A good friend of mine who runs one of the oldest retailers in Britain, recently told me that he’s “learned to swallow his pride” during the past 12 months.
We were comparing notes and tales of struggle, observing the things we’re doing to curtail excess spending, compared with a year ago.
I commented on how much I’m using the tube these days and that it’s my Oyster card that comes out of my wallet more than my credit card. Last week, I ordered a black cab on account for the first time in ages and I couldn’t remember the number.
He countered with the fact his only holiday this year, and next, will be paid for with air miles accumulated during the glorious past.
We’ve both curtailed our entertaining, purchased nothing of significant value, and have generally become used to wearing the hair shirt.
For a brief moment, we two grumpy old men seemed quite content to be wallowing in melancholy and regret. Fortunately, it was just for a brief moment.
On the way home from meeting my old friend (District line, in case you were wondering), I thought of how I’d known him for almost 20 years – about the same amount of time I’ve run my own business – and the many good times we’ve had: holidays around the world, weekends away, numerous dinner parties and family celebrations.
I noted how, similarly, I’d enjoyed so many high points in the same period in my business: successful campaigns, profits and growth, and the many people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with.
I thought about the times I’d enjoyed the most. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the time we had the largest profit. The best times were those when we reinvented ourselves and launched new services.
And that’s exactly what we’re doing now.
Which is why, despite the occasional and very brief moments of despondency, I’m actually feeling increasingly upbeat about business.
For the past few months I’ve been back on the front line – managing client relationships and prospecting for new business – leaving the loftier issues of long-term strategy and the exit plan for another day.
I’ve remembered how much I enjoy the cut and thrust and how different things look from the trenches compared to the headquarters.
While I don’t believe I’ve ever divorced myself completely from sales – the real business of business – my re-immersion through necessity has made me realise that the landscape is very different to a decade ago, even a year ago.
But, perhaps most significant is the discovery that there is definitely still a market out there. You just have to make sure you’re selling the right stuff – the essentials rather than the desirables.
Instead of flogging last year’s bestsellers, which have quickly become a dead horse, you need to find out what your target audience really needs at this moment. This might mean you have to completely redesign your offer, but so be it.
Of course, your customers might not necessarily volunteer their fundamental requirements, which is why I urge you to take the time to meet with them and identify for yourself exactly what they need.
I think many people are actually making the most of this period of austerity, discovering that the simple pleasures are often more satisfying than the expensive tastes we acquired in the good times. I have no doubt, of course, that these tastes will return in time as we get fed up with the everyday and start to lust after some of the currently inappropriate, frivolous excesses.
At least that’s what I told myself as I tried to avoid the hair-shirted armpits of my fellow passengers crammed into a carriage on the last train home.