Bad economy? Time to get aggressive

How to grow your business while others struggle

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- In the first of five columns for FSB, StartupNation.com founder Rich Sloan offers advice on how entrepreneurs can prosper during an economic downturn.

The morning paper spins stories of doom and gloom. Customers and financing seem harder to come by. These are the realities of tougher economic times.

So what do you do? The conservative solution is to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. For other entrepreneurs, though, downturns represent an opportunity to become stronger, to capture market share and to be poised for dominance when things turn around.

Consider the surprising recent growth of Two Men and a Truck. The company is the creation of Brig and Jon Sorber, two brothers who started a tiny moving business in the early 1980s with, yes, a single truck. Today the company boasts 200 franchisees. Last year's revenues were $198 million, up 2.5% over 2006. During the same period, revenues for the national moving industry contracted by 12%.

In a recent phone conversation, Brig Sorber shared his secrets for flourishing in tough times:

Band together. You can add more punch to what you sell by partnering with a company that offers a complementary product. Two Men and a Truck does this with apartment complexes. "Free Moving" is a great incentive for renters, and the landlords get deep discounts in exchange for the volume of business they provide to Brig's franchisees.

Talk to customers. With fewer customers calling in, Two Men and a Truck decided to start calling back. During busy times they gave quotes over the phone but typically didn't place a follow up call. Nowadays they use the extra available minutes to call back people who had inquired previously.

The result? A game-changing 25% of these prospects now become paying customers. In addition, the Sorbers sent franchise owners to visit customer homes while moves were underway. This made their customers feel like VIPs, creating dynamite word of mouth in the neighborhood.

Be flexible. Despite the slack market, Two Men and a Truck started running 24 hours a day, offering maximum convenience and flexibility to their customers. Meanwhile, many of their competitors were actually cutting back their operating hours.

Build relationships. When new franchisees sign on, Two Men and a Truck pays for their first year of membership in the local chamber of commerce. Over time, the company also encourages franchisees to work their way onto chamber boards. The strategy yields credibility, awareness of community trends, and deep relationships that have helped Two Men and a Truck expand its clientele from homeowners to commercial customers as well.

Sure, it's a tough economy. But the worst of times are also the best of times for companies that are willing to work hard and be resourceful. In my next column I'll share tips for identifying screaming needs in the market-especially during a downturn.

Rich Sloan is co-founder of StartupNation, a leading online business advice and networking website for entrepreneurs. He also hosts the nationally syndicated talk show, StartupNation Radio, airing on over 70 stations across the country. He is co-author of the acclaimed how-to book, StartupNation: America's Leading Entrepreneurial Experts Reveal the Secrets to Building a Blockbuster Business (Doubleday, 2006). To top of page

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