Small Business

You Survived 2011. Here's How to Get Through 2012.

Chris Zane, Guest Columnist

For the past 36 months, businesses in America have experienced an unparalleled challenge. Many businesses have collapsed under the pressure of the weak economy, and it seems those remaining are bruised and scared.

But business owners take note: A recovery is on the horizon, and the time to prepare and improve your company for future growth and success is now.

The slowing brought on by the recession has provided not only a cleansed market — where many competitors have vanished and only the strongest companies have survived — but also an opportunity to evaluate and tweak our systems to better serve our current and future customers.

As we start a new year, looking ahead to the eventual recovery, the following initiatives will ensure that surviving small businesses are poised for success in the upswing.

1. Determine customer lifetime value. Customer lifetime value is often overlooked when organizations develop their service offerings with the reason being that many companies only consider the immediate ROI associated with potential new programs. Because lifetime value programs don’t tend make the quarterly or annual return requirements, they get tossed.

But consider Caesars Entertainment’s Total Rewards, Southwest Airlines’ Bags Fly Free and Zappos’ Free Returns programs. The programs, which customers love, would have never seen the light of day if these companies hadn’t first considered their customers’ lifetime value and the long-term impact of the program to the business. By taking a lifetime value approach, programs that would have been quickly dismissed in the past are now recognized as great opportunities to increase customer loyalty, brand value and the bottom line.

2. Survey your customers. Benchmark the service delivery gap by creating a survey system that provides actionable data. Implementing a survey system will not only provide insight into your organization, but it will also deliver a better understanding of the competition and overall market.

Chris Zane

By understanding your customers, which comes in large part from asking important questions, you’ll quickly see what is truly valuable to your customers and where you fall short. More importantly, those same questions provide priceless information about opportunities your competition hasn’t yet recognized.

3. Re-evaluate your corporate culture. If your corporate culture doesn’t echo your dedication to serving your customers, develop a strategy to shift it. I love the poster with the caption “Sometimes the best solution to a morale problem is to fire all the unhappy people!”

Shifting the culture of your organization can be a momentous task. The most important step is to have a clearly defined understanding of what that culture is going to be. Evaluating your current teams’ willingness and ability to change would be impossible when business is humming and reducing headcount would create an unreasonable burden. But today, emptying a seat to make an adjustment to the team might be the best opportunity to positively affect a shift in your culture.

The courage to clear out those folks that don’t fit into the new plan delivers a reassuring message to the remaining team that they’re appreciated and truly valuable to the company.

4. Empowering employees builds trust. Now that you have built this great team, it’s time to show your trust by empowering them to deliver on the new initiatives. I believe we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our successes. Let your team make mistakes. You’ve survived the past few years; you can certainly weather a few missteps now.

Your responsibility is to guide your employees away from catastrophic failure and allow the organization to become what you’ve envisioned. I’ll let you in on a little secret: the true culture of an organization only comes to light when the boss isn’t around. Stability is right around the corner. Not because we’re coming out of the recession, but because you’ve assembled a powerful team, provided them tools, and empowered them to succeed.

I frequently remind my staff that our success today is from preparation and hard work years ago; our responsibility today is to work hard so we continue to be successful for years to come, and the time to start paving the way for that success is now.

Zane the founder of Zane’s Cycles and the author of "Reinventing the Wheel: The Science of Creating Lifetime Customers," (BenBella Books, March 2011), in which he discusses the importance of culture, empowerment and customer engagement.