Conserving Trust in a Downturn

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 3 Early Customer Stage, 4 Finding your Niche, skmurphy

A lot of is written these days about how to conserve cash in a downturn. In particular the need to cut expenses by cutting headcount and unnecessary fill-in-the-blank spending. But conserving trust is equally important. If you have been bootstrapping and only increasing expenses in response to revenue (versus in anticipation of revenue) then your next question might be “What else can I do?”

Ridge Evers wrote “Guiding Your Business Through the Recession” in March of this year. For me it stands out as the best “top ten” list for surviving this downturn. It starts off with two good suggestions for protecting your current revenue by making sure you stay intimate with your best customers.

1. Focus on your existing customers – Figure out how to keep them. Remember, they’re under the same pressures you are. Make sure you’re the one they want to do business with when things get tough. But don’t make the mistake of becoming their bank by extending too much credit.

2. Make sure you know your best customers, and that they know you care about them – Who, specifically, is your buyer? There’s an old expression in sales: “know your customer’s shoe size.” It’s always a good idea, but especially in an uncertain economy. If you sell to other companies, you need to understand them at the individual level. Communicate frequently, but take the time to make your communication relevant and interesting.

His list is the only one I have read that also addresses the need to remain trustworthy–and therefore creditworthy (hyperlinks added):

5. Conserve creditworthiness – Just like you don’t want to be your customers’ banker, don’t get into the position of being overextended with vendors, especially the ones you really depend on. This is often the opposite of what your instincts are – we all think our key vendors need us, which is true right up until they decide they can’t afford you as a customer. If you have to stretch payments, do it with ancillary vendors, and don’t wait for them to call you – tell them that you’re going to pay them later than you think you can, so you then pay them sooner than you said you would.

6. If things are tight, pay off all the little bills first – You’ll spend as much time and energy answering calls from the little guys as you do from the big ones. And remember the old adage: “If you borrow $1,000 and can’t pay it back, you have a problem. But if you borrow $100,000 and can’t pay it back, the lender has a problem.” Your bigger vendors will work with you – they don’t want to lose you if they can help it. So pay off the little guys, and then communicate with the big ones openly and frequently. And pay something – it shows good faith, and makes it harder to cut you off.

Evers wrote an earlier post in December of 2007 “Should You Raise the Ceiling or Lower the Floor” which used a great visual metaphor for business planning: headroom.

Essentially, a business has “made it” when you can stand up inside the “room” that you’ve created. Obviously, there are two different ways to create more headroom: you can raise the ceiling (revenues), or you can lower the floor (expenses). It’s a physical analogy, but one that I’ve found is really useful in both understanding what’s going on, and in figuring out what to do.

Many owners spend a lot of their time focused on controlling costs (lowering the floor). Some degree of this is healthy, especially when it comes to building a culture within your company that encourages thrift. It’s also the easiest thing to do when you hit a bump, generally, because expenses are something you can control. But it is exceedingly rare that cost control – in any size of business – paves a path to success. The best you can hope for is to buy time.

Most bootstrappers tend to be risk averse: they have all of their eggs in one basket so they have to guard the basket. Given that, attacking an existing expense stream makes a lot of sense, it’s much more tangible than identifying and attempting to exploit an opportunity. Cost management and accounting tools are more mature, especially for small businesses, than marketing and opportunity identification tools. What’s the marketing equivalent to QuickBooks for a small business or a VSB (very small business with less than 15 people, less than four million on revenue)? Please contact us if you know of or are using a good one.

I think for the most part cost saving requires less change in behavior (obviously there are exceptions like the lean model, which requires a fundamental re-think, and some well constructed re-engineering efforts) than going after new customers and so requires less “social cost” inside the business to implement. The negative side effects from a cost savings effort typically take a while to manifest, where the costs savings themselves are normally quickly available.

The place where the most successful business owners focus their energies is on raising the ceiling: growing revenues to the point where the business can stand up comfortably, and keeping it there. And, paradoxically, in many cases the path to a higher ceiling involves increasing expenses – for example, adding a new salesperson, upgrading equipment, or investing in marketing – so as to be able to attract more customers or increase sales to your existing customer base. (More about this in a later posting, but as the old saw goes, “You have to spend money to make money.”)

“What else can I do?” Give us a call.

Our promise is “early customers and early revenue” and our focus is on “raising the ceiling.” We work as virtual members of your team to build on your strengths: your current customers and current products. We help you to sell better what you have. We use low cost methods to explore current and potential markets for new customers. We gather feedback from your current customers, prospects, and lost opportunities, looking for ways to improve your offering to meet their needs more completely.

And we teach founders how to do all these things for themselves over time because we believe that this is the best way to build trust and a long term relationship. We started this firm in 2003, some of our early clients had barely survived the dotcom bust of 2001-2 and were concerned about how to add new customers: we’ve “seen this movie before” and understand how to help you spot the opportunities that are available.

Trackback from your site.

Comments (4)

Leave a comment

Quick Links

Bootstrappers Breakfast Link Startup Stages Clients In the News Upcoming Events Office Hours Button Newsletter SignUp