Businesses that end up on the critical list usually show signs that they are ailing long before they need intensive care. By recognizing these signs and making a concerted effort to tackle the underlying problems early on, owners can often turn their troubled businesses around and return them to good health.
Signs of distress may include:
Several quarters of declining sales and lower profit margins
Persistent cash flow problems
Inability to meet a lender's requirements for a working capital line of credit
Poor employee morale
The loss or failure of one or more significant customers
Business owners sometimes make the mistake of waiting too long to act on bad news. While a bad quarter or two often can be explained away, a persistent problem shouldn't be ignored. A business that has previously been on a growth track has all the more reason to investigate the reasons for a downturn promptly.
Once a continuing problem is recognized, steps should be taken as soon as possible to curb the downward spiral and stabilize the business. It may be important to update bankers and suppliers regarding the situation and let them know that efforts are being made to turn it around. Open communication can help show that management is serious about reviving the business and can make it easier to enlist help from these groups later on.
Decisions can't be made in the dark. Despite the daily pressures that may only intensify during hard times, it's important to keep financial records and disseminate key information to management for analysis. Expenses should be looked at in detail to determine which can be reduced or eliminated to improve cash flow.
Declining sales can reflect a slow economy, but a downward trend also may indicate that the business is losing market share. This is not the time to let customer service and quality standards falter. Nor is it a time to ignore the competition. A business that is repeatedly losing sales to competitors has to ask whether it is still in touch with -- or has lost sight of -- the market's demands.
Once all the groundwork has been laid, it's time to put the plan into action and start making the necessary changes. This is the point when the owner's leadership skills are put to the test. It is the time when he or she has to inspire and energize managers and employees to make a sustained, disciplined effort to revive the business and retain the support of suppliers, bankers, and customers.