How are you preparing for a long business winter?

All around Columbia Falls, people are cleaning up their yards, picking up and storing canoes and such so they won’t get snowed on; and getting firewood cut, split, stacked and covered as winter approaches.

All the signals are there. The cool weather is already here, often dropping below freezing at night. Most of the leaves have fallen and the tamaracks are golden. Winter is coming.

Interestingly, I see people treating their business the same way. They’re taking steps to deal with the economy’s anticipated winter. Some markets are already seeing it, some are not.

With the slowness of the economy – and yes, I’m hearing it from a broad mix of business owners, but not all of them – folks are preparing for winter in their business.

What do I mean by the winter of their business? Two things really. Winter might be when portions of the economy are slow, and winter might also be when a company is near the end of its life – perhaps a natural thing.

In this case, I’m talking about the natural changes of the season of the economy, although sometimes the changes of the season aren’t so natural.

In the spring and summer of the economy, in other words – when the economy is rocking and rolling, some businesses seem to think that it isn’t important to pay such close attention to “trivial little things” like customer service, ROI on various media targets for advertising, lead sources and so on.

In that same strong economy, it often seems like almost anyone can run a business and make a profit. Ever notice how many people suddenly are in the construction business during those periods? A business card and a diesel pickup is all it takes to become a home builder.

But then…the economy turns. Or at least housing-related markets do. When it happens, spec homes sell slowly and weigh on a new contractor like the clock on Flavor Flav’s neck. Before long, many of these newbies and their diesel pickups are doing something else for a living.

In the winter-like periods of the economy, you start to see businesses pay more attention to expenses, lay off people that they probably shouldn’t have hired in the first place, start emphasizing customer service; in other words, start paying attention to the stuff they should have been watching all along.

As spring and summer comes, some will get lazy and stop watching those things. Will you be one of them?

The easy thing to do right now is to be consumed with thoughts of survival if your business is one of the ones that is struggling. Short term fixes won’t serve you well when the seasons change.

Plan your winter strategies with a long-term view. Put things in place that you can keep in place as your business and the economy strengthen.

Don’t waste time on duct tape and twine. No matter how long winter is, the strong but flexible steps you take now to fine tune your business will pay dividends in the spring.

Just when you think you’ve made it and you can finally rest…

You find out that you aren’t even close.

I’ve had clients experience it, I’ve lived it myself, and at least one of my vendors is just about to experience it.

No matter how good you are, you’d better be getting better.

In fact, you’d better be getting better at getting better.

If you don’t, someone is gonna burnout, implode or spontaneously combust.

Seth Godin does a fine job of summing up the customer side of it in this guest post.

Improve, every single flippin’ day.

Teach your clients to be smarter, better educated buyers

We’ve talked about this topic a few times in the past, but today I have an example that you can learn from.

First, take a look at the “Consumer Checklist” at FancyFortuneCookies.com. Don’t be distracted by the aging look of their site. That page is worth major dollars to you if you get the right message from it and use it.

Since they let you customize the message inside the cookie, they have to make them fresh just for you. I know  because I’ve ordered fortune cookies from these guys to use as business cards from time to time.

So not only do my fortune cookie business cards stand out from the yawners that everyone else hands out, but they are tasty as well.

How tasty are those imported fortune cookies from your favorite Asian restaurant? They probably buy them after they are mass-produced, sit on a dock in a container for a week or two, then on a cargo ship for a week or two, then on a dock for another week, then on a train or truck for another few days before they were warehoused and then eventually shipped to the restaurant.

Notice that I just taught you an important difference between good fortune cookies and bad or at least unnoticeable ones? And I didn’t do it while screaming BUY! BUY! BUY!

How can you teach your clients to be better educated, choosier buyers? Even Jif does it with their “Choosy moms choose Jif” line.

Why?…

Are you getting paid?

One of the comments I’m hearing from business owners these days is that payments are slow in coming. 

While the last thing you might want to do is add more to your receivables, it might just be the thing that gets you an edge over your competition and gets more new customers in your door. 

One option: Offer financing. 

Obviously, you have to make sure the economics are right, particularly if you have cost of goods sold. If the economics work for you, offering a 3 payment, 90 days same as cash is a very effective way of making it easier to buy, no matter what business you’re in.

You might need to change the terms to fit your delivery schedule, the cost, and so on, but it’s worth examining. I’ve seen businesses mushroom in size simply by offering a small down and a monthly payment plan for services and non-tangible goods (software is a good example). 

This probably doesn’t help you if you sell coffee by the cup.

On the other hand, if you do catering jobs and you take reservations for events that are weeks away, take a credit card number and offer to divide the cost by the number of weeks between now and the event. Ring the card up weekly. 

Got an existing accounts receivable with a good client that’s due in one big piece? If it’s late, offer to let them split it into 2 or 3 payments, with payments coming every 2 weeks, 4 weeks or whatever makes sense.

Remember, you don’t have to offer this option to everyone. Perhaps only your best clients receive this benefit. As famous retailer Murray Raphael said, “Treat everyone the same (ie: really well), but reward them differently.”

Doing what makes sense to help your customers pay you (and they really do want to) beats not getting the business, not getting paid and perhaps most importantly, discounting your work and getting into a price battle. 

Be creative. Make it easy to buy, now more than ever.

Another way to talk to your community

OK, I’m still not over the small number of folks using the news in your marketing like 7-11 does, so here’s another way for you to talk to your community of clients if that type of thing doesn’t feel right.

You can create your company’s own custom browser toolbar for your clientele at http://www.conduit.com.

While I know there are umpteen zillion toolbars for your browser out there, the ones that get used are the ones that truly provide value.

What a surprise, right?

It’s a big deal for most computer users to give up half an inch or more of their Internet Explorer or Firefox  screen real estate to yet another toolbar, so you’d better make it worthwhile if you create one for your users.

What can you include on your toolbar that is so important or so valuable to your clientele that they’d give up an inch of their screen for it?

If that doesn’t give you some motivation to communicate value, I’m not sure what would:)

I’m still investigating how to merge this tool into the mix of tools I use to communicate with clients and prospects, but I thought you’d want to know about it as soon as possible.

I’d love to hear your ideas about how this tool (or ones like it) have improved (or could improve) the business relationships you have.