Friday, September 24, 2010

Reporter's Notebook

John McDonagh can be reached at

Building business when business is down

For too many months we’ve all been talking about how much our businesses have been negatively affected and the resulting consequences on our companies. One of the most telling consequences, borne out by the staggering unemployment figures for our area, is how few folks we have left on staff.

Having fewer employees on staff brings along its own set of concerns in addition to the cost savings. One is that the remaining employees take on more responsibilities and, as a result, some things just don’t make the “must get done today” list—a list that never seems to get any shorter.

Too often one aspect of business that suffers on that list is the regular contact and conversation we used to have with clients, which may have facilitated a higher volume of orders. But since their favorite person is no longer on staff, a client misses out on those conversations and the relationship becomes less familiar until months may go by between exchanges. When the customer’s orders taper off, we pass the blame on to the economy.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve had the opportunity to visit with a few of our clients who, over the years, have stayed steadfast with us but for a host of reasons were doing less and less business with us.

Those discussions were important for a number of reasons. I learned that a former employee simply hadn’t treated a customer with the professional courtesy and attention I thought was part and parcel of how we interact with all our customers. Another had been given information about one of our products but we failed to make certain the information was understood, resulting in a decision that didn’t include our proposal. Still another shared that it takes so much energy and attention just to keep their company afloat and on course right now that if our people don’t call and get their attention, the business priorities of the day soak up any available time and pretty soon it’s weeks or months later.

How much business are we losing because we cut our sales and customer service staff and at the same time cut our ability to maintain a relationship with our existing customers? At the tail end of a previous down economic cycle, there was a TV spot featuring a CEO handing out airline tickets to his key staff. As he did so, he was saying it was time to get to know their customers again. In other words, reestablish a relationship, understand what their needs are today and show them that we care. I think we’ll be doing that more frequently—no, we won’t be offering airline tickets, but just checking in to see how things are going and finding out what we can do to help can go a long way.

When was the last time you had a conversation with your longstanding customers just to check in? I think you’ll be surprised by the reception and the business there is to be done even in a down economy.