Riding out this difficult economy is the focus of many small businesses today. For Sandi Webster of Consultants 2 Go in Newark, staying alive in a global and rapidly changing world requires staying in touch on a daily basis.
If in the past she did not always keep up with the news (with the excuse that she did not have time), today such reading is a must. “It is critical nowadays to get some kind of RSS feed or Google alert,” says Webster. “You have to know what is going on. You have to adapt and switch tactics at any given moment.”
With an event like the recent deep dip in the stock market, for example, small businesses dealing internationally must be aware of potential changes in prices as currency values fluctuate. “You have to stay abreast of the economy right now so you have a chance to correct mistakes or think of things before they happen and put proactive measures in place,” says Webster.
Webster will speak at the 2010 Women in Science & Technology workforce summit on Friday, May 21, at 8:30 a.m. at Mercer County Community College’s Conference Center. Other participants in this free event include keynote speaker Sarita Felder, an executive leadership coach and branding development consultant, and Peggy McHale, Webster’s partner and co-author of “Black and White Strike Gold.” Register online at http://sciencewomen.rutgers.edu, or call 732-445-1244.
Check out the competition regularly. Businesses need to stay consistent with their competitors in terms of their offerings and price points. “If my competitors drop their prices a lot, I will probably have to make some price changes to stay competitive,” Webster says.
Competitors may also change their offerings to be more in synch with yours and steal some of your market share. To be ready to make necessary changes in her own products and services as fast as possible, Webster checks daily or weekly for news about her competitors — something she used to do every couple of months or once a year.
For public companies, Webster checks annual reports to see whether they are losing money and in what areas. For privately owned companies, she often hears how they are doing by word of mouth from her consultants, who also work for the competition. She might, for example, ask individuals whether they are on a project. If everyone says no, then she knows that the problem is more widespread than just her company.
Develop a strong network. Relationships developed over time create a network that businesses can call on for information, to share best practices, or even to become clients.
Keep customers engaged. Stay focused on customer needs and don’t make assumptions, says Webster. Just because the economy is tanking, for example, don’t assume customers are not interested in a particular product or service.
For her customers, a bad economy means that they need to market more, even if they have less money to spend. She will send E-mail tips on why they need to market more and on low-cost marketing channels like social media.
Webster also likes to send little notes to customers, maybe with a $5 Starbucks gift card, just to thank them for being her clients. She will also send flowers to her customers on Secretaries Day.
Keep employees engaged and informed. Employees need to be aware of the whole range of a business’s offerings, interact regularly with customers, and be trained to be aware of changes in customers’ needs. To keep good employees, treat them well and give them opportunities for additional training.
Employees should also be aware of a business’s finances. “I share my finances a lot more,” says Webster. “I used to have quarterly reviews, and now I do it weekly in staff meetings, especially for the sales team.”
Because her employees know exactly what they are bringing in and the money needed to make the business run, they will not be surprised by any repercussions if they don’t make the numbers. “If I have to make a downsizing decision, they are all aware and fully engaged,” she says. “They may not like it, but they understand.”
Cut costs. “Make sure you have a handle on your cash flow and know what needs to be cut,” says Webster. She keeps a close eye on supplies and entertainment and lately has been taking customers out to breakfast and lunch rather than dinner.
“It’s not that I can’t do it at all, but I have to figure out a lower-cost method,” she says. Instead of sending people to training events, she often arranges webinars to save on travel expenses.
Upgrade hardware and software. Better technology can give a business greater flexibility, says Webster. She recruits many consultants, and when she had to let her recruiter go, she invested in some excellent recruiting software that gave her and her sales team easy access to consultants’ resumes and billing information.
Now that she has hired back her recruiter, the software is a big help to him. And the icing on the cake is that because they made the software investment in a down economy, it was deeply discounted.
Webster grew up in Brooklyn, where her mother worked long hours in manufacturing and was in the union. Her father was an electrical engineer in England.
Webster has been an entrepreneur since she started babysitting at age 10. Summers she would take care of children all day, and during the rest of the year she would pick them up after school and tend to them until their parents got home.
Eventually her babysitting evolved into a daycare center in her home, where she hired adults to watch children whose parents worked evening or night shifts. She admits, however, that when she operated her center in the 1970s it was much easier than it would be today.
Her first job for anyone else was with the New York City Board of Education, teaching theater and learning to read through the arts. From there, she jumped over to business and worked at Saks Fifth Avenue for almost 10 years in a variety of functions, including information management for retail, database marketing, determining the best places to open stores, answering complaints, collections, and customer service.
Then she moved to American Express, where she worked in marketing from 1989 through 2001. In 1993 she earned her bachelor of science in marketing from Fordham University. In 1999 she completed an MBA at Dowling College in Long Island.
Webster and McHale took packages from American Express following 9/11, having talked for a long time about developing a marketing consultancy together. In early 2002 they started Consultants 2 Go in Newark.
The firm provides marketing and analytic consultants to companies in financial services, telecommunications, and insurance, and the firm is now branching out into pharmaceuticals and consumer packaged goods. The firm also just opened a branch in Florida catering to the cruise business, where many people formerly in financial services now work. Webster handles recruitment of consultants and marketing, while McHale works with finances and the sales team.
“It’s very difficult coming from a big corporation and going into business for yourself,” Webster says. “The biggest challenge is getting your first customer.”
One major advantage Webster and McHale had was a set of excellent reputations. “People knew us and knew the kind of work we did,” says Webster. But still, no one wants to be your first customer.
After talking to everyone they knew, they found a medium-sized law firm that became their first account and then slowly built up a roster of projects.
And a well of knowledge. Even if the old saw says that survival goes to the fittest, Webster says, a business that stays in constant touch with the economic environment and their competitors, customers, and employees should be able to transform from an endangered species into an enduring company planning the steps it will take toward a brilliant future.