When times seem tough, we all have the natural tendency to tighten our belts and cut out all but the absolute essentials until good times return. All so often advertising and marketing budgets are the first to fall. It’s not the mortgage payment or the light bill, it’s just marketing…right? For so many small business owners, chopping marketing budgets in slow times seems all too natural, simple and presumably harmless. But that very decision may make the difference on why some businesses will struggle coming out of this
recession…if they survive long enough to come out of it at all.
When times seem slow and your phone isn’t ringing or your showroom isn’t overflowing with customers you can take one of two approaches:
REACTIVE … slash marketing, sit perfectly still and just wait it out, hoping and praying that good times will suddenly appear again and all will return to normal…eating a few more ramen noodles in the meantime.
PROACTIVE … step up your efforts to connect with your customers, getting out of your door and into those of your customers, trying to find out what they are thinking; what it takes to get their business back; what they will be looking for when they do come back.
When put in those terms the proactive approach seems the most logical. I contend that businesses that are proactive will survive and flourish through this recession.
Entrepreneurial-driven businesses are so often successful in-no-small-part because they adopt a proactive mindset much like this:
“When no one is coming through your doors you get out there and find out why? You go to them. You ask questions. You listen. You take notes. You keep relationships open and flowing. You talk to your competitors to see if they are noticing the same things. You figure out what it takes to get customers off their couches and back in your doors. If necessary, you get your house in order so that when they do get off the couch yours is the door they want to come in.”
Successful small business owners always work hardest when times are tough and lean. It’s that entrepreneurial spirit that burns in the successful business that makes the difference between hitting the pavement to go find your customers or sitting in your office waiting for the phone to ring. At Garland County Economic Development Corporation (GCEDC), we like to view our approach and mindset as chiseled from the same stone as that of a successful, entrepreneurial-driven business.
At GCEDC, we are always trying to do one of three things:
- We are always working to make sure the current customers in our community are
getting everything they need to survive and thrive in this environment.
- We are working to get new customers in the community’s door.
- And, we are making sure our shop has the tools and equipment needed so that when they do come in we are ready.
When the phones stop ringing on their own, we hit the pavement in every way we can to visit with our job-creating-customers.
- We go places where we can ask a thousand questions and figure out what is keeping them on the couch and out of our community.
- We listen, we evaluate, we improve, we prepare.
- We keep being seen wherever our customers are … even if that is somewhere other than our store.
In our business of community and economy building, we aren’t given the luxury of sitting idly by, left to just hope and pray that the world will go back to normal and hundreds
of companies will simply walk back in the door. We have to keep moving and earn or retain that contact for the future business they will become for our community. To
be left behind is to be left irrelevant to a company’s future growth decision. So our challenge is always to keep our product fresh and our community’s face familiar.
At our store, our teams have certainly kept moving. In fact, when times are rough we tend to move more and we seem to move faster. During this period when fewer customers have been walking through the door, we have been visiting them, trying to find ways to lure them back into the store to do a little business. We are also making sure we are putting the tools in place so that we are still relevant to that customer when he or she does get off the couch and decides they are ready to do business again.
Our vast travels on the road lead us to the following report:
Our customers are still out there in the market. They need to grow. They need to make investment. They have plenty of money in the bank … but little to no confidence in the market.
The net result is this:
“Everybody is on the couch.” Business isn’t doing anything until it gets a little less scared about this economy. Our competitors, neighbors and partners are seeing the exact same thing. It seems as quiet as crickets out there right now. Plenty of chirping about the need, but beyond rubbing their legs together, little to no actual movement.
Recently, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission expressed some of the same frustration during the Arkansas Economic Developers Annual Conference. At that time, AEDC had 73 open project files. That is 73 companies that have an interest in moving to Arkansas and creating jobs.
How many have made a final decision? “None, Nada, Zero.”
All 73 files are stuck in this quagmire of economic uncertainty. Screams of national debt default, credit rating adjustments, new EPA regulations, National Labor Relations Board lawsuits, confusion and uncertainty about health care implementation, talk of tax restructure … you name it, business has good reasons to be afraid of the dark right now. When the business community is afraid of the dark, it simply isn’t going to make investments or add jobs with such uncertainty. It is going to sit tight and make sure they are as profitable and productive as they can be the safe zone that they know.
I can’t blame them. It’s just reality.
But our business of community and economy building still requires that we continue to be out in the field talking to them, trying to figure out what scares them and reassuring
them that when the lights come back on we’ll be here and we’ll be ready for them.
This all wraps together in one simple and challenging summation. When we’re asked what we as a community are doing to turn this slow economy, our answer is this: “We’re moving and moving and moving.”
- We are on the factory floors of our local companies, being their biggest advocates
for productivity and growth here locally.
- We are in crowded airport lines headed to meetings where companies that need to grow are sitting around the table trying to figure out if they are still too
scared of the dark.
- We are wearing out good quality, locally made shoes getting into the rooms where
economists and competitors are gathered trying to get the newest information,
latest tricks, quickest technology so that our tool belts are full of all the things we need to lead companies through the dark.
- We are researching, debating, analyzing and educating ourselves so that our plan
to grow the economy is the best plan our community can have … perfectly balanced with ambition, vision, reality, and common sense.
But don’t be fooled into thinking the immediate reality isn’t stark. There are no quick fixes to this economy. There are no magic pills to create business courage. In the end, we can’t force anyone off the couch. Our small marketing and travel budget cannot reverse the fear of the dark that businesses deservedly have right now. We can touch one or two at a time, but this frozen panic is wide spread and whoever gets the credit for doing it has much more TV attention than we’ll ever catch.
But our challenge is no less presented: we keep moving to make sure that everything we can do we are doing. It’s the act of moving; the proactive mindset that all so often makes the difference between the successful business and just another recession statistic. Hot Springs isn’t a recession statistic. It has a great plan. It has great economic bones to build upon. It has a desirable business story to share. It also has a burning desire to be out telling that story to its customers … even when times seem frustratingly slow. That
attitude will survive and prosper in this long and grueling economic race.
Rest assured, our economic development attitude and commitment are solid. We’re making sure that our community store is not just going to survive this recession but we’re working hard to build business while it’s happening. In the meantime, we’ll be moving wherever that business takes us.