It’s Not Your Imagination — It is More Hostile Out There

The overwhelming majority of the articles being published about the effects of the down turned economy do one of two things. The authors either defend their guesses about when things will improve or give advice about how to “hang in there.” Certainly we all realize by now that we should plan our cashflow and negotiate better terms with our vendors.

One result of the recession that does not seem to be getting much attention in the media is the irritable, negative climate business people must face on a daily basis. Perhaps this is because an author runs the risk of sounding like a complainer, a whiner, a crybaby–the very behavior with which business people are confronted these days on a continuous basis. We now have no tolerance left for any more whining.

However, the purpose of this article is not to whine about the cruel world of business. It is to provide some concrete advice about how to minimize the behavioral damage being done by this extended recession. It is not your imagination, there is more whining, complaining, and moaning going on out there, and it is important to see how one person can make a difference.

Nothing will confuse employees more, and the market place for that matter, than “stop/start” efforts.

First, try little things like cleaning up your office or car, adding pleasant music, or bringing in live plants or flowers. It is difficult to face a recession if your work environment is gloomy. Plus, it is important to take frequent breaks. It is difficult to get away for a long vacation during recessions, but a few long weekends can clear your head and improve your capacity to face tough decisions, demanding customers, and limited resources.

Next, make sure that you are not contributing to the whining. It is very easy to get sucked into whining behavior, and entrepreneurs are not immune. Even when customers are thrilled with the products and services that you are providing, many of them feel the need to ventilate their frustrations on trusted suppliers like you.

Customers are embarrassed when they have difficulty paying their bills. One reaction to being embarrassed is to attack the other person. The best defense is often an offense. Plus, if you are a service provider, you are probably engaged in frequent conversation about your clients’ fears. It can get to anyone after a while. This recession has continued longer than most business people had ever imagined that it would.

Just think about how you have acted over the past few months in particular. Reflect on your own tone of voice. No one can drag a business down faster than its leaders.

Third, ask yourself if you are conveying a consistent message to the people around you about the health of your business and your priorities. Many entrepreneurs will admit to being almost “manic depressive” about their businesses. One day, there is nothing you cannot do. You are going to go after that new market place as aggressively as you possibly can. You are optimistic and nothing will stop you. Then something happens.

A creditor calls and makes threatening remarks or a big deal that you have been working on for months falls through. The next day your shoulders are drooped. You are scratching your head asking yourself if you should close the business today or wait another month. You wonder why you are even in business because it is so difficult.

Interestingly, the same entrepreneurial leaders who have these up/down feelings and behaviors about their businesses are the first people to complain about their non-responsive employees. “Why do they just sit there? What would it take to excite them? We need to take action NOW. I cannot do it all myself!” Employees faced with “moody” bosses often adopt a “let’s just wait and see” approach for their own sanity. Unfortunately, when a group of employees head for the middle ground like that, productivity suffers and mediocrity sets in. The employees would be less capable of aggressively attacking problems than ever.

It is understandable why some business owners waffle on a daily basis about whether to continue or close up shop, but nothing will confuse employees more, and the market place for that matter, than “stop/start” efforts.

Effective marketing requires consistency in the message. A bold, blitz advertising campaign followed by an extended silence will be interpreted by the market place as your last ditch effort to save your business. In many situations, if you are going to take this approach, during a recession, you may as well plan on actually going out of business if the blitz campaign does not attract a lot of customers because so many people will assume that you did go out of business and will not be calling you anyway.

If your business is so tenuous that you feel compelled to consider closing it, try limiting your analysis to a monthly basis. Look at the numbers. Make your decision. Then go for it, or not. Let your competitors stay stuck “spinning” in a nonproductive daily debate about whether they are in business or not.

Some of the negative behavior being faced by business people today stems from the fact that so many companies are so sorely understaffed. Just as our country must find a way to become more competitive and improve our quality, so many of our businesses cannot afford sufficient staff to meet customers’ basic needs.

Think about your recent experiences with hotels while on the road. How long are you waiting at the registration desks? How often has your reservation been lost? How many times have you been promised a nonsmoking room only to be assigned a room that is filled with cigar smoke from the previous guest? How long do you wait for your dinner when you have ordered it from room service?

Now think about the response of the person at the front desk if/when you say anything about the quality of service. Not only has the quality of service in industries like hotels been adversely affected by under staffing, but the apathetic response one gets when problems are pointed out is one of the worst side effects of this recession.

Sometimes the desk clerks note the complaint and offer to convey it to management. Sometimes they even offer an excuse or explanation. Most of the time they adopt an “its not my job” blank stare.

There are at least three different aspects to this part of “recessionary behavior.” First, look at yourself as a consumer. Has the recession worn you down? Are you taking it out on your suppliers (hotels included)? Are your expectations realistic? Are you expecting high-level hotel service but are only willing to pay motel rates?

In your purchases, there are probably a few key attributes that need to be perfect. Perhaps buying from a vendor who focuses on these key attributes would be less frustrating than demanding complete perfection in all things when you really do not need it and/or cannot afford it. If you have selected a supplier through a focus on a few key factors, and you receive poor service, then your complaints will be focused and more effective. You will reduce the risk of being discounted or viewed as “just another grouchy person” in a sea of irritable business people.

Next, look at yourself as an employer. Maybe your employees are acting much like the hotel clerks. Under staffing is demoralizing to employees. Where is the motivation to work harder? Most people are not getting the raises they had been receiving on an annual basis during the 1980’s. Their jobs may not even be there at all tomorrow. They are “stuck” doing the work that two or more people used to be doing. Sounds fun, huh?

Some employers retort that these employees should be grateful that they still have jobs. In reality, that is simply not enough for most people, at least here in the U.S.A., and even if keeping one’s job is to be the only available motivator, why are so many employers surprised that their employees are performing the minimum that is required to keep their positions?

It is usually helpful to be as open with employees as you possibly can about the health of the business. This can reduce the amount of time wasted by employees who are fretting about their future rather than being productive.

Plus, it is important to be clear about the priorities. Perhaps, you are still trying to be a full service hotel but can only afford to be a motel with the doors on the inside. The recession does force some unattractive compromises.

Instead of frustrating people and setting employees up for failure on a daily basis, it might be time to look at your expectations. What are the key attributes that your customer base values? What can you do to consistently provide quality service/products with those key attributes? Your employees want to please customers. Very few people are actually working with the knowledge that customers will not be satisfied no matter what they do. Maybe it is time to find a few key ways to please your customers and to give your employees a “reason to bother.”

Then, think of yourself as a businessperson. You can certainly relate to the problems being faced by your understaffed suppliers. We are all in the same boat. Maybe there is a joint venture you could do together. Perhaps if you pooled your resources, more customers could be satisfied and more profit could be made. You could become a valued customer of your vendors if you increase their incentive to satisfy your needs. Let your competitors stay stuck “spinning” as they complain about lousy service to apathetic clerks. In the meantime, you will be doing something constructive, focusing on what is important to you, and helping to improve the quality of service/product for all of us.

If you can make progress with your own business through improved focus, open communication, smart business deals with vendors, pleasant surroundings, clarified priorities, and consistency, it is a whole lot easier to face grouchy recessionary behavior. You may even have more energy and be able to call your customers more frequently which is an excellent way to prevent problems.

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