Friday, July 24, 2009

Should You Play Defense Or Attack?

A couple of weeks ago I watched the FIFA Confederations Cup, an international soccer tournament hosted in South Africa. Spain and South Africa, the losers of two semi-finals met to decide third place. Spain was heavily favored and I had the game on as background while I caught up on email. It turned into one of the most exciting soccer games played this year.

Spain was supposed to play in the championship and disappointed they were playing for third. As a result, they weren’t into the game. They weren’t having fun. For most of the match, the Spanish side looked lethargic and let the South Africans hang around.

Playing before a home crowd, South Africa’s team played above its head, attacking Spain again and again. Finally, in the 74th minute, Katlego Mphela put South Africa ahead.

Rather than continuing to press forward and attack, the South Africans dropped players back on defense to try and outlast Spain and protect their lead. Big mistake.

Spain was the European Champions and ranked #1 in the world. Shocked to be losing to South Africa, Spain woke up and pressed forward. Substitute, Daniel G├╝iza scored an equalizer in the 87th minute, and the go-ahead in the 89th minute.

Spain’s attacking play had put them up 2-1 with less than two minutes to go, plus stoppage time. But instead of continuing to attack, Spain’s decided to play it safe, to play defense, protecting their lead and outlasting South Africa. Uh oh.

Desperate, the South Africans returned to their attacking style. In the 90th minute Mphela scored again. When stoppage time ended, the match was a draw. But this was a tournament. No draws were allowed, so the match went into extra time. Playing another 30 minutes, the better conditioning of the Spanish side gave them an edge South Africa couldn’t overcome. Spain won 3-2.

Watching the game, I was amazed that South Africa stopped attacking after taking the lead, allowing Spain to take the game to them. As they showed in the 90th minute, the South Africans were capable of scoring again. While we can never know, I suspect the South African coach’s cautious approach cost the team the match. Similarly, the Spanish coach’s cautious approach nearly cost Spain the win.

The perfect contrast to the Spain versus South Africa match was the finals. The USA, fresh off a stunning upset victory over Spain, faced mighty Brazil. We jumped to a 2-0 lead at halftime. After half, Brazil scored a quick goal and it seemed like the emotionally drained American side appeared to deflate.

Brazil fought back to even the score, and then take the lead, 3-2. I waited to see if they would drop back and give the weary US squad a chance to equalize. They didn’t. The Brazilians kept attacking and attacking and attacking. They pressed every opening and never gave us a chance to get back in the match.

In sports we say that defense wins championships. That’s true. But we also say the best defense is a good offense. When you’re attacking, you’re creating momentum. You’re playing to win. You’re seeking gain. Even if you give up an easy score because you’re focused on the attack, you can recover by scoring.

Trying to score is also more fun. It’s more exciting.

It’s the same in business. If you’re on the offense, you’re creating momentum for your company. You focused on growth, not the avoidance of loss. You’re also having fun.

Stay On The Attack

The truth is many small business owners make the same mistake the Spanish and South African coaches made. The owners hustle, take risks, and invest in their companies. Then, once they get a little ahead, they start playing to keep what they’ve got instead of continuing to attack the market. When business pressure increases, like today, they’re even more apt to pull back and try to play it safe.

To use another sports metaphor, that’s not “dancing with what brung ya.” You become successful by the pursuit of opportunity, not the avoidance of all risk. To go turtle is to go nowhere. Worse, you risk getting caught in a downward spiral as you defend loss after loss, blow and blow. You lose equilibrium.

If you’re playing to outlast the current recession, you’re following a losing strategy. Instead, attack the market. Get aggressive. Take your successful sales and marketing tactics from the past and repeat them.

But don’t just do what you’ve always done. Try something new. Try paid search. Try local newsletter advertising. Try affinity marketing. Try shared mail. Try yard signs. Try door hangers. Try email marketing to your existing customers. Try social media. Try radius marketing.

Step up your marketing. Invest in the future and in your business.

Let the Competition Play Defense

I was in Panama City this summer and took Peaden’s Robert Wilkos to lunch. Months ago Robert sensed the market might be off because of the economy, so Robert stepped on the gas. He accelerated his marketing, leading to record sales.

As we passed another contractor’s shop, Robert commented, “Word is they’re dying. No calls. No marketing. They’re just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.”

The contractor was playing defense. Robert was attacking. His marketing was reaching more homeowners resulting in more calls for Peaden and fewer for the competition. And I could tell Robert was having fun!

Your competitors are probably playing defense right now, making this the perfect time to attack the market. There’s less noise coming from the competition. It’s easier for your message to get through. It’s easier to cut off the oxygen of your competitors.

Play To Your Strengths

If you were coaching a football team, had a solid running game, and faced an opponent with superb defensive backs, would you air it out or emphasize the ground game? You would run the ball, of course. Hopefully, the defensive backs would move close to the line to help stop the run, creating opportunities for the passing game.

In the current economy, service is your running back. It doesn’t give you the four and five figure jobs that comes from replacements or project work, but it is solid. And, it might lead to bigger jobs down the road.

As an in-home service company, demand for you doesn’t die in a downturn, it just shifts. In fact, service work often increases in tough times. They avoid replacing carpeting and opt for deep cleaning. People avoid replacing old equipment and opt for repairs.

Do a good job on the repairs and you’ll make higher margins on the service work, plus you’ll have the inside track on the replacement. After all, replacements can only be delayed for so long. Think of it this way, the lifetime value of the customers who choose to repair rather than replace is higher than the value of those who replace now.

Remember too that you’re playing a local game. You don’t have to worry about price competition from the global village, just the village idiot. That’s no different today than last year or the year before.

The fact is people need to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. They need clean water on demand. They need hot water. They aren’t going to bury their backyard swimming pools. They aren’t going to live without lights.

People need service work. No one needs service all the time. But at any given point in time someone will always need service work.

And yes, DIY heats up when the economy cools off, but DIY only covers the most basic repairs. Many repairs are beyond the skills and inclination of most homeowners. And often their attempts result in even more work for you.

Unemployment may be high, but impact is mostly psychological. June unemployment was 9.5%. A year ago it was 5.6%. It seems bad and it is bad. However, it’s not as bad as it seems. Ninety-six percent of the people who had jobs a year ago, still have them. Moreover, they have money. The savings rate is 6%.

The work is out there. The money to pay for it out there as well. Start marketing for it. Try new kinds of marketing. Focus on services and less expensive products. Stress value. Go on the attack. Cut off the oxygen of the competition. And have fun!

© 2009 Matt Michel

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