Why would you want remote employees?

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.

Communication

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.

Relationships

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?

Usually.

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.

Links for working with remote employees

A few links that might come in handy:

https://blog.trello.com/master-remote-team-communications

https://blog.trello.com/tips-for-tackling-remote-work-challenges

https://blog.trello.com/how-to-stop-micromanaging-your-remote-team

https://shift.newco.co/why-i-only-work-remotely-2e5eb07ae28f

https://thenextweb.com/lifehacks/2015/09/03/7-habits-of-exceptionally-successful-remote-employees/

http://www.enmast.com/7-tips-empowering-employees-remote-work

Photo by D-Stanley

Photo by Kim de Groote 1980

What would they do to put you out of business?

When I asked “What would they do to put you out of business?“, you probably wondered who “they” are. “They” might be someone whose expertise in another market tells them yours is ripe for the taking. “They” might be a competitor you already have, or someone new to the market who doesn’t know any better. Remember when you didn’t know any better? You’re still here.

Who they are really doesn’t matter. What they do & why… that’s what matters. How would they price, market, sell, deliver, service, & communicate?

Pricing

You might expect that they’d come in with lower pricing. While it depends a good deal on your market, I wouldn’t be surprised to find them going higher and establishing a market segment above yours, leaving you with what remains.

The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.” – Ben Franklin

Companies with plenty of margin can afford to spend more on marketing, delivery and service. If you were starting over today, would you price the same way, or differently? Why? Why not?

Marketing

Ultimately, marketing is about exchanging cash for a (hopefully predictable  and consistent) number of leads who turn into customers. If your marketing efforts spend $27.50 to get a lead, would you rather your leads turn into customers who spend $2750 or $27500 over their lifetime as your customer?

Thinking back to what you do now, can you make that choice? Can a new entrant to your market? (and if so, again… can you make that choice?)

Looking at it a different way…. If your new competitor can afford to pay two or three or ten times what you can afford for leads, who will likely end up with more leads and more ability to choose select the best leads?

If you were starting over, how would you market differently? Would you choose a different customer to focus on?

Selling

Thinking about how you and your market peers sell now, how would an upstart in your market do it differently… and better? What steps would they add, subtract, or embellish? Would they listen more and talk less? Would they speak of the needs, wants, concerns and worries of their prospects? Would they parrot features and speak in bullet points, while lamenting about the need to meet their quota?

If you were starting over, would you sell differently? How so? If not, why not?

Delivery

Do you deliver and/or deploy for your customers today? What would a noob to your market do? Would they prepare differently? Tool up differently? Deploy differently? Train the customer’s team differently, more, or less? Would they follow up more or differently than they do now after delivery and deployment is complete? What would someone do differently than you if they come from a high attention to details market?

If you were starting over, how would delivery and deployment look?

Service

Almost everyone brags about their service. It’s rarely as good, unique or unusual as they think. People talk about under-commit and over-deliver, but finding it in the wild is rare. Your service rarely feels like you’d want it to feel if you were in that client’s situation.

If you were starting over, how would your client’s service experience look and feel?

Communication

Through every step of sales, marketing, delivery and service, there are opportunities to set expectations and over-communicate. There are opportunities every day to take away the doubt, lack of clarity, wonder about what’s going to happen next. There are opportunities to pick up the phone instead of sending an email, or to drop by instead of picking up the phone.

If you were starting over, how would you communicate?

What would “they” do?

They’d do what you refuse to do. What you’re afraid to do or haven’t thought of. They’ll do what you don’t feel like doing or don’t think is necessary. They’d do what turns customers into clients who wouldn’t dream of going anywhere else.

More than likely, you know what these things are. Knowing isn’t enough. Answers are easy to come by. Execution of it is another thing entirely.

Will you wait until the new kid on the block forces you to mimic their behavior, or will your behavior set the bar so high that no one will dare enter your market? All those things you’d do if you were starting over can be started when you decide to do them.

The choice is yours.

Photo by MDGovpics

Repercussions for the things we won’t do

If you register a new website address these days, you’ll receive plenty of unsolicited email & cold calls from people dying to create your website. While I appreciate the hustle, these messages & calls are the same for everyone (register two domains if you need proof). Is lazy hustle possible? If so, this is it.

