10 August 2011

Preparing for the rollercoaster ride & 5 tips on differentiating your business

Standards and Poors has downgraded America's AAA credit rating, local and international markets are volatile and easily spooked, picking changes in interest rates is more akin to crystal ball gazing, the carbon tax is coming, consumer sentiment remains tight and no one is feeling particularly confident.... Welcome to the 2011/2012 financial year!

Over the next 12 months business will be working with a range of domestic and external influences that will cause uncertainty.  But these swings can be a benefit as well as a headache – but only for strategically sound businesses. 

Most SMEs are well downstream from major economic triggers.  We don't cause the problems but are affected because of what is happening to larger businesses, the economy, and consumers.  Some industries are more impacted than others.

Expecting business conditions to be 'more of the same' over the next 12 months is wishful thinking. If your business strategy is simply to turn up, work hard, and expect business to come to you then you are likely to be disappointed.  If you have not already, it's time to do something different.  When business gets tougher, 'me too' businesses come under pressure.  A 'me too' business is one that simply replicates what everyone else in their industry or sector does.  You work on the basis that there is a consistent and proven formula and if you follow the formula everything should work out.  Sounds ok in theory (and says a lot about human nature) however the problem is that you are doing nothing to differentiate yourself in your market.  This lack of differentiation may leave your customers with no compelling reason to continue doing business with you.

Business, and in particular small business, needs to be more strategic. The objective needs to be more than carving out some market share but to create a sustainable business.  This is where your business strategy comes in.  Your strategy should set the direction for your business and allow you to carve out a sustainable position in your market.  In a buoyant market you can survive without a strong business strategy; there is plenty of business for everyone. Turn up, work hard, and you will pick up some market share.  The challenge in the good times is generally supply rather than demand.

In a volatile market, demand can be patchy and in some cases depressed.  Everyone is chasing business and if you don't have a clear business strategy then it is likely that you are trying to win business by chance or competing on price.  Most SMEs are not equipped to compete on price.  You don't have the capital reserves or the economies of scale to compress your profit margins.  Go too far and you can trade yourself out of business. 

Developing a business strategy takes time and hard work.  You need to understand your industry sector, your market, where the opportunities lie, and how you can differentiate your position in that market. It's not easy but get it right and it will pay big dividends. As a starting point you need to identify what your current business strategy is.  You should be able to clearly articulate it and write it down (in your head is not good enough).  If you don't have one then accept reality and start working on one.  Your strategy should flow into your business plan and then be reflected in your operating and cash flow budget for the year.  Typically, your business strategy will contemplate your end game – be it a sale of the business or some other exit event.

Good businesses always have a clear strategy in place. For the coming year it will be more important than ever; it will separate the successful from the strugglers.

5 tips on differentiating your business

1. Focus on the customer experience
What's it really like dealing with your business? Do a blind test and see whether your business and your team really want customers and sales. For most businesses, you're not delivering a product/ service, your delivering an experience.  

2. What do your customers really want and can you give it to them and still make a profit? 
Starbucks closed 61 stores in Australia by 2008 (73% of their stores). They misunderstood the sophistication of Australia's coffee market and no amount of advertising was going to make us change our barista.

3. Solve the problem. What is it that your business does for your customers?

The more you can solve the problems they face and make life easier, the more likely it is that customers will choose you over your competition. It might be as simple as refining how customers choose and order your product, access to information that is valuable (think of the freight companies who offer freight tracking and schedules of a customer's history) through to product development (online banking didn't always exist).

4. Know your product

Do all of your staff know your product or service and do they know what to say about it? The business might seem simple to you but your staff might not naturally realise what needs to be done or said. Inexperienced or poorly trained staff are a huge turn off to all but the keenest customers.

5. Not everyone wants to be your friend
For many years marketers told you to develop a close relationship with your clients. As a result, everyone wanted you on their database primarily to market to you (almost zero value to your customer). There is no question that there is a value to having a tangible customer base. But realise that your customers are looking for different relationships with different businesses. Understand what it is they want from you and develop the relationship from there. If you make contact give them value - don't just talk at them about your product.

Quote of the month
"Price is what you pay. Value is what you get."
Warren Buffett

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The above is an extract from the publication "Your Knowledge" a newsletter service we have subscribed to as an additional resource
This Newsletter, of necessity, has dealt with matters of a technical nature in general terms only. Clients should contact us for detailed information on any of the items in the Newsletter. No responsibility for loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from acting in reliance upon any material in this Newsletter can be accepted by any member or employee of the firm.

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