Downtime is GO-time.

The A, B, C (and D, E and F) of quality downtime

In February, if you’d ask most plant operators about their future plans, many would have said, “I wish I had time to plan for the future, but I’m barely keeping my head above water processing our daily volume.” And then came March … As they say, be careful what you wish for. You now have all the time you need to plan your way to a lean, mean company that can survive in the coming years. Here are six things you can do while business is slow.

Assessment – Pretend you are buying your business, not running it. Take a completely dispassionate view of it, putting aside any emotional connection you have to it. Do your ‘due diligence’ as if you were making the huge financial commitment to purchase the company in the near future.

  • What is the financial picture? Be thorough here and get an honest view of where the company stands.
  • Evaluate the equipment for age, condition, appropriateness for the job, efficiency.
  • Consider the personnel. Are they trained and cross-trained? Any that need more training or coaching? Stars that deserve more responsibility and promotion?
  • How’s the location? If it’s not optimal, how can it be compensated for by the addition of things like routes, or new and distinctive services?
  • What’s the place look like? Does it need sprucing up? Paint? Remodel? Gut job?
  • What services are offered? Which are working well? Which should be dropped?
  • What’s the customer loyalty like? How are customers communicated with, and can they be made more loyal through various means?
  • Bottom line: Would you buy this business? If not, why not?

After an honest review, you’ll have some areas to focus your efforts on to shore up the company.

Build Partnerships – It feels like you’re all alone in this, but you’re not. Other businesses have been hit by the Covid crisis, just as you have. Now is a good time to look around at other non-competing businesses in your area; approach them with a plan to promote each other and do things to draw customers back to the area. A direct-mail piece becomes much more affordable when several companies go in on it together. Email newsletters can remind customers of other businesses in your area (as they remind their customers of yours), and remind them to make the most out of trips by combining errands. Be creative. Build partnerships that can go forward into future years.

Customers – When business is slow and things are tight is the right time to increase your interaction with customers. It doesn’t take expensive direct-mail campaigns to keep your company top-of-mind for them. Utilize those email addresses you’ve been collecting (you HAVE been collecting them, right?) and set a schedule to contact them regularly – every week or two. Use an inexpensive online service like iContact or Constant Contact to send colourful newsletters to your email list. You don’t have to just harp on prices when you contact them – in fact, it’s best if you don’t.

  • Tell them your story. Customers are more apt to do business with a company that they feel some connection to. So tell them how you got started in the business. If it’s a family company, all the better. People like to hear about people.
  • Give them information they can use. Cleaning tips are fine, but also information about the community in which you operate and links to interesting things in town. Fashion tips and upcoming colour palettes are also good.
  • Show photos of your equipment (make sure it’s sparkling clean and the area surrounding it is neat and tidy!) and explain some of the complexities of it. This gives a good sense of both your expertise and your dedication to taking good care of their garments and other items.
  • Salute those you support in the community, tell their story. This shows your interest in whatever charity you highlight, and also reminds your customers that you actively give back.
  • Highlight employees: Everybody (from the janitor to the counter people to the route driver to the quality assurance person) has a life – and interesting things about them. Help customers connect to your team.
  • If you buy new equipment, share the news and demonstrate how it will make your service even better.
  • Above all: Communicate a consistent, enthusiastic, positive message. Customers are drawn to those who are ‘on the move’ and respond much better to it than to someone begging them to come in or else they’ll have to close the doors.

Diversify – Downtime is a great time to evaluate other services you can add to what you already offer, to streamline what you have now, or if there are some services that take a lot of time for little or no return. Go online and type in the words dry cleaner or laundry or laundromat and then go to as many websites as your backside will put up with, evaluating what others are doing. You used to have to do that in person. Now you can do it online and glean great ideas from all over the world, as well as down the street. Evaluate every idea in terms of what your current customers would like, and what might bring in the new customers you’d like to attract.

Employees are feeling as much stress as you are right now. You may have had to lay off some (or all) of your workforce, with the understanding that they’d be back when times are better. How are you keeping them in the loop? Forcing them to call in every week or two to see if there’s any work is both discouraging and disrespectful. They are the heart of your ability to get things done. Treat them like it.

  • Get an email address or a texting number from them all and communicate regularly.
  • If there are ways you can use them to get the plant in shape for re-opening (or ramping up), then do so.
  • Share what you are doing during the downtime to demonstrate your faith in the future and in them being part of it.
  • Be positive in all communications. Think of how you’d like to be led were you in their shoes, and then be that leader for them.

Fix it! As you evaluate your business and look around your plant, you will find things that are not working, or not working as well as they should. If it’s broken, fix it. If it quits running, get the technician in to look at it. If it’s disorganized, get it organized. If it causes a persistent problem in workflow or simple movement through the plant, rethink it and redo it.

If you really put your energy into the steps outlined here, you’ll find that your business is not only ready to take on more business, but it will be fresh and exciting for you and your employees, as well as your customers. Treat this downtime like a chance to start all over again, and embrace your potential.

And don’t forget to share your success with us, so we can encourage others!

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