Apple’s slogan, Think Different, was a game-changer for the computer industry when it appeared on television commercials and magazine pages in 1997. Apple set itself apart by making the purchasing decision personal. The Think Different campaign was attractive because it referenced other well-known people such as Einstein, John Lennon and Martin Luther King and it made you feel like you could be part of that club by buying Apples. Plus, it made Apple a luxury symbol. Apple has never come out with a budget laptop, because the brand is based on the notion that Apple users can afford to buy the highest-end products.

But it’s hard to “think different” when you’re doing the same things every day, which is a challenge that many people who own their own business face. Shake yourself up by teaching yourself how to think different. Some people do this by hiring a coach or consultant, and this can certainly be effective.

You may consider bringing your staff together for an open-minded meeting. The people who do the same jobs everyday will most definitely have ideas for how they could get things done in a different way.

You may find yourself saying to yourself or your staff things like, “Let’s just do it that way because we know it works.” This is the same as saying, “I don’t like where this path is leading me but I’m going to stay on this path just because I’m already on it.” If you were making any other decision–actually literally on a hiking path, in line for a food cart pod and you changed your mind about what you wanted, or buying shoes–would you stick with the decision you already made simply because you had already made one? No, most people would not! So give yourself the same freedom in your business. Learn how to do things differently, or at least, how to see that there might be a different way to think or act, and see where that goes. 

Most for-sale services can benefit from this principal…customers like to buy more than one of a thing when they find something they like and believe in. And it really doesn’t matter what you sell . . . haircuts, cold-pressed coffee, carpet cleaning or dog walking. When your customers are making their decisions, give them the option to buy more than one at a time.

You can offer haircuts every two months, daily coffee delivery, quarterly carpet cleaning or dog walking whenever they need it. It’s why the “subscription of the month” clubs and the weekly meal delivery services are so popular right now.

Give them a discount or a bonus of some kind if they make a long-term commitment to you. Your customer no longer has to think about where they are going to go for that service six months from now, because they’ve already chosen you. You no longer have to worry about how many customers you will have six months from now.

Sears is dying. The store where my mom took me to buy a dress for my first middle school dance. The store where I used to get left in the record album aisle while my mom tried on clothes. (Yes, department stores once had an entire aisle of actual record albums!) What was once one of our country’s brick and mortar retail pillars probably won’t survive to the turn of the next decade, if it lasts that long. The company has $4.2 billion in debt and has been losing ground over the years to Target and Walmart. The mistakes that the once-great company made go back a long way.

First, in the early 1980s, Sears’s parent company, Sears, Roebuck & Co., expanded aggressively into financial and real estate services market. They purchased Dean Witter Reynolds securities firm and Coldwell Banker. These didn’t have anything to do with Sears’s “core” operations. And, when their back was turned, so to speak, by being involved with these divergent markets, Target and Walmart started invading their space.

After that, they broke up their business into separate units. This was in the mid-2000s. By the time they did this, their company was already financially hurting. The separate units managed Sears’s well-known brands such as Diehard and Craftsman. One of the problems with this was that the managers they picked were said to have little retail experience. And this archived news story from the time supports the view in hindsight that it was a mistake. ABC News quotes an analyst who says, “I think it’s risky.” The article says, “Analysts say the changes contemplated by [chairman Edward] Lampert — who acquired Kmart in 2003 and Sears, Roebuck and Co. in 2005 — run against prevailing trends where retailers try to craft a single, cohesive business image. “He’s looking to turn it around by using a different approach,” said retail consultant Walter Loeb. “I think it’s risky.”

Also in 2005, Kmart bought Sears. But both were failing. The merger left them with twice as many under-performing stores. Once the company had lost so much money that it was consistently losing ground, it began selling off its assets to manage its cash flow. Over the last 10 years its sold off its brands like Lands End. It’s closed stores that were’t performing well. Over the last few more recent years, it’s continued to lose so much money that Sears is selling off its profitable stores. Sears now plans to sell its profitable stores and then lease them back.

All along as these things were going on, Sears customers have complained that the products they’re selling don’t seem high-quality. There’s no sense of Sears as a “department store” anymore, with brands that the customers knows and trusts.

All along the way, Sears’s actions seem to point to a company that was too busy protecting itself or denying that the marketplace had changed. It reacted, rather than adapted. There are lessons here for businesses of any size.

Lessons For Businesses From Sears Inevitable Downfall

For one, know your competitors. Walmart grew aggressively and their selling proposition was based on price cuts followed by the ability to buy your grocery’s for the night’s dinner at the same store where you’re buying your tank tops and your barbecue grill. As cool as Sears was to have all kinds of different departments, you couldn’t buy a tomato at Sears. Once customers got a taste of that convenience, they didn’t want to go back.

