Five Ways to Thrive in a Tough Economy

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When I think about business challenges in today's economy, I sometimes think back to "Hold On," a song sung in the early 1990s by the band Wilson Phillips. The basic theme is this—if you can just hang in there for a little while longer, things will be okay. It seems like that's what many businesses are doing—just trying to hold on, to survive. You labor over spreadsheets. Consider how to cut costs. Think about how you can avoid mistakes and keep things going in the hope that everything will magically turn in your favor.

I certainly get that. I understand that right now it makes sense to be prudent in how you manage your business. And yet, when you look at it from a slightly different perspective, you realize that this could be an excellent time not only to survive, but to thrive. In fact, history shows that many great businesses have emerged during the toughest times.

So how can you make intelligent decisions, manage your risk, and actually be successful in uncertain times? The answer may be in one of the most obvious sources you have—your customers.

Getting closer to your customers is not only cost-effective, but is also a reliable way to guide your business strategies. These five customer-focused tactics can help your business thrive in today's economy:

1. Get close with key customers. Every company has key accounts or influential customers who generate more revenue and show greater potential than others. Invest in these customers. Collaborate with them to understand how your products and solutions can accelerate their success. By partnering with your most strategic accounts, you may find the quickest path to new revenue.

2. Tackle the most important problems. All companies face challenges, but with limited resources, it's impossible to tackle them all. However, with your customers' help, you can identify and take on the most important ones. Ask for their insights. Your customers will tell you what matters most and guide you toward addressing the improvements that can have the most impact on your business.

3. Focus your innovation. Companies typically have their own ideas on new products, product line extensions, and new offerings for their customers. Once again, implementing them takes resources, and limited bandwidth may prevent you from doing everything. Instead, narrow your focus and do a few things well. Your customers are the right source to guide you on which ones to select and what features are important. Similar to the other tips, turning to your customers brings clear line-of-sight to the innovations that will deliver the most value.

4. Leapfrog your competition. If your competitors are like most companies, they are nervously holding back on important initiatives. This could be your chance to defend your current position or even leapfrog your competition to assume market leadership. However, don’t trust your own judgment on this one. Your customers are the best source for telling you how you stack up, what strengths you can leverage, and where you may be lagging behind.

5. Leverage customers to grow. We all know how influential customer references can be. Through social media, customer feedback, and other listening posts, it has become easier to identify those customers willing to recommend your products and solutions. What’s more, customers will often tell you if they intend to increase their spending, which can be an excellent source for sales and account managers to grow existing accounts.

It is clear we're living in uncertain times. And you need to be smart about how you manage your business. However, in deference to Wilson Phillips, now is not the time to just "hold on for one more day." Instead, now may be the best time to build better customer relationships and thrive when others are just trying to survive.

Patrick Gibbons is a principal at Walker, a customer strategy consulting firm.

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