What’s missing is a lack of effort to find the information that could get you the business. These are the things they either don’t know how to do, or won’t do. Standing on a street corner screaming “I’d like to build your website” is nothing but noise and is ineffective at best. Face-to-face, email, LinkedIn, & phone calls all exhibit this problem when lazy seeps in.

Objections. Always objections

Many of these emails come from firms in countries with an economy that allows them to offer aggressive pricing that’s far less than local firms charge. When their email arrives, your initial objection might be “I don’t want to work with firms from (wherever)“. Your objection might be tempered when see the super-cheap price.

Most out-of-town firms have the expertise to do the work at that tempting price but their emails/calls (even the US-based ones) never address the real problem: How many people have outsourced a project as important as a website to a firm from out of town, much less from another country? Few.

Most small business owners haven’t experienced the joy of managing an outsourced project of *any* kind, much less a website project. We’re not talking about buying parts from a vendor a few states away. We’re talking about custom work that takes weeks/months.

Now you’ve gone from “I don’t want to work with someone from (wherever)” to “I’m not sure how to manage a website development project with so-and-so down the street even though she’ll visit my office. How much harder this will be with someone two states away, much less with someone in another country?

Set the right context

Whether you’re in Pune or Columbia Falls, you have the same problem: Getting over the prospect’s natural desire to avoid working with someone from out of town.

Their out-of-town vendor fears are the same ones they’ll have with someone in town, with some extra concerns sprinkled on top.

For in-town folks wondering why I’m discussing how to make it easier for your out-of-town competition, bear in mind that YOU are the out-of-town competition for every vendor who doesn’t live where you do. In some places, you’re the company from out of town despite being only six miles away.

Of all the “Hey, we can do your website” emails I received in the last year, NOT ONE positioned the conversation in a way other than “we do this, we’re cheap, etc”.

Improving your chances

Someone in Pune might send 30,000 emails daily. They can afford to play a numbers game. You might be reaching out to anyone who registers a domain in your five county corner of the state, or those who leased business space in your county. You can’t afford to waste leads.

In addition to changing the context of how you start the conversation, give yourself a second chance. Remember that the moment someone registers a domain, leases business property, or does what makes you aware of their possible need is not necessarily the moment they need you.

Rather than contacting them to suggest that you are alive, available & cheap, try a different approach. Reach out, make it clear you’re aware of their possible need & offer a legitimate resource to help them in the early going.

Follow up 30 days later, but not simply to repeat that you’re cheap & available. You might even have three buttons in your email: “Check back in 30 days, not ready yet”, “Doing it ourselves”, “Already have a vendor”.

Clicks on those buttons provide info so you can respond intelligently. Maybe in 30 days you ask the “not ready” folks “Figured out a timeline yet?”. For those indicating “DIY” or “have a vendor”, you might wait 60-90 days to ask “Is your project going as planned?

I’m OK with repercussions, lazy, etc.

Send out half of the emails exactly as you do now. Send the others with a context change. See which works best.

Do more of what works.

One thing for the new year: Focus

It’s the time of year when many people are trying to figure out how to make the new year better than the last one. “Better” means many things to many people, so just focus on what it means to you. If you aren’t sure, that’s a good place to start: Decide how you’d like to improve the new year as compared to last year.

If you’re looking for an idea to get the process started, start with focus, triage, and simplify.

Focus

Have you ever used noise-eliminating headphones on a flight?

If not, ask someone who uses them what’s different about flying while wearing them. More than likely, they will tell you that they arrive less tired or less mentally worn out than they used to. That low, almost inaudible engine thrum wears you down, but you don’t realize it’s happening until you eliminate it.

Having too much going on & too little focus has the same impact.

Solo business owners wear all the hats. We know we have to do everything, but we can’t focus on anything long enough to do it really well. You feel like you’re running around the room to catch the next spinning plate that lost its momentum and is about to fall off the stick.

I describe this as “doing 100 jobs poorly” because that’s how it feels when you’re doing too much, trying to fit everything in, de-prioritizing nothing. Result: You’re giving nothing what it deserves.

In order to focus on something, a decision must be made: What will you stop focusing on?

Sometimes figuring out what to discard or delay is harder than actually focusing, because we think we want it all.  Once we get it (or think we do), then we wonder what in the world we were thinking when we decided that we wanted it all.

Making the decision to do away with (or delegate) a task requires triage.

