UpFront: No Place to Hide
By Brian J. Hogan
In times like these, it's normal for people under pressure to look for a place of sanctuary. As business flattens or trends down, or even collapses, as trusted, skilled workers must be laid off and equipment idled, a manager will look for new business, some island of prosperity where there will be good contracts and good margins. Instead of seeking automotive work, for example, which formerly was the life blood of shops and companies here in Michigan, perhaps the thing to do is specialize in medical manufacturing, in aerospace work, or in energy-related fields. Switching focus is worth a try, of course. But stop and think. If everyone in the business is heading for that same (supposedly) safe place—and they are—things will get overcrowded rather quickly. Isn't it likely that you will, once again, be dealing with intense competition, heartburn-inducing margins, and customers who know they have you on a string? There is no place to hide. New business should be sought out, of course, in good times as well as in times of trouble, but don't look to a few new customers to save the day. Hold your costs down, become more efficient, acquire the highest-technology equipment you can find and afford, and—if they're still in business—don't fail to keep in touch with the old customers who know you. When this period of struggle finally ends—and it will end—those customers will remember you, and will know that you want and value their projects. Skills matter. Old and new customers alike know that you possess skills of value to them. And the folks you've been working with will be impressed if they see you've sought to upgrade those skills, and your equipment, even in difficult times. If you mull it over, your relationship with a customer is based upon what you can do, or more correctly, what you can do for the customer. The more you can do, the more valuable you can be to old and new customers alike. And remember that the personal element is critical to any business relationship. To the customers you've known for years, you are a person with a name, kids, a way of carrying yourself and doing business. Any customer must ask: "Can this vendor deliver on schedule? Will the quality be right? Can I trust this outfit?" Your old customers already know the answers; the newbies don't. Coming through this recession isn't only about finding some new source of revenue. In the end, your skills and your contacts are your only sanctuary, the only fortress certain to remain standing in a time when the world is upside down.