Secondly, be true to yourself. If you’re retail, do retail. And do it good. With options, customizations, good customer service, good business hours. Put in a kiosk where people can comparison shop. Then when they do, let them see enough to know that they really do want to buy it from you after all. Hire managers who know what they’re doing. Don’t keep employees around who waste time and don’t treat your customers with respect.

Thirdly, watch your cash flow. Once you get into trouble it can be hard to turn it around.

And finally, never stop evolving. Your customer behavior changes. Yours should too.

It’s a difficult shift in mindset to make. Can you really be better off without a client who is willing to give you money? When your business is just starting out or it’s not growing as fast as you would like, saying ‘No” is a hard place to be.

In my freelance career I would say “Yes” to any job. No matter how big or small. No matter how long it would take or how much I would get paid. No matter how much other work I had at the time. Why? Because I wanted to be the person who they would ask in the future. Many times, that worked out and I got repeat business. At other times, I got people who wanted me to do more work for the same pay. Or more work for less pay. Or more work on a faster, last-minute deadline. Or more work that they hadn’t thought out very well, so I got no guidance and didn’t give them what they wanted, then had to go back and fix it . . . on my own time. By saying yes to everything, in their mind I became the person who would, well, say yes to everything. I got taken advantage of.

I eventually learned that it is not only OK to say “No,” but that it is the responsible thing to do. Here’s why.

A client who takes up all of your mental time and energy leaves you nothing left for the other clients. The less demanding clients deserve your best attention to, and you can’t give it to them if you’re mopping up after one client all the time.

Saying “No” to a low-paying client frees up your schedule to say “Yes” to a higher paying one. It’s hard to believe that turning down money leads to more money, but it does. If you spend 5 hours a week on one client paying you $50 an hour, that’s $250. Yes, that’s a lot. But if you find 3 clients willing to pay you $100, you’re already $50 ahead. Take that 5 hours you would have spent working for the low-paying client and send out emails, make phone calls, beef up your website, or other efforts to improve your business attractiveness and find better paying clients.

Should you fire a client?

I’m not suggesting you fire a client just because the relationship is temporarily difficult or they have given you a job that is more demanding than usual. All client relationships will have their ups and downs. A relationship that starts out difficult can often be smoothed over. What I’m suggesting here is ongoing patterns of behavior in your client relationship where it’s just not worth the effort to continue.

Here’s when to know you probably should let that client go.

  • They don’t heed your recommendations.

If the client doesn’t follow your recommendations, it’s likely a red flag. They hired you as the expert, so if they don’t believe that you know what’s best, why work together?

  • They don’t respect your boundaries.

You ask that you not get urgent tasks after 6pm, but they still text you or email you wanting answers before they go to bed at night. That’s a sign of disrespect that is going to make it hard for you to do an effective job for them.

  • Your hourly rate doesn’t meet your limits.

After all the work is done, the time you spent on them and the amount of money you receive in return just doesn’t add up. I have said yes to jobs in the past where I got a set amount, like $500. After tracking my hours, I realized I was approaching minimum wage for the work I did! Even if I asked for more and got it, the amount of time I put into these projects took me away from my family and other higher-paying jobs for almost a month each year. I said no to those jobs in the future, and it was not hard to make up that income. Even if I lost the $500, I was happier.

  • They don’t respond.

You just can’t work with a client who is going to fall off the map when you’re waiting for information and guidance. You’ll be stressed out and not make progress.

  • You dread it.

You see the email or phone call from this client and your stomach starts to groan. It’s just not worth it.

It’s ok to let it go.

When you’re in business and you don’t know where you are going, the path can be scary. Looking ahead often reveals nothing but a tangled thicket, with brambles at every turn.  But when you know where you’re going, the path ahead suddenly starts to look different.

The walls that formerly looked like obstacles shrink. What formerly looked like an impenetrable thicket worthy of Brer Rabbit becomes a warren of passageways and possibilities.

Not knowing what’s next instills a feeling of inadequacy and anxiety. What’s the most effective way to avoid these feelings? Set goals.

List your wants, needs and ideas. Chart a path. Figure out where you are and where you want to be.

Notice how I’ve not said, “Make a plan.” Don’t plans fail? Aren’t plans made to be changed? I’ve heard that somewhere before. That’s why I say set goals instead.

Yes, plans do not always go as planned! But when you set a goal, you decide how to achieve it. You are at Point A and you want to get to Point B. There could be a multitude of paths between Point A and Point B and you could find yourself on any of them at any given time, depending on what decisions you make along the way. There is no right or wrong way to get to Point B. And if you’re focused on a goal of arriving at Point B instead of following a plan, it hardly matters.

If you really want to achieve the goal, you will. Nothing will stand in your way, and if something does stand in your way, you’ll find a new path around it.

No one else can tell your story.

Anyone can conceivably open a business. But YOU opened YOUR business.

Anyone can collect products from manufacturers and assemble them for sale on a website.

Anyone can hang up a shingle and start offering some kind of service. But YOU did it your way.