Triage

Before we can focus on something, we need to put the “sorting hat” on and determine what our attention will be zeroed in on. Allowing ourselves the freedom to not do something requires that we deal with that item, or it will feel like that thrum that wears us out.

Two weeks ago, we talked about eliminate, delegate, automate. You should already have a list from that exercise, but if you don’t – this is a good time to handle that.

I’ll ask the question again: What can you teach an employee to do in 30 minutes or less today?

If you don’t have any employees and you’d like to keep it that way, consider a virtual assistant (VA). They don’t have to be in a third world country. There are people in your town who do this work. Look on Craigslist and NextDoor. Ask your friends. Put the word out at Rotary, Kiwanis, Elks, and the Chamber, etc. Ask your customers who own a business.

*Someone* will know of one, or will be one.

You can find them online, but I suggest starting local. Solo business people seem to latch onto the benefits of VAs. Before long, a VA could be running errands for you that used to syphon the life out of your day. It’s more than just getting time back. It’s getting the mental load off your shoulders and giving you the headroom to focus on what’s left and do it better. Remember “better”? We started this conversation with that in mind.

Don’t worry about finding the perfect VA the first time. Budget two or three hours a week with them. Let them build your trust in their ability to make things happen.

Simplify

Making a complex thing simple is hard. Sometimes simplifying a task is as simple as documenting it. Once a task is documented, others can often handle it for you.

There are things on your list that only you can do (at least for now). That’s why we’re eliminating other tasks.

Simplification and focus is also about reducing interruptions. How many times a day does your phone ding at you with an inane notification from Facebook (etc)? Are any of those notifications and the interruptions they create more important than your biggest challenge this week?

Not likely.

Disable the notifications from your “noisiest” app for a week and see how it changes your work day.

Photo by crudmucosa

Sell. Don’t simply take orders

For many businesses, the best month or two of the year ended late last week. For others, it starts next week. Your “big month or so” might be some other time. The real question is, will you sell, or will you only take orders?

This year, many businesses and their teams chose to take orders. You probably experienced this personally at least once this year. Anyone can take orders. Maybe they’ll need a form, a point of sale system or a yellow pad combined with some guidance from the customer, but ANYONE can take orders.

Does “anyone” work for you? Or does your sales team have industry expertise? My guess is that the latter is true.

Taking orders

The last time I was in what should have been a consultative sale, rather than speaking to someone with industry expertise, I was given to an administrative assistant who appeared to have little domain knowledge. The admin was following a computer form to sell me what I appeared to need. I’m OK with that when there’s no choice or when the sale is doesn’t involve financial risk, safety, or similarly serious matters.

Even when those things are involved, it’s OK to start the process with an admin and a computer screen when there’s follow up by someone with industry expertise. Unfortunately, there was no follow up by anyone in their office to be sure that I got not only what I wanted – but also what I needed.

Customers buy stuff.

Sell

When financial risk or safety is involved, someone has to be there to consider what carnage might be introduced into your clients’ lives. Don’t make your clients do your job. I would be far less concerned about the admin-driven sales process if follow up occurred. In this case, the downside risk is awful, annoying, inconvenient and time-consuming. They know this.

Despite this, I wasn’t asked about a four dollar a month option that would manage much of that risk. This is why follow up occurs. While it will almost certainly increase your upside, it will also show your clientele that you’re taking care of them.

You can show the team what taking orders feels like, then show them what selling feels like. Ever talked with a bad (or perhaps poorly trained) life insurance salesperson? Ever talked with a good one? The difference is amazing.

If there’s any sort of consultative selling process in your line of work, the difference probably feels amazing to your customers. It doesn’t matter what business you’re in.

For example, go to WallyWorld to consider buying a power tool. Got questions? What will happen? Now go to Ace or the Depot on a Saturday mid-morning. I suspect you’ll find the experience differs.

Customers often buy solely based on price. Clients tend to buy based on the expertise of those caring for them. Sure, they might run to WallyWorld for a commodity, but when domain knowledge is essential – they’ll come to the expert.

Clients are taken care of.

Review their work

If you do have an admin or inexperienced salesperson take care of the initial sale, review what they sold to your client.

Not simply now and then. Review EVERY sale.

If you have to contact the client to fix or complete the sale, be sure to include the person who made the initial sale. Call or email. Ask questions. Make sure they got what they wanted. Ask questions to make sure they got what they needed. Do you need to suggest any changes based on your experience, or what you know about me? Do you have questions that aren’t part of the form the admin uses? Perhaps that form is issues by your national provider and you need to apply some local knowledge to properly configure a purchase.

