A young man I know is getting started in business. He provides handyman services for homeowners. In a display of wisdom beyond his years, he asked his Facebook connections for things to read and people to talk to re: business advice.
Getting started means wearing several hats
Running a business on your own means you get to do all the jobs, including:
Deciding who you are best suited to work with.
Deciding who you shouldn’t work for even if they’re throwing $1000 bills at you. Almost everyone does this at least once because we start out under the illusion that everyone can be our customer.
Letting people know that you’re available to help them. This includes discussing what you’re really good at and staying away from everything else (ie: learning to say no).
Pricing your work.
Selling / reaching an agreement to perform work.
Doing the work.
The hard work
When getting started in your own business, there’s some “hard work” that has nothing to do with your service. I say “hard work” because they’re often things you don’t want to do, don’t have the time or money for, or don’t see the purpose of.
This includes “Getting organized”, which include making sure your bookkeeping is under control, getting all the permits and licenses that you need, doing whatever is necessary to make sure you are operating legally wherever you live, and getting the proper bonding (if needed) and (definitely needed) insurance to protect you and your customers so that if and when you make a mistake, it doesn’t cost you everything you own now and ever will own.
These things will seem like a pain, but the reality is that the pain they cause is much smaller than the pain created by not taking care of them.
Marketing and sales
Items two through five may generate an “OMG, seriously?”
A few thoughts about them…
If your typical happy customer is married, lives in 59912, works outside the home, and has a spouse who travels, then you’ll want to focus on identifying and attracting those specific people to your services. Don’t waste time advertising to 100,000 people who don’t “fit the profile”.
Come up with a one page (both sides) piece of paper that tells EXACTLY what you are great at (and what you actually want to do). Include your contact info.
Get a box of your business cards made into fridge magnets. Old school, but people will leave them on the fridge forever once they trust you. Even if you’re in their phone contacts, that fridge magnet is in their face every day. Make sure the visible side has your name, phone number, name and what you do. It’s OK to make a special card for magnets.
Figure out what you need to make from each job, including the expenses you might not be thinking of, like insurance, fuel, uniforms, marketing, downtime, taxes, etc. If you do everything else right and mess up your pricing, you won’t be happy.
Be humble, but don’t be shy. If you’re great at something, simply tell people you love to do that work.
As you prepare to leave the customer’s home, ask for more work. Say “Is there anything else that you’ve been meaning to get fixed?“, then let them think long enough so they’re the next one to speak. If they say no, say “OK, I’ll be happy to come back if you something comes up.”
Ask your mom, your grandma, and the moms of a few of your friends these questions:
“What frustrates you about repair guys that you’ve had in the house?”
“Who is your favorite repair company?”
“Why are they your favorite? What makes them so special?”
I can predict the answers, but I want you to ask anyway. YOU need to hear these words coming from folks who resemble your customers. These conversations will help you prepare to sell to the customers you want. It isn’t about convincing them to do the work. It’s about showing them you’re the right guy for them.
Do the work, follow up
I’m not going to tell you how to do the work, but I will suggest how things work while you’re at the customer’s home.
Show up in a clean truck.
In Montana, this isn’t always easy, but do the best you can. Your rig sets a first impression when you arrive. It doesn’t have to be a $60,000 diesel rig. It just needs to be clean.
Park on the street.
You don’t want to park in the customer’s driveway and drop a bunch of mud, gravel and whatever else you’ve been driving through that day. You also don’t want to be in the way when someone gets home, someone needs to leave, etc.
Show up in a clean shirt that tucks in.
This means buying at least 3-4 uniform shirts. Get your company name, your name, and your logo sewn onto them (if you have a logo). If you want to go a little crazy, put a big logo, phone number and website address on the back. No matter what, make sure your company’s name is visible through the window of someone’s front door. You want the shirt to tuck in because repeat customers don’t call you because they like seeing your rear hanging out under an untucked shirt. Enough said.
If a job trashes a shirt for the day, change into a clean shirt before arriving at your next job. Yep, you might have to carry several clean shirts with you. Pro athletes don’t take the field in dirty uniforms and neither should you. Show up looking like a pro every time. Meanwhile, you’re a walking billboard.
Buy a box of those silly little shoe booties.
If you walk into someone’s home leaving a trail of muddy, snowy footprints, I guarantee you won’t be asked to come back. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle to pull them on and pull them off repeatedly, but it beats losing a customer you worked hard to get. You want to be the service they choose first. When some other handyman asks for their business, you want them thinking “Nope, never using anyone but (that guy).”
Make it like you were never there.
After you’ve left a customer’s home, you don’t want them to find any evidence you were there except for the repaired item, a receipt, and a business card. If you made a mess, clean it up. If you tracked something in or the job generate a mess, be sure you have the stuff needed to clean it up. If someone has to clean up after you, they’ll never ask you to come back.
Sign up for Square
… or a similar service that lets you get paid via card using your phone. Many competitors will take credit / debit cards. Yes, it will cost you a few percent of your sales, but it will get you sales as well. Be sure to put the card logos on your business card and one page brochure.
Find customers that can help you during lean times
One of the frustrating aspects of managing rentals is dealing with maintenance. Become the dependable guy for people who own rentals, or rental management firms and you’ll have business that keeps feeding you when you aren’t sure where your next gig will come from. Think about other opportunities similar to this.
Call or text the customer the next day and ask them if everything is ok. Leave a voice mail if they don’t answer. Almost NO ONE does this. You will stand out by doing so. 1000 handyman services might read this and STILL, few of them that don’t already do it will start doing it habitually. If things went well, it’s a natural time to thank them and remind them that your business depends on referrals from satisfied customers. If they didn’t go well, it’s a chance to save that customer. Sure, you have to hustle a little, but people refer vendors who took great care of them.
Get some help with Facebook marketing
Your business is ideal for marketing to people on Facebook. Despite all the noise about Facebook data in the news, it’s important to know two things:
Most data was given with implicit permission that was granted when someone took a poll on Facebook.
This data has been collected for 100 years. Facebook’s is a bit easier to use.
For example, you can ask Facebook to put your ad in front of homeowners who live in the 59912 zip code who have a household income of $xx,xxx. You can optionally have them echo the ads to Instagram. You can have them eliminate homeowners who aren’t married and otherwise filter out people who don’t fit your ideal customer profile.
Few other advertising mechanisms can put your smiling face in front of *exactly* the right people, much less charge you only for the ones who click on your ad.
The phrase “artificial intelligence” might bring politicians to your mind’s eye, but today, we’re talking about the real thing. Maybe you own an Alexa (or five of them), but I’m guessing many of you don’t have one. As with most “new” technologies, you’ve probably seen a number of articles that seem bent on inspiring fear about artificial intelligence (AI). Some of them forecast that AI is going to put everyone out of work, take over your life and eventually try to chase down John Connor’s mom.
