As much as we’d like to believe otherwise, very few businesses’ fiscal years are entirely steady. It’s normal for every entrepreneur to experience a period in which business is slow, marketing efforts don’t seem quite as effective, and new customers and clients are a little tougher to acquire. And while these slow periods do normally end on their own, there are certain steps you can take to soften the blow and continue to build your company until things improve.
Below are twelve strategies we’ve employed when business got a bit slow. Some helped us improve our businesses while we had the extra time; others allowed us to minimize costs until sales picked up again. Choose one or two that are best for your business, and you’ll be out of your rut in no time.
Remember the bigger picture.
Times may be tough right now, but they won’t always be. The worst thing you can do during a slow patch is panic—you’ll only lose your bearings and make impulse decisions, which can hurt your business in the long run.
It’s important to stay calm and positive while you navigate any business obstacle, but when sales are slow, reminding yourself of the bigger picture is key. Take time to reflect on your business’s successes, including when you’ve overcome similar troubles. Remember why you started your business in the first place; if you did it to solve a problem or improve people’s lives, you’ll probably continue to achieve those goals once your lapse in sales is over. It wasn’t always easy for us to bring new users to YoungEntrepreneur.com before it took off, but when we remembered why we started the forum in the beginning, we were able to coast through our difficulties.
The problem may lie with your commodity, your business practices, or your marketing techniques. It’s hard to admit when something you’re proud of isn’t perfect, but remaining open-minded is crucial to saving your business. Double-check your advertising campaigns, the way you interact with customers, and other business practices to ensure that they’re working in tandem with your goals. If they aren’t, you may need to consider trying something new.
Find out whether the problem is internal or external.
A decline in sales can come from two different places: from within your business or outside of it. Determining whether the problem is internal or external can help you decide what next steps will benefit your business the most.
The most common external factor that affects sales is a change in market. Maybe you provided a niche product before, but now there are tons of options for consumers to choose from. Perhaps people no longer need your service the way it’s currently offered. When the market fluctuates, it’s a good idea to reassess what your customers and clients need, then adjust your product or service to follow suit.
Internal problems aren’t necessarily easier to fix, but they can be simpler to identify. If you’ve slacked in the marketing department, people may be hearing about your service less and less, causing a gradual decrease in sales. If there’s a quality control issue, past customers may be reluctant to return to your business. The way you get over a drop in sales changes dramatically depending on where the problem lies.
Add value to your business.
To build intrigue in your audience, you may need to add value to your product or service. This means going the extra mile to make your commodity something your customers won’t only like, but love.
One simple way some businesses build value is through increasing the speed at which a service is completed. If you sell a product, you may want to ship orders sooner or pay a bit extra for faster postage. Consumers love instant gratification, especially when they’ve spent a significant amount of time researching a product or service before paying for it. Reducing their wait time is a relatively easy way to add value to your business.
You can also make your commodity more impressive by giving it an added bonus. If you sell jewelry, you may begin offering only ethically-sourced gems; if you run a marketing agency, you may offer thirty days of complementary analytics after a campaign is done. That extra touch may just be the final “push” it takes to get consumers to settle on your product or service.
Cut unnecessary expenses.
Almost every business pays for something frivolous. And we aren’t just talking about the ping-pong table that makes your office cool or the catered lunches at the end of each month. Instead, we mean you may want to consider how much you spend on a blog few people read, a pricey domain you’re sitting on but can’t see yourself using, or a co-working membership when you could easily do your part from home. While it’s nice to have these luxuries and they often make us feel more successful, you’ll breathe a lot easier when you lose the expenses that aren’t essential your business.
Pay attention to patterns.
Is this the second holiday season in a row that has affected your business? Have you noticed fewer sales over the summer every year since opening? Some industries, like tutoring and tax preparation, are directly affected by the seasons. Others, like edtech (busiest during the school year) and interior design (packed just before Christmas), are more subtly influenced by the time of year. But tutors, accountants, edtech innovators, and designers still manage to stay in business—they’re just smart about how they operate.