If the admin or inexperienced person did everything right – tell the client and tell whoever made the sale. Both need confidence in your team members with less experience.

If it didn’t go well, it identifies an opportunity to review your process and improve the sales materials your team uses, even if that means yours are over and above what the national dealer provides for you (or perhaps forces on you).

This coming year, decide to sell. Anyone can take orders. Remember: Customers buy stuff. Clients are taken care of. There’s a big difference.

Planning got you wrapped around the axle?

It’s that time of year: Time to assess the year as a whole, work-wise, and figure out how to go forward with what you learned. Yes… it’s time to finish next year’s planning. Yes, finish it. If you haven’t started, carve out some time over the next two weeks. I know, the holidays are here and your schedule is crazy.

Keep in mind that no one wants a meeting with you at 5:00am, so you have that time to yourself. Get up 2 hours early for a week or so. Use the solitude to complete your 2018 planning, getting yourself and your company ready for forward progress.

What didn’t go well this year?

Let’s get start by getting the ugly part out of the way. What didn’t work this year? What was unsuccessful? What didn’t live up to your expectations? What was a total failure?

Of those, which can be eliminated in the upcoming year?

For the things that didn’t go well, assess what happened. Was there a lack of planning? Did the financials work differently than expected? Did a project need more time, money and/or people than was allocated? Did the people involved need additional training or tools? Did you need different people involved?

Make a list.

What went well this year?

What went well this year? What things went so well that if they went the same way next year, you’d be pleased with the outcome? What has to happen to make things go that well for another year? Is there anything about these aspects of the business that can be improved? Is there anything you can learn from the year’s successes that you can use to improve the things that failed or disappointed this year?

Add whatever came of this process to your todo list.

What’s misunderstood about your products & services?

Failures often start as misunderstandings. With client-facing projects, it’s critical to watch what happened rather than assume why something failed.

Do you have a product that generates lots of returns that aren’t based on material or fit-&-finish complaints? If so, watch your customers try to use these things. This can be uncomfortable, but it’s hugely valuable. People will struggle, or make different assumptions than you would. You’ll see where they are frustrated & wonder how they got to that point.

Observation will usually provide the insight needed to fix the problem. With any product or service experiencing substantial returns (or churn), dig a little deeper into why people return them. There’s always something customers aren’t telling you. They bought a product, so they care about what it does. They haven’t told you the important thing because they haven’t been asked the right question.

Got a few more things on the list? Keep going.

Little hinges swing big doors

With that list of new tasks, you might feel a bit overwhelmed. It might look insurmountable, but it’ll be fine if you break it down into achievable chunks. It’s easy to look at the list you’ve made and freak out a little.

Take a deep breath.

There are probably things you do now that someone else could do, or that could be automated, or that when you really think about it… don’t need to be done at all or as often.

For the next four days, set aside 30 minutes per day:

Day One: Review your daily / weekly todo list for recurring items. Eliminate one that really doesn’t have to be done, or that doesn’t have to be done every week.

Day Two: Identify one daily or weekly task that can be automated and get the automation process going. It doesn’t matter how. Use IFTTT, ask a programmer, ask someone else to help you automate it, etc. Don’t let the how get you stuck. Ask for help.

Day Three: Delegate one daily or weekly task. “I don’t have time to train someone” & “It’s too easy for me to do this” are common refrains. Do it anyway. Invest 30 minutes to teach someone how to do something so you’ll never have to do it again. You’ll improve both your job & theirs.

Day Four: Review what’s left. Try to consolidate any of the tasks that remain.

A week later: Now that you’ve seen the impact, can anything else be delegated, automated or eliminated? Open time in your day for higher value tasks that only you can do.

Plan a 2018 that leverages what you do best.

Photo by Infomastern

What does freedom mean to business people?

When you ask business owners why they started their company, you frequently hear these words: Freedom and opportunity.

Opportunity tends to have a narrow definition. Someone sees potential in a market and goes after it. Opportunity may also mean the ability to make more than they could make at a job.

