Mark Richardson, Remodeling columnist
Mark Robert Halper Photography Mark Richardson, Remodeling columnist

Last month while on a trip in the Southeast, I dropped in on an old friend. It was the day after Congress had voted down the bailout package. As I entered my friend’s office, I noticed a big television tuned to CNN with the volume up so loud that I had to ask if he could turn it down so we could chat. After the normal pleasantries, my friend spent the next 30 minutes sharing with me the effect of the current stock market conditions on his retirement plans.

Needless to say there was a tremendous amount of anxiety in the air. I asked about his lead flow and his pipeline. His numbers were down. Just that morning he had gone around to his crews to tell them in person that they could expect reduced hours in the near future. He also let them know that he would be asking them to do tasks that were outside of their skill set and comfort zone.

I asked what he was doing to get the phone to ring. He showed me an ad that would run (along with many others) in a local magazine with a coupon, and he expressed hope that it might make a difference. I asked about his past clients and whether he was focused on them. He said that he had tried some phone soliciting with a service, but his clients didn’t like being bothered, so he stopped that practice.

In short, he was paralyzed. While I empathized, I was also sad that he did not see that he was in a unique position to take control of his own destiny. He believed that things were out of his control and he was just holding on for dear life. And he was passing along his sky-high anxiety to everyone in the company.

Choose To Fight

If this story sounds like you or someone you know, here are a few ideas to help counter the paralysis.

I believe most small-business people are in control of their own destinies. A small-business owner can choose to crawl under his desk and ride out the storm or he can choose to fight. Great companies gain market share in tough times, and some see even higher profits.

Do you think your clients are feeling the same stress and anxiety you are? Of course they are. In these times, people are more in need of friends (that’s you) and reassurance than ever. Try to reach out and be their voice of reason in an otherwise confusing time. For example, do you think investing in some low-risk areas of a home makes more sense than the stock market? If so, be their tour guide (but first be their friend).

Focus on what you know. In times of uncertainty, the more energy you can devote to things you’re good at, the better. For example, if I visit 10 past clients, I know that, statistically, one or two might need my services. Or if I can save 5% on my production or overhead costs, that might make up for money lost through scarcity of leads or sales.

Before you become paralyzed and give up — or try something new and untested — do what you know from experience has a high probability of working. By focusing on the low-hanging fruit, you will reduce risks and see some returns that will create confidence. And confidence will lead to more business. Success is contagious.

Meaningful Work

My mentor, Fred Case, said, “Everyone needs a project or cause to work on.” During challenging times, this is more important than ever. The cause could be professional or personal. It could be related to improving the business or improving yourself. If you find a meaningful project or activity, your mental attitude will improve. It may not immediately solve the world’s problems or add to your bottom line, but it will make you feel better. That will help you to think more clearly and be better able to weather the storm.

Unlike many in the business world, you have a choice. You can choose to be negative or not. You can choose to be still (and scared) or to be active (and purposeful). You can choose to be reactive or proactive. These choices won’t make things easy, but they will make things better. So turn off the television, roll up your sleeves, get your team rallied behind you, and go make it happen.

—Mark Richardson is president of Case Design/Remodel and author of the book How Fit Is Your Business?: A Complete Checkup and Prescription for Better Business Health .