This short piece is from the “Industry Buzz” section of Lawn & Landscape’s December issue. A little longer than normal posts but worth it!
If you’re a small business owner, your list of worries seems never-ending. For starters, consumer confidence is down and your sales are starting to reflect that reality. And as experts predict a deep recession, it’s doubtful things will start looking up anytime soon. Yes, you’ve been wringing your hands and obsessing over the financial news for months, while simultaneously scrambling to keep your customers happy and your business strong. But action is the best antidote for agonizing, says Ed Hess—and now is the perfect time to create a recession contingency plan that will help you guide your business through any future rough patches.
“Too often, when the economy goes south, a small business owner is paralyzed by anxiety and isn’t able to act quickly enough to save his or her company,” says Hess, Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and coauthor (with Charles Goetz) of So, You Want to Start a Business? 8 Steps to Take Before Making the Leap. “Having a well conceived contingency plan in place gives you peace of mind when trouble hits and enables you to act quickly.”
For small business owners, Hess says, contingency planning is one of the best and most effective preventive actions you can take in a down economy. “Contingency planning will allow you to make the best possible decisions for your business if things continue to get worse before they get better,” says Hess. “Even if you are an eternal optimist—after all, many of us entrepreneurs are—you’ll be wise to have a contingency plan in place if, say, one of your biggest clients succumbs to the bad economy, or if you have to face the difficult decision of whether or not to lay off an employee.”
If you’re unsure where to start when it comes to crafting your contingency plan, Hess explains the critical elements you’ll want to include:
A People Plan. For small business owners, employees are often like family. That means the most difficult decisions you’ll have to make will probably pertain to them. That said, it’s important that you remain objective when creating the “People” section of your contingency plan:
- What people assets are critical for you to keep? Why?
- Who can “afford” a salary cut?
- Who could undertake more responsibility?
- Who are your definite keepers?
- If you had to cut 10 percent of your workforce, what would your severance policy be?
- How would you treat departing people so as to engender trust, respect, and loyalty of those remaining?
- How would you implement a people “cut”?
“By answering these questions truthfully and thoroughly, it will be much easier for you to make decisions concerning what to do with your workforce during the slow economy,” says Hess. “Sometimes cutting back on your workforce, at least temporarily, is a necessary evil. Knowing that when you do so you are simply following a plan will help you manage some of the guilt that will come if you have to let someone go or reduce employee pay.”
A Key Customer Plan. It’s likely that your customers are feeling just as much anxiety as you are right now, so it’s best to handle them with kid gloves. Fail to do so and you risk damaging a relationship that will not only help get you through these hard times but which could prove very profitable when things pick back up. Here are a few things to consider when developing the customer section of your contingency plan:
- Who are your most profitable customers?
- Who are the most loyal?
- Who must you keep long-term at all costs?
- How is the downturn affecting each of your customers?
- How can you get closer to them?
- Which customers have pressures of their own that will force them to ask you to cut prices? And how should you respond? Should you extend credit, put them on an agreed-upon payment plan, etc.?
- What can you do to attract new customers?
“You and your customers are in the same boat,” says Hess. “They face the same struggles as you. In your dealings with them, it’s important that you strike a safe balance between managing their best interests and managing your own. The contingency plan will help you do that and help you make decisions that will allow you to strengthen your customer relationships now. When things pick back up, your customers will remember the way you treated them and will want to do even more business with you.”
A Cost-Cutting Plan. When deciding where you could cut expenses, it’s important to consider what you could do to cut costs immediately by 10-15 percent. You should also go through your expenses line by line and consider which expenses are not necessary for your survival. Be sure to involve your employees when creating this section of the plan. Because they are on the front lines every day, they may have a better idea of what can be cut. For example, maybe they’ve noticed that you have an incoming paper supply that could be reduced. You should also include in your plan what to do if the amount you pay to lease office or warehouse space becomes unmanageable.
“Naturally the decision to cut certain expenses will be easier to make than others,” says Hess. “Just remember that now is the time to get back to the basics. You don’t need lots of bells and whistles to run a successful business, and taking a look at your expenses will help you separate the necessities from the frills.”