Even Elon Musk has noted that our (society’s) failure to manage AI could have a bad outcome. Certainly, there’s quite a range of meanings for that phrase. I’m not so worried about Arnold’s metal, computerized alter-ego as some seem to be. My concern in the short term is more about taking advantage artificial intelligence in your business. As with any other technology, there’s the threat of wasting time and money by using it simply because it exists.
AI is already part of your business
Before we consider whether or not artificial intelligence has a place in your business, it might be worthwhile to accept the fact that it’s probably already there. Naturally, there are the obvious things like Siri, the directions providing parts of Google Maps, Waze and similar. They may not “feel” like AI, however.
For decades, software has assessed credit scores & determined risk for insurance underwriters. While that might seem boring to some, the folks in those lines of work still appreciate their value to the quality & accuracy of underwriting. They’re an important factor in insurance company profitability. To me, that’s like the feature of table saws that detect the touch of skin to the blade and stop it in milliseconds to avoid injuring the operator. Cool, but not AI.
I remember seeing logs entering the then Plum Creek Columbia Falls mill a few years ago and being impressed at the laser-guided saws that assessed a log’s size and shape in an instant and then made initial cuts to maximize yield from that log. This sort of automation has been in place in large, highly-capital intensive manufacturing businesses for some time.
Small businesses have benefited from this sort of automation via CNC (computerized numerical control) driven routers and similar tools. While full-sized CNCs might be too expensive for smaller businesses, a Bozeman-based company makes reasonably-priced desktop-sized CNC.
Learning & problem solving
While all these things are cool, are they AI? The log sensing thing is the closest, but ultimately, the AI purist (there are always purists) might disagree.
Wikipedia describes artificial intelligence as:
when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with human minds, such as learning and problem solving.
Notice that “decision making” is not mentioned. All software makes decisions. A tool that can look at an apple and determine its variety (or its ripeness) based on a previously analyzed group of 10,000 apple images isn’t making decisions per se. It’s using AI based on the training it received by analyzing 10,000 apple photos. Every photo was associated with ripeness and species data.
When processing 10 million apples per year, production speed matters. If separating apples by ripeness and/or species is important to that process, then AI-enabled sorting equipment might be of use.
Software like Adobe Lightroom assesses & automatically “corrects” a photo’s color, contrast, color saturation, etc. Pro photographers who hit the “auto” button probably don’t accept the automated settings as their final choice, but the button still saves time.
Artificial intelligence & your business
Ask yourself this: “Does artificial intelligence have a place in my business and if so, where?”
If you’re the apple processor, it probably depends on the price tag.
Is there (perhaps mundane / routine) work / analysis that must be learned to become productive at your company? It’s possible a system could be trained to perform some or all of it. Like the time savings associated with automation, it might eventually free your team’s time to focus on work that you’d never cede to AI. It’s still early, but it’s worth investigating for the right kind of processes. The scary thing is the number of unknowns when you get started, but you’ll get past them like you have with other new things.
This can help improve customer support, but don’t confuse that with customer service. Empathetic, knowledgeable people belong there, not AI.
A small group I belong to was recently asked by a member of the group to identify some “unmet needs”. The context was “any business” and his question related to a course on self-reliance that he and his wife are participating in. This friend and another in the group are in the fitness and weight loss industry.
My suggestion for him was the lack of effort most gyms make to get (and keep) members engaged and training at their gym. Most gyms scan a barcode membership card or have some sort of sign in process.
Despite this, if you don’t show up on the normal days you’ve showed up in the past, you’ll hear nothing from them. If you don’t show up for two weeks, you’ll hear nothing from them. If you don’t show up for three months, you’ll hear nothing from them. As long as you keep paying the bill, that is. So that was an example of an unmet need for his course.
To be sure, self-motivation is a lot of this, but a short text or email to say “Hey, are you still alive? We haven’t seen you in three months” might be the kick in the tail feathers that they need. Or maybe life has been hectic and they need a little push to get back in the habit. Regardless of the reason, none of this happens in most gyms.
So that prompted more thought on the subject, which is why we’re discussing unmet needs today. There are at least three kinds of unmet needs:
Those you know of and haven’t satisfied
Those you know of and refuse to address
Those you don’t know about
Unmet needs that you know of and don’t satisfy
Using the context of the gym, what does your gym to do set itself apart from the others? Does it miss you when you don’t show up for an unusually long time? If you’re a persistent daily user, does it miss you when you miss a single day?
These kinds of things don’t pertain solely to a gym. Does your oil change place miss you when you stop going there, or when you’re a month later than usual? Do they even notice? What about your dentist? Your dry cleaners? Your beer store?
These things aren’t limited to retail. They’re only limited by how much attention you’re paying to your customers. Are they “suddenly” spending twice as much or half as much as they have for the last five years? There’s a reason. Maybe it affects you, maybe it doesn’t.
Unmet needs hide in places like this.
Unmet needs that you refuse to address
Refusing to address certain needs is OK. Even when the need is there and legitimate, there may be any number of reasons why you’d want to avoid it. Maybe it’s none of your business, even though it’s in context with the products and services you provide to your clientele. Maybe this need is too costly to meet. Meeting it might require invading the privacy or “personal space” of your customers. Perhaps meeting this need might even annoy your customers, despite the fact that they know they need it.
Give yourself the latitude to say no, even if you’d rather say yes (to the income).
The ones you don’t know about
This one always reminds me of the famous Rumsfeld quote about unknown unknowns. In other words, there are things we don’t know that we don’t know about. Have you ever heard of the citric acid cycle? It’s also called the Krebs cycle. I suspect that for most people, it’s an unknown unknown. IE: It’s something we weren’t aware of the existence of, plus we don’t know anything about it now that we’ve been told it exists.
These are the things your customers will tell you if you listen closely. But… don’t wait until they tell you. Ask them. “Is there anything that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we would take care of?” Notice that I didn’t say “Is there anything we can sell you that you don’t already buy from us?” That’s a different question. It’s about you, mostly.
“Is there anything that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we would take care of?” is about them and their unmet needs – and probably unspoken ones at that. Ask questions that make it about them.
Recently I traveled to visit a family member. Their town is practically devoid of parking in the retail and business sections of town. Weirdest thing ever. I haven’t seen anything quite like this in years. Parking was almost non-existent.
In the main retail part of town, you had to use a parking structure six blocks away. It was damp and poorly lit. Given that this is an area where meth has substantially influenced the nature and volume of local crimes, it wasn’t a place I’d want family members walking to and from. What little front door parking the retail area offered was completely consumed – and as I watched for a while, these cars were there for the long term. Normally, retail spaces have fairly frequent turnover, but not here. I suspect the spots were taken by employees of nearby businesses – whose building owners weren’t required to provide parking for a reasonable percentage of the building’s expected occupancy.
This isn’t unusual. Many times a substantial new building will be built in an area that is already under serious pressure parking-wise – and the building’s owner isn’t expected to allocate space for parking by the building’s occupants. The result is an area under even heavier parking pressure, which is not particularly good for business.
