When the clouds come look for the silver lining

The economic forecast might be bleak, but your group has a chance of riding out depressions in the business cycle if you follow Ian Cochrane’s advice

The sun may not exactly be shining in Britain at the moment, but sun follows rain as the saying goes. The Bank of England’s quarterly inflation report last week did not exactly forecast a heatwave, but we are definitely getting better at accepting uncertain weather conditions these days.

It’s tough at the moment and likely to get tougher, not just here in the UK, but around the world. There was one piece of good news for design consultancies that was contained in the bank’s report though – the likely further drop in interest rates.

It is interesting to speculate what the possible effect of all this will be on the industry, over the longer term. If there is less work coming from clients, are we going to see a shrinkage in the size of consultancies and the disappearance of some groups?

This speculation is fairly academic at this stage. The hard truth is that the best run businesses will continue to do well and the worst run will suffer. Charles Darwin described this as nature’s way of ensuring that life goes on.

The key word to remember in stormy times such as these is loyalty. In order to survive and thrive, you need to be sure to have the loyalty of clients, staff and suppliers – two out of three will not do. I would urge you to nurture these relationships as you do with any family. Strongly bonded families are better able to deal with adversity and so it is with companies. If you’ve invested in these three groups of people during the good times, then they are going to support you and see you through the bad times. It’s as simple as that. If you haven’t, then you need to start investing right now.

The most valuable thing we have is time and it is time that we need to spend with those we care about.

You should dedicate most of your time to existing clients. You need to service them well and ensure they are getting value for money. You need to be more pro-active then ever before – search out ideas and people who can help your clients weather the storm. Inform them quickly about any internal changes that are taking place. They will reward you for your efforts.

Make design effectiveness your number one priority and champion it internally and externally. Ensure your design briefs, team briefings, design solutions and client presentations reflect this priority.

Be true to your own values and strengths – don’t be tempted, for example, to take on work that is better done by another group. Pass this work on to someone you respect and they will almost certainly repay the favour when they are able to. This way, you maintain your quality and your integrity.

Now is the time to go back to those lapsed or old clients and rekindle the relationships if you can. Sometimes this means swallowing your pride and just making that call to someone you haven’t spoken to for a few months or years. Don’t be concerned about this, since people normally appreciate the effort you have made.

Stick to what you are best at. Now is not the time to consider an overseas marketing initiative if you lack experience in this area. Instead, analyse what it is that you are really good at in terms of skill area or business sector and concentrate on this by targeting specific clients where you believe you have something to offer. Be sure to measure the return you are getting from your new client acquisition programme and to make changes or modifications as necessary.

Retaining the loyalty of your staff is just as important as retaining the loyalty of your clients. Make sure that your staff are in the right job roles – play to their strengths and don’t be afraid to switch their roles if necessary. If people aren’t performing then have an honest conversation with them about what you expect and what might happen if they don’t improve. I’m always staggered at the number of staff who have never had any feedback on their performance at work. If you have to make people redundant, seek advice on how best to handle this and treat people as you would wish to be treated yourself.

In difficult times it is important to keep talking and communicating to your people so they know how well you are doing and what the priorities are. I have come across situations, for example, where this talking has resulted in staff taking sabbaticals or extended holidays in order to avoid redundancies. Sometimes full-time staff are prepared to go part-time. A healthy debate can often lead to constructive ideas.

Don’t be tempted to forget your suppliers. Keep them informed of any changes and seek advice from them. They see your business from another perspective and can often spot areas where you are squandering money. Again, be honest with them and let them know if you can’t pay them on time. They really will appreciate this.

Remember that one of your most important suppliers is your bank. Cash is king in stormy times and your bank manager often holds the key to your future.

The good news is that storms eventually blow over and companies, like families, always end up in better shape and with stronger relationships.

PRACTICAL TIPS

Do’s

Keep close to existing clients

Stick to your strengths

Be pro-active with clients

Focus hard on effectiveness

Target and monitor your new business programme

Check credit references on new clients

Communicate, listen to and be honest with staff

Review and control all costs

Communicate, listen to and be honest with suppliers

Stay close to your bank manager

Don’ts

Enter new markets

Take on new design disciplines

Compromise your values

Compromise quality

Cut your prices

Take on clients with no cash

Give salary increases if you can help it

Avoid tough conversations with people

Ignore problems that are looming

Become negative

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