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Go internal: 7 tips to take advantage of a business slowdown

The economic slowdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic was to be expected. The outlook is rough – Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President James Bullard predicted a 30% unemployment rate and 50% drop in GDP in the United States in Q2. That kind of fallout is bound to hit your business as well.

Keith MacKenzie
Keith MacKenzie

Passionate about human resources, employment, and business management, and an expert at sharing that expertise.

take advantage of business slowdown

But consider the opportunities. No, this isn’t about capitalizing on increased needs or new market niches in the face of COVID-19 – that’s for another story altogether. Rather, as the quote goes, if you don’t go within, you go without. The slowdown in business may mean you have that opportunity to go within in your business. As Workable COO Grigoris Kouteris notes in an interview:

“It’s a good time to start looking at optimization [in your business], at some of the things that are in the pipeline that aren’t getting done. Now’s a time to set up the right infrastructure and set up the right process in place.”

We get it: there’s no exact science to how a business can capitalize internally during an economic slowdown. And there will be many organizations that don’t have the cash fund or other luxury at the ready in terms of time and resources – and there will be many who do. If yours is one of the latter, consider these seven tips to take advantage of a business slowdown.

1. Fine-tune your internal operations

Because of reduced demand for your product or service, your business doesn’t have that steady stream to keep things firing on all cylinders. That slowdown can be worked to your benefit – with the freed-up time and resources, this is a good time to go inwards and do a full audit of your internal operations.

For instance, start with identifying and improving:

  • Breakdowns in processes
  • Slowdowns due to asynchronous tasks and poor project management
  • Clumsy handoffs of projects from one task to the next
  • Redundancies and overlaps in expenses, job functions and organizational structure
  • Breakdowns in communications – both internal and customer-facing
  • Lack of integration in tech stack

You can look for, identify and improve on each either from your own desk, via meetings with other upper management, team managers, full teams, or even the entire company in an all-hands. Think of it as optimizing your machine so it can run more efficiently with less drain on your resources.

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2. Research your market

You can also use the opportunity to look externally as well as internally. Organize a task force to take a deep dive into the current market and understand it at a much deeper level. Think of it as updating the business plan on which you initially built your business.

For instance:

  • Learn about your competition. Look at what they’ve done up to this point and what they’re doing right now.
  • Research other companies. Study companies from the past who were in a similar stage as where you are now. Understand the steps they took to go from that point to further success.
  • Look at upcoming trends. What’s happening in your industry and what’s predicted to happen in the near future? How can you capitalize on those?
  • Look at recent innovations. What’s happened and what’s about to happen in the market that you need to be aware of to stay relevant?

You always want to be thinking on your feet; with the resultant market data at your fingertips, you’ll be better equipped to make quick and impactful decisions for when the economy is back on the upswing.

3. Nurture your existing customers

One of the painful aspects of an economic downturn is the slowdown in revenue. It’s going to be harder – and just as expensive – to try and get new customers, with decreased ROI to boot.

It’s been documented that it costs five times as much to get a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. Not only will current customers benefit you by staying with you now, their loyalty can reap dividends down the road. It’s been found that you get 25% more profit for every 5% increase in customer retention.

So start thinking about your existing customers and how you can retain them for the long term. To strengthen those relationships, you can:

  • Help customers through this trying time by extending supportive messaging and special deals (such as three free months to try out a new feature)
  • Connect with customers for case studies, testimonials and features
  • Partner with customers in cross-promotional initiatives
  • Build out relevant content through customer interviews
  • Have one-on-ones with customers to understand their existing and future needs and how you can meet those needs
  • Shift outbound sales reps to account management to increase interaction with existing customers

Any and all of these can be doubled-down for prospects as well, both now and in future. Plus, if done right, your brand reputation will get a big boost.

4. Update your product or service

Once you’ve gained a stronger understanding of your marketplace and the needs of your customers, you can use your time and resources to think and plan for upcoming new features, releases, evolutions, or innovations in your product or service.

For instance:

  • Build out your R&D team to come up with new innovations based on market needs identified in #2 above.
  • Assign a team of developers to build out a new integration or add-on for your software.
  • Move your existing manufacturing talent to another area to build a stockpile of products slated for release in the fall.

