November's SurePayroll Small Business Scorecard numbers are in and, as expected, we remain at the bottom of our L-shaped recovery. Hiring is down a tenth of a point over last month, bringing us to 4.2 percent growth year to date. Paychecks are flat over last month, with year-to-date growth remaining at 0.6 percent. The only real difference is sentiment. This month 63 percent of small business owners indicated they're optimistic about the economy, versus last month's 57 percent.
Based on that increase, I'd say more small business owners are getting used to the new economic norm, which includes getting a whole lot more done with a whole lot less resources. While heightened productivity has at least kept the majority of them in business during these tough times, it's not great on a macro level. Doing more with less means doing more with fewer employees. Doing more with fewer employees means our unemployment rate won't change significantly. When our unemployment rate doesn't change, less money is being pumped into the economy – and into our small businesses. And so we stay stuck in the vicious cycle.
There are a couple of ways to remedy the situation. Either businesses can become less productive, essentially sharing the wealth by hiring unnecessary workers (which I am willing to bet will not happen), or they can win new business at a pace that surpasses productivity so they need to hire more workers. While most businesses are laser-focused on doing the latter, not all will succeed.
With each month that we hover at the bottom of this L-shaped recovery, the gap between the small business owner haves and have-nots is widening. The high unemployment rate continues to dampen consumer demand, creating a fiercely competitive business environment. If businesses are to grow and employ more people, they have to be the best at what they do – they need to innovate at an exceptional level or execute a helluva lot better than competitors.
I am confident that most businesses have reached into their bag of tricks to find ways to trim costs as much as possible. Have you done the same to spur growth? If not, let me remind you that the best way to grow is through current customers. Go back to the play book and reemploy the most basic customer relationship management strategies: Make sure you're sending cross-selling communications and offer a program that rewards customers who refer business. And if your marketing budget is near nil, don't forget about the free ways to reach new prospects: Take your business online (if you're not there already), build relationships through social media and create partnerships that allow you to cross market with businesses that offer complementary products.
While all business owners would be wise to ensure they're implementing some of the most basic growth strategies, I'd be remiss if I didn't remind you that the most successful business owners are the ones with the best attitudes – ones who know that with the right focus and positive outlook, they will have a significant impact on their bottom line – and the US economy.
Last updated: Dec 2, 2010
MICHAEL ALTER is president of SurePayroll, America’s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University. @michaelalter