Except in large cities, transit usually isn’t an option. That was the case in this town of about 10,000 people. As a result, travel happens in individual vehicles, which means parking is a critical resource for the success of these retail businesses.
Business parking in a box
In the “office-y”, business section of town, there were a few small (two or three story) office towers and medical facilities. These buildings were clumped together in a downtown (formerly dense retail area) with surprisingly few parking spots – and none on the street. Collectively, these buildings were big enough to house several hundred workers. The result? Some of those employees were parking in adjacent residential areas and were obviously walking across four lane roads that were not pedestrian friendly areas. Down the road about 300 yards, it appeared that “overflow” parking was happening in the corner of an abandoned box store’s parking lot.
I have no idea where customers of these businesses would park. Maybe they circle the lot like a buzzard until a spot opens up. I don’t know about you, but when a business offers nowhere to park, I go somewhere else. They chose the location and the parking situation, or they chose not to move when the situation became difficult parking-wise. If the location and parking options are inconvenient, seriously sub-standard, or just plain terrible, I choose one of their competitors. I’ll bet you do too.
Did I say parking? Sorry about that.
Parking is a critical resource for businesses, particularly those that serve the public, whether they’re retail or “other business”. Certainly, we want to have safe parking for our employees, but for businesses that serve the public, it’s like oxygen.
When I was talking about the town I visited, rather than parking, I was referring to a startling lack of internet access at every location I tested. But now you get the idea about scarcity of a resource – and the problems are similar whether we’re talking about parking or broadband.
35% of the US workforce freelances and a substantial percentage of them telecommute full or part-time. Six percent of working Montanans telecommute. Given the nature of business and the needs of the US work force, these numbers are likely to keep increasing.
While you might think that telecommuters are all geeky software jobs – that isn’t the case. Telecommuters work in finance, law, medicine, pharma, research, insurance, higher education, customer service, government (yes, really), marketing, sales, cybersecurity, and many other fields. In other words, many “office jobs” of the past have become telecommuting jobs.
Broadband is a strategic economic resource
When entrepreneurs leave town, it’s not usually a good thing. Those two issues will make it difficult for a town to be the place where two pizza teams form.
If something good happens, they usually see it as a reason to buy, except when odd Wall Street logic prompts them to sell instead. Likewise, they usually use bad news as a legitimate reason to sell.
Outside the context of Wall Street, the repercussions from an event can get a bit more personal. When these things involve (or appear to involve) a local business, people either flock to the place or abandon them as if they have a contagious and permanent disease.
Sometimes things get worse. What’s worse? When mob mentality takes over and a group of people decide your transgressions mean that you deserve to be forced out of business, or worse.
Dealing with the aftermath
No matter what happened, and no matter how at fault you and /or your business may be (including not at fault at all), you have two choices: tell the truth, or say nothing.
Why say nothing? Because your lawyer said so.
Why tell the truth? Because the whole story will eventually come out anyway and no matter how bad it is, lying about it to your customers, prospects, and community is always going to come back to bite you far worse than the truth will.
In these times, you might get the idea that there’s either no such thing as the truth, or that there are multiple truths for different people.
Which truth is that?
Clearly, there will be people who won’t believe you no matter what you say. They don’t care about the truth (certainly not from you, that is), so telling the truth isn’t about them. Remember, they only want to see you shut down, in jail, and / or publicly humiliated, so the real truth has a way of not mattering to most of them.
Even if you were right or not involved, you’ll take some heat. Nothing you say will mute the haters. Ignore them as much as possible, but always defend the facts. Leave the personal stuff alone and don’t make it personal. Make sure your family, friends, and employees stay out of it, particularly on social media.
Of those who eventually discover and recognize that you did nothing wrong (when that’s the case), history has shown that only a small percentage will acknowledge their discovery. The rest seem to be more worried about the fuss they made to their friends, family and others. That’s their ego and /or fear talking.
The truth is for everyone else.
Recovery and Communication
When these things happen, a timely response is essential. Do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and the more anger you’ll have to defuse. Inaction or procrastination both make it look like you don’t care. You have enough to deal with as it is (right or wrong) without an extended delay that makes you appear not to care about the situation.
If you were wrong or somehow involved, own it, make it right, and take the punch.
If you weren’t wrong or had nothing to do with it, own that too.
What does make it right look like? It looks like what you’d want someone to do when making it right to your grandma.
Who do you tell? A better question might be who don’t you tell. When the news starts to spread (guilty or otherwise), do you want other people telling your story? No. As with marketing, you need to be the one telling it, even if the story is bad news.
If new information becomes available, lead with it. Whether it’s good or bad, you need to take the reins on communication. If you don’t have all the information or even think you don’t, say so. Certainly the story can change in complex situations with confusing timelines and / or a lack of confirmable information.
A lot of this is common sense, but we sometimes need a formula to fall back on when we’re under pressures . These fallbacks are helpful for the same reason we use checklists and documented processes.
Remember, listen to your lawyer. Also remember that I’m not that person.
In the programming world, there’s a term called “technical debt”. Technical debt is refers to work created by existing systems, processes and methods. You might call it maintenance, upkeep, re-work, refactoring, re-design, etc.
The term “technical debt” is typically used when discussing programming, but as a friend reminded me a week or so ago – programming doesn’t own it. It’s about any process, whether it’s new or has been around a while.
For legacy processes and methods (and yes, programs), the key phrase is “we’ve always done it this way”. For new techniques, processes, infrastructure and programming, a critical concern is planning, design and creation that intentionally minimizes the creation of more technical debt.
Technical debt appears, like it or not
Think about the handwringing that decision makers face when they find that a road, bridge, or other infrastructure requires substantial maintenance to continue to allow it to remain in public use. This tends to happen years after repeatedly putting off regular maintenance that used to be performed routinely.
Often times this situation is created because the work was set aside because of a shortfall, and sometimes because the funds were re-directed to another project in the same department. When this happens for a decade (or several), the costs of “catching up” are immense. They’re a form of technical debt – a particularly ugly form that can overwhelm an agency budget. The same can happen to a company that fails to maintain and update their processes, systems, and methods.
While it’s easy to say “Don’t create anything you can’t afford to maintain”, you often have no choice in the matter when “the thing” was created several generations ago (such as public infrastructure), or at a time preceding your arrival at the company with looming technical debt.
So what do you do?
“No one likes change, but everyone likes improvement.”
Deal with “Always done it that way”
Do you still do it “that way” because:
It’s so much cheaper this way?
It’s far more efficient?
You regularly review alternatives and those reviews have (so far) shown that the current process still works best.
As you might expect, the third answer is still a reason why your process hasn’t changed.
Even if your processes are reviewed regularly and are up to par, it’s important that your existing systems, methods are not only solid for existing uses, but ready to meet the challenges of systems and processes now under development – much less those being considered. A review of systems that fails to review readiness for the next three to five years of operation isn’t doing you any favors.
There will be investment to bring existing systems up to the standards needed to work with your next big thing. It’ll be expensive and time-consuming, perhaps seeming insurmountable. That’s no reason to let it sit unaddressed. even more important to minimize creation of new technical debt.