If you can predict a slow period before it begins, you can soften the blow ahead of time. Maybe that requires pushing for more sales before the lapse arrives. It may involve scheduling projects further in advance to make sure gaps in business are sufficiently covered. Not every business’s slow periods are foreseeable, but if yours is, you’d benefit from working ahead.
Show appreciation to your existing customers.
Entrepreneurship 101: It costs far more to acquire a new customer than it does to keep an old one. It isn’t just about the money, either—think about how much time it took for you to earn your first few sales. If you don’t show appreciation to the customers you already have, they’ll wander off, leaving you with nothing during a slow patch.
The ways in which you can show gratitude to your customers are virtually unlimited. Simple thank-you emails and notes after each purchase can do the trick; some businesses even choose to throw in coupons for follow-up purchases. Interacting with customers and clients on social media can make them feel valuable—and at the same time, you’re building brand familiarity. Find a method of displaying appreciation that fits your business’s style, then employ it to retain your current customers.
Work on the business, not in the business.
During particularly lucrative periods, it’s easy to get caught up in playing a hundred different “employee” roles instead of truly working on your business. A slow period may just give you the time you need to improve your business at its core.
Instead of busying yourself with upkeep, take the time to build your business from the ground up. You can finally work on your storytelling skills, which will help you in your marketing efforts and give your brand a better image. You can build better relationships with those in your entrepreneurial community—you never know when they’ll be able to lend a helping hand. When you’re given the time, separate yourself from your day-to-day duties to spend a moment working on your business.
Seek a mentor.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help when you’re struggling. Some entrepreneurs seek mentorship when they’re first starting their businesses; others look for guidance when they feel a bit stagnant and need a boost. Maybe you never needed a mentor before, but now you feel it’s a good time to learn from someone more experienced.
How you choose to seek a mentor is up to you. You might have a certain person from your community in mind, or you may have no clue where to start. There are websites that match startup owners with mentors (like SCORE and MicroMentor), or you might have a local group that can help you. Web forums, like our very own BizWarriors forum, are fantastic places to build connections with other entrepreneurs who have varied experience. Regardless, the benefits of a mentor are ongoing. With their advice, new perspectives, and techniques, you may even find that your business is stronger because of its lapse in sales and not in spite of it.
Create a points system or referral program.
This one combines two different strategies: customer appreciation and adding value to your business. Customers and clients love to feel like they’re building an ongoing relationship with a business, and a points system will remind them that you can’t wait to have them back. It will also stretch the value of their dollar: each purchase they make brings them one step closer to a free or discounted product or service.
A referral program tells your existing customers that you appreciate their business and their recommendations. Businesses like Postmates and Uber do this particularly well; for every referral an existing customer makes, that customer receives $10 off their next total. The new customer also receives $10 off their first purchase. Considering how Postmates runs over 7,000 deliveries per day and Uber counts over 15 million monthly active users, the strategy is pretty reliable.
Plan for a busier future.
We’ve already said it, but we’ll say it again: this slow patch won’t last forever. And when it finally ends, you’ll need a bulletproof plan on how to take advantage of the change in pace.
When sales are slow, you have a bit of extra time to prepare for the future. Maybe you know you have a busy season ahead, so you ready extra products for shipment. You might simplify your personal calendar for next month so you can work late on your business if you need to. Don’t scramble to regain your footing when the pace picks back up; instead, prepare for success in advance so you’ll be ready to receive it.
Partner up with other businesses.
Positive B2B relationships don’t just strengthen your local entrepreneurial community. They also provide excellent opportunities for you to share your best customers. A simple social media shout-out from another startup in your industry can deliver hundreds of new leads; collaboration on a project can merge your audiences.
One of our recent articles, “10 Tips on Building Better B2B Relationships,” offers some great suggestions on how to foster productive partnerships with other businesses. One of our strategies might just be the one you needed to break through a lapse in sales.
Any gap in business is discouraging, especially when you’ve put your heart and soul into your startup. But a can-do attitude goes a long way, and with the right techniques, you’ll be busy again in no time—possibly even more so than before. What strategies have you employed when business was slow?