Belfast Telegraph

How to keep your head in business no matter what

Thinking of customers can keep your business going in the right direction
Thinking of customers can keep your business going in the right direction

By Simon Seaton, senior manager, Ulster Bank

Northern Ireland businesses have had to deal with an avalanche of uncertainty in recent years. The most difficult thing from their perspective is trying to sift out the signal from the noise - not easy to do when you don't have departments or staff dedicated to staying abreast of tariff schedules.

But the inverse of this is also true, and less discussed. That is that bigger tax and regulatory changes are less likely to make a difference for most firms, when compared to the opportunities or issues that can arise through the day-to-day operations. The euro exchange rate may be a concern but cashflow to pay staff wages is probably a more pressing thing for Northern Ireland SMEs to measure.

So, in the knowledge that these 'home-grown' events can be equally impactful even though they don't hit the headlines, what can smaller, often family-owned businesses do to build sustainable performance in an environment of uncertainty?

The first thing is customer knowledge - about their needs and aspirations, built on what they have liked in the past and what they will want in the future. You'd be surprised how many businesses are comfortable with sticking with 'the way we've always done things' - a recipe for the relationship to go stale.

Instead, by spending more time thinking about your customers' business, rather than your own, you create a mindset where the habits and culture of your own company produce services and products that customers value more and will pay more for.

Customers that get insight and understanding from their suppliers get the reassurance that their supplier is trying hard for them, obviating the need to look elsewhere. Our Accelerator Hub and Business Growth Enablers are our own examples of this - we regularly run events on a customer-driven range of topics, because we believe that being an honest broker of good ideas is better for your business in the long-run.

The second is, on having arrived at a good plan based on insight, to resist the temptation to change it because of rolling news.

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Conviction based on evidence shouldn't be displaced by a desire to appear 'agile'. A recent study on investing found that the best performing personal investors were often those who had forgotten about their portfolios. Now, while a business has to be more dynamic than this, the truth is that trying to intervene and correct for every fluctuation in your market can cost more time or resource than simply riding out a given period of uncertainty.

The final area for them to focus on is succession. Often, the most difficult part for a small business - whether that's an agri-business or an accountancy practice - is handing over responsibility to the next generation, because of the personalities and relationships involved. The most important facet of managing this well is planning openly, writing it out clearly, and updating frequently to ensure that expectations are managed with regard to things like equity and workload - minimising the chances of disruption.

There's no magic bullet to solving the big problem of uncertainty. But taking some steps to think about your customers more, and getting the evidence you need not to 'over-trade' your plans, can help control the controllable factors that matter to most small businesses.

Belfast Telegraph