I saw a bumper sticker the other day that said "Refuse to Participate in the Recession." I have no idea if that driver had a job or was looking for one, but he was obviously electing to make the most of the challenges he faced.

Many say the U.S. economy is still in a recession based on the fact that unemployment is still high and consumers are continuing to temper their spending habits--two elements that define a recession. However, anyone with the desire to be an entrepreneur has to have the attitude of my friend with the bumper sticker.

So how does an entrepreneur succeed in a recession?

  1. Become Indispensable
    In a tricky economy, it's natural for people to want to protect the security they still have. In the service industry, one way to prove that your product or service is part of the solution is to point out the consequences that could occur if the service was not around. Try "secret shopping" your customers and document the outcomes; then secret shop a business that doesn't use your service or product. If there's an obvious difference, use these stories to sell your business back to your customers.
  2. Invest in the Future
    Most recessions last only a year or two. Companies that fail to continually invest in business improvements, training and marketing are way behind when the economy recovers. In terms of training, consider how to cross-train your team members while business is slow. It may enable you to perform better later on.
  3. Seek Out Referrals
    Nowadays, many businesses assume there are no sales to be made, so they stop trying and sit on the sidelines. While sales may be harder to come by, make contacts now so they will pay off later. Furthermore, if you're pulling back on your advertising budget, referrals may be your best bet for generating customers. You should also create a program that rewards current customers for referrals.
  4. Buy Weaker Companies
    If you can manage the integration process, a down economy can be a great time to acquire a business.
  5. Strengthen Your ROI Pricing Offers
    Customers often question the cost of a product or service because they can't always tie it to a result, and that scrutiny only increases in a bad economy. Offer pricing related to specific results. For example, I heard of a PR firm that only charges for placements, not advice, writing or strategy development. This approach enables the agency to charge more for its services, but customers know upfront what they're getting.
  6. Be Loyal and Focus on Retention
    When the recession is over, your employees will be more likely to stick with you. This may mean eliminating free coffee, for example, but have an honest conversation with your employees, and they will usually help you cut costs even further.
  7. Maintain a Fun Environment
    When companies cut out the fun, it can negatively impact employee job performance. If you've sponsored parties at work for years, continue these events. A consistent culture will encourage your staff to provide consistent service to your customers.
  8. Celebrate Being Small
    Many smaller firms are more nimble than larger firms because they aren't loaded down by multiple management layers and overlapping operating units or debt, so they can make decisions quickly and focus their cash to take advantage of new opportunities.
  9. Don't Leave Room for Doubt
    Competitors will take advantage of any opening, and they will be more aggressive in making promises during the recession, even if it means filling in your silence with a few tales of their own. Don't open doors for them by closing down communications with your customers. Instead, increase the frequency of communications with your customers.
  10. Fight the Urge to Give Things Away
    If you've been giving products and services away, it will be hard to charge for them again when the recession ends. Remember, if your product or service carries a benefit, it's worth charging for, even during a recession. However, for longtime customers who are having a hard time paying their bills, offer discounts and settlements. Offer this option as a one-time benefit, though, to get things current.

Bonus Tip: Drop Unprofitable Customers
The natural urge is to hang onto every customer, but use the spare time the recession provides to analyze your customer base and find out which ones are the most profitable and which ones are costing you money.

Recessions aren't fun, but they don't have to cripple your business. Smart business owners leverage recessions rather than lament them.