immediately.  Don’t leave that job to an employee.  And if you have employees, be aware of how they are handling your customers.  If you’re not careful, they can lose them for you.  Employees, that aren’t watched carefully, have been known to destroy a business. 

Information about marketing effectively would take more space than I have in this column so I’m going to touch on some of the main things to remember. 

Put planning ahead of everything else.  Only with planning can you know who you are, where you’re going, and how you’re going to get there.  Planning keeps you and your business organized and efficient.  Create a marketing calendar and use it as your road map to your goals. Reevaluate that plan regularly and be flexible.  If something isn’t working, change it.  If something is working better than expected, determine why and how you can build on it. 

Along with that planning, make a list of all the good things you offer to your customers.  Make it a long list.  Ask your customers why they buy from you and add their answers to the list.  Of course, your competitors offer many of the same benefits but there are those that are unique to you alone.  These benefits are your competitive advantage and what should be pushing your marketing.

Blow your own horn.  If you don’t, who will?  Find ways to tell people what you are doing, how well you are doing it, and why your products and services are far superior to what they can buy from your competitors. 

Marketing your business locally should include sending periodic press releases to the media, networking with other business owners or potential customers, speaking before clubs and organizations, building referral programs, and face-to-face contact.  If you love your business and are enthusiastic, it will show. Print ads are rarely effective unless you have the funds to run them regularly.  Periodic mailings to targeted potential customers are usually more effective.  Email newsletters are about the most inexpensive way to use print marketing.

Accept the fact that technology is important in today’s business world.  The ability to type, use computers, understand the internet and how to use it effectively is more important than ever.  If you don’t have the ability and find it difficult to learn, find someone that you trust to handle this part of your business.    Technical advancements give you more time to do what must be done rather than doing busywork.  Even marketing in your local area is more and more dependent on technology.  You can create a proposal, including photographs, and transmit it to a potential customer by email.  You can stay in touch with existing customers via email much more easily and regularly than by mail and phone.  Having a website, even if it is just an online brochure for your local business, is expected by many in the business world.  And, of course, marketing your business via the internet, using optimization and other skills, opens your business up to a whole new level.

When you opened your business, you entered the jungle.  How you traverse it depends on your attitudes, the weapons you choose, your determination and commitment.  You may decide that this jungle is not for you or you may love and embrace the challenge.  Either way, the decisions you make daily will determine your success as well as your enjoyment.

This article, written by Joyce Reid, was originally printed as a “Reid On. . .” column in Rave Reviews, the leading national full-color trade magazine for the gift basket industry.

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