Strategic planning isn’t a one-shot deal, it’s a lifetime commitment. Yet, many business owners get caught up in the moment instead of focusing on the future. Mind you, given our state’s economic challenges, it’s easy to get snared in that trap, but I caution you not to sacrifice long-term business growth and success for short-term results.
Here at Union Savings Bank we’ve been partnering with Connecticut businesses for 150 years. We’ve seen and worked with our share of winners, and through the decades we’ve collaborated on the business plans that have sparked multi-generational success stories.
Whether your business is still in Chapter One phase or you’re busy drawing up expansion plans, I consider the following six strategic planning steps particularly important to ensuring that you reach your growth milestones.
1.Define the “Why”
Why does your business exist today? How will it have changed two years from now? Five? Ten? Strategic planning forces you to answer the questions that can topple even the best business model if left unaddressed. When you don’t ask “why?” (or “why not?”) complacency becomes your enemy.
There’s nothing static about today’s business environment, so constantly reexamining your portfolio of products and services is an essential part of strategic planning. Brookfield Cleaners owner Angelo DaCunha has excelled at that step. DaCunha launched his successful dry cleaning business after emigrating from Portugal and since then has grown from a 1,700 square foot to a 5,000 square foot operation. He’s earned that growth by consistently creating new services that complement the traditional dry cleaner format. Adding retail aspects such as selling suits and renting tuxedos has resulted in strong growth for this entrepreneur – a direct result of questioning the “why.”
Strategic planning steps should always identify the investments that you will need to make in your business over time, both to stay competitive and relevant. The rapid advancement and adoption of new technology is just one reason to plan strategic goals for significant change. Have you planned how your business will address something as inevitable as the changing nature of payment options? How long before your customer won’t be using checks and credit cards, opting instead for ePayment options such as ApplePay – a product we’re rolling out in June? And by the way, if you haven’t yet talked to your merchant services provider about the potential cost and requirements for new e-pay terminals, now would be a good time.
2.Anticipate Opportunities and Threats
A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis is a standard feature of every business and strategic plan, and for all the right reasons. You want to anticipate threats right along with opportunities, not simply react to them. Anticipating competitive or economic challenges before they happen is the key, as is identifying chinks in your competition’s armor for added opportunities in your industry or category.
A great example of how to create opportunity through strategic goals is a business we’re featuring as part of our 150th Anniversary celebration. South Farms in Morris, CT was a successful family dairy farm for many years, but current owner Ben Paletsky anticipated that the local dairy business would not be sustainable over the long term. Paletsky’s strategic vision took shape and today he is busy transforming South Farms into a unique, upscale event space and redefining agri-tourism. Make sure you have a small business banking partner who’s equally energized by helping you blue-sky your ideas for reinventing a business, not just funding your plan.
Threats aren’t always economic or competitive. Sometimes they start with a bout of bad weather. Hurricane Sandy left over 600,000 in Connecticut without power for days and caused over $360 million in damages. Is your business prepared to survive a natural disaster or any other number of random events, such as equipment failure, a lawsuit or one of today’s most insidious threats – a direct attack on your IT infrastructure, such as a website hack? Thinking beyond what’s happening within the four walls of your business today will help you anticipate threats like these, so you can strategize how to prevent them and be prepared should they occur in your business.
3.A social and digital strategy is a must
Today’s digital tools and social platforms have democratized marketing. That’s great news for any business owners without a Superbowl-sized marketing budget. Be happy: your marketing dollars stretch farther as strategic planning tools and allow you to dig deeper than ever before.
Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and others, identifying your target customers within a market area, by age range, gender, conversation topic, zip code and other qualifiers, is easy, thanks to the geo-targeting options that accompany even the smallest paid campaign. And, when your core customer base lives within your community, adding community relations campaigns, monitoring review sites and developing affinity partnerships should all be part of your strategy.
Conversely, the Internet has also given local businesses a global voice. If you’re too reliant on local customers in a struggling state economy, use strategic planning tools – and the power of digital marketing – to uncover fresh sales opportunities beyond your tried and true zip codes.
The marketing chapter of your strategic plan should never rely on the “build it and they will come” approach. Want a budget to get started? You have until June 30th to enter our $10,000 online advertising/SEO sweepstakes.
4.Strategic planning is a team sport
Unless you’re a sole proprietorship, you’ve got people. Make sure they buy into your plan and strategic goals – after all, they’re most likely the individuals who’ll execute it for you. Your employees are also an exceptional barometer for spotting trends. One current example is consumers’ changing shopping habits, including the rise of ePayment options. The surge in ApplePay and other products, along with the Amazon effect, isn’t always immediately evident in the back office – but your counter staff and front office team will certainly have noticed. Take advantage of their trendspotting capabilities as you plan for the future.
5.Build in performance checkpoints
How do you know you’re on track to achieving success with your strategic goals? While there’s no magic formula that guarantees your business plan is on the money, there are simple ways to assess whether your plan is delivering on desired outcomes along the way. Meet with your small business banking team, business consultant or SCORE mentors to align current and planned investments with target revenue growth and profit margins. Develop an ROI formula for marketing investments, such as ad campaigns and sponsorships as well as lead-generation and customer acquisition costs.
6. Resources to help you grow
Writing and sticking to a strategic plan may seem daunting, but in addition to your small business banking partner there are a number excellent (free) resources available to business owners. I encourage you to take full advantage of them.
For example, SCORE is a non-profit goldmine of information and support, staffed by thousands of volunteers dedicated to helping individuals start, run and grow their own businesses. There are currently more than 11,000 volunteers involved in SCORE’s 320 U.S. chapters. In fact, you’ll find several chapters right here in Connecticut. It’s a terrific organization, with valuable mentorship and education programs that are especially fruitful for resource-constrained business leaders. The U.S. Small Business Administration also does great work and offers over 30 local offices for Connecticut business owners, with services ranging from micro lending and capital funding to advocacy.
There are also numerous strategic planning tools online, including templates and case studies that help you organize your data and see how successful companies approach the process.
Sound strategic planning steps are an essential investment in your future. Don’t short-change yourself, your employees or your customers by being too mired in the everyday minutiae of running a business and ignore strategic goals. Like the proverbial acorn, growing your business requires nourishment and time. Remember, a guy named Steve Jobs, who knew a thing or two about both failure and success, said: “If you really look closely, most overnight successes took a long time.”
Written by Melissa R. MacCaull
Director of Marketing, Union Savings Bank