Through some smart decision-making and planning, you can utilize your existing talent to these new initiatives rather than going down the road of mass layoffs only to go through a difficult and expensive rehiring process down the line. Keep the gang together, retain the loyalty of your teams and hit the ground running with something new once the economy recovers.

5. Train/upskill your teams

The phones aren’t ringing nearly as much. The demand for product isn’t as high as it used to be, and may not be for awhile. Your marketing team budget has taken a hit, but you still have a full team.

There will be moments where your teams really are at a surplus for time. There’s a danger of disengagement there. If you have an emergency cash fund in place, you may consider investing some of those funds in training, retraining, and upskilling your teams.

One of the biggest hindrances for training is that you don’t want to pull your talented colleagues off the line – but when there’s not much “line” to work on or maintain, this may be the perfect time to pull everyone into the clubhouse and build up those skills that’ll help your business thrive later on.

Again, this is a long-term opportunity. Think of the ROI in terms of increased employee loyalty and retention as well as increased productivity from better skilled talent. Plus, because they’ve learned new skills together as a team, you’ll have a more refined workforce that’s keen to succeed with their newfound talents. It’ll be better than trying to rebuild teams later after a series of layoffs.

6. Repurpose your teams

If training isn’t a feasible option, why not repurpose some of your talent? This is an opportunity for you to pull those teams together and have a discussion about how they can continue to make a major contribution. For instance:

  • Leads and prospects do dry up, meaning less work for sales. So, as suggested in #3 above, underworked sales reps can be moved to account management for a temporary period to nurture existing customers and keep revenue streams alive.
  • Hiring freezes are common during this time. Your recruiters can build out future hiring plans (i.e. playbooks), research competing salaries, update their existing interview guides, etc. so they’re prepared for a hiring spree down the line.
  • There’s less urgency for developers to jump on bugs or meet unique customer needs. Developers tend to be tinkerers and innovators. So, tap into that energy. Organize a hackathon for them to build out ideas for potential future products.

You can even enact some of this at a team or even departmental level, assigning task forces to jump on #1 (fine-tune internal operations), #2 (research markets), and #4 (update product or service). All these different departments and teams are mini-businesses of their own contributing to the overall business as a whole – and there will be opportunities for improvement, repurposing, and refinement in each.

Another kind of repurposing: In the early days of the crisis, many companies in China shared their employees with other companies more in need during the crisis – for instance, restaurants experiencing severe downturn would lend their staff to supermarkets desperately in need of workers, helping both in the process. Of course, experts do warn of the legal considerations of entering into an employee-sharing scheme – for instance, look at existing worker contracts before you set out to do something like this.

7. Encourage downtime for you and your staff

In these bleak times, it may not make a lot of sense to carry on, but it may be worth doing so if you know you’re able to tough it out and come out the other end in relatively good shape. Perhaps there’s an opportunity for a short-term sabbatical – a spring break, of sorts – for the entire company or for specific teams.

Consider the following scenarios in which you can encourage a fully paid sabbatical for your staff:

  • There’s no work-from-home opportunity in the industry where you operate – as is the case for many businesses deemed non-essential during the current COVID-19 crisis.
  • You’ve issued a full work-from-home, remote work order across the company and your workforce isn’t fully equipped for such a sudden transition in the short-term.
  • In the case that the remote-work transition is smooth, you still have many employees struggling to get work done because they’re home with children, other family members, or roommates – whether they need care or the home environment isn’t conducive for work.

Perhaps a full shutdown of one week or more can be a huge benefit to the company at large. Give express permission to your employees to take that time off on their own or with their loved ones without taking away from their vacation pay or PTO.

Many companies stage an all-hands summit from time to time, Workable included. Even if an actual summit cannot be planned in these times of physical distancing, you can still think of this sabbatical as a kind-of morale-boosting exercise when you encourage people to check in at the same time for a virtual social event regardless of where they are.

Plus, your employees can return from that time off with a refreshed energy and a stronger loyalty to your company. It’ll also benefit your employer brand once others take notice. This can be a boon for your business operations and bottom line.

Consider the long game

Whether it’s operational efficiency, understanding of your market and competitors, a better/different product or service, a more loyal customer base, or a more skilled and motivated workforce, it can better position your business for success when the economy is back in full swing.

Take advantage of a business slowdown. Optimize now, benefit later. Your future business will thank you.

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