Freedom’s meaning seems to vary a bit more from owner to owner, at least as it relates to “I started my business because I wanted more freedom“. Knowing exactly what it means to you is critical. Those specifics will impact on how your company takes shape, how it’s run and eventually, how it appears to potential buyers.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been in a number of conversations with owners who are planning or considering the sale of their business. Some haven’t made the “I want to sell” decision yet. Those who haven’t decided yet are still  focused on improving their business practices. These changes will make their businesses more attractive to potential buyers if and when that time comes.

Working toward a better freedom

When discussing what needs to be done to sell your company, there’s usually a long list of things that the owner wants to improve before looking for buyers. Since your company will benefit from a subset of these improvements even if you don’t sell the company, be sure to focus on those things first.

Why?

First – Anything that makes the company better also improves it for you between now and the time you do close a deal. If you never close a deal, you still benefit.

Second – Some of the things you’d to prepare will only benefit you in situations where an “investor-class” buyer is involved, such as a private equity group.

Selling your business to “someone in your town” is much different than selling it to investors. The more sophisticated the buyer, the more complicated, annoying, and costly the due diligence process will be. Be sure that the prospect is dead serious before venturing into this process because it won’t be fun, cheap or easy – and it’s possible their intentions won’t be honorable. Doing your homework is essential.

How does this relate to freedom? The improvements you make should improve the freedom your business provides – and these things are almost always the same things that make the business more attractive to buyers.

What does freedom mean to you?

Specifically, what freedom does your business provide – or what freedom do you want it to provide?

Whether you are looking at what happens after you sell your business, or simply what will happen once your business reaches the point of being able to support you – it’s critical that you know exactly where you want it to take you.

Does freedom mean more time? What’s that mean for you?

Working fewer hours than at your last job? Working at home vs. having to commute? Being home every weekend? Not having to travel 25-30 weeks per year? Having the ability to come and go at will? Having a more flexible schedule day to day than at your last 8-5 job?

Businesses that provide time freedom typically have a team doing the day to day work. At first, the owner might be managing the team. Over time, owners need to recruit and/or develop someone to manage their team.

Companies structured like this can be easier to sell because they aren’t as dependent on the owner to run them day to day, much less to create revenue. They also provide smoother continuity if the owner dies or is disabled.

Does freedom mean more money? What’s that mean for you?

Does it mean that your income is more secure? More resilient? More diverse? Less likely to be at the whim of someone else?

What aspects of the business protect that income, your pipeline, etc? How resilient is that income if you have to interrupt your work (as owner) to care for a family member for more than a day or two?

Companies where income freedom is more important than time freedom can be harder to sell if the owner is critical to day to day operations.

Either way, the important thing is knowing what you want & structuring your business to support that over the long term.

Photo by USAG-Humphreys

Quality management’s slow ROI

We talk about numbers, metrics, & dashboards from time to time. One of the more difficult things to measure, much less manage, is quality.

Is there a single measure?

Some might suggest Net Promoter Score as an ideal single measure. NPS ranges from -100 to 100. It represents the willingness of a company’s customers to recommend their products & services to others.

If your business makes / sells cars, what single measure indicates your overall quality? Number of recalls per model year? Number of cars returned under lemon laws? Annual average cost of warranty repairs? Repeat sales?

Quality management is difficult

What makes it so hard to manage & measure quality?

Cost: Quality management systems are expensive, at least they feel that way. If you manufacture things (including software), the investment necessary to measure & report quality can easily approach the cost of producing the product. Finding the ROI is difficult at best, while the price sticks out of your P&L like an ingrown toenail.

Time: Quality control isn’t easy, fast, or simple. Measuring & reporting quality either during or immediately after the manufacturing process is a complex, incrementally-built thing. It takes time to build. If your team’s culture is focused on speed above all else, quality management may not make your “projects to implement” list.

Quarterly expectations: Time-to-return-on-investment compounds the difficulty. Quality control feels like an expensive, plodding animal, making it easy to view as an extravagance rather than an investment.

Accountability: Quality measurement can feel like blame creation, rather than data collection. Accountability must extend beyond the head/hands of the worker to the team’s management, systems, and to the training & tools provided to that worker. Quality work is accountable by design, and rarely happens by accident. It’s resilient, running for days or weeks at a time without stopping. It’s ready for the edge cases that try to inject chaos into your customers’ world. Customers appreciate when the products they buy can take a punch.

Culture: Quality isn’t a job. It’s a value. If your team sees it as an incumbent part of their job, it will change their work, how they work, & how they think about their work. If someone doesn’t see quality as part of their job, they may need training. If training fails, they may fit in better elsewhere. People who value quality don’t want to work with those who don’t value it. Who would you rather lose?