A Cash Flow Plan. Cash flow is key to running any small business, and managing yours is never more important than in a tough economic period. That’s why you should include cash flow management in your contingency plan. There are two specific groups to consider: your customers and your vendors. First, think about how you can get delinquent customers to pay up. Talk with your customers and help them set up a payment plan with you so that you know you will be getting paid when you need it most. Also, consider giving a discount to those customers who agree to pay in cash. You should also think about how you can defer your cash outflows such as payments to vendors. Ask if you can go to a 60- or 90-day payment cycle.
“Keeping up a healthy cash flow is vital during a slow economy,” says Hess. “You might have to have tough conversations with customers who need to pay up or a vendor who you’d like to defer a payment to, but if these conversations help you keep cash in your business when you need it most, they will be worth it.”
A Financial Safety Net Plan. So what do you do when all of your customers have paid up and you’ve extended your payments to vendors, and you are still having cash flow problems? Quite simply, you consider more drastic ways of putting cash into your business. It’s time to fall back on the financial safety net that you’ve created for your company. What will your safety net be? Will you draw on your home equity? Stop taking a salary? Ask friends or family for a cash infusion? Sell off some of the company’s assets? Reduce employee salaries? Apply for a small business loan?
“You don’t want to be making these decisions when you are already in desperate need of cash,” says Hess. “While you are still in good shape, plan out the first three ways you could immediately increase your cash flow. And do everything to ensure that you are protecting your credit so that if you do need a small business loan you can get o
ne. Make certain to pay your bills on time. Don’t let anything fall through the cracks. If you are having trouble making a payment, let the company or bank know why. If there is a dispute on a payment, get something in writing that says you aren’t to blame. Being turned in to a collection agency will tank your credit score. You absolutely can’t risk it.”
An Exit Plan. There are some situations you simply can’t plan for. You can’t know for sure how your industry will be affected by the down economy. It’s possible that no matter what you do the slow economy will make it too difficult for you to keep your doors open or too difficult for you to navigate on your own.
“The exit plan is the hardest for any small business owner to put together,” says Hess. “No entrepreneur wants to give up on a venture, but sometimes you have to face reality. So, think about what lengths you are willing to go to in order to keep your doors open. If you are open to taking on a partner, what kind of person is going to add the necessary skills to the business to help you keep the doors open? Or if you decide to sell the business, would you want to stay on and keep working for the company or would you want to go your separate ways?
“Of course, keep in mind how long these transitions will take to make,” he adds. “As a small business owner you naturally have a strong attachment to your business. When you put so much blood, sweat, and tears into your business, it can be difficult to pull the plug at the right time. If you decide what your exit strategy will be before you are experiencing serious problems, you can take your emotions out of the decision-making process and come up with a clear-headed solution that protects your best interests.”
Creating a contingency plan will help you minimize the risk of any surprises that pop up—and they will!—during a slow economy. But keep in mind there are some basic things that you absolutely can’t lose focus on during a recession.
“You should be aggressively going after new customers, marketing your business nonstop, and giving your customers world-class service,” says Hess. “Yes, these are trying times for small business owners, but the obstacles are not insurmountable. With the right plan in place, you can create strong, long-lasting relationships with your customers and a business that can weather any storm.”
About the Authors:
Ed Hess lives in Charlottesville, Va., and spent most of his business life advising entrepreneurs and financing their business ventures. His professional career was spent with firms like Atlantic Richfield Company, Warburg Paribus Becker, Boettcher and Company, The Robert M. Bass Group, and Andersen Corporate Finance, and he has built three service businesses. In 2007, Hess joined the Faculty of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia as a Professor of Business Administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence where he teaches courses on building small businesses and organic growth.
Charlie Goetz earned his college degree at Emory University and holds an MBA from the University of Texas. He built several successful businesses, which in total employed over 1,500 people. He sold most of his businesses and made substantial amounts of money their sales. Goetz then began teaching entrepreneurship at Emory University in the Goizueta Business School. He lives in Atlanta, Ga., and is an investor in several new businesses and consults with people starting businesses.