Friday, May 22, 2009 by Dave Blum
Especially if you’re a small business, I’m guessing the answer is “yes”.  It’s been a tough year all around; just about everyone I know is tightening their belt and paring back their expenses.  It’s understandable — intelligent even — but that doesn’t make it easier for small business like us who rely on larger organizations to open up their pocket books and hire us as outside contractors.  Is it time for despair?  Sure.  It would be illogical not to lament (at least a little bit) the slowdown of work and the drop in sales.  We’re human after all…and if you’re a sole proprietor like me, how can you NOT identify with your business and take a little hit to your ego?

However…after getting those feelings of scarcity out of our system, let’s not forget the silver lining.  This “trial by fire” is making our businesses stronger, much the same way a sword is strengthened when it’s forged at high heat.   Below are five business lessons that I would never have learned if it weren’t for the current economic downturn:

1) Provide extra-special service:   With fewer clients knocking at my door these days, every prospect is golden.  When I receive an inquiry, I call back immediately…no dilly dallying.  I provide the client with whatever they need–pronto–whether it’s a price quote, references, a program description, etc. And I try to give them even more–samples of our product, for example.  If I want to stand out in this day and age, I need to be more responsive then the next guy.

2) Take it to the streets: And I don’t mean standing out on the corner with a sandwich board, although for some businesses that can really work.  What I do mean is, get out there and demo your products and services.  In my case, if a client is interested in my scavenger hunts, I offer to come to their office and do a 20-minute sample hunt; if they’re curious about our puzzling networking game, I suggest they have me over to do a 20-minute mini-version of the activity.  It works out great — they get a free icebreaker that breaks down barriers between people; I get a chance to showcase what we do.  The more I get out there, the better…which leads me to point #3…

3) Attend networking events:  I’ll admit it–the last few years, I’ve been pretty lazy about getting out there and schmoozing.  Of late, though, I’ve changed my tune.  Last week, for example, I attended a BNI meeting and made several great contacts.  Afterward, I emailed the chapter head and offered some team building ideas for their next after-hours event.  A month ago I went to an ASTD “speed networking” session and met a guy who runs a training company called LMI–it looks like we’ll eventually be doing some work together.  There’s only so much you can do by sitting by the phone or sending out emails; trust is built through human contact.

4) Watch every penny:  Ah yes, in the good old days of American prosperity, I could simply eyeball my outlay and say, “Well, the profits are rolling in…expenses are easily covered…who needs to worry about budgets?”   In this economy, the answer is ME, that’s who.  I’m proud to say that I now know every single penny that my business spends–and I’m questioning the need for each and every expenditure.  It’s not as “fun” as “eyeballing” it, but my business is certainly more streamlined and efficient as a result.

5) Use social networking:  I don’t know about you, but I’ve been pretty much ignoring this whole web 2.0 thing.  No longer!   You can now find Dr. Clue on Twitter, Facebook, Plaxo, etc. I read other blogs and add my comments.  I’m adding contacts right and left to LinkedIn and exchanging recommendations.  I don’t know if it’ll translate into sales, but darned if I’m not going to experiment with the latest trends and see where they take me.

You have a choice.  This downturn can sap your spirit and lead to despair. Or it can light a fire under you and make your business leaner, meaner and stronger.  I choose the latter.