It was 4 degrees at 5:45am this morning.  It was also dark. I slid and stumbled down the still snow covered driveway to locate my Wall Street Journal, the old-school paper kind.  Finding it I made my way quickly back inside.  But as I walked, I noticed one thing.  The paper weighed almost nothing.

‘”Hmmm, this would explain why I now have to walk all the way to the bottom of the driveway to get it.  A year ago, it made it three quarters of the way up.  Driver can’t toss it as far.”

When I got inside, I opened it and again noticed something that I had been seeing for days, even weeks but only today saw.  In each section, the cover, Marketplace, Money & Investing, even Personal Journal there is only one type of news.  Business all over, of every type is bleeding.  Some, like GM and Chrysler have throat wounds.  Others like Motorola, UPS and Dow Chemical are bleeding and anemic. Yet others like Mattel, Nintendo and even Electronic Arts are showing rumblings of trouble.

President Obama said something that stuck with me a while back.  “We don’t have a republican problem, we don’t have a democratic problem, we have an American problem.”  True, but we really have a people problem.  This issue is global and we are all tied together.

That said, rather than sit here and whine about it, we should all be acting pro-actively and thinking with an innovative mind.  Clearly, cost cutting across the board is a requirement in every industry but panic and repetition of traditional marketing, sales gen and CRM efforts will fall on deaf ears.  People, consumers are not worried right now, they are scared.

You will fight for every dollar decision.  Make it easy for them.  Listen to them.  Be innovative.  Speak plainly.  Share the knowledge.  Here are some ideas I have had over the last couple of days.

NBA teams:  Invite loyal fans to a series of pizza parties held on the hard wood.  As THEM to re-invent the stadium experience.  Music, activities, prizes, contests, etc.  Put management in the stands in sweatshirts that say Team Management:  Talk to me.  Make them move every 15-20 minutes.  Meet after the game, rank order feedback.  Post it as a checklist on what’s being done.

Retailers:  Recruit customers (real ones) to secret shop and provide them a deep discount on purchases when doing so.  Give them a forum to post their findings.  Act and report on those findings.  Give key customers Pure Digital (www.theflip.com) cameras to record their experiences.  Here’s an example, caught on a flip camera.  It’s called ‘Why buying a new sled at Walmart is a good idea, it’s called Meredith goes sledding.  Give them a forum to share homegrown ideas of stuff to do with their families that don’t cost an arm and a leg.

Airlines:  Remember, you have the power to make it better or worse.  It can be simple things.  Make a joke.  Ask a question.  Smile.  Show sincerity.  Look people in the eye.  Most of the things you do make you appear to be out of touch and actively working hard to piss us all off.

Restaurant chains:  Create mix and match fixed menu options for sharing.  Have patrons rank and rate favorites on paper menu options.  What sounds good, versus what is a good value versus what was actually tasty.  Follow up with repeat patrons to inquire how the take out service was.  Ask for 1 way to improve either the experience or the value.  Track this, learn from it, act on it, share it.  Create podcasts on ways to cook this at home.  Have a favorite dish?  We’ll show you how to make it.  If you are a chain that sells branded in store items, feature these items.  Provide in in-restaurant discount to people who have used these products and have a proof of purchase.  If you don’t make it, maybe you should.  Any contract manufacturer would welcome the chance.

In the end, listen to your customers.  Ask them.  What you will receive is golden.  I’d love to have some more ideas.  What is it that businesses should be doing to stay in synch with their customers?  Post a category and one or two ideas.

Steve Hershberger
Steve Hershberger