Why? Why did you care enough about those products, or that business niche, to start that business? Tell us why you cared so much. Let us get to know your thoughts and motivations behind starting your business. Tell us what makes YOUR business different. Even if you’re offering the same services that several other businesses are offering.

You can introduce yourself, get personal and share your motivations in a few different ways. First, make your story a big part of your website. Tell your story on your About page. Link to the causes you support. If you undertake any advertising you can work in your motivation to your advertisements.

Need some inspiration? Check out the “Our Vodka” page on Tito’s Handmade Vodka. He puts himself into every ad. At this point, he’s identifiable as a person. And even though we all know that Tito’s Handmade Vodka is a huge and successful company, what’s the one thing most people relate to when they think about this company? Tito himself. It’s personal. And his story isn’t just quickly told in one or two paragraphs…his story continues all the way down the page, scroll after scroll, with photos and the growth of the company at every stage. He even tells us how much credit card debt he racked up ($88,000 in case you’re wondering where your debt stands in comparison.)

Make a big deal out of why you do what you do. Introduce yourself. Get personal. Share your motivations. Telling us why you do what you do and why we should care is a better way to build bridges and get us interested in your products than simply selling to us.

Is your business poised to take advantage of the growth from 2016? One measure of a business’s strength lies in how quickly it can adjust to changes. There’s no better time than the beginning of a new year to look back on the past year and evaluate your business plan. Here are a few questions to keep you on track and focused as you learn and grow from 2016.

1. What were your successes and strengths over the past year?

Identify specifically what you can to do develop and enhance those strengths.

2. What didn’t work? What was challenging?

Evaluate what didn’t work like you expected and learn from it. How did you positively address challenges? Can you take even more specific steps to do better this year?

3. What were your missed opportunities?

You may have overlooked an opportunity to take good pictures, send out a press release, attend a conference, advertise in a new way or make new business connections. Vow to act differently when the opportunity next presents itself.

4. How have your competitors changed?

Your own marketing strategy should encompass offense and defense, so you can react flexibly to whatever your competition is doing — not to copy them but to keep an equal standing or better. If new competitors have entered the market, evaluate what makes them different and adjust your own strategies accordingly.

5. When was the last time you updated your website?

If you can’t remember, it’s time to do it now. Add a new project to your portfolio. Change the description of your services to keep it updated and fresh.

6. What are your biggest opportunities this year?

Develop case studies or cultivate relationships that will help you take advantage of the growth you are seeing in your area. Has technology changed? Have any of your competitors closed? There could be a new niche for you to take over.

7. What trends are you seeing in what your clients are asking for?

Put what the market wants front and center in your marketing materials and in the supplies you sell, if applicable.

8. What industry changes will threaten your segment of the industry and how can you address them?

For instance, are the costs of raw materials expected to change? Will you be affected if our foreign trade policies change?

9. Do you have the right people in your organization?

Hire a marketer to take that work off your plate. Invest in trainings to make sure you have well-skilled employees. What skill sets is your organization missing? Can you provide that or do you need to outsource or hire new people?

10. What is your annual gross and net income goal?

Break that down into a monthly figure and take steps to determine how you will get there.

11. What part of your business is under-performing?

Evaluate what is not working to help you meet your targets. Do these sectors of your business need to be eliminated or do they need a push to help them move forward?

It’s time to plan for 2017 and put together a marketing plan and budget to help you establish your business goals for 2017. Remember when we suggested you create a marketing calendar? Hopefully you’ve done that!

That calendar will lay the groundwork for your marketing plan for 2017. Also important is an overall business plan establishing your goals and how you will meet them.

Plan Your Budget

Experts state that 5 to 7 percent of your revenue should be spent on marketing. It is important to figure out ahead of time where that money will go and where it will come from. Do you underwrite a radio program? Do you focus your efforts on boosting posts on Facebook? How much money does that represent?

Do you need to make investments in infrastructure? Perhaps you need a new computer or a new phone. Try to be as specific as possible, including your monthly expenses for things like printer ink. If you’re making changes to your budget, list what is decreasing and what is increasing. Make sure that your team is aware of the changes and what your new focus is.

Create Your Business Plan

Begin by asking yourself where you want to be at the end of the year. Do you have a sales goal? Work backward and figure out your monthly goal to get there, followed by your weekly and even daily goal to get there. If you know you need to make X number of sales calls to get a new customer, plan to make enough calls each day to meet that goal. The key to this is identifying what you need to do to accomplish your goals and putting the structure in place to help you meet them. With a plan you will wake up each day knowing what you need to take care of that day to meet your near and far goals.

For the non-specific things like, for instance, improving customer service, figure out how you will achieve that. Does that mean holding trainings for your staff or hiring a consultant? Perhaps you will work with your staff to improve email etiquette. It’s fine to have abstract ideas like “meet sales goals” or “get more customers,” but follow those up with a concrete plan.