The Key to Growth in Hard Times

It’s now five years since the recession really hit Ireland. If we haven’t caught on already, we need to understand that this is the now normal level of economic activity in which business will operate for a long time to come.

Sure I could write down a shed load of economics statistics but we all know that business is still tough for most micro-enterprises and SMEs. So instead of just hoping the situation will get better, we have to be proactive in the current climate to grow our businesses.

To do this, we need to work smarter and understand modern business methods and how trends in business cultures are changing. Business cultures are continuing to change rapidly and two examples of how is due to social media technology and all-round limited cash availability.

Earning a crust for our businesses nowadays is much more difficult than it used to be in the Celtic Tiger days when there was plenty of cash around.

The process of selling is changing in many sectors. Buyers are far more discerning than five years ago. For B2C selling for example, limited disposal income has helped to change all that. Buyers want to decide when and where they will buy and no longer react positively to the hard sell methods.

When they do buy, they often know more about the product that the seller because of the vast amount of product information online. They demand quality product and service as a “given” and are not afraid to complain to all and go elsewhere if they don’t get the standard of service they expect.

Parallel trends are happening in B2B sectors.

There’s no ultimate single panacea to grow your business and different factors affect different sectors – be it industrial manufacturing, professional services, or retail etc.

However there are some common business factors that apply in any industry and below, I’ve selected seven points to consider for growing your business in tough times. Realistically these apply whether the economic climate is good or bad. It’s just that in tougher times, each point is critically important to address to have a chance to survive and thrive.

1. Let’s consider strategic matters first. Strategic marketing is about which products and services you sell into which markets and it’s what successful senior management in larger companies and SME owner/managers spend much of their time working on. Remember Ansoff’s Matrix (Igor Ansoff 1918 – 2002) for growth strategies?

It was first published in 1957 in the Harvard Business Review and it’s about existing and new products and markets, and diversification strategies relative to business risk. Things change in business but this issue is every bit as important now as at anytime in the past.

Take advantage of new market opportunities, get the product right and the market sector – volume or niche, and you’re already on the road to successful growth.

2. Does your product differentiate sufficiently to stand out from your competitors? It needs to be something different to just cheaper prices – such as added value by lasting longer, solving a persistent problem, making life easier or providing a better experience.

Two independent competing eating places in Kerry offered similar food and eating experiences until one of them started offering lower prices. What do you think happened? The other did the same and so it went on. No-one thought about being innovative by creating a different eating experience to avoid or rise above the competition.

3. To get the above two points right, you should be constantly researching your markets.

New needs and trends can develop, and very quickly too. Done continuously, market research becomes a natural function in the business, doesn’t cost a lot in time and cash, and helps to reduce business risk.

4. Always be prepared to adapt to change. Just because engrained ways of doing business worked successfully in the past doesn’t mean they’ll work in the future.

Communications marketing has changed like this in the way it utilises technology-enabled social media compared with the traditional marketing channels.

5. Quality and customer service excellence as one issue is an area that the business community in general has room to improve on – some organisations more than others.

Don’t forget that it’s an important differentiator when looking to stand out from the competition. Getting it right doesn’t come overnight and it should be part of an ongoing “continuous improvement” programme in the business.

I buy new car tyres online from a UK company because the prices are competitive, they’ve never got it wrong, deliver in three days or less, and keep me informed during the entire buying process. Due to their service focus, in the last five years they’ve expanded from selling in the UK and Ireland to all across Europe.

6. For almost all business organisations, the way that we market our wares has changed. It’s changed so much that for most businesses, to avoid embracing modern marketing communications methods – meaning social media and “content marketing” – is both at your peril and missing key selling opportunities.

It’s not the intention to talk about digital marketing strategy here, but there’s enough expertise available in the form of books, online information, marketing institutes, and consultants to start doing a lot with little outlay.

7. The old adage that your employees are your greatest asset is remarkably true. Looking after your teams tends to give a good payback. Here are two suggestions: Firstly, run a consistent programme of training so that employees can keep pushing out their boundaries and maybe take on board new activities.

In vibrant economies, one percent or more of turnover spent on training might be considered reasonable. In harder times, even a portion of this spent in the right areas should provide a benefit.

One way is to integrate the training with a HR-led Performance Development Review (PDR) programme. Secondly, employees are motivated by knowing what’s going on in the business. Regretfully not all managers follow this practice so keep your staff regularly informed of both what’s happened recently and what’s planned for the next few months.

These points aren’t exhaustive by any means but each topic on its own – when addressed in your business, can make a positive difference to real growth in these harder times.

Stuart Allcock – Management & International Development

Stuart is part of the Beacon Initiative, Grow Programme Virtual Management Team, which can assist qualifying SME’s to grow through the provision of management expertise that may not be accessible to them currently

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