Triage and chip away
People get defensive about technical debt, so you have to be careful how it’s discussed. As with so many things, it isn’t about blame. It’s about improvement. The way it was done “back then” was very likely the best way at the time. Most of us (hopefully almost all of us) are smarter than we were five or ten years ago. When we look back at work we did years ago, does anyone think it’s as good as it should be when viewed through today’s eyes? Rarely. We all make the best decisions we can at that time with the info and resources we have. 20 years later, we may seem much smarter, but we have the benefit of the passage of time.
Prioritize / triage the technical debt in the context of your future. If improved and readied for your projected needs three to five years from now, what existing systems, processes and/or methods will have the greatest impact on the work you’ll do during that period? Chip away at that.
There will be people who need to be convinced. There will be some who see the challenges as insurmountable. There will be some in the middle of the road, waiting to see. Choose a small but important project, involve your influencers, and start getting some small wins. Use them to create momentum. Give your people and the work time to rise to expectations. Photo by ustung
The personal touch your clients appreciated when you were small can get lost in the chaos of growth. It eventually feels like tedious, recurring, mind-numbing work. That’s when someone like me suggests that you automate it.
Just don’t automate the wrong things.
Automation outside of manufacturing environments is mostly about doing tedious things and doing so consistently as the business grows. When you’re small, it’s easy to send a thank you email or a follow up survey.
As your business moves from 100 to 1000 or 10000 clients – things will change. You’ll shift from doing to managing. Your ability to spend time to manually send emails for routine but important follow ups will disappear, but the need to send them will not.
While growing, we want to:
Create a consistently high-quality experience for everyone.
Reduce the amount of tedious, but important work that must be done manually.
Get things done that probably wouldn’t get done otherwise, either because of time constraints, the volume of work, or both.
Follow up is a good example. There are so many opportunities to follow up with our clientele. Many opportunities are lost because following up is time-consuming. When follow up happens consistently, it’s often because it’s automated. As long as your follow up automated emails (or letter, postcards, etc) are written to sound like you talk, it’s OK.
Automating this work doesn’t reduce its importance, it simply makes space in your team’s day to perform other tasks that can’t or shouldn’t be automated.
In 2018, there are still a few things that can’t be automated, at least not very well. More importantly, there are those things that you simply shouldn’t ever automate.
The magic you bring is one of those things.
Magic means many things
There are many things you can automate. What you simply mustn’t automate is the magic you and your people create.
Think back to your favorite speech. It might be from a President, or during an event keynote – like one from Steve Jobs.
We have plenty of easy-to-use technology that can read the text of a Jobs keynote. None of these tools can even begin to sell, influence and convince like Steve did from the stage. Apple could email the text of the speech to their customers and we could read it. While a few might hear it in Steve’s voice thanks to “our mind’s ear”, most of us won’t. It’ll simply be words in an email.
The impact of someone who can speak on stage like Steve is the kind of magic I’m referring to. Magic appears in many forms and it’s management’s job to nurture it.
There are robots that can weld 24×7 with incredible consistency and quality. Even so, there are people who can weld like they’re the combination of Roger Staubach, Tom Brady, and John Elway executing a comeback in the last two minutes of a big game. Robots can’t replace that welder and you wouldn’t want them to. You deploy robots so that your magician has more time where magic is needed.
Great leaders do their magic by calmly & confidently assessing a crisis situation with their team, then leading them to the solution. IBM Watson might be able to analyze 100,000 chess move sequences and probable responses in a few seconds, but it can’t lead a team through a crisis.
You can automate the assessment of thousands of resumes to produce an ideal short list of candidates. What you can’t currently automate is reading and assessing character, motivation, hustle and the like. Your best interviewers can do that. Magic is watching them interview someone as compared to a “typical” interviewer.
You can automate the collection of feedback. Assessing that feedback, discussing it with clients, and prioritizing what to do about it – you dare not automate this work. When clients invest their time in a response to provide you with feedback, how you consume that feedback is critically important. Scanning it for keywords and soliciting additional details is huge.
Leverage your automation against the mundane, tedious and mind-numbing in order to make more time to keep the magic and guard those who create it.
Lose the magic and your company is just another business customers don’t cling to.
Problem solving discussions on news broadcasts, in newspaper op-eds, on social media, and in political speeches have a consistent thread: “We can fix it by changing (one thing).”
Most problems are not particularly simple. Societal and economic problems are incredibly complex, even in a small community. Winning a game of chess against Bobby Fischer or IBM’s Watson might be easier.
As a result, problems usually require a multi-faceted approach. Unfortunately, that often tempts us to eliminate any “one thing” strategy under the presumption that it’s ineffective, naive, or “too simple”.
Problem solving cause & effect
Rotary has for decades funded and built simple hand pump water wells in villages where there’s no dependable, convenient source of clean water. Many other organizations do similar water projects.
Does convenient access to a dependable source of water (ie: eliminating a three hour round trip hike) solve 100% of a third-world village’s problems? No. However, gaining easy access to clean, disease-free water for a village’s people is comparable to the impact of U.S. rural electrification projects of the mid 1900s. Electrification didn’t solve every rural problem, but it had a huge positive impact on rural communities.
Vilfredo Pareto was an Italian engineer, sociologist and economist of the late 1800s and early 1900s. While he “invented” modern microeconomics, many recognize his last name thanks to his “Pareto principle” – what we call “the 80/20 rule”. The principle states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.
Is it accurate to six decimal places? Probably not. Does it describe cause & effect in 100% of situations? Probably not. Does it describe a large percentage of cause and effect in business and society? Pretty close, I’d say.
If a single, simple strategy or tactic solves 80% of a problem, I’d call that a pretty good start. You may not have implemented a perfect solution, but you’ve made a boatload of progress.
Managed expectations go a long way when solving problems.
Name the last time you solved a problem with a single solution and that solution performed perfectly 100% of the time, in every possible scenario so far – and can reasonably be expected to continue solving the problem in the foreseeable future.
A simple solution is often dismissed because it doesn’t solve the problem 100% of the time, or in 100% of scenarios where the problem can occur.
The “Do Not Call” system is a good example. Elected officials seem to agree that robocalls, cloaked and spoofed calls need to stop. Yet they’ve done nothing about it and continue to exempt themselves from existing robocall legislation.
While technology, laws, and a few vendors make it very difficult for us to solve 100% of this, you can solve 80% of it by using a Google Phone number when you don’t expect or want that party to call you. This is particularly true when the data is somewhat publicly accessible, such as voter or website domain registrations.
Google Phone will take those calls / texts, letting you avoid numerous unwanted interruptions via your cell.
Refining problem solving
Most solutions won’t resolve 100% of a problem’s scenarios. If they do, they’re often incredibly expensive, difficult to implement, hard to use, or all three. Even so, edge cases still find their way in.
Despite that, 80% isn’t always enough. Instead of looking for perfect solutions, try iteration. If your first simple solution solved 75 to 80% of the situation, look at what’s left.
