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How do you feel about change?

When I started in the sign game, it was on the crest of change. DOS programs were still in use, Windows 3.1 was the newest 'tool', and sign shops were looking at expensive upgrades to embrace all the new technology.

Shane Drew has been involved in the sign industry since 1992. 
 Before that he had a very successful career in sales, winning several Sales Awards before deciding on a career change in his early 30's.
 Shane has been writing freelance articles since 2002 and is a sign industry mentor for sign shops both in Australia and Europe, is a regular contributor to Europe's biggest sign industry forum, and is well known in local circles for his passion about the Australian Sign Industry.
 Shane is Managing Director of Drews Sign It Pty Ltd, a family business who are supporters of several major charities and not-for-profit organisations, donating over $30,000 in signage in 2008 alone.
 A recent highlight is his appointment as a Green Guardian for his support of Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, on Queensland's Southern Gold Coast.

Because my background from the mid 1970's was in the computer industry, I was comfortable with the change. I cut my teeth selling the C64, Vic20 and DOS machines straight out of school.

But, it took some time for the old school sign shops to move over to the new Windows based systems. Most of us would, I'm sure, cringe if we had to go back to a DOS based system now. My own 14 year old son thinks DOS must have been in the dark ages, and can't comprehend a life without a mouse and pointer.

Now, in this the 21st Century, change is well and truly here again.

We've seen Digital Printers, laser engravers and cnc routers become tools of  trade in a relatively small time frame. Graphic User Interfaces (GUI's) made that transition easier of course.

Now, the sign shop owner has so much more at their disposal. Within our main sign industry, various sectors that used to be secondary services are now becoming mainstream opportunities. It makes it harder, not easier, to know what change should be embraced. Smaller shops seem uncertain what path to take given the present economic situation, and are looking at what direction the market is taking.

Psychological studies have shown that people confronted with uncertainty tend to look to others for cues on how to behave. The psychologist Robert Cialdini calls this phenomenon "social proof."

Bystander apathy is a good example of social proof: The larger the crowd of bystanders at the scene of an accident, the more likely no one will help the victims.

The theory of social proof is that everyone hesitates to help because each individual in the group imitates the behavior of all the others. If everyone else is passive, each bystander will erroneously pick up a signal that there is no emergency.

Cialdini also notes that social proof exerts its power in the business world.

Business owners who have based their decisions largely on what their peers do, can find themselves in a whole lot of trouble, often contributing their downfall.

Mr Cialdini explains in his book Influence: Science and Practice: "If a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don't.
Especially when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd."

Cialdini's research showed that companies that decide to follow the 'leader' in their industry, on the assumption that what they are doing must be successful because everyone else is doing it, can actually lead to the failure of the followers. It is called business apathy.

One example cited is that of retail book shops. The bulk of brick and mortar book shops were taken by total surprise when online stores like Amazon started to compete successfully, almost from day one. Essentially, traditional retailers were looking at their peers to see how they were reacting to the Amazon threat. This collective 'trust' was their downfall.

Our industry can be the same.

Essentially, the sign industry is many industries under one umbrella. From CNC and Laser cutting, Solvent Printers to UV Flat Bed, Screen Printers to Traditional hand painters.

Based on this research, we are asking for trouble if our motivation is to 'copy' our opposition because they are deemed successful.

So, what does the small business operator do?

Four things are worth remembering.

The first; DO NOT PANIC. Easier said than done I guess, but holding ones nerve is a vital part of running any small business today. Be a leader, not a follower.

The second; be aware of your opposition, what their strengths are and more importantly, what their weaknesses are. Every business has them. Sell against their weakness, not their strengths.

The third; our industry, like most others, has a host of ethically and morally deficient 'cowboys' and low price point based businesses to compete with, so don't fall into the trap of playing at their level. You rarely win. You may have the sales, but it will be at small margins, and you'll attract a reputation that may hinder your growth into more lucrative markets later. Set a standard you are happy to keep, and stick to it.

And fourth; Do your own expansion or growth research based on your experience and market knowledge. Your situation is rarely the same as your peers in the market place. Don't fall in to the trap of business apathy.

I talk to a lot of small business operators about their future plans and strategy, and everyone has an opinion. I was however speaking to Maree from Ezytaper the other day and I asked her how the Ezytaper was going in the recessed market place, given that a few Chinese imports are directly targeting their market.

Maree made the point that they do not waste their efforts on worrying about the opposition products, as it is unhelpful in the overall scheme of things. If left unchecked, the worry could easily develop into business apathy. Maree told me they simply focus on making the Ezytaper product the best there is; concentrate on maintaining customer satisfaction levels that are some of the best in the industry; giving the best after sales support they can. If they do that, the sales will follow. The plan has always been to be a leader, not a follower.

Its a valuable lesson to learn, and something we can all apply to every business we operate, no matter the size. 

Shane Drew