07 Jul 2014

The 4 signs your business has become too complacent

Complacency is a silent killer. The size of your business is no barrier to its detrimental effects. In fact, the bigger the business, the more likely it will subscribe to complacency and before you know it, things start to unravel.

This is exactly what happened to Kodak, once a giant of the photography world and now a shell of its former self after filing for operational bankruptcy in 2012. Kodak believed it was bigger than the digital revolution, that digital photography wouldn’t affect its core business of producing and selling photo paper. By the time it started developing digital cameras and photo printers it was too late; it had lost market share to electronics and camera brands and photo paper was no longer a profitable business.

It’s natural for humans to become complacent about things. Our default position is to cruise along until we need to expend energy during an emergency. In business, this is a dangerous position: either you see the risk and treat it, or a competitor will come along and take what you have. If you prefer the proactive position, you need a strategy to shake things up from time to time.


There are four sure-fire ways we can tell we’ve become lazy and complacent in our business dealings:

  1. We lose track of our win rate versus our competitors
  2. We’re not in the running for big pitches or tenders
  3. We don’t feel pained when a competitor beats us
  4. We assume our clients are happy

When you don’t know what your win rate on the street is, it means you’re not measuring it and the two reasons you stop measuring yourself against competitors is because you believe you’re better than them and you’ll automatically come out on top (so why bother measuring?) or you’ve lost the motivation to do better than them. The first three signs deal with both of these situations and are often symptoms of a business in decline.

The fourth sign of complacency is a lack of focus on keeping customers happy. If you assume your customers are happy and they aren’t, they will go elsewhere. However, if you constantly solicit feedback about your performance, you may be able to halt the exodus by fixing some of the issues before they become untenable.


Firstly you need to treat complacency by identifying it and then making a decision on what to do about it. In some cases you may choose to do nothing (more on that later) and that’s sometimes okay as long as you’ve made a conscious decision to do nothing. In effect, you need to actively manage issues even if the final remedy is no action.

Communication around the effects of complacency is also important. Complacency always has consequences but sometimes these take time to manifest, so early recognition is key. Process can cover a lot of the gaps and help prompt a conversation around complacency.

For instance, many good salespeople can have a few good months and feel on top of the world, believing they’ll always convert sales when they need to, but if they don’t sow the seeds by focusing on lead generation and pipeline development at some stage during the boom times, they’ll reach the end of their pipe and enter a bad patch. In this case, it’s a good idea to have managers simply ask about complacency in a way that relates to the employee’s KPIs, for example, ‘you’re doing a great job this month, what does your pipeline look like for next month?’ This needs to be a question free of accusation or blame, just serving as a reminder not to become complacent.

We’ve staved off complacency by implementing a number of measures to counteract it. In addition to being conscious of it, we keep an issues register and run continuous improvement programs so we always know where we stand and where we can improve. You can’t have a burning platform drive your progress.

The last aspect is knowing what kinds of complacency are benign and which you need to treat. Yes, there is an “acceptable rate of complacency”, one that’s not leading to any material issues or leading to client dissatisfaction. You’re allowed to be somewhat complacent about those because something else needs your attention. As long as you’re aware of it and can monitor it so it doesn’t get worse, you can leave it alone.

Combating complacency is really about making sure your business is the best it can be at all times. Never feel that you’ve done all you can for your customers. By remaining on the lookout for other ways to satisfy them, you can avoid being the business that sits back and lets competitors take over.

Dave Stevens is the founder and managing director of Brennan IT. This article was first published on July 3rd in BRW.