Get the Truth From Your Customers
As we get deeper into restart mode, securing old business is crucial. Your pre-Covid-19 clients may say they missed you, but you really need them to say "yes" to a purchase order.
BY HOWARD TULLMAN, GENERAL MANAGING PARTNER, G2T3V AND CHICAGO HIGH TECH INVESTORS@TULLMAN
As the doors slowly begin to reopen for business, and notwithstanding what will probably be a long and slow "L" of a recovery, the process of establishing, agreeing upon, implementing and understanding the new ground rules for restarting our shops, stores, schools and other services is going to be almost as challenging as surviving the last few months has been. And, of course, the riots, looting, and wanton destruction of property across the country in the last two weeks have made things that much more difficult - if that were even possible.
We're all going to have to absorb both the most recent traumatic deaths and the once-in-a-lifetime shock and angst of an almost instantaneous shutdown of virtually our entire economy as we try to work closely together to move forward.
Especially for our businesses, it's all going to come down to a matter of restoring and renewing old relationships, creating many new and different ones, and relying on the good faith and honesty of the people we're working with, and for, as well as of those who are working for us.
Our national crisis has been made even more difficult by the unsettled and disappointing ways in which our "leaders" have reacted to and responded. Unfortunately, the scarcest thing on the national scene right now may be honesty. Our trust in our traditional institutions to serve and protect us is tenuous at best. And the only entirely reliable fact of life is that our president will lie to us about something - however major or minor - every single day. It seems that he can't resist it or help himself or us. The S&P 500 means much more to this guy than 100,000 dead in our country ever will.
So, it's up to us to help ourselves and each other. And it starts with sharing painful truths about where things stand and where they're headed. For many newer and smaller companies to succeed, it's going to require a great deal of honesty on the part of their old and new customers and a scary and precarious amount of trust on the part of these entrepreneurial owners and operators who are - once more - about to take a great leap of faith. You don't want to be the party throwing the party that no one attends, but that's exactly the kind of risk that millions of business owners will be taking in the next few weeks and months.
Starting over, for all intents and purposes, even if your business wasn't looted or burned out in the recent riots, is in some ways going to be even harder than it was when you first started out. The foolish optimism and naïve ignorance of just how tough it was gonna be are just dim memories. Everyone these days is a lot smarter, the hurdles are higher, and so many of us are sadly more cynical as well. Nonetheless, like every good entrepreneur, you've got to start somewhere, use whatever resources you've got, and go on from there. And, as you do, always keep in mind that it's not going to be a question of what you're selling, it's all about what your customers want, need and are willing to buy that will make all the difference.
Many re-starting companies are going to have to take steps to front-load their inventories, re-hire their staffs, and re-launch their operations while they're still holding their breath and hoping and waiting for the world to show up and their registers to start ringing again. Online, click-and-collect, and curbside services were Band-Aids in most cases and did little or nothing for the long-term bottom line. The PPP deal wasn't much better, especially if it isn't further enhanced and extended.
To do this right, every business is going to have to research their product/market fit, revise and likely re-price their offerings, and re-introduce themselves and their products and services to a newly changed, more cautious, and more critical marketplace. To do the necessary market research smartly and swiftly, you're going to need to speak frankly to your customers and they will need to do the same for you. Success is going to be all about two-way trust - not lip service, not 'feel good" fantasies -- but hard facts and brutal honesty. Please don't say "maybe" if you mean to say "no."
You can be certain that a sizable percentage of the folks who told you they "just can't wait" until you're back in business will take their own sweet time returning. They're going to make sure that the coast is clear, that they're not guinea pigs and beta testers for all the new tricks of the trade, and that they're being safe and smart about revisiting their old haunts and habits. Promises don't make payroll. A restaurant that has more reluctant customers with reservations about returning than it does returning customers making reservations can't remain in business for very long.
We're all human, and frankly, you just have to expect this kind of behavior from a bunch of your steady customers-; even the ones with the best of intentions. And, in a shocking number of cases, regardless of what business you're in, the most reliable existing customers are also gonna be your older customers and the ones most likely to be tentative about the continuing personal risks of contracting the virus. No one has in it for you, they're just honestly more concerned about taking care of themselves and their families.
Here are four rules of thumb to keep in mind in these crucial customer conversations:
(1) Ask for the sale, not their sympathy. Sales pay the bills.
(2) Something now is a lot better than a whole bunch of nothing later.
(3) Get their commitment in writing - memories fade, but P.O.s persist.
(4) Better an honest refusal than an insincere promise. Saves time for all.
What we're all going to need is a lot of patience, some frank and honest conversations, and a willingness to cut everyone else a little slack. You'll never get anything straighter than from a customer. But their trying to spare your feelings isn't gonna help save your business. Listen carefully, take your time, and be open to the inevitable changes coming down the pike.
This is likely to be a bumpy ride, and everyone needs to give our people, peers, patrons, partners and the public the benefit of the doubt because it's certain that business as usual won't be with us for quite a while.