What additional simple change can you make to fix the majority of the remaining situations? If you have 100 problem situations, your first 80 / 20 solution leaves 20 situations to resolve. Solving 80% of the leftovers leaves only FOUR percent.
Look at that again: Two simple solutions take you from 100% to four percent.
If you need to, refine again. At some point, the ROI of the next solution will tell you it’s time to move on to other problems.
Imagine that a single tweak to your sales process results in closing 80% of the sales you weren’t closing. Or that a single change in your manufacturing process reduces costs, in-use failure, or warranty claims by 80%. Neither are 100% solutions, but I doubt too many would object to that level of improvement.
If your approach to problem solving starts by looking for simple solutions, testing, implementing and iterating, the number of problems you face and the time and expense invested in dealing with them is going to shrink significantly.
What would you do with that newfound time and money?
Back in November 2017, my wife hit a deer at 70 mph on a four-lane road on her way to work in the pre-dawn hours a few days before Thanksgiving. The events that followed provided a number of takeaways for business owners, in addition to pointing out the importance of asking questions while the answers still matter.
tl;dr – If you have an admin with little or no domain knowledge make the initial sale, review what they sold. Call or email to suggest any changes based on your experience, what you know about your customer, or tell them you did so and have no changes to suggest. Speaking of, follow up regularly with customers who have damage claims. Consider what carnage has been introduced into their lives. Don’t make your customers do your job. Even better, have a documented process for your team thats over and above what the national carrier forces upon you. Don’t be an order taker.
Monday 11/20 – National claim office person tells me they expect the car to be totaled. They tell me to run out and collect whatever I need from the car because they are going to tow it to a salvage facility. I make 2 trips out to the car, which is 12 miles down the road. 1 of those trips is my fault, forgot the garage door opener and the plates. Took the plates since we may never see it again. Presumably we’ll be able to use them on the replacement car. Tow truck driver also predicted it would be totaled because five air bags were deployed.
Tuesday 11/21 – Based on what the national claim center told me on Monday 11/20, they are supposed to pick up the car from the tow place today. They didn’t.
Wednesday 11/22 (day before Thanksgiving) – Salvage yard’s tow truck goes to pick up the car, a day late. The tow place that originally picked up the car is closed for Thanksgiving.
Thursday 11/23 – Thanksgiving. Didn’t expect anything to happen today.
Friday 11/24 – Nothing happens. Not really surprising. Tow place is probably still closed.
Monday 11/27 – I call the claims office and find out nothing has happened. Person I spoke to seemed kind of short with me. Maybe they think I’m asking too many questions or being too persistent by expecting them to predict / commit to dates when something will happen. I didn’t get fussy (yet) so maybe she was getting abused by someone else before getting me.
Interestingly, when I call, the system knows I have a claim based on my phone # and asks me to press 1 to confirm that’s the claim I’m calling in about. Despite that, when I am connected to an agent, they ask for my name and claim number. Agent tells me that they haven’t got any scheduled date in the system for review of the car. Then they tell me it was never picked up from the tow place (this was supposed to happen on Tuesday).
I get the idea that this process will never complete without me hounding them every single day. I no longer feel like a client whose car was ripped from my hands. I now feel like a transactional sucker who pays someone to abuse me when and if I need their services.
It has been a week since the accident. Zero contact from the agent.
Takeaway – If you make your customers do your job, they are going to be frustrated, or they are going to expect a great deal. Set expectations up front.
Tuesday 11/28 – I will call and see if the car got towed to the salvage yard today. I will ask if an adjuster is now scheduled to visit the yard and assess the status of the vehicle. Call the agent and ask what the process is supposed to look like. Am I expected to nag the adjusters and the claim office every day or twice a day to get this stuff done in a reasonable timeframe?
Called mid-afternoon. Spoke to a very helpful woman named Tonya. “Tow dispatched but we cant tell if it was moved yet.” Adjuster will “automatically” check the car once it is “checked in” at the salvage yard, but that check-in hadnt happened yet. Otherwise, she didn’t have further info on the schedule.
Wednesday 11/29 – Called about noon. Got Donna (I think – was hard to hear at first). She was very friendly and ended up having to call the salvage yard and other people to find out out what was going on. The car is now at the salvage yard and checked-in, so the adjuster is expected to look it over in the next 2-3 days. Tomorrow is possible, but she couldn’t give me a firm date as the adjusters apparently work their own schedule. Doesn’t sound like they are insurance company employees, but I might be reading too much into her comments about their appointment schedule and work load. It’s possible that adjusters work for an adjuster firm that handles estimates / assessments for multiple insurance companies in rural areas. I don’t know the workload of these folks, but that would seem more efficient than every company having their own and trying to keep them all busy. I’m guessing someone who reads this might have more information about that.
Takeaway – When a situation clearly has the potential to frustrate a customer, a little extra effort on the part of your team goes a long way.
Thursday 11/30 – Received a voice mail about 820am saying that the vehicle is repairable (ie: they will not total it). They asked me to call them back. Called and reached Paige, who explained the situation and the benefits (warranties and such) that selecting a body shop that the insurance company “works with” (ie: trusts, has ongoing experience with, saves them money and probably hassle/paperwork). She emailed me a list. I reviewed the list, posted a few names on Facebook to see if any Missoula-based people had suggestions about the list. Chose one of the shops suggested to me. Called insurance company back, told them which body shop to use.
Later in the day, called back, asked Raul to explain the benefit that you get when using a body shop on insurance company’s preferred list (you can choose anyone, including a vendor not on their list). The deal is that repairs and anything else that comes up related to the wreck are guaranteed by the insurance company for as long as you own the car. NOTE: I haven’t seen the actual terms of this guarantee as yet. Given that we keep cars until they “BluesBrother“, this is a potentially valuable benefit, so we chose a shop on their list.
This is what I mean by “BluesBrother”:
Estimate arrived in my email. Called claim line again, turns out this estimate is actually from the insurance adjuster. $6200. Car is scheduled to be towed to the body shop on Friday.
Takeaway – Give your customers a good reason to make the choices you want them to make.
Friday 12/1 Car being moved from salvage yard to Action Auto Body in Missoula.
Monday 12/4 Called body shop, talked to John, who happened to be the guy finishing up the estimate. Tells me it will take a week to get parts and 2 weeks to do the work. Very nice, detail oriented guy who seemed happy to answer all my questions without sounding the least bit tired or annoyed.
Takeaway – Having technically adept people on the phone who also fully understand how to work with a customer who lost use of a car is a big plus. Being able to do that job and put up with 15 minutes of questions from me without getting frustrated is impressive.
Tuesday 12/12 While I haven’t heard a word from anyone at the insurance company or the body shop since 12/4, today I received an automated survey email from insurance company. The nine page survey asked me to evaluate the claim handling. The survey clearly isn’t designed to be filled out until the claim is completed, yet it allows only 10 days to complete the survey – which will expire at least a week before the body shop expects to have the car back to me. Obviously, the technology generating the surveys has no visibility into the status of the claim in question.
