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Inc. Magazine: 6 Ways to Quickly Drive Your Business Into the Ground

There are surefire ways to steer your business toward failure. Here are six flags to watch out for and how to avoid them altogether.
By Dave Kerpen

There are quite a few mistakes that businesses—large and small–regularly make. I’m talking about the kinds of oversights that are truly detrimental to the company’s success. So, what are those mistakes? I interviewed Scott Moyer, president of DriveSavers Data Recovery, who shared the six most common ways he sees businesses drive their companies into the ground, and more importantly, lots of tips to avoid those pitfalls. Here’s what NOT to do:

1. Ignore customer feedback

One surefire way to run your business into the ground is to disregard your customers. And yet, companies do this—a lot.

Without asking your customers the right questions and listening to their answers, you’re not going to have a very clear understanding of what they want from your product or service. How can you continue to fill their needs if you don’t know what they are?

Here’s a story you may be familiar with:

A series of customers ask for something that, on the surface, simply doesn’t seem realistic. So, your company regularly chooses to completely disregard these requests. No one ever takes time to consider what deeper needs might be met or how this request might be approached differently. The next thing you know, you’ve lost these customers to a competitor who finds a way to fulfill the customers’ wishes in a creative way.

For example, let’s say your company specializes in lawn fertilizer. Fertilizer must be reapplied throughout the year, and customers frequently ask if your company offers any way to automate the reapplication process so they don’t forget.

Fertilizer requirements vary widely depending on type of lawn, the season and many other factors. As a result, creating an automated fertilizing solution that is actually good for the lawn simply is not possible.
But, is there another way to help these customers? How about an app for their smartphones that can assist in determining a proper regimen for their lawns and provide reminders? Or how about partnering with a service where a lawn specialist goes to a customer’s home to test the lawn, discuss the best fertilizing schedule (using your products) and provide ideas for a reminder system.

Customers may not generally know what it takes to make your product or provide your service, but they certainly know what it’s like to use it. And if they’re looking for something more, you can bet they will find it somewhere else.

3 ways to meet your customers’ needs:

  • Develop an app. This serves a dual purpose: Meeting your customers’ needs and also keeping the name of your business constantly at their fingertips and top of mind.
  • Research product or service expansion. Maybe you can sell them what they want.
  • Partner with other companies who already fill these needs. This is particularly useful when partnering with these companies might directly increase your sales, as in the example above.

3 easy ways to stay in touch with your customers and their needs:

  • Quick, easy surveys. It’s helpful to include a small incentive for people to fill these out, such as a sample of your product.
  • Virtual “suggestion box.” Include a link on your company website.
  • Social media. Ask a question and see what answers you get or purchase a Facebook poll app.

2. Disregard ideas from the front lines

You have all the numbers—sales, web traffic, conversions. You’ve got all the information you could possibly need, so listening to suggestions from staff is a waste of your time, and they’ve got a job to do, right?

Wrong. If you want to grow your company, grow your listening skills. Your employees are on the front lines and know things the numbers won’t tell you. So don’t be dissuaded from keeping your ears open for good ideas.

3 Tips to encourage idea sharing:

  • Urge people to schedule walk-and-talks with you. Set aside a full week once or twice a year with 20-minute time slots that people can schedule with you.
  • When you run into an employee in the break room, parking lot or wherever, ask what they think of _________ (insert something specific to their department). Listen to what they have to say and respond thoughtfully to foster a conversation.
  • Check yourself. Chances are, you won’t like all the ideas you hear. Some of them may even speak directly against one of your own ideas or something you’ve been working on. Avoid being defensive. Listen carefully, consider earnestly and thank your employee for being brave enough to speak up. Sometimes it’s those things we don’t want to hear that help us become great.

2 Tips to avoid wasting time with unproductive idea sharing:

  • When an employee has an idea to share, schedule a 20-minute meeting and do not go over the allotted time.
  • If the employee tries to go over the 20-minute scheduled meeting time, suggest that he/she send an email to you with anything that wasn’t shared. If after reading that email you feel it would be a good idea to continue the conversation, then you can schedule another 20-minute meeting.

3. Hold meetings—lots of them

Don’t have anything to do? Call a meeting so nobody else will get anything done either. For many of us, there is no bigger waste of time. We all get pulled from our work for reasons we can’t even comprehend. And then, if we find ourselves in a meeting that doesn’t even apply to us, we can’t leave.

In this wondrous age of digital everything, meetings should really only be held when there is a topic that can’t be shared or resolved through email.

2 questions to ask yourself before calling a meeting:

  • What is the point of calling these specific people together?
  • Does the topic require discussion, or is it simply an announcement? If it’s an announcement, send an email instead.

