In troubled times, don't panic, maximize assets

Nancy Nehlsen offers tips on guiding your contracting business through a recession

The very word “recession” is enough to strike fear into the hearts of most contractors. Your first reaction as a business owner may be to initiate steep budget cuts and employee layoffs — but trimming operations to the bone could become the business equivalent of throwing out the copilot to make a plane go faster. It won't speed up the plane that much, and it sure won't do the copilot any good!

You first need to make the most of the assets at hand. It is possible for a company to maintain profits and even grow during a recession. Here are some suggestions you might want to consider.

Stay optimistic. As trite as it may sound, you must maintain a positive attitude. When you fixate on the grim media messages surrounding you, you may begin to accept certain doom as a fact. You might become reluctant to pursue new business because you're thinking, “I'm sunk anyway, so why bother?”

You need all of your creative energy to develop new success strategies and keep employees productive. If employees sense that you're uncertain about the company's future, they will lose excitement about their jobs.

Network. Business won't just fall in your lap — you have to get out there and search for it. That means talking to other people in the industry, as well as owners and developers who may have projects in their planning stages.

Join your trade association, your Chamber of Commerce, and any service organizations that interest you. Volunteer for committees. While you're rubbing elbows with your new associates, ask about any opportunities they know about, and tell them about your business. Every new contact you make is a potential business opportunity.

Make every employee a salesperson. No, you don't want to send the office manager out to make cold calls. But every employee should be involved in your strategy to maintain and grow during the recession. Have meetings and talk to staff about your business. Ask them to think of any leads they might have and reward them if a lead pans out. Arm your field staff with brochures and small useful giveaways, if your budget allows. A small LED flashlight or flash drive with your name on it can pay off when prospects feel a sense of indebtedness for the gift.

Expand your services. If your regular niche market starts to dry up, look at other industries. High-end restaurants may be cutting back on expansions, but pharmaceuticals are still growing to keep up with the healthcare needs of Baby Boomers. Pay attention to which industries are staying vital.

You can diversify your company by adding new technologies or services that will attract a different clientele. More municipalities are going green, and the public sector is turning that way, too, so get as many of your key people LEED-accredited as possible.

Step up your marketing measures. All marketing people bemoan the tentative attitudes we occasionally see in clients.

Some clients may say, “Why market in good times, when I have all the business I need?” Others might say, “Why market in bad times, when there isn't any business to get?”

The fact is, successful businesses market during good and bad times. Start learning about new, targeted marketing opportunities that will cost you less and bring you more. Here are some examples:

  • Search engine optimization is essential for drawing new visitors to your Web site.

  • Educational marketing through Webcasts on your Web site will attract the potential clients you want to reach.

  • Social media allows you to network online, targeting very specifically whom you want to reach with your message.

  • Guerilla marketing means presenting your message to your target audiences in nontraditional ways that can generate buzz and position you as an innovator. Holding an unusual event that showcases your green capabilities or producing a video for YouTube are good examples of guerilla marketing techniques.

  • Public relations is the best way of reaching a prime audience for a minimal investment. Submit newsworthy stories to your local or regional press, as well as business magazines and trade journals that are read by your end-users. Have you completed an outstanding sustainable project or won an award for your work? Let potential customers know.

Also, take a fresh look at some of the less expensive marketing techniques you've used before, like email newsletters or postcard mailings that drive recipients to your Web site.

Speaking of your Web site, have you added any new content lately? If your Web site never changes, people don't have any reason to visit it.

There is always business available to you. You have to work harder during a recession to find it. Positive people who think creatively to overcome tough economic times lead the companies that will survive and thrive.

Nancy Nehlsen is the founder and president of Nehlsen Communications, a full-service marketing and public relations firm with clients in the mechanical contracting industry. For more information, visit www.ncpr.com.