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Real Life Leadership: In unpredictable economic times no set formula can bail businesses out

Today's Real Life Leadership column -In unpredictable economic times no set formula can bail businesses out - addresses the challenges that many businesses feel today about surviving this economic downturn.Transition_growth_or_decline

In reality, we aren't simply dealing with an economic downturn do to a low US dollar and high gas and commodity prices. There is a much more fundamental change taking place. Change is being thrust upon every business from multiple directions. We are in the midst of a transition economically and culturally that is greater than any of us have ever experienced. We are at a juncture between business has it has been done for generations, and business as it needs to be done in the future. We are a transition point of great change that is forces us to change as well.

Let me describe what I see in this way. There is change at the macro level. That is the level that is really beyond our control, but impacts us every day. For example, it is the rise in the cost of fuel as the demand for oil grows in developing countries.  You can cut back, but for how long. When does cutting back, begin to rob you of your ability to generate new customers and develop new revenue sources?

The micro side of change is the mind set that people who are your customers have about your business and services.  Recently, I talked with the CEO of a regional fast food chain.  He told me that his business is booming as customers shift their food purchasing dollar from more expensive restaurants to his.  He also pointed to the phenomenon of lunch-time customers at the drive-through window buying five and six different dinners, instead of one. He remarked that obviously someone is selected each day to drive to pick up lunch instead of everyone driving themselves.  He said that their emphasis on customer service has made it easy for them to accommodate these changes in his business.

While traveling in Wyoming on vacation, I spoke to the owner of resort business about how gas prices was affecting his business. He told me that the number of guests has remained steady, but their guests are spending less on the extra activities that they offer.

The agility of our businesses functions primarily at the micro level. We make changes that affect how we deal with our clients and customers today.  The problem for many businesses is that they get locked into a business model that restricts their ability to make changes. I'm surprised by the number of closed businesses that I see as I drive through town each day. I can only conclude that cash flow and debt service were the main contributing factors. Are these the outcomes of the inability to make the necessary changes to adapt to an economic downturn?

Did they not see this downturn coming?  Even if they had, what could they have done?  It is difficult to be come agile and adaptive as a business when you cash flow is suffering. You can't wait until you need to adapt to learn how to adapt.

I believe it goes to what I state in the column.

You have to understand why your customers buy from you. You have to understand what the impact is. What is the difference you make that ranks high enough that they are still willing to spend their money on your business?  If you don't know then you need to find out.

As a result, it goes to my second point, which is, you have to understand that what your values are. Values aren't some warm and fuzzy inspiring ideas that you market. No, they are the core strength of your business. They are what brings you, your employees and your customers together around a set of ideas that matter in your relationships with each other.

For example, if you say the customer comes first, but you haven't ask them how to serve them during this economic downturn, then that value is really irrelevant to your business. You are making your decisions based on the assumptions you make about your customers, not what you actually know.

Here are two simple diagrams to illustrate what I mean. Values_1_simple

The first is what I call Values 1.0. This is the traditional approach to values. These values are ideas that are iconic. They are symbolic of some other value. If customer service is an iconic value, then it stands for a long-standing approach to customer service that has basically become irrelevant to today's customer.

Here's an example. Recently, I was at an upscale Italian restaurant, part of a regional chain, and one that I've eaten in dozens of times. I was there by myself. My server took my order. A "runner" brought my tea and salad. Then another runner brought my main course. During the salad portion of my dinner, a young woman came by, and asked if I was pleased with the salad. We talked for about 20 seconds. I then asked her what her job was there. She was not dressed as a server. She told me she assists the floor manager to do whatever he needs her to do. And she does the restaurant's books in the morning.  We had a nice chat, and she left. She stopped by two more times before my server returned to ask how I was doing, and see if I wanted dessert.  At one point, I sat there for about five minutes needing a tea refill before another server returning from her section saw my empty glass and filled it.  The restaurant had plenty of people to serve me. The problem was they were really unaware that I was there.

The values of customer service has to be more than talk and marketing speak.  It has to become an Values_2_simple_2 awareness of the situation your customer is in so you can respond to them. This is where my notion of Values 2.0 comes from.

At the restaurant, the assistant to the manager should have been aware of my tea need as she chatted with me each time. My server, obviously, should have been more attentive.  The deeper issue is that we don't talk with our customers about these issues. A response card at the door isn't a conversation with the customer. It is much easier to fall into the trap of assuming that what we are doing today for our customers will be fine tomorrow.

When we talk with our customers about what they want and desire from our busienss, we are employing our customer service values in our interactions with them. When we take seriously their ideas, and integrate them into how we service them, then we find that our values have in impact upon our business and our customers.

The inability of a business to adapt to an economic downturn is born in that business leader's assumption that he knows what his customers want and need, and more importantly will always be there.

Adapting to the macro and micro worlds of change require us to be grounded in values that transcend the situation. They are the strength that enable us to persist through difficult times, and make the hard decisions to change before our options have run out. 

I'm convinced more and more that the key to managing change is found in living the values that are the core strengths of our business. To do so requires us to change. As a result, the hardest change is personal, and what confronts each of us every single day.

If you like,here is a hard copy of today's column that you can download.

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