Monday, April 14, 2008

Leading In Tough Times – The Tactical Side

Last week I talked about the traits leaders need to exhibit during tough economic times. This week the subject is tactical – what can you actually do to hold and improve your position? Here are a few obvious but still important tactics for your consideration.

Strengthen key relationships. Focus on those that are most important and most secure. Work on them to make sure they stay that way against temptations to switch to a lower cost alternative. Provide value proactively to demonstrate you are looking out for their best interests as well as your own. And remember, your customers expect you to know and understand their business. Do you?

Focus on your brand. Sharpen your message and sell it internally and externally. Use the moment to remind everyone of who and what you really are, how you add value and protect their interests. Renew attention to vision and mission statements and use them to focus all strategies and activities. Define your ‘true north” and do not deviate from it.

Be unique. Too often the response of an industry to a challenge is too homogenous. When all the players are moving in one direction at one speed then opportunities are marginalized. Evaluate yourself against your competitors and look for ways to separate yourself from the crowd. Where is it you can offer unique value, make yourself more visible, stand out against the crowd? Define yourself as a unique asset in the market – do something different, better, faster. The market will be watching.

Take care of your talent. Even in good times four out of ten employees are looking for jobs. That number increases significantly in times like this when employees are concerned about economic stability. Everyone wants a safety net close at hand. Take advantage by identifying your key talent and securing them well into the future by offering them retention incentives. It will secure them in your organization, ease their mind and therefore help ease stress in the office overall, and is likely less expensive than overcoming an employment offer and certainly less expensive than replacing them.

Use the urgency to rethink and retool processes. Now is a good time to select key processes, those that are most important to your success and offer the most opportunity for improvement. Use process redesign to build teamwork and optimism, and to simplify and lean operations. Insist that process teams prove the outcome with measurable improvements to time, cost, quality, and customer satisfaction. Keep the pace upbeat, don’t allow projects to linger. Show results, celebrate them, and move on to the next.

Get the basics right. Take advantage of the opportunity to think hard about what you (and your people) actually do. Are you doing the right things? What tasks can be shed in favor of increasing time spent on high value activities? Next, are you doing them right? Where have you become lazy or lost focus? What basics do you need to emphasize to your staff? Most staff will appreciate this return to basics and it helps send the message that times are different.

Listen to your customers. The time and cost of replacing lost customers makes retaining them a top priority, especially when price competition is heating up. Connecting with them during difficult times is critically important. I am not talking about simply having a good relationship management program. That may be a good thing to do but it will not overcome their need to gain increased value for their investment. You can provide that value and solidify the link with your customer by making their voice heard throughout your organization. Customer satisfaction surveys that are targeted to specific services, staff incentives based on customer feedback, and service response to customer concerns are all good ways to increase customer focus.

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