Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Who to turn to in a downturn? Insights from top performers in meagre times

Of course I get asked quite a lot, lately, is there any research on firm strategies in a downturn? And I have to say, the answer is (unfortunately) pretty much “no”.

There is a lot of research in the field of strategy on companies that are in trouble. There is also quite a lot of stuff on companies that operate in industries that are in decline, for instance because their business model is antiquated or their technology has been surpassed. But there is nothing, to the best of my knowledge, on what corporate strategy to follow if the whole planet is in decline…

Someone also asked me, the other day, do you know of any companies that do particularly well in a downturn? And actually, I realised, that’s not a bad place to start. I mean, perhaps we can learn something from these businesses; in terms of insights that other companies can also apply in their attempts to weather the storm. So let me give it a try. I am going to – quite cowardly – not present these deliberations in the form of insights or findings but in the form of questions. Questions you can ask yourself, as a company, to try to think of ways to improve your chances of survival whilst the world is in a downturn.

Be Morrisons (not Waitrose)

The first, fairly obvious, type of business that does relatively well in a downturn are the ones that offer products or services at comparatively low costs. Their price-quality ratio is low, relative to their direct competitors. For example, supermarkets like Morrisons, which compete on price, are currently showing much better numbers than a more upmarket quality provider like Waitrose. These companies always provided that type of price-quality ratio but now more and more customers put higher weight on the price aspect of the ratio, which makes Morrisons flourish.

It seems quite obvious but, nevertheless, it is worth thinking about. Is there anything you can do to offer your (potential) customers lower cost options (probably at the expense of some quality)? I am often a bit surprised by how reluctant businesses are to give up margin when times are tough. It seems many firms think they can’t afford to lower their margins because that’s the remaining source of income while customers are deserting them. However, fewer customers may desert you if you do lower your margins! You may even win a few. Moreover, many customers are willing to sacrifice quality for price, IF you give them the choice.

Be a shoe repair shop

But, as said, that’s the obvious one. One step further are the types of businesses that help companies extend the life of their current resources. Think of car part dealers or shoe repair shops. They actually grow during times of decline (as they are doing now)! People and companies are having their cars repaired rather than invest in a new one. Can you, as a business, think of a product or service that you can offer to help your clients get more out of their old shoes? Can you offer upgrades of existing technologies? Can you offer marketing services that extend the lifecycle of your client’s product?

Moreover, do you have clients that are like shoe repair shops and car part dealers. Or could you make them your clients and offer them something they might be interested in? After all, they can afford it, and probably could use some help handling their exceptional growth.

Be a business school

Finally, can’t you be more like a business school? Seriously. During the last (mini)crisis in 2001, for example, applications to London Business School’s full time MBA programme doubled. What better time to do an MBA then during a crisis? People figured that the opportunity cost of their time was now relatively low; it is not like you’re going to get a huge pay rise or bonus during the crisis years (unless you’re a City investment banker of course…).

Moreover, by the time that they graduate, about one and a half years later, the crisis may have largely blown over and they are in a superior position to catch the first wave. Hence, be more like London Business School; clearly that can never be bad advice.