Six Key Strategies for Success in a Challenging Economy

Posted On: July 30

For the past 14 years I have served as an advisor and coach to more than 300 companies worldwide. Recently, I have had a number of clients ask for my advice on how to handle the current business downturn. In some of the industries I work in the numbers look extremely bleak and I am predicting that there is going to be a serious shakeout of any weak players. To make sure you are one of the strong that survive, here are my top recommendations for what you need to focus on to successfully navigate these difficult economic times.

1. Measure key drivers relentlessly:   when times are uncertain and the pressure is on, you need to become a fanatic for watching your critical factors very carefully. Cash flow, accounts receivable/payable, margins, inventory, G&A, vendor relationships, strategic partnerships, employee performance… whatever the most important drivers of business health are in your organization, need to be watched by the entire management team – all the time – and managed to the penny. I am not saying slash budgets, only that you need to watch them closely and make prudent business decisions based on real numbers and facts not fear or guessing. Those who panic will perish, those who are prepared and disciplined will thrive.

2. Create a solid “Survival Plan”: I had the pleasure of attending a talk by a top economist this past weekend and his professional forecast… for the foreseeable future (10-14 months) things are going to be really tough. His prediction was a growing recovery start in about Q3 of 09. That means for the next year or so it is NOT going to be business as usual and your “normal” business plan will likely not be adequate to get you through these turbulent times successfully. You and your management team need to sit down and create a strong and realistic strategy, based on the hard truth and solid evidence, for how you will position your company to come out of this recession (or near-miss) on your feet. You will probably need to make some very difficult decisions and might have to take some drastic actions, the sooner you realize, admit and act on this, the better chance you will have of being one of the survivors.

3 Own the Voice of the Customer (VOC): your customers are what drive your business success – period. I cannot stress strongly enough how incredibly important it is to build strong, trusting partnerships with your customers and listen, listen, listen to them. Your customers will tell you and your team everything you need to know about how to survive and thrive if you will simply ask good questions and listen. Robust, open and honest communications with your customers is absolutely essential. Talk to them, survey them, take a top customer to lunch every week and make sure they are very happy with your products and services – and if not, why (then fix it immediately!). Your customers are the key to your future – they pay ALL of your bills – they should be the center of your universe.

4. Be “Professionally Aggressive”: Also on the subject of customers – you simply cannot sit and wait for them to come to you. You and your team MUST have a high sense of urgency in meeting customers where they are. This means refining and refocusing your marketing efforts (not cutting them out!). This means looking for new ways to add value and increase your appeal. This means delivering the highest quality product possible, with consistently superior customer experiences, following up superbly and then asking for referrals. Customers today have higher expectations than ever before. They demand quality + value (not lowest price) + excellent personalized service…and they want it right now! This is incredibly hard to deliver – but for those who can, you will be a winner in this down market and dominate when the market recovers.

5. Top Talent: a close second in importance to customers are your employees. Without loyal, motivated and highly skilled employees – you have no way to keep your customers delighted. It must be the goal of the entire management team to foster the best possible working environment in your organization so that you can attract, keep and grow top talent. I am not talking about paying people more, hosting pizza parties every day or installing rock climbing walls – I am talking about making your organization a truly great place to work. Here is a solid law of business: Happy Employees = Happy Customers and Happy Customers = Business Success. Now I know this sounds simplistic, but I can overwhelm you with hundreds of research studies and mountains of data that clearly show a direct link between employee satisfaction and increased profitability. If you devote a lot of time and attention to getting the best possible people you can on your team – then work very, very hard to keep them happy, motivated and excited – they will make it a successful enterprise. Hammer them constantly, pressure them, threaten them, stress them… and all of the good ones will eventually leave – and ONLY the ones who cannot get a job someplace else will stay!!!

6. Disciplined Execution: all of the great ideas in the world are useless… if you do not effectively implement them. The goal is to build a highly agile organization, with a performance-oriented culture, that is focused on only a handful of Key Result Areas.  Kill all bureaucracy! Refuse to tolerate mediocrity in any form. Be ruthless in eliminating any waste of time, money or effort. Cancel any meeting that does not deliver significant value – so that your talented people instead spend that time on doing important work, motivating employees and building strong relationships with customers. The two most valuable things you have are how you use the “Time and Attention” of your top people, so everyone on your management team needs to develop a total disdain for wasting even a single minute of time on non value-added activities.

Let me conclude with some data from a Harvard study that was outlined in the fantastic book “What (really) works: The 4+2 Formula.” I have read more than 1,000 business books and I would put this rundown of the “Eight Key Drivers of Success” near the very top of my list! This is a superb summary and I strongly suggest you and your management team keep these eight items in front of you at every single meeting – they are truly that important.

A sharply focused, clearly communicated and well-understood strategy for growth.

Flawless operational execution that consistently delivers the value proposition.

A performance-oriented culture that does not tolerate mediocrity.

A fast, flexible, flat organization that reduces bureaucracy and simplifies work.

Talent = find and keep the best people.

Key leaders show commitment and enthusiasm for the business.

Embrace strategic innovation.

Master the power of partnerships – with customers, vendors, strategic alliances and employees.

You and your team should be able to look at this list and give yourself a score of 8 or higher (on a 10-point scale) on every single item. If not, you know where you still have some work to do!

** PS – please forward this blog on to anyone you feel would find value in these strategies — thanks so much – take good care —  John

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  1. Dear John,

    Your article proof to be the truth nothing but the truth of all. I somehow wish the companies out there turn into your blog for more information. I have also look at your profile and am pretty amazed the amount of books you have read. You infact have light up my andrenalin to push further for more reading.

    I’m a professional coach and consultant and I do read a bit but no where reach 50 books per year. Perhaps you can share some of your advice for my career development. Your experiences with all the companies that listed in Fortune 500 can never match with anyone with an MBA plus relevant experiences.

    I’m situated in Malaysia and it would be great we can exchange more ideas and knowledge.

    For this article, I will re-post on my blog and encourage more people to read it.


  2. Desmond — thanks for the wonderful note — I wish you great success. I am in the middle of updating my recommended reading list and will be posting it up soon — will also add a number of really good resources for you and others to enjoy! One of my favorites is the Personal MBA site — has some fantastic resources and a very good reading list. And I agree with you — I wish a few more companies and people would read my blog and others — there are superb ideas floating around on the web — just takes time find them, read them and… apply them!! Take good care Desmond — I look forward to sharing ideas and information – John

    PS — there is a direct link to the PMBA site on on my blog — on the ” Key Links” section over to the left <—-

  3. I can honestly say that reading your core values time and time again gives me hope that there is actually a disparate community of people who truly believe in the value of each person, regardless of where they sit on your team – customer, vendor, employee, partner – and that success can be found in delivering real value and having a great time while doing it.

    Thank you for being my gateway into that community of great minds.

    (P.S. If you want, I can really wax poetic…)

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