Return to the home page

Five Silent Business Killers

Originally published: 11.01.14 by Steve Blue

Five Silent Business Killers

Watch for the warning signs, and act swiftly, to avoid the death of your business


High blood pressure is a silent killer. Combined with other risk factors it can lead to death. Similarly, in business, there are silent business killers that, if combined, can lead to the death of a business. Here are the warning signs the health of your business may be at risk.

1. Life is Great

Things have been going well for a long time now. You hardly ever hear of any probems. The numbers look good, although lately they've been getting a little soft. You're 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).

Right about now, you're feeling like you have this CEO thing down cold. Maybe it is finally time to work on that golf game. You couldn't be more wrong.

When you feel like this, it's time to be on your guard. Dig hard into your operation 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. 

Do a deep dive of every department. Remember, you're not trying to determine if you have problems — you do. You're trying to find out where they are.

2. Everyone Makes Nice

When your people have a meeting, they look more like an oil painting than an engaged team. Your meetings are oh-so-nice. 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're 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 the business forward without conflict. So the absence of conflict should not be your goal. Productive conflict should be.

Here's what you need to do:

  • Encourage, insist and even demand people engage in conflict. Make it clear the absence of conflict is not okay. Just be sure it's the productive kind.
  • Conflict needs to be managed, measured and meaningful. Otherwise, it turns destructive in a hurry. Train everyone on the team in conflict management skills.

3. Innovation is DOA

Idea and product development has been a little slow for a while. The company used to crank out new products all the time. These days, most of your product developments are minor enhancements that don't yield better margins. But that's okay, because the customer expects product improvements. Still, it bothers you that while they expect improvements, they won't pay for them.

You're on a death trajectory, just waiting for the competition to make you irrelevant. You need to re-energize innovation — fast.

Make innovation the number one goal in the company (big incentives for achieving innovation goals). And don't simply make it a goal; make it an absolute requirement. Don't restrict this to new products. It can and should include internal and external processes and procedures.

Train everyone (and I do mean 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.

Throw a challenge down for an annual innovation award. Whoever comes up with the most innovative product or process gets a large cash award. 

4. 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 comes time for a price increase, do your salespeople make it happen or do they sandbag you until you give up? Ever hear the expressions "customers pay the bills?" or "the customer is always right"? 

These are signs of sales people who may be on your payroll, but they work for your customer. If you think that's a good thing, 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. 

Why on earth would you want sales people who work for your customer?

If this sounds like your sales team, here is what you should do:

  • Sales people develop deep relationships with their customers. So deep, they're afraid to offend them, give them bad news (like a price increase) or otherwise irritate them. Shake them up. Change account assignments. In the new assignments, change the incentive plans to include whatever it is you've been trying to get done, but couldn't because they were working for the customer.
  • Develop a new model for the sales person of the future. You'll need it because some of the old guard won't make the trip. Be prepared to act on them.

5. Toxic Employees Killing Off Customers

Ever meet a rude flight attendant? Or how about a front desk clerk who could care less about your problems? Have you ever walked into a restaurant and been ignored by the hostess? 

These are just a few examples of toxic employees. One toxic employee can destroy years of customer loyalty. One toxic employee can chase dozens of customers away every day. Imagine how much business they can destroy in a month, or in a year. 

Don't let his happen to you. Do a toxic employee checkup:

  • Go toxic employee hunting. Take this one organization layer at a time and start asking who the toxic people — and don't buy the excuse that no one knows who your toxic employees are. Someone knows. 
  • Once you've identified them, tell them they must change their behavior immediately or they can't stay. And 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 often. 

About Steve Blue

Steve Blue

Steve is CEO of Miller Ingenuity. With more than three decades of management, executive, consulting and speaking experience in markets all over the world, he is a globally regarded business growth authority and "turnaround specialist" who has transformed companies into industry giants and enthralled audiences with his dynamic keynotes.

For additional information, visit



Articles by Steve Blue

Five Silent Business Killers

In business, there are silent business killers that, if combined, can lead to the death of a business. Here are the warning signs the health of your business may be at risk.
View article.