Dear Dan: Business is off, and my employees are dragging. Any ideas on keeping both my customers and my employees engaged and interested? - Dragging
Dear Dragging: For millions of business owners, conditions today aren't really so different from any other time. You're scrambling to find new customers and keep the ones you have. You're hustling to handle the hundred-and-one day-to-day tasks required to run a business, and perhaps manage a team of employees or independent contractors as well.
When economic conditions are challenging it's more important than ever to be vigilant in two key areas:
- Keeping the customers or clients that you already have; and
- Keeping employees loyal and motivated even if raises, bonuses and benefits are a thing of the past.
"Sure, your employees will stay with you while the job market is poor," says Ed Hess, a professor at University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. "But if they don't feel like you've treated them well or appreciated their hard work during the slow economy, they'll move to greener pastures when things turn around."
Customers present an even greater challenge. When sales dip, the tendency is to focus on developing new business. "That couldn't be more wrong," says Neile King, head of Sales and Marketing at Smart Online, a business process software developer. The first move is to keep what you've got, says King, because it costs twice as much to gain a new customer as it does to keep an existing one.
Here are five ways to keep customers and five ways to gain employee loyalty under trying conditions:
1) Provide more frequent progress reports: Show your customer or client the work you've been doing and the results you've achieved. This will help answer un-asked questions and allay latent fears.
2) Get some face time: If you deal mostly by email, web-connection or phone, make an effort to meet in person. "Meeting in person says you are interested and gives you an opportunity to literally see things that you can help address," says King.
3) Ask for feedback: Never assume a customer is completely satisfied. Throughout the work process, ask how your customer feels about what you're doing. Then take action on any suggestions. Think of yourself as a waiter who checks back periodically throughout the meal to see if everything is okay.
4) Tune your offering: As proud as you may be about your product or service, remember it's being made or done for the customer. Make certain you know what they want, and when they want it.
5) Be open to change: Especially how, things change. Customers may want to change terms, conditions, purchase orders, payment processes or other things. Customers will appreciate if you show a willingness to work with them on adapting to new conditions.
Gaining worker loyalty
Hess, co-author with Charlie Goetz of the book "So You Want to Start a Business? 8 Steps to Take Before Making the Leap," makes these employee loyalty suggestions:
1) Say thank you: It seems so simple, but just telling your employees "thank you" when they've done a great job will go a long way. Verbal recognition boosts morale and builds mutual respect. "As a result, employees will not only work hard for you, but they'll stick with you through thick and thin," says Hess.
2) Give low-cost bonuses and perks: If you can't give significant raises or bonuses, show appreciation with less pricey rewards. Options include gift certificates to local restaurants, movie tickets or maybe a paid Friday afternoon off. Also, providing a catered lunch once a month or doughnuts in the morning is a good way to boost loyalty.
3) Help them improve themselves: Your employees will appreciate your willingness to help them invest in their futures. Consider paying for them to attend a class at a local community college or a seminar that interests them (and could help your business, too).
4) Help them get healthy: Providing employees with a gym membership is a great way to say "thank you" and can have multiple benefits. Find out if a local gym will offer a group deal.
5) Ask their opinion: Employees appreciate being asked what they think. Solicit their ideas on how the business can be improved. You might be surprised by what you hear.