Better Off Dead?

Seeking Solutions

Here are steps you can take when you find any or all of the above symptoms appearing in your business:

  • Do nothing. If you're faced with an obsolete or declining product line, the correct action may be no action at all. This attitude says "The business has run its course, and it may be time to move on."
  • Look for niche markets. There are still companies out there that make vacuum tubes, typewriter ribbons, dot matrix printers, vinyl records and perhaps even buggy whips. Demand for products rarely falls to zero. There are always customers who will continue to buy obsolete products to keep from making major changes in the way they've always done things. The beauty of serving a niche market well is that you could end up having it virtually all to yourself.

If neither of those two options sounds attractive, take a more proactive role with your product line:

  • Keep current with technology changes. The word processor ensured the demise of the typewriter. Voice messaging has changed the way people use the telephone. The cellular phone has changed where people use the telephone. While your product line may not have the global impact of these developments, there will always be changes in technology that will affect your business. Isn't it better to lead the way than to react to events?
  • Anticipate changing customer needs. If you want your customers to keep buying from you, you have to let them know you'll be there to fulfill their changing requirements. If you don't, your competitors will.

Customers have a way of not knowing exactly what they want. When they finally make their choice, they will go with the supplier who is there with the right product at the right time. That supplier should be you.

  • Track your competitors' actions. Keeping on top of what your competitors are doing means you'll find out when they create effective product developments. If they get to the market before you do, there's a good chance you'll end up the loser. Organize some sort of competitive-intelligence-gathering system that will help you keep track of what they're doing.
  • Keep up-to-date with changing trends in the marketplace. How many clothing manufacturers saw the casual Fridays trend coming? If you were a maker of men's suits, wouldn't it have been nice to know what was coming before you saw a 20 percent decline in product usage? There's no substitute for keeping your eyes and ears open. Improve your awareness of the market around you. Participate in trade associations and business roundtables. Know all you can know about your customers and your customers' customers.
  • Spend enough money to upgrade your products before they become obsolete. Be aware of the dirty little secret of product management: There is no easy way to keep your product line current without spending money--sometimes lots of it. It takes money, and it takes time. The sooner you get started, the better off your company will be.
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This article was originally published in the April 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Better Off Dead?.

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