Keep Your Crew Size Steady
Many advisors recommend that you resist the tendency to hang on to your crew as the work dries up. That’s good advice — if you have marginal performers. But if your crew is solid top to bottom, there may be some untapped potential there.
Have a company meeting and let everybody know that your first priority is to keep them all on board. Ask for their ideas about how to do that — ways they can help ensure a steady flow of profitable jobs. We sometimes pigeonhole people and neglect to ask them for help because we assume they can’t provide it — when in fact they may be our best resource. If you make keeping everybody employed a team commitment, you’ll bring a lot more talent to bear on the problem and stand a better chance of meeting the goal.
Cross-Train Your Workers
One of the key ways you’ll get through a downtime is by having a staff that can do pretty much anything you ask them to. Let them know you need them to be flexible and adaptable. Consider taking on tasks you might normally subcontract — painting, roofing, hanging drywall — if you can do them cost-effectively and to a high level of quality.
If you’re shifting from a few large jobs to several small ones, some of your crew might have to start developing management skills they’d never needed before. This is a good opportunity to develop some systems and training procedures for bringing people along. When they have to choose between learning to manage time and communicate effectively or losing their job, most workers are going to be quite willing to learn new skills.
Provide Financial Training
This is the time for each member of your crew to learn how to read a job budget sheet, a job-cost accounting form, and a company-wide profit-and-loss sheet. If your entire staff knows the bottom line for every one of the company’s activities, everyone will help you watch out for it. If you’re the only one worrying about the bottom line in a clear, informed fashion, you’ll be setting an unnecessarily low ceiling for the effort.
So get the whole team involved. You may find savings and profits where you never dreamed they existed before.
Don’t Forget Past Clients
In 1990, the Boston area was hit by a deep recession. During that time we found we could get a lot of new projects by returning to past jobs to do unsolicited warranty work on past projects. That’s when I learned that warranty work is the best marketing investment available.
So if things slow down for you some, consider setting up one of your carpenters to do unsolicited warranty calls for a couple of weeks. You may find that it’s like a giant gate valve for new projects — they start flowing as soon as your worker starts providing this free service.
Cultivate Your Connectors
In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about “connectors” as the hubs of social networks. One way to identify who your most important connectors are is by plotting a “family tree” of your referral sources over the past several years. Make a list of all your projects and who referred them to you, write each job (and source) on a sticky note, and post the notes on a flip chart. Organize the chart like the branches of a tree — the Smith job was a referral from the Joneses, who were a referral from the Wilsons. The White job was a referral from the Blacks, who were also a referral from the Wilsons.
That’s two branches that start at the Wilsons. In this way you can identify your most potent lead sources — they’re at the root of the biggest branches on your “lead tree,” they’re your connectors, and they’re probably some of your most loyal fans. Take a group of these people out to dinner and ask for their help and their ideas. It’s virtually certain that they’ll come through for you.
Leave No Stone Unturned
There’s a range of other efforts that have worked for us, such as public speaking on construction topics for local organizations and consumer groups; community-service projects; display tables at environmental fairs; frequent updates and informative content on the company Web site; a useful and entertaining newsletter with a personal touch. Don’t forget these things — but don’t limit yourself to them. And be sure to delegate some of the activities to members of your crew so you can focus on other, broader strategies and options.
In short, think like an economist: View a possible recession as a way to clear out not only some of the marginal businesses in your industry, but also many of your own marginal business practices. Handled properly, an economic slump can help you take your whole team to the next level.Paul Eldrenkamp owns Byggmeister, a custom remodeling firm in Newton, Mass.