Takeaway – If you care about survey responses, make sure the surveys are sent at the proper time. Automation handles this kind of stuff in it’s sleep – if it’s automated with the right data. “Ask questions while the answers still matter” also means don’t ask too soon.
Thursday 12/15 Received a mailer from insurance company suggesting that I could refinance the Subaru at a lower rate. Only if they’re offering negative interest.
Takeaway – Wording on your direct mail matters as much as it does in tweet or email. The assumptions you make can make your marketing piece all but invisible.
Friday 12/16 Talked to body shop. As of today, all the parts showed up, so they will start work on Monday the 19th. Parts were supposed to take a week, but my guess is that ground shipping has been impacted by Christmas shipping season. It’s clear we wont’t get the car back in 2017.
Tuesday 12/20 30 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.
Friday 12/29 Work is underway, had to order another couple of parts for previously unseen damage, and those parts have not arrived yet. Holiday shipping traffic and people on vacation have probably slowed delivery. Body shop estimates the car will be completed sometime the week of the 8th-12th.
Monday 1/8 Checked in with body shop. They asked me to bring in plates so they could drive it. They say the car is pretty much done, looks great. Told me that they were taking the car to Subaru to get it started again and certify sensors and automated driver-assist systems, etc. He cannot start the car, so Subaru apparently has to reset the computer or similar. Once they get it back from Subaru, they will highway test it to make sure all is well, and then we’ll be done with it.
Wednesday 1/10 Checked in with body shop. They reminded me to get plates to them. I have no car since the Mrs is driving mine to work and they are not open outside normal working hours, so I’ll have to drop them off during off-hours.
Saturday 1/13 Dropped the plates by the body shop so they could drive it.
Tuesday 1/16 Spoke with John at the body shop. Subaru has had the car for about 10 days. They were unable to get the car started for days. Apparently, they were unable to convince the computer to allow it to start and no one knew what to do. I’ve seen what happens when this occurs at other dealers – the service manager calls the factory and gets some help. Apparently, they managed to get it running a couple days later because a factory-certified master mechanic happened to be passing through Missoula and helped them figure it out. Makes me wonder if our local dealer has any factory-certified mechanics for 2018 vehicles. John tells me they told him to come pick it up. He did. On the short drive back to his shop, John sees that the dash is lit up like a Christmas tree – every light is on. Clearly, the dealer didn’t finish the job and left the car in a state where it is running, but not ready to return to the customer (ie: me). No idea if driving in this condition would have eventually caused engine damage. Body shop guy turns around, returns the car to them, tells them not to bother giving the car back until it is 100% perfect. I suspect it wasn’t worded that way, but the point was still made.
Takeaway – Notice how the body shop advocated for the customer? Can you imagine the response you’d get if you made a similar demand of your dealer’s service department?
Takeaway – Don’t all dealers have at least one factory-certified master technician? If you have them and you know the other dealers don’t, why isn’t your advertising letting people know this important detail?
Friday 1/19 Spoke with John at the body shop. He tells me that Subaru seems to be making progress. They found a sensor or something that needed to be replaced, so they ordered it for Monday (1/22) delivery.
Saturday 1/20 60 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.
Tuesday 1/23 Spoke with John at body shop. Dealer still has not returned the car to them. He didn’t know if they received the part on Monday, or what progress had been made. Said Dar has been working with them and that he would know, but he was gone for the day.
Wednesday 1/24 Called body shop to see if they had any news from Subaru. Dealer is still trying to figure out engine issue.
Friday 1/26 Body shop called. Subaru dealer still lost on what’s going on. Thought it was figured out, they gave him the car on Thursday. Once again, on the drive back to the shop, it started throwing engine failure warnings, so he turned around and took it back.
Monday 1/29 Body shop called, said that Subaru finally reproduced the problem so now they seem to have it narrowed down to a computer error or an oil sensor error. Apparently the problem is intermittent. Every programmer you know will tell you this makes the problem harder to find.
Wednesday 1/31 Called body shop. They explained that after they called Subaru late on 1/29 after we last talked and found that Subaru techs determined that the one of the car’s computers was messed up. They figured this out by swapping a new car’s computer into our car and re-testing, as well as swapping ours to a new car. As your programmer friends will tell you, this is debugging 101. Replace / disable the components that are involved, but do so one at a time. Why it took three weeks to arrive at that point, I have no idea. Interestingly, the dealer does not stock computers for the current model year even though the Outback is the highest selling model in the U.S. as of 2016 with a mere 16.0 days to turn (ie: days on lot before it gets sold ). Perhaps computers don’t fail that often. Dealer apparently isn’t allowed to take the computer from a new car, so they had to order one (delivery time: three to four days). Body shop was hopeful (but not super confident) that he would get it back late Thursday or early Friday so he could get it to us before the end of the day on Friday.
Friday 2/2 Body shop called in the morning to say that he got the car back and that it was OK. They need it for a few more hours to finalize cleanup and then we can have it. I was able to pick up the car about 4:30pm. The total repair bill was just short of $16,000. Later that night, I got a detailed email receipt from the body shop, as well as an automated email from the insurance company that an “updated claim estimate” had been received. The body shop gassed it up before returning it.
Takeaway – Filling the tank was not required and not expensive, but it was a nice gesture when returning someone’s car after over two months. What “not required and not expensive” things can you do to impress your clients?
Saturday 2/3 Received an automated email from the insurance company noting that the claim had been paid. On a Saturday. Despite decades of working on automated systems, I’m shocked this didn’t require management approval, particularly given the amount (almost $16K). It appears from Friday night and Saturday driving that the car is back to pre-deer condition. Body shop’s paint/finish job was very well done.
Takeaway – Systems work. While the efficiency provided by inter-company systems produce a time and cost savings benefit to the insurance company, body shop and dealer, these systems are also a benefit to customers.
Verdict of the experience:
Body shop – Great job, both on the work and as an advocate for me when dealing with the local dealer. Slower than expected, but three holidays and the shipping time for multiple parts orders didn’t help. At times, they seemed surprised that I didn’t go ballistic on them or at least take out my frustration with the situation on them during our calls. I never felt the need to do that because they kept me informed, set expectations, and were clearly playing the role of advocate for me when dealing with the dealer. They didn’t make me do their job.
Local dealer – They had the car for over three weeks. I wonder what would have happened if that factory-certified technician from somewhere else hadn’t been in the area twice while our car was being diagnosed. I got the impression that this guy was the savant who twice rescued the dealer’s service department from throwing up their hands and giving up. Imagine if a random customer had been dealing with the dealer instead of a peer in their industry. The body shop guys tell me that they still believe in the dealer’s service department, so that goes a long way. The dealer should appreciate that they were held to the body shop’s standards.
National claims office – Outside of a slow start with the tow (which added a week) and the adjuster (which added another week) and one episode of snark on the phone, they performed as expected.