Every job is a quality job

Years ago, a leadership instructor moped into the room after a break & started droning on in monotone. He sounded like he was having the worst day of his life. After a few minutes, he took a break. When he returned, his mood was positive & very happy to be there – despite being in the same room with the same people.

He stopped for a minute & asked if anyone wanted the old, depressing guy to return. No one did. His lesson from that little act was that “Every job is a sales job.” If you’ve ever been “greeted” by a sullen receptionist, the meaning of “every job is a sales job” is obvious.

The point? Every job is also a quality management job.

Like the sullen receptionist, it only takes one person, event or action to make us forget the good work a business has done. Similarly, when one department’s role in quality management fails, it devalues the work of the rest of the company.

Quality management systems help us monitor & correct these things before they cause reputation damage.

Forests, forest fires, and reputation

In a world dominated by short term views, quality management’s slow ROI & difficult to identify returns seem too expensive & time-consuming to invest in. Even for those who invest, a ROI search in their accounting system comes up empty.

As a result, a bad financial period makes it easy to cut what seems like an extravagance that isn’t contributing to the bottom line.

Think twice.

Quality & reputation can be both sturdy & fragile, like a forest. It takes decades to grow a healthy forest. Reputations grow similarly.

Like a random lightning strike, a carelessly discarded cigarette butt, or an abandoned campfire can destroy a decades-old forest in hours, a change in quality that goes undetected can cause reputation damage that takes months or years to recover.

Does your business have months or years of staying power? In a pinch, you can borrow to bridge a short-term cash flow gap.

You can’t borrow reputation.

Headspace, creativity & cartooning

As kids, I suspect most of us doodled in school notebooks, etc. My cartoon doodles were ink blot simple. At some point, I stopped. For decades, my only artistic-related creativity outlet was photography – which I first learned to do with a film camera when I was five.

That’s the backstory.

Enter the cartoon

Over the last few months, I’ve been taking a cartooning class. In the coming months, you’ll see why. Right now, what’s important is how cartooning helped me reach an epiphany re: “real work”.

The cartooning course starts simply by learning better hand / pencil control. You develop muscle memory as you would when running football drills or practicing dance moves. Next, we trace & hand copy – all intended to improve drawing mechanics, make you better at editing yourself, seeing how subtle details make a substantial difference in the impact & realism of a cartoon.

Up to this point, I’m doing fine. My cartoons are better than I expected them to be so far (low expectations), but I’m no Gary Larsen.

Then it happens. We’re asked to start adding a handful of doodles to our daily drawing tasks. This means I have to make up stuff. From scratch.

Result: I hit a wall.

My day was so scheduled with tasks, professional and personal responsibilities, etc (including the specific cartooning assignments) that by the time I was ready to doodle, I’d exhausted the creative juices that doodling requires. I was left with a painfully blank page.

A blank page is an awful thing. When writing this piece each week, I usually have a topic or experience that bubbled up as “topic of the week”. Occasionally, there’s something to discuss that takes a few weeks (like two pizza teams). When I start these pieces with a blank page rather than having a seed of an idea, you (the reader) can probably tell. Those weeks, my writing seems weaker, at least to me.

Blank page. Blank slate. Empty lot.

Back to the cartoons. I stared at the blank page & didn’t know what to doodle. Eventually I got them done, but they lacked creativity and felt uninspired. Something was wrong.

Then it hit me.

I’d been struggling with a similar problem on a greenfield project that’s moving too slowly (vs. my expectation). It isn’t that I wasn’t allocating focused time to it, but it was stuck.

The blank slate is a challenge. But why?

“Greenfield” projects start from an empty page, a blank slate, an empty lot. “Brownfield” projects work with existing assets / projects, like remodeling an existing house.

Looking in from the outside

Fenced-off focus time has always worked for me when I need to get serious work-in-the-business (skill) tasks & work-on-the-business (manager) tasks done.

Sometimes high level (executive / investor) work gets done there, but historically, I’ve needed more of that time – particularly as I see things today. It’s a classic operations trap  (too much working in, not enough working on) that focus time usually cures.

However, focus time wasn’t doing it this time.

