Seven Silent Business Killers

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Steve Blue

High blood pressure is a silent killer. Combined with other risk factors it can lead to death. Similarly, in business, there are seven silent business killers that if combined, can have a fatal effect on a business:

#1 Life Is Great
Things have been going well for a long time now. You rarely hear of any problems. The numbers look good, although perhaps lately they have been getting a bit soft. You are not too worried because your people will tell you if something is wrong (although they didn’t the last time you lost a customer; you found that out by accident). You can relax, maybe finally take time to work on that golf game, right? You couldn’t be more wrong. When you feel like this it is time to be on your guard. Investigate operations to see what’s wrong. Peel back the onion of your financials and find out where the issues are. They could be buried deep, so look hard.

#2 Everyone Makes Nice in Meetings
During meetings, do your team members look more like an oil painting than an engaged team? Are there no disagreements, no conflicts, no lively debates? If things do start to get a little heated, someone offers to “take it offline.” When there is a discussion, people look to you to see what your view is before they take a position. They are more concerned with being nice than moving the business forward. They live by the old Abraham Lincoln mantra of “better to be silent and thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”  But you can’t move a business forward without conflict. So the goal should be constructive conflict, not the absence of conflict. Encourage, insist, and even demand that people engage in conflict. Just make sure it is the productive kind by providing appropriate training to everyone on your team.

#3 Innovation Is DOA
Product development has been a little slow for a while. The company used to crank out new products all the time, but lately, most of your product developments are minor enhancements that don’t yield better margins. But that’s OK, because the customer expects product improvements. Still, it bothers you that while they expect improvements, they won’t pay for them. You are on a death trajectory, just waiting for the competition to make you irrelevant. You need to reenergize innovation, fast: Make innovation the organization’s number one goal. Introduce an annual innovation award. Whoever comes up with the most innovative product or process gets a large cash award. Train everyone in the tools and techniques of innovation. This is a process that can be learned and applied by everyone, not just the “creative” types.

#4 Your Sales Team Works for Your Customer
When a conflict arises between your company and a customer, does your salesperson side with the customer? When it’s time for a price increase, do your salespeople make it happen or do they sandbag you until you give up? Ever hear the expression “customers pay the bills”? Or how about this: “The customer is always right.” If you think these are good attitudes, think again. Your customer will put you right out of business by squeezing your margins to nothing if they can get away with it. Your customers are constantly advising your competition about how they can deliver better quality or lower price than you can. Your customers will abandon you in a minute for a better deal somewhere else. So why on earth would you want salespeople who work for your customer? If this sounds like your sales team, here is what you should do: Shake up the sales staff. Change account assignments. Change incentive plans to include whatever it is you have been trying to get done, but couldn’t because they were working for the customer (i.e., introduce a necessary price increase). Develop a new model for the salesperson of the future. You’ll need it because some of the old guard won’t make the trip. Be prepared to take appropriate action.

#5 Your Toxic Employees Killing off Your Customers
We’ve all encountered a rude flight attendant or a disinterested front desk clerk. Both of these are examples of toxic employees. One toxic employee can destroy years of customer loyalty and drive dozens of customers away every day. Imagine how much business they can destroy in a month, or a year. Do a toxic employee checkup: Start asking who the toxic people are. (Don’t buy the excuse that no one knows; they do know.) Once you have identified them, tell them they must change their behavior immediately or they can’t stay. Terminate them if they don’t come around. Don’t wait too long on this, because your customers aren’t waiting around for you. Set a new standard of behavior for the entire company. Once you have cleaned house, be mindful that weeds always grow back, so be prepared to prune the garden again.

#6 Factory Cost Is Under Control
Your manufacturing manager has been producing your widgets for what seems like forever. He knows exactly how to run that factory: He does a great job scheduling the work, purchasing raw materials, and shipping the product out. However, it seems like a long time since he talked about cost reductions. He cites good reasons why cutting costs is hard to do, and he tells you that the answer to the problem of margins is to raise prices. He tells you costs are under control. What to do: Set a goal for improving productivity by 10% per year. Don’t play the shell game of “where did the savings go”? When you improve productivity that much, you either need to raise the top line or reduce the workforce. Otherwise you are just playing “fantasy factory.” Also, be willing to invest in capital equipment to automate, create work cells, and implement lean methods.

#7 Hiding in the USA
You and your people know the United States market well because it is your only market, even though you are pretty sure your product could succeed internationally. The problem in the U.S. is that margins are getting thin. You were surprised recently to learn that a foreign competitor took some business away from you. You had never heard of this company before, and your salespeople were dumbfounded. Now you’re worried that they’re after the rest of your business—and they probably are. Don’t wait around to find out. Here’s how to get started:

  • Hire an international consultant who is an expert in your particular industry.
  • Get a passport if you don’t have one already. This may sound fundamental but you would be surprised how many CEO’s I talk to who don’t have one.
  •  Go to the federal government for help (really!). The Commercial Service has excellent country/industry guides from all over the world, and their Gold Key Service can provide customized information based upon your industry and product. Gold Key also provides in-country introductions.

You can further explore some of the ideas in this article in these AMA Seminars: 


About the Author(s)

Steve Blue is CEO of Miller Ingenuity. He has more than three decades of management, executive, consulting, and speaking experience. He is a globally regarded business growth authority and “turnaround specialist.” For more information, visit: