Q: I’ve been running my small business for about 15 years, and all was well until the last year or so. Sales have been dropping, longtime customers have disappeared, and I don’t know how to get back on a path to growth. What should I do?

Marie, 44, retail owner

A: It sounds like it’s time for a business update.

If you’re still selling the same products in the same way, it’s not a surprise that you’re seeing declines. To think about what you might do differently, start with some basics.

Are you selling products that the market still needs and wants? If you’ve gotten out of date, it’ll show up in your sales volumes.

Also consider your pricing to make sure it aligns with what the market will bear.

Answering these questions may require some good competitor analysis.

This is something you should do regularly, but I have a hunch that you may have fallen behind.

Focus on the following questions:

• What market need are you addressing? You’re not really selling a product, you’re offering a solution to a problem.

• Who else is addressing that need? Are they doing it in the same way as you? With the rise of e-commerce, you may have a whole new set of competitors.

• Is your pricing in line with your competition and market expectations? Don’t kid yourself that you’ll automatically be able to command a higher price because of perceived value of your offering.

Then look at the experience your customer has when they walk in the door. This isn’t easy, as you see what you expect to see.

In order to get an unbiased view, ask someone you trust to be a mystery shopper for you. It should be someone who does not routinely go into your business.

Have them provide feedback on the physical aspects. Think about curb appeal — whether the store is inviting from the outside.

Moving on to the inside, you’ll want to know if the décor seems dated or if it’s as clean as it needs to be. Aging interiors happen gradually, so this may be particularly hard for you to see.

On the service side, find out if your staff is appropriately welcoming and helpful when someone they don’t know comes in to shop. This means neither remote nor overbearing.

Also determine if you’re advertising and marketing in productive ways to help build awareness with potential customers.

Once you know the issues, think through your next steps. Work with your senior team to determine which issues are likely causing your declines and assess your options to address those issues. Some may be outside your control or too expensive to fix.

Prioritize the areas you can address and put specific plans in place.

For example, if you’ve got issues with service, provide the feedback and training people need, along with clear communication about consequences if they don’t improve.

As you get your business face-lift underway, keep track of the impact on sales and reward your team for reaching milestones.

Don’t get discouraged if it takes some time to see complete results — just stay the course and fine tune your plan as you go along to turn things around.


What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, leadership coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at liz@deliverchange.com.