3 Tips to keep your necessary meetings short and productive:

  • Schedule clear begin and end times, and stick to them.
  • Have an agenda prior to the meeting. Schedule more important topics closer to the beginning.
  • Only bring topics to a meeting that will have importance to everyone attending. More specialized topics can be discussed at another time with a more targeted group.

4. Make your employees work as many hours as possible

Many companies applaud employees who work as many hours as they can each day, as though more hours spent at the office always equates to higher productivity.

You know that guy who makes sure to walk around everywhere, coffee in hand, first thing in the morning just so you know he was there before you? He’s not actually getting any work done while he’s doing that. Nor is he getting any work done as he walks around the office at the end of the day to make sure everyone knows he’s still there. And while he’s walking around not getting anything done, he’s distracting his coworkers from getting anything done, too.

You can’t associate hours spent at work with work accomplished. In fact, there is a ton of research out there showing that, for the average person, working more than 40 hours per week will cause a nosedive in overall productivity.

Allow flexibility in work schedules, but encourage people to work their eight hours and go home. Unless we’re talking about a customer service position where a physical body must be available during certain hours, it’s really not important how long you spend at the office each day; what’s important is how much you get done.

3 Productivity tips

  • Make it clear to each new hire that no one gets brownie points for working extra hours.
  • Encourage your employees to each make a short priority list every morning and to address the items on their lists early in the day. There should be no more than three items. This way, employees will not end up staying late to finish priority items that got pushed to the end of the day.
  • If you notice that an employee has worked a long day or two, make sure that he/she works a short day later that same week.

5. Establish a clear hierarchy of who’s in charge

Some companies like to make sure every employee memorizes and understands the company organization chart. People higher up are even given physical symbols of their place in the company to make it clear who should be respected.

For example, I once worked for a company who only allowed employees with “Director” in their job titles to have arms on their chairs. No joke.

Making it clear that certain employees should be respected only shows that other employees aren’t. Lack of respect at work has all kinds of horribly negative effects from lower productivity to outright hostility.

Sure, it should be clear who each employee directly answers to and takes direction from, but otherwise all employees should be treated equally regardless of title.

Rather than position, reward loyalty, productivity and personal discipline, all qualities that should exist in any level of your company hierarchy and are worthy of notice.

3 Tips for encouraging equality and respect in the workplace:

  • Let everyone have arms on their chairs. I’m poking fun here at the afore-mentioned company. But seriously, let everyone have arms on their chairs. Or standing desks, or whatever they need to be most productive.
  • Publicly recognize individual skills of employees regardless of position in the company.
  • Encourage idea-sharing from all of your employees (see the section on this above).

3 Tips for rewarding loyalty, productivity and self-discipline:

  • Offer more vacation time when employees reach benchmarks in length of employment, such as 5-year, 10-year and 15-year anniversaries.
  • Give bonus checks or individualized gifts when any employee builds over x number of doodads, converts over x amount in sales, or otherwise exceeds productivity goals.
  • Offer profit sharing to your employees. In this way, your employees directly benefit (or suffer) from how well your company does financially. Monthly income is a great motivator.

6. Forget marketing, because you don’t need it

Your product is earth shattering and will sell itself. Why would you need a marketing team, much less a marketing budget? Well, because no one is ever going to buy your product if they don’t know about it.

Pretty much every company spends something on marketing. Most companies, however, don’t spend enough.

We all like to see hard numbers in order to justify spending, and understandably so. Unfortunately, very little of today’s marketing converts to hard numbers.

The average consumer needs to see your company name seven times from different sources before they trust your brand and become interested in making a purchase. You might be able to measure that seventh touch because that’s when a consumer clicks to check out your website, but what about the first six? How do you measure which campaigns caught that customer’s eye and stuck in their mind? You can’t.

When it comes to marketing, social media and public relations, don’t judge a book by the numbers. Just get word out there about your company and your product or service.

4 Tips to help your marketing and public relations departments:

  • Hire enough people to get the job done. Marketing today is more than purchasing ads in publications. There are multiple social media venues, magazines and newspapers, online publications, review sites and more. These all need to be monitored and contributed to daily.
  • Hire the right people. Anyone in marketing or PR needs to be an exceptional writer and communicator. Otherwise, any message you try to send out will go unnoticed or, worse, communicate the wrong message.
  • Make sure the people in your marketing department know your product or service inside and out. If they don’t, then train them until they do.
  • Pay to play. Once upon a time, when the Internet still had some youthful glow, it was easier to produce successful online marketing efforts for little or no cost. Today however, social media sites, press release sites and others will only share as much of your news as you choose to pay for. Since this is primarily where your potential customers spend their time, it’s worth it to spend the money.

I’ve seen some earth shatteringly stupid things that nonetheless seem to be the norm in many companies. I’m sure you’ve seen many of these, too. Sometimes it’s difficult to recognize the awesome from the awful when you’re swept up in company culture. As a result, poor policy continues and spreads. It’s our job to make the change.

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