Win, my mountain biking partner, and I looked down the ten-foot drop.
"Should be fun," he said as we backed away from the edge and climbed up the hill to get some runway. I wasn't so sure. He climbed on his bike, pedaled to get a little speed, and took the plunge, effortlessly gliding over the rocks, roots, and stumps.
My turn. I felt the adrenaline rush as I clipped my feet into the pedals. My heart was beating fast. My hands were shaking. I took a few tentative pedal strokes forward and inched up. I felt my front tire go over the edge and I started to descend, checking my speed as I weaved around the obstacles.
Suddenly I hit something and my bike abruptly stopped. But I didn't. I flew over my handlebars and ended up on the ground, lying beside my bike, front wheel still spinning.
"Dude," Win laughed, "You OK?"
"Yeah." I brushed the dirt off my elbows. "What happened?"
Neither of us knew. So I picked up my bike, climbed up the chute, and did it again. Not just the chute, the whole thing: the adrenaline, the weaving around the obstacles, the abrupt stop, the flying over the handlebars.
"Dude," Win laughed again. I was officially in the movie Groundhog Day. I climbed back up the chute and did it again. And again. I must have done it five times before I figured out what was stopping me.
A mountain bike has to be going fast enough to make it over an obstacle. The bigger the obstacle, the more momentum the bike needs to get over it. There was one big unavoidable rock, and each time I came upon it I unconsciously squeezed on my brake. That slowed me down just enough to turn the rock into an insurmountable wall.
I needed more speed to keep moving. So I climbed back up and did it again. I stared at the rock and picked up speed. I kept my eyes on it right to the point where I squeezed on my brakes and flipped over my handlebars again.
I knew what I had to do but I couldn't do it. It was just too scary. As long as I was focused on the rock, I couldn't prevent myself from braking.
But I wasn't ready to give up. So I climbed back up and tried one more time. This time, I decided to focus ahead of me - ten feet in front of where I was at any point in time. So I would see the rock when it was ten feet away, but I wouldn't be looking at it when I was going over it.
It worked. I slid easily over the rock and made it down the chute without falling.
I'm a huge proponent of living in the present. If you pay attention to what's happening now, the future will take care of itself. You know: don't regret the past, don't worry about the future, just be here now and all that.
But sometimes, focusing on the present is the obstacle. Take driving a car, for example. If you didn't look ahead to see where the road was going, you'd keep driving straight and crash at the next curve. When you're driving, you never actually pay attention to where you are; you're always paying attention to what's happening in the road ahead and you change course based on what you see in the future.
It's the same with running a business. These days I see a lot of leaders who remind me of me mountain biking down that chute. They look with fear at their current numbers or at the government's current reports, and then without meaning to, they squeeze the brakes. In some cases they're still laying people off or, at least, not hiring. They've drastically reduced training or stopped it altogether. Their employees are still worried about their jobs and they, the leaders themselves, aren't reassuring them because they're worried about their jobs too.
But right now, focusing on the present business environment will cause businesses to fly over their handlebars. This is not the time to look at the present. It's the time to look ten feet, or ten months, ahead.
RIght now customers are careful about where they spend their money. More than ever, they want to be treated well. Whatever dollars they choose to spend will go towards the companies who respect them, who provide them with the kind of service they feel they deserve.
But companies filled with nervous employees each of whom, with little or no training, is doing the work of three people, cannot provide good service.
Those companies will lose customers. When the demand does come back and customers start spending more money, they'll spend it on the companies that take care of them now.
Whether or not we are in the recovery, we need to act as though we are. The companies that do so will emerge from this recession stronger than when they entered it.
Pretend it's already June 2010. What decisions will you make? Make those now. I propose three immediate ones:
Invest in hiring more customer-facing employees. Make sure you have a slight surplus so every customer call is answered immediately. If a customer leaves a message, return the call without delay. Hiring people who will positively impact the customer experience will bring in more business more cost-effectively than anything else you can do. Invest in training people who are in customer-facing roles. A satisfied customer is your best PR and marketing. Train people to connect with customers, build relationships, and provide thoughtful and expeditious service. Invest in the activities that give employees a sense of commitment to and security in your company. Talk to them about their careers. Recognize them for jobs well done. Share your plans for the recovery. Celebrate their successes. These three things are often the first to disappear in a recession. So the companies that do them now will have a huge advantage over the competition. Customers are fed up with poor service. The businesses that give them great experiences will be the ones they switch to. It turns out that your recovery might be as simple as being nice to your customers.
"You done?" Win asked me, waiting not so patiently at the bottom of the chute.
"Yeah, I think I figured it out."
"Let's go then." With that, he was off in a blaze down the trail.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done. This article was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.