For a few years in Michigan, the question “How’s business?” was a loaded one.
If you asked it, you felt like you were checking on a friend with a terminally ill relative. You wanted to show that you cared, but you knew you were potentially delving into uncomfortable territory. And if you were the businessperson who was asked the question, you could not quite give a straightforward answer. If you said “good,” you immediately received a look of disbelief. If the answer was, “not great,” you would be quizzed as to why and how, as the individual who asked the question mentally took comparative notes.
But perhaps the most nerve-wracking Michigan business experience during “The Great Recession” (whoever first dubbed it “great” obviously was not from around here) was dealing with potential new customers. For our firm and others with whom we commiserated, the drill went something like this: a potential client calls and asks to set up a meeting because they need your help, you have the meeting and there is mutual interest, the potential client asks for a proposal to outline objectives and fees, you complete the proposal and send it to the potential client as asked, then silence.
Follow-up calls and emails are ignored as if you had claimed to be a Nigerian prince with a financial challenge. It was almost as if that potential client, upon receiving your proposal, suddenly entered the witness protection program.
As John Lennon once sang those were, “strange days indeed.”
Today, on the “front lines” in Michigan, the situation has turned around, at least psychologically. In those “strange” years, the overriding emotion in business was unadulterated fear. Today, emotions vary but typically range between optimism and “I don’t know what’s going to happen but let’s get to work.”
Gradually, since 2010, we have seen more companies each year decide to get off the sidelines and back to an interest in building their businesses, rather than remaining in fear-based protection mode. Michigan companies, particularly those privately owned, are now contacting us seeking new ideas on how to communicate their messages to their audiences and help them tell their stories. Now, more frequently, they understand that it will cost money to do so. They are much more open to new ideas and much more eager to think longer term. Companies that have not really communicated in years are starting to make it more of a priority.
Financially, we see trends starting to catch up to where the mood is. But it is important to remember that the money, at least in professional services, could never be like it was in the free-spending era before 2008. In our industry, at least with legacy firms, the goal used to be to sign clients to a big indefinite monthly flat fee, regardless of how much work they did or did not do. That funded big firm office overhead and big executive lifestyles.
But better late than never, clients figured out who truly benefits with such deals. Now, understandably, they most often only pay firms for the work they do, but no more. That’s the way it should be.
In Michigan, we saw economic changes first, before the rest of the nation joined us. That made for too many years when “talking shop” was not much fun.
But today, it finally feels like the storm has passed. While we all remain on alert, in case another economic catastrophe rears its ugly head, we are now doing business without what felt like sirens blaring in the background and business people running for shelter.
Matt Friedman is co-founder of Farmington Hills-based Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications, a firm started in 2007, on the eve of the Great Recession, primarily representing clients that are headquartered, or have a major base of operations, in Michigan.