As the first of my columns for Entrepreneur.com, and to set the stage for future articles, let's look at the reality of things when it comes to franchise profits. Today's challenge is to empower positive change in your franchise: How to not only win the battle against slumping sales, but also set an easy-to-execute strategy in place to be proactive in any economy.

As the youngest of seven children from a rural town in upstate New York, stretching the dollar in a tough economy was as normal for my family as sunrise. Now, as the president and CEO of a growing franchise organization, dealing with decreasing sales really gets me going. For leaders, sitting back and taking what the economy or the pundits give us is simply not an option.

First, here is what not to do:

  • Panic
  • Slash prices
  • Slash staff

While a pessimist may think that the current economic situation is fate, and all they can do is preserve cash, an optimist (i.e. an entrepreneur) looks at what they can do to get ahead of the issue and create positive results. A franchisee has the benefit of using a system's wisdom, and the ability to network with peers who share the same goals. More sales result in more brand equity, which strengthens their own business as well as their neighboring franchisee.

Follow these four proactive and simple steps towards increasing your franchise sales:

1. Take a close look at your industry and get your facts straight. Things may not be as grim as they appear. Use this data to make strategic decisions for both short-term and sustainable activity. First, let's look at some numbers. Our recession is a broad-based look at the overall gross domestic product. It's not a sector-by-sector breakdown. Your area's economy can be substantially different from those across the country, or even in the next state. Even if this isn't the case, you can certainly take proactive steps to improve your situation that others may not have the vision or motivation to do.

People talk about value-based selling, or couponing. While these are great strategies and should be deployed, I strongly recommend you understand what's happening in your market and potential or actual industry first.

Don't believe the hype. Some industries are doing well (health care, children's services, quick-service restaurants) while others are lagging indicators of the real economy (vacation rentals, luxury items, etc.). Is the franchise you're looking to join on the cutting edge, middle, or back-end of consumer trends and economic reality? Timing is crucial to understanding how long you'll need to commit resources, or what level of activity you need today vs. six months from now.
After you understand this dynamic, then you can start looking at how to increase franchise sales.

2. Listen to your customers. If they're not talking, get them to start. Surveys, store walks and input from your staff helps you feel the pulse of the business. I was talking to a buddy of mine the other day. We were scrutinizing the players who are staying successful in our respective industries, and discovered a few common traits. The "winning" organizations talk to their customers directly. They send out surveys, they walk the floor. They also look at their customers' buying habits to gain a clear perspective of their most recent behaviors. If you have a nearby competitor, spend a few minutes in their store or office and see what their culture is. Does the staff make things happen, or do they just take orders rather than sell or drive value?

3. Slashing prices is not the answer--helping customers spend money more easily, is. Discounting is a zero-sum game, and eventually, if you condition your customers to depend on sales and coupons, your business will be slower to rebound when things turn around. I recommend spending time where people are spending money. For instance, I was recently picking up something for Mother's Day at a store. There were about eight or nine of us waiting in line, with only one register open. Well, needless to say, I had three items and waited my turn, but the two people behind me just muttered and walked out the door. A scenario like this is a sure-fire way to decrease sales.

Nobody wants that to happen in their own business. The two or three people re-stocking the store could have easily jumped on the registers to help. Another example of something easy to fix--how often do we see someone telling a customer why they can't do something? Make it easy for customers who actually want to spend money right now. If you only take Visa or MasterCard, consider AMEX and Discover. These are not earth-shattering concepts, right?

4. Find new ways to deliver value to your customers. Educating a customer helps them want to do business with you, and keeps value in your position as the supplier of something they want. As a franchisor for nearly 16 years, and having operated a franchise location myself, I've seen too many people focus on the problem and not the solution. For example, if one of my photographers (or me) makes a mistake, we try not to refund money or give products away; rather, we offer a discount on a future sale. Two months ago, our team devised a "stimulus package" for our franchisees, identifying two to three aspects of their business that occur in various months. Then, we delivered incentives for our franchisees to use them. Most were geared toward increasing sales of a product or package. Others included new products for fundraisers or nonprofit organizations we're affiliated with. This helped add value for our customers, and was simply an extension of a product we already have. Therefore, we could offer it to our franchisees for pennies on the dollar. A win-win situation for all.

As you consider your entrepreneurial career, look at your opportunities to increase sales, not just stop the bleeding. Franchising is a terrific model to lean on during tough times, and helps grow sales and profits during the better times. Think about it as if you were the customer. In doing so, you'll be surprised at some of the things you'd focus on to get yourself to spend more money.