Manufacturing is among the hardest hit sectors in the current economic slowdown, but companies can cause additional damage by allowing customers to perceive that their operations are having difficulties, according to the George S. May International Co. (Park Ridge, IL), a consulting firm. The advice is based on a survey that indicates medium- and small-sized business owners believe manufacturers are among the businesses most damaged by the soft economy.

Donald J. Fletcher, president of the consulting firm, warns that the perception could grow into a self-fulfilling prophecy. "Customers respect and prefer to do business with successful people. While they may feel sorry for a business that is having hard Arial, it is dangerous for a manufacturing operation to show its difficulties. If it does, customers will begin taking their business elsewhere."

This behavior is based on a perception of manufacturers as problem solvers who should be ready to serve the customers, Fletcher says. But when services are cut back or the problem solver is seen as having problems of its own, customers begin to look elsewhere.

"Customers have expectations," Fletcher says. "If these are not met, customers will sense something is wrong and go elsewhere. They'll forgive an occasional lapse. But if it becomes a general trend, they'll start to shop elsewhere. People may say it is just to 'check out' the other guy, but if they try and like the other guy, the first company is in serious danger of losing that customer."

Although the slowing economy is hurting the majority of businesses, 76% of the respondents said the economy will turn around within a year.