Local agent – Was a non-factor in the process. Agent missed a substantial opportunity to create a relationship and show how they care for clients.
What’s missing from this timeline?
A personal contact from the agent.
The lady who cuts my hair knows more about our experience with the deer hit and the subsequent repair adventures than my (former) insurance agent. If this seems normal, you have the wrong agent or you are the wrong agent.
In the nine weeks between hitting the deer and getting our car back, our only contact with the agent’s office has been my call to their office where I talked to his admin on the morning of the deer hit. She was pleasant, asked if everyone was ok, took a little bit of info, then transferred me to the national claim office. That part was expected as the priority at the time is to get started on repairing the car once we’re clear that there were no injuries.
A week after getting our car back, it was clear our agent wasn’t going to reach out. I called them to move our coverage to the CFalls agent we previously worked with for almost 15 years (call it a corrected oversight). The old agent’s admin was pleasant and said she would take care of it, noting that she would contact me if they needed more info. She didn’t ask about my wife or the car, which tells me that their customer contact software doesn’t give them any sort of recent history to help “make conversation” & check in on a customer’s satisfaction level during customer calls.
The next day, the agent called me for what I believe is the first time in three and a half years.
He was calling to tell me that he had released our policies to CFalls & to ask if we were moving because of something they’d done. It was too late to ask. They might be able to fix it for someone else, but for anyone wearing the customer hat, it doesn’t matter. Some might share, but most are going to say whatever gets the guy off the phone – and that’s exactly what I did. I was busy with work at the time and didn’t have time to get into what would probably become an hour-long discussion. Interestingly, the agent said he asks the same question of customers transferring business to his office – ie: what made you leave the other agent? What about the gap between getting and losing a customer?
It’s critical to ask good questions, but be sure to ask them while the answers still matter.
Fill gaps of inattention
So let’s get back to the real reason I bothered to share all of this with you: To help you understand how you might be leaving gaps of inattention in your relationship with your customers.
After my wife hit a deer at 70 MPH on a pitch dark morning just before 6:00 am, no one called during that nine week period to ask if:
… the driver is still doing OK (injuries and issues often show up days/weeks later)
… we’ve gotten the car back or to ask if we know why it’s taking so long (we have and I do).
… if we’re satisfied with the repairs (we are).
… if we want to make any coverage changes (we do).
This is below my expectations.
Some agents might say they “aren’t allowed” to make that sort of contact with customers. Don’t confuse being a real person who cares about their clients with being an order taker.
If your parent company doesn’t allow you to have personal, caring contact with your clients, find another company to represent. If anything, that sort of rule may indicate how that company will treat you someday.
Some insurance agents reading this might be thinking “we’re not told to do that“. Bear in mind that there are many things you should do to keep and care for a client that no one tells you to do.
Don’t be an order taker.
An order taker says “Do you want fries with that?”, yet an order taker can show some humanity and assess the purchaser on their feet and comment/question accordingly when appropriate.
An order taker can be replaced at will. I can switch to another agent for the same company without a second thought. I can switch to another insurance company without much thought, if all I want to do is compare dollars and cents.
On the other hand, if a client is madly in love (maybe that’s a stretch) with the care and attention provided by their insurance agent and their team, you’ll have to pry them away in most cases.
Which agency do you want to own? Which agency do you want to use? The order taker or the caring, attentive team?
A friend who owns a manufacturing business recently decided to hire a remote software developer – his first remote employee. He asked if I had some advice for managing remote employees as he knows I’ve done so. In fact, I’ve managed remote team members in some way, shape or form since 1998. While the folks I work (and worked) with have been a mix of folks close to home and scattered around the globe, he’s starting with a remote developer here in the U.S.
Why remote employees?
Hiring a remote employee might seem like the craziest idea ever. Even so, remote work has been growing steadily since the late ’90s for several reasons: People have roots. Their families have jobs, friends, schools & communities they love, outdoor recreation your community can’t compete with (and vice versa), etc.
In the ’60s-’80s, when a company transferred or hired an employee who lived somewhere else, they generally paid movers to pack and move that employee’s possessions. In some cases, they would buy the employee’s old house if it didn’t sell within a reasonable amount of time. Serious investment. Remote work during those decades was difficult, but it still happened. Companies like IBM (“I’ve Been Moved”), Kodak, Xerox and others had field sales / service reps all over the country – and not always based out of a local company-owned office.
Today, such transfers are far less common. Companies lower their standards, extend their search effort, hire remote people or find another solution.
If an ideally trained, experienced candidate with domain-specific knowledge for your opening lives somewhere else, and cannot (or doesn’t want to) move to your town, do you:
Do without and settle for someone who isn’t ideal.
Keep looking and wait until the right (or close enough) local appears.
Hire no one and leave the opening unfilled.
Hire a local and invest in the proper training.
Ask a candidate to move to your town (think about how you might feel about that if the situation were reversed)
Questions to ask new remote employees
“Have you worked remotely before?” should have been discussed during the interview. After the hire is not the time to start this conversation. The first time an employee transitions from in-office work to remote work is a substantial shift – more so than you hiring your first remote team member.
“What’s your schedule?” and “What times do you regularly need to be away?” aren’t probing personal questions. They let both sides discuss expectations and avoid surprises.
For example, I take kids to the bus stop a little after 8:00 am. I pick them up a little after 3:00 pm and a little before 4:00pm. As you might expect, there’s a few minutes of “cat herding” that takes place before the morning bus stop and after the two afternoon bus stops. While no one depends on me to be in a certain place with immediate availability at any specific moment of the day, it’s important to communicate the team’s schedule on both ends.
Likewise, it’s on me to make sure someone understands my schedule when we’re trying to arrange a meeting time. If I am trying to finish up before the bus stop or am rushed to get to a meeting just after a bus stop time, meeting prep (or the meeting itself) isn’t as productive or focused. That isn’t fair to clients or your remote employer. It’s as important to discuss the times where all hands are expected to be available for scrums, meetings, standups, etc.
Lunch is a good example of scheduling, even though you might not give it much thought. Some people eat lunch at their desk. Some like to get out of the house and meet a friend. Some mix it up a bit, often because working at home by yourself can be lonely. Some people need regular interaction, and text chat (like Skype, HipChat, or Slack) doesn’t feed that need. None of these things are wrong, but when your phone rings and you don’t answer, or you answer and a noisy restaurant is what your employer hears – they’ll wonder. It’s natural. You don’t want to make them wonder. You want them to know what to expect.
It’s OK to say “On Thursdays, I meet a few friends for lunch, so I’m not around from 11:30 to 1, and I start early or finish late those days“, as long as you’ve worked that out with people who need to reach you. This isn’t about someone expecting to know your butt is in your seat every minute of the day. It’s about being considerate of both parties. It’s about trust.
“Tell me about your workspace” – also isn’t a probing personal question. An employer or client has an expectation that you aren’t trying to work in a room full of toddlers, barking dogs, or gaming teenagers. Speaking of, summer plans are important. If you have young school-age kids, how will they be cared for while you’re working? Will they be in a different space than you? If the kids are older, it generally isn’t a problem, while two to seven year olds don’t generally manage their day on their own.
