The recession will eventually end, and now’s the time to get ready.

Slumping sales means many of your people have too much time on their hands these days. A lot of wholesalers already have gone through wrenching cutbacks or are planning them, but you can lay off only so many people and stay in business. Besides, it’s painful to get rid of loyal and capable staffers - who you’ll need to replace when this miserable recession finally runs its course, as it certainly will.

Here are some ideas for using time productively when there just are not enough orders to occupy their time.

  • Ramp up collections. Collecting money owed is a much better use of resources than booking orders that will never get paid. It’s not just a matter of cajoling and threatening deadbeats. You may have people on staff with the expertise needed to help customers shore up their business and accounting practices. This includes prioritizing who needs to get paid now (you, of course!), who can be put off a bit and, if worse comes to worst, who can be last in line in bankruptcy court. It’s also a good time to take a closer look at your credit practices. I’ve gotten wind of distributors who may be out of business soon because one or two big customers are in trouble. Break out each customer you sell and calculate what percentage of your sales and profits they account for.  If you have too many eggs in too few baskets, better figure out ways to rebalance the business before it’s too late.

  • REALLY get to know your customers.  Conduct surveys, bring some in for focus groups, quiz them up and down to find out what makes them tick and how you can better service them. Break them into market segments (service vs. construction, residential vs. commercial, delivery vs. pickup, etc.). Select a half-dozen or so to serve on a customer advisory board and treat them to dinner once or twice a year to get their views.

  • REALLY get to know your operations.  Inefficiencies are hard to spot when everyone is scrambling to get product off of trucks and onto shelves, then off of shelves and out the door. Look for bottlenecks in the warehouse and throughout the order fulfillment process. Question everyone from department managers to forklift operators to find out what obstacles they confront in the day-to-day performance of duties. Take to heart this quotation from Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton: “The key to success is to get out into the store and listen to what the associates have to say. It’s terribly important for everyone to get involved. Our best ideas come from clerks and stock boys.”

  • Eliminate mistakes.  They creep in like vermin when business is bustling and eat up a lot of the grain that constitutes your profits. Analyze all the mistakes made within your operations as far back as you can collect the information, then evaluate the causes. Look for patterns and shore up the deficiencies.

  • Study old data for hidden secrets. Your computers spew out so much information nobody has time to digest it all. Yet buried beneath all the stuff that makes it into the executive summaries could be some valuable revelations about purchasing habits, customer profiles, seasonal quirks, etc. Assign some office personnel to look for hidden nuggets in your reports.

  • Get rid of excess inventory.  Plummeting demand has created a lot of this stuff. Challenge your sales staff to come up with creative ways to unload excess inventory via normal channels, the Internet, barter, auction or whatever. Set a commission schedule tied to gross margin dollars, maybe even a contest with a suitable award at the end.

  • Go green.  Put together a “green” committee charged with evaluating all of your energy/water usage and costs, and coming up with ideas to conserve resources and money. Be sure to include delivery practices and fuel consumption.

  • Refine best practices. Challenge your managers to produce in writing a detailed account of the best business ideas they’ve gleaned from conferences, visiting other business operations or reading business books and Supply House Times. Ask them to evaluate which practices would benefit your business and how to implement them. Although this is primarily a management responsibility, invite everyone in the company to participate. I’m not sure why the old “suggestion box” disappeared from businesses throughout the land. Old-fashioned and clichéd though they may be, suggestion boxes or something comparable are a potential source of good ideas.

    All this is better than twiddling your thumbs, don’t cha think?