Here's the SOS for your business' slow season.
When your business bustles and cash flows freely, it's easy to put off thinking about times when you might face a slowdown. One way to make sure your business stays strong year-round is to plan ahead for the lean months. Whether your business slows in summer, or another time, you can call on these shifts in strategy (S), operations (O) and sales (S) as your SOS to survive — and even thrive — during your down period.
Revisit your strategy.
This is the time to fully understand your cash outlay, and identify any areas where you can save money. Start off by analyzing your fixed costs and determining what can be reduced, renegotiated or eliminated for the season — or forever. Then, review any other expenditures.
- Savings and cash flow: According to a recent New York Life study, learning about ways to build an emergency fund is top of mind for 71 percent of small business owners. For any business with seasonal fluctuations, it's critical to build up a cash reserve or set up a line of credit to bridge the income gap during the slow season, so the lights stays on, the bills get paid, and the payroll continues to be met. One novel way some entrepreneurs do this is by borrowing against a life insurance policy, which may offer tax and other advantages over other kinds of savings vehicles.
- Debt collection: A great way to use the extra free time the slow season brings is to reign in any outstanding debts you have been too busy to collect. Consider making polite-but-firm personal phone calls, or hiring a collection agency for major moneys owed. It's important to be impeccable with your billing all year round— and for many businesses that means adopting bookkeeping or invoicing software. The slow times provide a great opportunity to learn new programs like these so that your business will be in full swing when the busier times come.
- Account inventory: Use this time to review how your business and industry is evolving. Check your banking practices to determine if you need to add, remove or change accounts; review your insurance needs to make sure you've got appropriate coverage; check to see if you're compliant with existing, new or upcoming regulations; and ensure your scheduled equipment and site maintenance is on point.
Clean up your operations.
When you have down time, you'll have extra energy to evaluate how you can better conduct your business, make and maintain relationships with customers and expand your reach. Get a status check in the following areas:
- Online Presence: Update your website to make sure it reflects any changes you've made in your business this year and provides an informative and consumer-friendly experience. You should also optimize your site for mobile purchasing — mobile devices have now surpassed desktop computers for internet usage — and determine if customers can make informed decisions online about your products and services.
- Vendor review: Check to see if you're getting the best deals from your vendors, and if it's time to add or drop anyone from your list of suppliers. You can also try negotiating price breaks or different payment terms. If you normally have a window of 15 days to pay your bills, for example, you can ask for terms up to 60 days with no late fee. This is also a good time to review subscriptions, insurance policies, scheduled maintenance and cleaning services, and other expenses you might normally have on auto-pilot. There may even be services you can discontinue on a temporary basis during slow times.
- Staffing: If someone quits, don't rush to fill their spot until it's necessary. If you have to reduce hours, start with part-time or contract employees. You should be upfront with employees about the seasonal cycles, and let them know there may be some weeks or months with fewer hours. This is a good time to encourage staff members to go on vacation, learn new skills or take a sabbatical. And hopefully you can find a window to take time off for yourself.
Enhance your sales.
Slow seasons often come with slow sales cycles. Whether your doors stay open or not, make sure to find ways to keep contact with customers throughout all seasons. This will help you stay top-of-mind and get customers excited for peak season. Use the tips below to make the most of this time:
- Offer Discounts: Now's the time to make your business the place for irresistible deals. Even if you're taking a loss, it's time to let ancient inventory go and make room for new. Or, if you're a services-based business, you can try selling several sessions or a combination of complimentary services in one package to keep customers coming back and buying in bulk.
- Diversify your product mix: If you keep your doors open in the slow season, try diversifying your product mix to include something seasonally relevant. This can help keep the sales coming in all year long.
- Adjust marketing: E-newsletters and social media are a great way to meet your customers in their inboxes and let them know of any updates. (Note: Make sure people opt-in as you build your mailing list, as unwelcome emails may turn away potential customers.) Facebook ads offer another low-cost way to get in front of the customers you want. This is also the time to perk up your SnapChat, Instagram, Twitter and other social media avenues to help your stay top of mind and to strengthen your brand.
Overhauling your slow-season operations may seem like a steep learning curve, especially if you need to educate yourself about new platforms and processes. But here's the good news: The work you invest to trim your costs and boost your sales now will serve you well year-round.
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