A key concern for all businesses is how to cope with seasonality. By this, I mean the fluctuation in activity caused by external factors. This is most critical to high growth, smaller businesses. Slowdowns in sales can have drastic knock on effects to cash flows, and can cause a lot of headaches for business owners.
Below are some of the tactics that can be employed to minimize or reverse these trends.
1. Check if the seasonality is self-created
I've seen this at first hand. Somehow a truth that summer (or winter) is quieter becomes accepted within an organization. People point to the fact that a lot of people want to take vacation time with their families, and that this makes it harder to complete deals. It appears totally rational and reasonable. This then is perpetuated by those who see the opportunity created by this to coast along for a while. The data of course then matches the false truth and becomes more deeply ingrained and harder to shrug off.
In my own industry (outsourcing) I've been told that there is a summer slowdown, but that's not part of the story and expectation at our firm. We've actually enjoyed our strongest growth across the summer months every year so far.
Maybe psychologically we are now expecting (and achieving) a better outcome. Regardless, the lesson is to challenge any internal myths of a quiet season where you can.
2. Match slowdowns to vacations
Most companies leave picking of vacation times to their employees and the sign off to their line managers. At companies with true seasonality it is a better idea to give clear direction and mandates for who can take vacation days and when. In general, actively managing vacation time by encouraging staff to take time out when you are quiet helps to smooth out some of the lumps.
Does your firm even track and report out the percentage of accrued vacation time being used?
When I worked at Dealogic, we had to cope with major reporting deadlines at the end of each calendar quarter. This created a major problem for some team members especially around the Christmas and New Year holiday season. Expectations were set early on. There was careful and smart planning to find the happiest outcome for the affected staff, but in general more people were at work then than at other firms.
3. Be creative in dealing with peak periods
It is easy to get stuck into a mindset that the only way to deliver the same quality and service in peak periods is to staff for the peaks all year round. Many managers are influenced by their personal experience of those industries which pull in temps for their peak seasons, and see that quality is reduced. For me, I think mostly of retail, and then in the UK there is the phenomenon of students delivering all that Christmas mails alongside the veteran postmen. It's a dilemma - how do you retain quality in these short, sharp peak periods when you know how much training and experience are needed to deliver. I believe keeping such problems in house is generally not helpful.
Using high quality temp agencies or engaging an outsourcing partner can help improve performance during peaks. Both types of firms will have more experience with managing such situations. Allowing them to solve these problems for you season in and season out gives them the incentives to properly invest in and solve the problem for you. As an example I have witnessed one major outsourcer who managed to neatly pair two clients with what were like Yin and Yang volumes of work. The outsourcer had to invest more heavily in training their staff, and managing workloads, but both clients benefited and in the end everyone won.
4. Insert your leadership training and offsites into the quiet times
Another key way to manage seasonality is to plan effectively to maximize the quiet times. Every business will one way or another set aside time for personal development and strategy and planning. These are core functions that work extremely well when there is less going on. Smart firms have their global summits planned around the workloads.
Ultimately every business will need to work through its own unique circumstances. Great companies tackle seasonality creatively, and can turn it to their advantage.