From the March 2013 issue of Startups
silver-lining.jpgThe fall of major corporations and the roller-coaster stock market have shown that these are not normal times. Factor in jobs and businesses being turned over faster than pancakes on a hot skillet, and you might be a little worried about your future as an entrepreneur.

Built into this crisis, however, is an opportunity to change your company and make it run the way it should. This should be the warning bell to get streamlined and simplified, amp up customer service and fully engage your workforce. You can't do that if you're hunched over in fear. So say Bob Marcus and Bob Weiler, managing partners of Brimstone Consulting.

The partners believe business owners need to focus on five areas in 2009 to ensure their survival. The critical three are to simplify your strategy, engage your workforce and focus on customer service. You can read all five in detail in The Upside of a Downturn (PDF).

The top area of focus, they say, is to simplify your strategy. Use a strategic roadmap--one that lists out the stakeholders and objectives, uses metrics to measure success, and, most importantly, can be spelled out in one to two pages max. The best roadmaps seek input from all levels of the company.

"Most organizations have way too many initiatives running around," Marcus says, stressing the importance of limiting the complexity of any strategy. "We talk about literally and figuratively getting on the same page."

Getting your staff on the same page does something else: It engages your organization, which in turn allows employees to perform better. This shifts your corporate culture from an exclusive one (where senior management makes all the decisions) to an inclusive one (where employees have a say on the direction of the company). Marcus says managers often follow up downsizing with closed-door meetings, the problem being that most higher-ups are insulated from the real issues in the company. Smart entrepreneurs will take in different points of view--particularly from those that work directly with customers.

When you get caught up in numbers and processes, it's easy to lose sight of the customer. Focus on improving customer service; they're the source of your profits. "Ask the employees that interact with customers every day, 'What do we do well? What don't we do well?' Then allow [the employees] to develop goals for senior management," Marcus says.

Strong customer service gets everyone in your organization involved. As other companies lose sight of their customers as a knee-jerk reaction to the economy, you're making it a point to understand and impact who controls your bottom line.

As you navigate the economic storm unafraid, these tips will permanently change the way your employees look to you as a leader of your company. They will also foster an office culture of ownership and responsibility.

"Even senior executives are insecure," Marcus says. "This is a perfect time to change the culture of the organization to one where everyone participates; it's a great time to build on continuous improvement."  

--Jessica Chen