Here’s where cartooning provided the epiphany: The cartooning instructor suggested that I use references from line art, even when doodling. Why? Our mind fills in the gaps when we see fast moving actions like dancing and sports. This makes it difficult to visualize & cartoon a moment in time. Meanwhile, remembering those things is easy, like a movie in our head.

During the next doodle session, I realized the trouble I was having with doodling creativity was the same problem slowing down the creative process on that greenfield project. Worse yet, I realized that this could also affect higher level work & thinking on executive & investor level tasks.

My takeaway: I wasn’t using enough reference info for the greenfield project.

Your takeaway: Blank page projects are easier get rolling when using reference info (like seeds) to germinate creativity & accelerate progress. Give it a try.

Bonus takeaway: I’ve learned the “uninspired / unimaginative” thing can be my opinion only (rest assured, sometimes it isn’t). When I look at a page of cartoons right after I’ve finished them, I see through eyes that still feel the frustration of being unable to draw what the mind conceives. My reaction? “These need a lot of improvement.” When I look the next day, or even an hour or so later, they usually look much better. Let your work percolate a bit, then review it. Fresh eyes have value.

Photo by UBC Learning Commons

Went to the gym once. Didn’t work.

You’ve probably heard about things that didn’t work in someone else’s business. The story probably included an assertion that whatever isn’t working for someone else also wouldn’t so won’t work in yours. The tool itself is generally irrelevant. More often than not, the problem is a lack of consistency.

Execution isn’t easy. We do the wrong things. We do the right things at the wrong time. We fail to prioritize, or prioritize poorly – often doing the urgent rather than than the important. Each of those things have their own solution, tactic, or cure. The challenge is executing every day, every hour, every appointment – as appropriate for the solution, tactic, or cure. To be as effective and efficient as possible, all of these things require consistent execution.

We all have a ton of things to do. It takes a systematic intent to consistently eliminate tasks of no / low value, making room for the high value work our peers and customers need most.

Consistency gives

Consistency has a number of benefits. If you are consistently good, people will depend on you / your company – and soon get to the point where their expectations are that you will always do, say, and deliver what they expect. This clientele will tell people. Some of them, the most rabid types, will tell lots of people. A small percentage of them will practically take it as an insult if one of their friends or colleagues don’t use their consistent vendor.

Consistency gives your clients something steady to latch onto at a time when many of them feel there is little they can depend on other than themselves. Outside of your spouse and perhaps a few others, do you have a vendor you can depend on no matter what? One that you would bet your business on? Think about the peace of mind that would give you if you had that kind of vendor (or vendors) in place.

Consistency is a quality you can sell, price higher, and use as leverage when competing for a new customer. Anyone can make a single sale. Consistent vendors make that sale while claiming an asset – a new, long term customer.

Consistency takes

Do you have vendors or places you do business with as a consumer where you always have to remind about delivery or deadlines? Do you frequently have to correct a vendor’s work or invoices / paperwork? Do their work habits force you to be the one who must consistently follow up about promises, on-time delivery, service windows, quality and completeness? Is that the exception or the rule?

How does that make you feel? What’s it feel like the next time you have to purchase or get service from a vendor like that? Do you dread it?

Are you repeatedly changing vendors in an attempt to find one that you can consistently depend on? How does that feel?

Does your business track churn?

Churn happens when a business gets X new customers and loses Y customers each month. If you have to track it, you’ve probably got a churn problem. Maybe it reflects the direction and growth of your MRR (monthly recurring revenue) due to your business model.

Churn happens because customers cannot depend upon multiple vendors in your market. Yes, others are part of this as well, otherwise new customers wouldn’t be filling YOUR bucket that’s also leaking customers every month. Some may be new to the market, but a reasonable percentage of those new customers are coming from other vendors who aren’t taking good care of them. How long will you keep them? Consistency is a factor.

If you ever ask a former customer who churned away from you, they will almost always say they left because of price. Price is an easy excuse to use and it’s one they know you will be least likely to argue about. However, churn is rarely about price. More often than not, it’s the last straw after a customer has lost patience in the consistency of your product / service quality. First they get frustrated, then the investment seems like a waste, and finally, they’ve had enough.

No one gets into business to intentionally be bad at something. It takes effort. Wasted motion. Lost focus. Lack of intent.

Process by process, employee by employee, consistent execution improves quality. Going to the gym once doesn’t produce ideal results. Neither does inconsistent execution.Photo by Dan Harrelson