With a dramatically new administration coming into the White House, it's a time of internal reflection for Washington to fix what is obviously broken. Big industries are having serious gut checks and looking at themselves to see what they are made of. It's also a new year, when all of us have a tendency to evaluate the year that's ending and anticipate what lies ahead. During challenging times people tend to want to brush by the not-so-pretty issues we are looking at, but the only way to make significant improvements is to look at yourself and your business in the mirror and unabashedly evaluate your situation.

Focus

The pace of business is so fast these days we often lose focus on the important because of the screams of the urgent. We lose focus on what are the right things to do in order to be successful. Recently, I watched a neighbor's dog running in circles chasing its tail repeatedly until it tired and just fell down in the driveway. I see business people do that as well and it's not nearly as funny to watch. Why do we chase our tails? Because we get caught up in the moment and forget what we should be focusing on.

To regain your focus for your business, ask the “mirror, mirror on the wall” the following questions:

Who are we? Sounds silly, I know, but General Motors forgot this on many levels. If a large well-established long-term company can lose focus, think how easy it is for a small business. Define your company. Define why your organization exists. Define how you measure success. Define the employee behaviors you recognize and reward. Define how your customers see you, treat you and respond to you. Once you honestly answer these questions, ask yourself the next question.

Where did the majority of our time and efforts get dedicated in the last year? Now you see the mismatch. As a football team gets sidetracked by penalties and turnovers, businesses get sidetracked by fighting mistakes and wasted efforts. Your sales team spends what percentage of their time prospecting? How much on client maintenance? Developing new opportunities? Filling out paperwork? In meetings creating excuses to answer questions?

What about management? Are they developing and coaching new employees to strengthen the team? Are they looking to refine the processes of the employees they manage? Are they jumping from handling one problem to another and never getting much time to focus on the important company-progressing opportunities? Identify the “penalties and turnovers” that are sidetracking your efforts from being progressive and reaching the goals necessary to win.

Who do you want to be? Great leaders, whether they are from the world of sports or from government or from the business arena, know where they want to get to. Realistically setting goals and targets is as important for getting your organization focused as reviewing the previous year's efforts. I've heard executives tell me their focus is “to just make it to 2010.” Such a pessimistic approach will only infect a workforce into doing bare minimums and constantly acting from a position of weakness.

Take your current analysis of the finished year and set realistic targets and goals for the coming year that have some reach! Tell your staff what the organizational success is going to look like. Get buy in, develop momentum and get everyone prepared to work hard. It is a given that business will have to work harder to get the same results they have had in the past. Is there any alternative to doing what it takes to be successful? No. Tough times provide the opportunity for the best to shine. With a good focus on where you are, where you want to be, and a plan on how to get there everyone should have a clear understanding of the organization's focus.

Products and Services

Starbucks created the market for a $4 cup of coffee. They brought back the age of chic coffee shops and went gangbusters around the world. They built so many locations that, as the comedian Lewis Black notes, he found the end of the world when he was standing on a street corner and there was a Starbucks directly across the street from a … Starbucks.

In 2008 Starbucks had their bubble burst and found themselves in the uncharted territory of shrinking sales. How did they handle it? They invited customers to offer suggestions on new products they wished Starbucks offered! They heard from thousands of customers online offering ideas on how to make them a better organization. Possessing those ideas along with an active R&D, Starbucks began debuting many new offerings from protein drinks to low-fat foods to their highest selling new product of the year — oatmeal. Yes, the most basic of foods available in every grocery store is their new big selling idea!

This story proves you don't have to create the newest and greatest wizbang idea under the sun to get customers to beat a path to your door. You just have to offer the products and services your customers want.

Look in the mirror and ask these questions:

  • What are my best selling products and services and what emerging markets do I need to target for these?

  • What products and services are my most profitable and how can I repackage them to gain a wider market share?

  • What are the products and services my customer would love to have that I am not currently offering? (Pssst, ask them!)

  • What are the products and services I need to eliminate, have a fire sale for, or otherwise quietly discontinue because they waste my employees' time, are low sellers, and don't make much profit for me anyhow?

Remember, just like the economic times are changing for you, they are impacting your customers. What are the products and services that will best suit their changing needs? Just because you have a big, expensive high-profit top product to sell doesn't mean your customers want to hear about it. Think Hummer. You can't give those away right now because the market is out of step with the customer climate.

Customer analysis

If the only time your customer hears from you is when you are trying to sell something, I'm betting they are not returning your calls these days. Customer relationships are critical to lasting involvement. All organizations are facing a challenging environment, and people prefer not to solve problems on their own. They want someone to partner with them and they want that person to be someone trusted and close. If you've developed those kind of working relationships then you want to capitalize on having that relationship and talk about the future. The challenges ahead are best addressed with the two organizations working together to solve problems. Each organization will be stronger as a result of this collaboration.

Because customer relationships are critical, you need to ask the “mirror, mirror on the wall” about customer relationships.

How do our customers see us? Begin by listing all of your customers in rank from most active to least active. Give yourself a scale from “1” representing “we have a minimal relationship,” to “5” representing “they are virtually a vertical extension of our organization.” Once you've completed that analysis, using the same scale, list where you'd like that relationship to be. Not everyone is going to be a “5.” In fact, you might even want some to score lower because you can become too reliant on one customer. Make action plans according to the development you want with each customer.

I also suggest you offer some form of anonymous response customer survey with regular frequency to give them the opportunity for suggestions and honest feedback.

When you hold your business up for reflection in the mirror, refrain from wanting to shatter the mirror. Chances are that mirror is in the form of a consultant or a managerial meeting retreat. Chewing out the mirror and claiming it's an inaccurate reflection or getting so nuts as to want to shatter the mirror doesn't solve problems and it doesn't make the issues go away. The only gain you get from breaking the mirror is seven years of bad luck. If you think your employees don't like walking on eggshells, imagine how they are going to feel walking on glass.