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As an amateur racecar driver I am keenly aware that sooner or later you will have an accident. It’s not a question of if, but when. Even for the most successful racecar drivers, the odds of having an accident at some point in their career are 100 percent. It’s going to happen. The only real question is, how severe will the crash be? Running a business is similar to driving a racecar. Sooner or later your business will experience rough times, where sales and revenue struggle, customers flee, and the situation seems bleak. I know from my own 30 years of experience that there are moments when the high of success is tempered by the stark realization that things are slipping away from you.

What separates the ultimate winners from the defeated is what happens after your business has begun to spin out of control and hit the wall. Long-term success means being able to withstand these bumps in the road and taking the necessary steps to get yourself back on track and up to speed. Here are six things that I believe can save your business and will help you avoid disaster when things get difficult.

1. Look in the Mirror

Success begins and ends with the business leader. So the first problem that needs to be solved may be you. Do you avoid the risk of change? Are you too proud to admit something is wrong or not working properly. Are you empowering your employees? Do you have a “play to win” attitude or are you playing not to lose?

Being a closed-minded leader who clings to a failing personal agenda is like grabbing a cement block when you are drowning. You are going to the bottom and fast! Fear or reluctance to change is the single biggest reason that businesses fail. Markets and consumer tastes are dynamic and fluid, which requires a business leader who has the mettle to encourage change — even when you are uncomfortable with it.

Too often the tipping point in a business failure comes when the business leader decides that it is now time to play NOT to lose instead of playing to win. When you play to win you are always moving forward, looking for new opportunities, willing to step outside your comfort zone and embracing risk. Playing NOT to lose means abandoning the strategy that propelled your success. You are now in protection mode and hunker down in a defensive posture. Games are won by outscoring the opponent and you just can’t save your way to greatness. You need to change your mindset and embrace an “I want to win” attitude.

2. Don’t Be a Prisoner of Hope

Being a prisoner of hope means living in a false reality where we hope that problems will solve themselves or conditions will change for the better rather than doing something ourselves to improve the situation. What transforms a business from dream to reality is execution and making something happen. That same strategy is what frees a prisoner from the bonds of hope — we do rather than wish.

A classic sign of the prisoner of hope is a business leader who is waiting for external conditions, like the economy, to improve rather than acting. But only through execution and action can a struggling business really begin moving forward. Prisoners are also trapped by the fear of failure but it is only by failing (productive failures as opposed to unproductive ones) that we can understand the right direction in which to go. Failure will not give you the right answer but at least by attempting the business is doing something rather than doing nothing.

Difficult times require business leaders to step out of their comfort zones and take action. Action is reality and a false reality is when we are trapped by our fear and defer execution until conditions improve, an ambiguous scenario. The business leader who is not trapped by hope has a philosophy of making something happen every day.

3. Know Who You Are

Advertising great David Ogilvy said that you must be known for something. What your business does is less important than who it is. Every business must do something or it wouldn’t be a business. Disney World isn’t in the amusement park business; it creates a magical experience that captivates guests’ imaginations. It brings to life the wonderful stories that children adore. From the moment you drive into the parking lot, the Disney characters are brought to life. And those are not just carnival rides you wait in line an hour for, but explorations of Disney classics. That’s who Disney is.

Market differentiation and a competitive edge emerge from the business identity and the general consumer perception of that identity. Knowing who you are is key in a competitor-filled market fighting to capture and maintain market share, no matter what your business does. Your customer must clearly perceive how your company’s product or service provides a discernible benefit and greater value than your competition’s does, because that’s who you are.

4. Keep Marketing

I have seen this mistake made far too many times. When times get tough the first thing a business leader cuts is the marketing budget. The very thing that brings customers and provides opportunity to sell is marketing. It’s like cutting off your flow of oxygen — you will suffocate and die. Marketing is an investment, not an expense.

A second mistake is not being a proactive marketer. The role of all marketing is to provide opportunities to sell, period. It’s not passive, but direct in its message and intent — generate customers NOW! Proactive marketing is aggressive, urgent, and doesn’t allow for ambiguous image building.

5. Know Your Customer Experience

Most business leaders have never stood in their own line. Sounds crazy right, but if you don’t know what you customer has to experience doing business with your company, how do you know if it’s good? A great product with a poor customer experience is a disaster waiting to happen. Competition demands that whenever a customer engages your company, the whole experience must be positive. The customer experience is an all-encompassing experience.

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About Tom Panaggio

Tom Panaggio, author of The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur's Unexpected Edge, has enjoyed a 30-year entrepreneurial career as co-founder of two successful direct marketing companies: Direct Mail Express (which now employs over 400 people and is a leading direct marketing company) and Response Mail Express (which was eventually sold to an equity fund, Huron Capital Partners). As a result, he can give a true perspective on starting and running a small business. His practical approach to business concepts and leadership is grounded in the belief that success is the result of a commitment to embracing risk as a way to ensure opportunity. Today Tom lives in Tampa with his wife, Shemi. When he's not speaking or advising entrepreneurs and small businesses, he's spending time with his family -- his three daughters, Ashley, Christine, and Elizabeth, are all pursuing their college degrees -- or he's out on a racetrack. For more information please visit http://theriskadvantage.com.

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