How Do You Differentiate Yourself? Preparing for an Economic Downturn

The recent stock market volatility should cause us to at least think about preparing for a potential economic downturn. That can be hard to do, especially as we are in a relative upturn now. If you have worked in the construction industry long enough, you already know we deal with cycles—both boom and bust—that can affect our businesses. During the good times, it is hard to take the time to plan for the inevitable downturn. One method is to do nothing and keep bidding, winning new projects and enjoy the ride. Another idea is to think through what can set your business apart from the competition so that, when times get tough, you will still be the one called to perform whatever work is available. Part of that planning should be to look back at the previous economic downturn and determine why certain businesses were able to weather the storm and emerge stronger. For example, did they learn new skills and become more of a specialist in the latest fire alarm systems or mass notification systems (MNS)?

Napoleon Hill, author of the time-honored book from 1937, “Think and Grow Rich,” had many ideas to move a person or a company forward, one of which states: “With the dearth of outstanding service that exists in the world today, you can instantly differentiate yourself from the competition simply by providing good service.” 

This still holds true today. Do you believe you and your technicians provide good service? Do you answer the phone with a smile? It transmits over the phone!

Hill was a big proponent of going the extra mile when providing service to customers. But if that service is no different than the competitions’, it doesn’t make much of an impact. Examine your competitors’ offerings to understand what will make you stand apart from the crowd. 

If your company developed new skills, did you continue to build on those skills during economic growth or fall into the trap of only bidding on new construction opportunities? During the good times, it is much easier to reject renovation projects that are too small in comparison to the new work available. This is the same type of work that could carry a company through an economic downturn.

Using experienced, talented journeymen to help others fix their issues allows total business revenues to grow at the same time, creating a book of business that will help weather most downturns in the future.

Thinking strategically, it may be worth selecting a technician or a team of technicians and assign them to “build a book of business” around either a specialty service such as fire alarm system retrofits or MNS installations. Give this opportunity to the more advanced journeymen with an aptitude for solving problems who can positively interact with a customer.

Hill writes, “Helping others solve their problems will help you solve your own.” Using experienced, talented journeymen to help others fix their issues allows total business revenues to grow at the same time, creating a book of business that will help weather most downturns in the future.

Of course, part of this strategic thinking must include training to enable these technicians to be the best in the business. We all know how hard it is to find people who wish to enter the electrical trade; however, by flaunting the benefits of growth through training and education, you can create the right atmosphere to keep and attract the best in the business.

I have had owners tell me that they do not want to train their employees because they will just leave the company. My question to these shortsighted individuals is: Does that mean you want to continue to use untrained people? The goal is to  provide opportunities through training. These opportunities can be established as part of your business’s strategic plan to weather any economy without losing any of your talented employees when new construction falters.

However, planning is crucial. We are seeing more opportunity for individuals who are taking the time to think about how the internet of things (IoT) will impact their business. If, for example, your company performs electrical work for the industrial market, investigate the opportunities to install the necessary IoT sensors to help customers streamline their operations. Also, every time a customer wants an emergency voice alarm and communications system (EVACS) installed, ask them if they wish to integrate the new system throughout the plant to replace the paging or public address system using additional speakers connected to the EVACS. NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code, enables the owners of these systems to now use them for nonemergency operation.

The point is, by understanding all the systems in use in the customer’s building, you will become aware of even more ways to serve that customer. However, don’t assume you can do everything without fully investigating the educational needs. For example, if it seems like there is a chance to install and service emergency generators, but you do not have the expertise to service the engine component or do not understand how the wrong fuel would affect the engine, then it might be wise to pass on that job. Do not attempt new work such as this until you gain the expertise, either personally or by acquiring an experienced technician in that area.

The same holds true with fire EVACS and MNS. With MNSs, for example, your company will need access to a person who understands the risk-analysis process. Additionally, sound and communications experience is required to ensure that all messages are intelligible.

Any strategic plan to weather an economic downturn must include all factors that will ensure success. Determine where specialty technicians might be needed, and pay to train your own talent. All of this takes extra work and effort, but it is really the only way to effectively plan to maintain a strong backlog of “recession-proof” work. 

The time to plan for an economic downturn is now, while things are busy and your company has the cash flow to invest and take advantage of new opportunities before the competition thinks about doing the same thing.

In addition to performing the strategic plan for meeting these goals in all economies, you will improve your customer base by doing more than expected.

To quote Hill one more time: “Going the extra mile can give you insight and a good reputation, both of which attract opportunity.” Start going the extra mile and opportunity will follow you.

About the Author

Wayne D. Moore

Fire/Life Safety Columnist

Wayne D. Moore, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and expert in the life safety field, is a principal member and past chair of NFPA 72, Chapter 24. He is a vice president with Jensen Hughes at the Warwick, R.I., office and can be...

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