The recession is fading. Unemployment is dropping. Money will start to flow again, and some of it will be heading to small businesses.
Before new customers and competitors show up and overwhelm your day-to-day operations, take time to take stock, look at what’s been neglected, and plan for improvements -- now.
Back to basics. If you own a small business and want to be taken seriously, now is the time to get serious about your infrastructure. You can’t be an expert in everything, so prepare for growth by lining up trusted advisers. Upgrade your computers, software and network systems, and don’t forget backup and security. Get expert legal counsel to review and update long-neglected contracts. Make sure your accountant is using the latest software and has a fool-proof backup system. Ask your insurance broker to shop for better business liability insurance. Renegotiate or extend your office lease now, before rates increase with market demand. What else will help you fast-track new business without adding headaches?
Hire for attitude, not aptitude. As the market rebounds, one of the greatest challenges will be keeping up with customer needs. You need to make sure you’ve got people who are passionate about what you do and eager to bring their A-game every day. You can train for skills, but you can’t train for drive, maturity, empathy or integrity. Our team needed an operations pro and ended up hiring someone with a performing arts degree and recent experience working with U.C. Berkeley. Kai didn’t fit the traditional operations position mold, but his passion for methodologies, creating order out of chaos, and collaboration made him an ideal fit for our team.
Re-commit to customer service. When customers come knocking on your door, exceptional service will make them stay. And with money to spend, every new customer should feel like they are your only customer.
Last week I wanted to send my college-aged son cupcakes for his 20th birthday. You can only imagine how many choices there are in the Los Angeles area. Most of the hip name-brand bakeries needed 24 hours notice. But one Web site caught my eye with a sassy name and a personal feel. I called Big Man Bakes at 1:00 pm and they delivered two dozen cupcakes to my son by 3:30 pm -- the same day! Under-promised, over-delivered. Of course, I went online and told everyone I knew. I even posted to the Facebook parents’ page of students at the same college. So listen carefully and work hard to solve your customers’ problems. While other companies may offer similar products or services, you can make sure your customer never forget how you made them feel.
Embrace social media. You don’t need a storefront, business cards and glossy brochures to be taken seriously. Anyone can create a professional, engaging brand online, practically for free. Use LinkedIn's advanced search to dig for the best talent. Build Twitter and Facebook communities of like-minded fans who will amplify awareness of your brand. Monitor your competition, and your publicity, with Google Alerts. And with a little programming help, a WordPress template can become a self-customizable web page. Take the time to learn these tools and techniques now so people can easily spread the word about you and your amazing products or services.
Time for a mind shift? There are some things much more important than giant revenue. Profits. Sanity. Sleep. Fun. Focus on what you do best, and then own it. For years, I was content to keep my team small while carving out time with my three young children. I followed my instincts and we grew organically. Now that my kids are older, we’re more aggressive about growth. The same team that helped me achieve a semblance of work-life balance generated an 80% increase in revenue last year. Is it time to make a mental leap and put pedal to the metal as well?
I’ve written here before how economic downturns are great opportunities to re-skill and re-assess your business plan. The bad news is that you’re running out of time for reflection, introspection and education. The good news is opportunities are rising all around you. It’s time to either float, swim or set sail.