If this isn’t the new employee’s first remote rodeo, it’s a good idea to ask them what worked and what didn’t work in previous remote gigs. Take advantage of their experience and perspective – it will almost certainly add nuance to my comments. This gives you the chance to learn from another owner / manager’s efforts at no charge, and it will help you understand the persona, priorities and needs of your new remote worker.
Work out a protocol for communication during travel, weekends, evenings and during emergencies. This is really no different for a local employee than it is for a remote one, other than the fact that a manager can’t easily show up at the front door of a remote employee. If you’ve ever done that for business purposes, your communication plans probably need work. Showing up to pay your respects or attend a BBQ isn’t “business purposes”.
An emergency might be that your biggest client is having a meltdown or that there’s an angry boyfriend at the office. Either way, establish a protocol for getting the word out, conveying its severity, & indicating what action (if any) is necessary.
Keep in mind that every family (thus, every team member) may have different needs. Babies, shift work & roommates impact phone/ringer use.
Mentoring & the “first friend” – No matter how many years of experience they have, they’re new to you. New people need mentoring. Even if they don’t need it with the work you hired them to do, there are plenty of reasons why their “first friend” at work will prove beneficial.
Do you hire someone to stay in the same position “forever”, or do you want them to grow into a position they aren’t yet ready for? Even if you don’t expect a new hire would be ready to run your shop in five years, they’ll almost never get ready without training, mentorship and interim experience to prepare them for that role.
Qualified people still need mentors. They also need to be mentors. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner than later – and with intention.
Connection – Remote employees need connection to the nest. Bring them on-site early and often. It’s particularly important to make this happen early on. Everyone at the home office needs connection with those remote employees. They need to be able to trust their word, trust their work and think of them as they do any other member of the team. This isn’t just about the line employee. It’s about the managers as well. When the remote employee becomes a black box in a room in another town that no one can see, the unseen person and their work are easy to devalue. This could happen even if their work happens to be strategic. The reverse is also true. They need the opportunity to understand the value of their peers work as well their colleagues do.
Team meals – For a business with on-site employees, team meals (on campus or not) are a commonly-used way to build team harmony and nurture relationships between team members. This may not be easy particularly effective with remote employees, so be sure to have these meals when remote employees are on site.
Video meetings (IE: conference calls with webcam) – Some people really dislike the addition of video to a call. People are fussy about their hair or generally how they look, don’t want to be seen eating during a call, are sensitive to what’s visible in their work space (like that monstrous Siamese cat laying next to the keyboard), and/or the idea of others seeing them appear to be disinterested because they’re multi-tasking during a meeting.
Ease into this. Start with short, less critical meetings to raise the comfort level. You’ll probably need to set the example for a while so people get comfortable with it. It’ll make everyone more aware of the ambient noise and distractions in their (and others’) workspace. In a face-to-face meeting, most people can manage their facial responses to a speaker’s comments. Experienced conference callers have learned to mute early and often, but may not be practiced at managing expressions when video is introduced.
The lesson: Don’t make a big deal out of the expressions you see on video. Use them as a signal to ask for group feedback. It’s natural for facial expressions to change when we hear something we have questions about, don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t understand. I prefer the Zoom (all faces on screen) way of doing this, mostly because it seems to train everyone that their expressions change while listening to people talk. Most of us don’t want to embarrass a co-worker, much less ourselves. Use it as an advantage and an opportunity to improve, not as a way to create drama.
Does this differ for workers outside the US?
The differences between inside-the-US & outside-the-US team members include (in decreasing order of owner/manager/employee pain & suffering): Culture and values, enterprise experience, time zones, environment, infrastructure, payment & language.
Culture & values – Not everyone thinks like a U.S.-based employee/owner. Start by remembering that and keep remembering it. You’re used to what you’re used to. Others are just as used to their experience and how their work habits were formed.
Remember when asking for help was considered by some to be a sign of weakness? It remains that way among some groups because the pace of change differs among groups, and likewise among cultures. Every country’s culture has its range of work habits, inclination to ask for help, communication styles, etc. If you find yourself frustrated, ask questions that allow new people to unwrap what happened. Cultural learning is difficult to change. Differences in cultural norms should be expected. Both parties need to take steps to help everyone understand one another.
Company cultures and values work the same way. There are things that your company does your way – your culture and values. You should expect employees to take those seriously, regardless of their upbringing, culture, etc. Sometimes this takes training, mentors, etc. Someone who has never experienced a culture like yours will need help (and time) to them learn your culture and values. You may hire someone who is used to being browbeaten over deadlines, or they may have never worked under a deadline. No matter what their experience has been in the past, your experience is probably different. It will take time for your culture and values to become their new normal. Trust takes time and it goes both ways.
Enterprise experience – Enterprise experience is about more than buildings full of servers or time working at large multi-national companies. It’s about having a mindset that goes beyond the current project. It’s about having the ability to look around corners (and knowing that’s important), seeing the big picture, understanding inter-departmental needs, and communicating effectively with others whether they’re C-level execs, your team’s family members, prospects on the trade show floor, or high school kids on a field trip. Enterprise experience can mean more than that, but it starts with mindset, the big picture, and communication.
Time zones – Time zones can be a blessing and a curse. When your team member is seven to ten time zones east of you, you might start your day at 3:00 pm or later in their day. Good, because you have a bunch of work to review. Bad, because you only have an hour or two before the end of their day. Some folks work their normal hours (ie: 8:00am to 5:00pm in their time zone), some work normal hours in yours. You have to figure out what works best for you and for your team member. One thing about having them work your hours is that it may tempt them to take a job in their time zone, then work your job once the other job’s time is done. You need to ask that question. You don’t want your work to be their second job – which could affect your pay scale for them.
Environment -Not everyone lives in a pleasant, treed cul-de-sac in a neighborhood with people they’ve known for a decade, or on five quiet acres on the edge of town. I have had remote team members tell me that their apartment building was hit by gunfire – and they kept working. Culture & experience train you to know when it’s time to take cover, leave, etc.
Infrastructure – People in some countries lose power far more often than U.S. folks are accustomed to. This is not something your remote worker can control, other than by moving to another country. The good news is that a laptop combined with a UPS can easily fuel a full day’s work.
Payment – Five years ago, this was much harder. Paypal, TransferWise, Upwork simplified the process & traditional methods are still available. Some countries are still a bit of a challenge but for the most part, this barrier has all but evaporated.
Language – Most business people I encounter from outside the U.S. speak English fairly well. This has been my experience with both solo consultants and employees of large companies outside the U.S.
One more thing about remote folks. Visit them a couple times a year, if you can. It won’t be cheap. It probably won’t be easy and it will occasionally frustrate – but most of the negatives come from getting there, not from being there. When you visit them, you learn far more about them, their motivations and how they work than you’d ever learn in a video meeting or a phone call.