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General Business Tips

In a Recession, Put Everyone in Marketing

by Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Rosabeth Moss Kanter

Are you facing falling customer orders? Slower renewals? Cancellations? Requests for ever-deeper discounts? Those are silly questions. Of course you are experiencing these recession symptoms. And you have probably cut budgets and jobs more than you like.

So now what? When you can't (and shouldn't) cut any further, you can leverage the creativity of the people on your team. This is truly the time when employees are your most important assets -- for real, not just in slogans. In a recession, everyone should be in marketing. Motivated employees contribute to creative thinking that can help retain current customers and identify new ones.

Here are five suggestions:

1. Increase Customer Contact and Communication. Financial turbulence sometimes leads managers to overemphasize pleasing banks or investment analysts while appearing to take customers for granted. But, as we all know, without customers there is no business.

Senior executives, regardless of function, should become personal ambassadors to major customers, thanking them for their business and making it clear that they want to help them succeed. But don't stop there. People throughout the ranks can reach out to customers -- perhaps a personal note or a phone call to provoke news or ask questions. Customers will know you care, you will be better informed, staff will feel more involved and unexpected opportunities might arise.

2. Start Looking for New Markets Now. Companies dependent on a few large customers are particularly vulnerable to changes in their customers' fortunes, but all companies need the flexibility to move quickly into promising markets. In uncertain times, managers should increase efforts to identify additional uses for company products and additional sources of customers for the future.

Creative thinking can find opportunities to offset losses from current customers. Starting research now on less-familiar industries or prospect types will help prepare managers to move quickly when conditions improve.

This might involve sales calls, tests of need for sweeping by types of property owners you haven't contacted previously, other contacts targeting new areas or industry segments, sending people to speak at local conferences and cultivate relationships. During slow times, employees who might otherwise be idle could be deployed to gather information by discussions with end users.

3. Invest in Employee Morale. When empioyees fear for their jobs, worries about family finances drain energy and increase the temptation to stay home on the slightest excuse. When morale is down, productivity and attention to customers suffer, right at the time that you most need zero defects, efficient teamwork and cheerful voices handling customer questions.

Too many companies treat employees as costs to be cut, when they really should show employees how important they are. Managers can greet employees personally and thank them for their contributions. Small tokens of appreciation and enjoyment, such as a weekend outing with families or a food festival with employee contributions as a break during working hours, go a long way to keep people motivated to perform well.

4. Emphasize and Reward Small Wins. Innovation is an ongoing task, but turbulent times increase the need to get everyone involved in undertaking small improvements that can be easily and quickly implemented -- to find a cost-saving efficiency, improve the work environment, or convince customers to buy a little more or other, non-sweeping services you offer.

People at lower levels and in unexpected places might see how to make a greater difference for the business, but no one has asked them, or they thought the ideas were too small to mention. A program that actively seeks these ideas and rewards them -- publicity, appreciation or even a small portion of the cost-saving or revenue gains -- can strengthen the company immediately. The result is that motivation increases and customers see a company that is always ahead of the curve in terms of new thinking.

5. Stick with your Values. There is always a temptation to cut corners when times are tough. Managers should avoid desperate moves that could damage them or the company later -- no accounting tricks, no shoddy service levels, and no compromises with ethics, such as "gifts" to a purchasing agent. Reminders about company values can reinforce solidarity and increase the confidence customers have in the company.

Challenging times divide winners from losers. Winners survive because they never forget the important enduring truth: High quality products and services are created by engaged employees who know and care about custsomers who know and care about customers.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter holds the Ernest L. Arbuckle Professorship at Harvard Business School, where she specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. Her strategic and practical insights have guided leaders of large and small organizations worldwide for over 25 years. The former Editor of Harvard Business Review (1989-1992), Professor Kanter has been named to The Times of London list of the "50 most powerful women in the world."

Her latest book, SuperCorp: How Vanguard Companies Create Innovation, Profits, Growth, and Social Good, will be published in August 2009. At Harvard, she is chair and director of the Advanced Leadership Initiative, a University-wide faculty group aimed at deploying a leadership force of experienced leaders who can address challenging national and global problems in their next stage of life.

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