Especially in these challenging times, it is important to focus on creating success, not avoiding failure. Focus on staying on the tightrope, not on falling off it.

I admit it! I’ve fallen into the trap of trying not to fail. I try to write motivational columns that encourage readers to keep going, to be positive, look for opportunities, take control, and be responsible, etc., but sometimes it’s easier said than done. Sure, I want to be unstoppable, never give up and be an example as inspiring as Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger trying to make the Notre Dame Football team.  

Have you ever watched an athletic team, coasting to an easy win, and then suddenly they change tactics from trying to win to trying not to lose? The momentum changes and the team loses the game. The problem is that when we focus on what we don’t want, we actually move closer to it.

It reminds me what the wife of Karl Wallenda, the famous tightrope walker, was purported to have said after he fell to his death in 1978 from a wire stretched 121 feet above the ground between the two towers of the 10-story Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico at the age 73: “The last few months of his life his focused changed from walking the rope, to not falling.”  

I fear many businesses today are falling into that same trap. In these very difficult economic times, I hear about businesses cutting back, cutting costs, cutting advertising, and cutting people. Today’s business owners have to make difficult decisions daily to survive. But we don’t want to cut our legs out from underneath us. In trying not to fail, sometimes, we actually move closer to failure.

I hear that some manufacturers have cut production, but now can’t deliver. Or businesses that have cut their marketing and advertising budgets then wonder why there’s no traffic coming into their stores. Research shows that companies that advertised aggressively during a recession will have sales significantly higher than those that did not continue to advertise. Marketing is muscle, not fat. You must be careful about cutting it.

I have written often about taking action or doing something to prevent failure. Yes, cuts have to be made, and you need to eliminate fluff and inefficiency and become lean, mean operating machines. But you can’t do those things without staying focused on a business’ core function. Peter Drucker, the management guru, said: the purpose of a business is to create a customer. That’s our focus! Create customers.

What have you done lately to create a customer? Saturday, I noticed a person holding a big sign telling about the food in a new sandwich shop. Not very creative, but as I drove by I noticed the shop was full of people. Later that day, my son and I went to the movies to view the latest X-Men movie. Before the movie began, an announcement came on to take the ticket stubs to the closest Chic-Fil-A for a free chicken sandwich. This was not very creative, but a very effective promotion. We went to dinner at Chic-Fil-A.

Standing on the corner with a sign may not be effective for your business; however there are ways for you to find customers without spending an arm and a leg. Look around and notice what other businesses are doing. Perhaps they may work for you. Sit down with your team and brainstorm. Think out-of-the-box. As Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

The more you study how businesses acquire customers, the more you will find there are no rules. There are infinite ways to acquire customers. Here, I offer a few of the infinite possibilities.

The most effective way to acquire a customer is to bring back a previous customer. Have you ever sold a customer a second time? Was price an issue in the second sale? I have written before about the importance of staying in contact with old customers.  

Marketing to old customers requires that the customer had a memorable experience with your business; and that you have maintained their contact information in your database. I am staggered by the number of businesses that do not market to their past customers. There are opportunities to do direct mail, email marketing, and tele-selling. Email marketing and tele-selling cost you nothing…except time.  

What are your salespeople doing anyway? Sitting around playing video games and eating chocolates? Include in this group those customers who don’t buy on the first visit.  Acquire their contact information so that you can follow up.  You can even send video emails for virtually nothing.  Rule # 1:  Stay in contact with any potential, old and future customer.

Consider what Randy Stinson at Stinson Carpets of Lakeland, Fla., wrote. “We have received from our largest builder the e-mail addresses of every homeowner (500) in a tract. We can send them video e-mail or direct mail congratulating them on their new home and offering them a free Carpet Care kit if they come into our Design Center. These are 500 customers who have not seen our Design Center or even know who installed their carpet. We can then put them in our database to follow-up with down the road.”

Here’s another idea: Consider a joint venture with your customers, other retailers or with your community, like Pat Bergeman at Futura Home Furnishing in Fruitport, Mich. Reward your customers for referrals, like Matt Ketterman at Got You Floored in Greensboro, N.C. Celebrate your values by doing great things with charities in your communities, like Shawn Bayat at Quality Carpet One in Woodbridge, Va.

How about creating your own event like Roger Wilson did at Nampa Floors and Interiors in Nampa, Idaho? He held an ugly kitchen contest, and with the help of his vendors gave a free kitchen away in his community. What about the dealer that celebrates the new kitchen of his client by sponsoring a dinner prepared in the new kitchen for all his neighbors?

This month’s habit is critical. Don’t fall into the trap of obsessing over not failing and keep your eyes on the ball! Keep playing offense with the goal of not failing, while not letting your focus shift to playing defense. The quest to create a customer is the never-ending story of a business: Make your effort fun and meaningful.