Most businesses slow down once or twice a year, typically either around the holiday season starting in November, or in late summer. Whenever your slow season is, it is a good idea to take advantage of this time to regroup, reconnect, and recharge. Here are ten things you can do to get the most out of this down time.
The one thing you can be absolutely sure of in life is that things change. In the world of business, change is happening faster than ever. Just because you were ahead of the curve last year doesn’t mean you are still there today. Take some time out to research your industry, paying close attention to important trends, emerging opportunities, and lurking threats. Be sure to review your competition too; not just the ones you have been worrying about for years, but also the smaller, less obvious competitors who may be operating below the radar. If you have the time, resources and/or money, this is a great time to do an environmental scan.
Dust off your old business plan and read it from cover to cover. Does it still make sense? Is it based on current and accurate, market research or is it based on faulty assumptions? Are your projections realistic? Sit down with people you trust, review the plan, and update it so it at least makes sense for the next year. You probably don’t need to spend hundreds of hours on the plan − unless it is way, way off – but a few days of research, analysis, and careful thought could make a big difference.
Slow periods are also a great time to review your company’s financials. Make sure your numbers are correct and up to date. Compare the past 6-12 months with the previous 6-12 months, with your previous projections, and with any industry data you can get your hands on. Are revenues growing, staying steady, or slowly shrinking? And don’t just look at the top line; also look at profits, gross margins, recurring revenue versus one-time revenue, and other metrics that make sense for your industry and your particular business.
Products and Services
Be sure to review all of your products and services. Which products or services are doing well, and which ones are struggling? If certain products or services aren’t selling as well as they did in the past, this is a good time to dig a little deeper and try to find out what is going on. Be sure to look at all the factors that affect sales, everything from supply chain to quality control and pricing, to marketing, sales and customer service. Sometimes modest changes in one step of a multi-step process can cause major changes in sales. Other times, small changes across multiple steps can lead to large changes in sales. Fix whatever you can.
Technology, Systems and Processes
No matter how small or large your business is, you undoubtedly use some sort of technology and have at least some systems and processes set up. Common applications include CRM, appointment scheduling, document management, inventory management, accounting and bookkeeping software. A rigorous evaluation of each application or platform would be expensive and time consuming. You probably don’t need that every year. But it can’t hurt to do a quick inventory of all your systems, processes and applications, and flag any that are out of date, don’t fit your business any more, or cost more (in maintenance time and/or fees) than they are worth.
Do a quick review of your annual contracts. Be sure to include contracts with customers, vendors, partners, suppliers, employees and contractors. Are you getting sufficient value out of each contract compared to what you are paying, or could pay? Software as a service (SaaS) contracts are particularly concerning since they often start out small, and grow over time as you sign up for new features or add new users.
This is a great time to chat with customers, look at customer reviews on social media, and review customer feedback surveys and data you already have in house. Look out for negative reviews, and take them seriously. The customer is not always right, but one or two negative reviews can destroy or severely damage any business. Just ask Boeing (737 Max), McKinsey (questionable ethics), or Uber (thousands of sexual harassment complaints).
Check in with your employees. Of course you should speak with your HR director and other managers, but don’t just take their word. Dig a little deeper, or as Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify”. One of the advantages of running a small business is that you can actually talk to your employees directly. Are they engaged? Are they productive? Do they feel like they are properly compensated? Are the different teams working in synch? Is everyone singing from the same songbook, or are some off in left field singing out of key?
Slow periods are also a great time to reconnect with colleagues, partners and even competitors. Attend some networking events and parties. Attend an industry conference or roundtable. Go out to lunch or coffee. Take some customers out to a basketball or hockey game. The idea is to get out of the office and expand your horizons.
Take Time Off to Unwind
Last, but definitely not least, take some time off from work. Do whatever it is that you love to do outside of work. Take a vacation or a staycation, but get away from the daily chores and demands of your business. Read a few books that have nothing to do with business. Watch some movies. Take a hike. Many studies show that downtime is at least as important as “uptime”.
This list is by no means comprehensive or absolute. And it may sound too long and complicated to some. But somehow the most successful business owners find the time to do most or all of these things each year. One trick is to delegate as much as you can to others. Another is to prioritize. If you absolutely know something is working well, don’t waste time evaluating it. On the other hand, if some area (such as employee compensation) is screaming for attention, by all means give it the attention it needs.
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