Getting ahead of a crisis

We are all in a time that no one in living memory has faced before. Schools and businesses are shut down. We are isolating in our homes. The 24-hour news cycle paints what-if pictures of doom and gloom. And in all of this, we are expected to lead our people through to the other end. If you feel like the Great Oz from the movie The Wizard of Oz, who projected a mighty and powerful image in public, but behind the curtain was furiously pulling levers and twisting knobs while hoping that no one looked behind the curtain and saw him for who he really was, you are not alone. If you show up to work each day and present yourself to your people as someone who is taking charge and knows we will get through this, but at the end of the day you sit in your home and are terrified out of your mind by self-doubts, you are not alone. None of us know what our business will look like on the other end of this crisis, but we do know it will be different. So, like steering a ship, we will make many course corrections as we move forward. That does not mean, however, that we cannot take action now and make some strategic decisions.

While we don’t know everything we will do in the future, we likely have a good idea of past actions that we’d rather not repeat. A Chicago politician once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This is your opportunity to make those hard decisions that you were too afraid to make because they wouldn’t be received well. This is your chance to finally make that sacred cow into some hamburger that will help your business. This is your chance to finally let go of the past and move on to the future with your business.

To be blunt, there are many stupid things we do for our customers or allow our customers to do to us that did not make good business sense last year, and make even less sense in the current environment. Use this opportunity to reduce or get rid of your prompt pay terms, your extended terms, and those darn annual rebate programs that the customer seems to forget about when he wants you to match a competitor’s price. Most pro yards deliver 90% or more of their material. Implement a delivery charge if you haven’t already. If you have, tighten up the exceptions you allow and look to increase the amount. Stop letting customers use their credit card to pay off their account. Don’t worry about what your customers will think. In most cases they get it and were wondering when you would finally figure it out. Don’t worry about what your competitors will do. You are struggling to survive, and so are they. They will probably follow your lead.

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When it comes to our people, culture is everything. You need to plan for the culture you want to have in the future, and let go of the past. If you have a cancerous employee who fights everything, but has been with you forever, or “is really a good guy,” now is the time to pare the tree and get rid of them. If you have to reduce your headcount to make ends meet, don’t make the call based on tenure and sales volume. Judge your people based on attitude and aptitude. Your best sales rep might be two years from retirement. If you don’t start planning for that transition now while you are assessing your people, you will have your own crisis in less than 24 months. That employee that everyone loves, but no longer is up to the job or you no longer have a place for, will now better understand the difficult choices you have to make given the current climate, than they would have six months ago. Make that difficult decision now.

Look at your business model. The last crisis made many of us finally let go of product lines and customer segments that we had been selling forever, but were no longer profitable. Chances are we still have some of those sacred cows still with us this time around. Conversely, what business have you had that you wanted to grow that you now have freed up some resources to support? Remember, you are either growing or you are dying.

So, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. When you can focus your mind on the things you can control and start working towards a solution, you will find that you feel much more like the Great Oz.

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