Talking to rental people around the country for this month's cover story, I was reminded of a dynamic that has surfaced in previous downturns. The problem is one of managing labor. Several people expressed the same frustration: When business is good, the biggest challenge in the rental industry is finding good people. Then after finding and training them, the economy slows down and rental companies lay them off.
The same thing occurs with equipment. During boom times, rental companies go into expansion mode and buy up new equipment like it's going out of style. Some companies have to put expansion plans on hold because they can't get enough equipment. Then comes a downturn, assets are under-utilized and people can't get rid of them quickly enough.
Business experts say downturns are the best time to expand. While competitors are retrenching, closing branches and letting good people go, you do the opposite. Take those under-utilized assets and put them to work in a new market. Then when the economy turns around, you are well-established in that market and ready to do good business there, with your people entrenched, and your equipment already working for you.
I realize that some people simply can't afford to do this. Just as people tell you during a bear stock market, “Now's the time to invest while the prices are low,” and that makes perfect sense except for the fact that you have no money to invest. So sure, you'd love to take your under-utilized assets and your people and put them to work in a new market, except for the fact that cash flow is so tight you can't afford to. You need the cash you can get for those assets and you simply can't make payroll to keep those people, and you can't afford to leverage your business any further.
Anyway, that's one of the 25 tips we offer in this month's cover story. If that one doesn't work for you, hopefully one of the others will help you survive these recessionary times.
Here's another tip. We didn't include this one in the cover story, but it's one I highly recommend you consider nonetheless. At the most recent AED Executive Forum, consultant and distribution expert Adam Fein of Pembroke Consulting brought up a point that had occurred to me many times. Most businesses, on their websites, have some sort of system for a customer or potential customer to make inquiries, seeking information. But far too often that contact point is email@example.com.
Think about it. When you are looking for information about a company and the only option is firstname.lastname@example.org do you send the inquiry? As Fein said, those e-mails to “info@” usually just sit there until a summer intern comes along six months from now and reads them. It's like calling a company on the phone and getting a voicemail system that tells you to leave a message in a general mailbox. Most people will just hang up and not bother.
Have any of you ever had your message to “info@” answered in a timely way? I've talked to a few rental companies about this and they discovered that often those inquiries were fairly serious. Rental people sometimes have the feeling that whoever sends such inquiries to “info” aren't that serious. Studies have shown, however, that Internet inquiries typically are in fact pretty good leads and have a better success rate than customers met through cold calling, whether by phone or in person. Somebody is looking up your company and sending you an e-mail, sending an e-mail to “info@,” not having a clue if anybody will really respond. Somebody has money to spend and is looking for a place to spend it. Somebody wants to rent equipment and is looking for a company to do business with. By sending that inquiry, they are telling you, essentially, “I need to find a company to do business with and if you respond to me effectively, it might be you.”
The point Fein was making and that I am reiterating is twofold. First, take all Internet inquiries seriously, as seriously as somebody calling on the phone to inquire or driving into your yard and inquiring. Second, give them a real person to talk to, not just “info.” Post a real name and the e-mail address of a real person. I'd much rather know that I've left a message with a real person with a real name, implying that somebody is going to take responsibility for getting back to me, than sending it out into undefined cyberspace with no accountability.
Unless, of course, you've got enough business that you can turn away leads.