Marketing automation won’t save you

We’ve talked about marketing automation on and off over the years. On any number of occasions, I’ve suggested that you use these tools because they can help you get things done that most businesses simply can’t (or won’t) get done any other way. That’s still true. Even so, it’s important to understand that buying and deploying marketing automation isn’t a cure-all. 

Adjusting expectations

Marketing automation firm ads like to imply that their tools are the reason that a company’s revenue, lead volume, etc are growing like crazy. One look at these lofty figures tempts you to dive right in, assuming that the automation is going to save your bacon. It won’t.

Some assert that their clients’ revenue has grown by xx percent and try to leave the impression that this happened simply because they turned on their software. Not quite. 

You need to understand why I say “It won’t” and “Not quite”, so let’s talk about what marketing automation can do, and what it won’t do. Having proper expectations is crucial. 

Marketing automation can and won’t…

Marketing automation is a great thing – particularly when used well. In my mind, the two best reasons to automate your marketing are to improve the consistency of delivery of your marketing message, and to learn what’s working.

It’s easy for a business owner to forget to send a sales email,  newsletter, postcard, or follow up email. If you use any sort of customer service software, you know exactly what I mean. Customer service software helps you stay on top of service requests. Result: customers and their needs don’t get forgotten in the chaos of a busy day. Ever gotten sidetracked and forgotten to email a particular group about an upcoming event or sale? The wrong time to figure out that you forgot to send email invites is when you see a small turnout at an event. Improved consistency of delivery makes a big difference.

If a vending machine takes your money and gives you nothing, you wouldn’t put another dollar in it. When you start receiving data proving that certain advertising gives you nothing in return… your decision is similar. You fix it, or you stop using it. Learning what works changes everything. It tells you where to spend and where not to spend. Marketing automation software is pretty good at making that easier.

Marketing automation won’t write emails for you. It won’t make your emails better (sort of – more on that later). It won’t put your marketing on autopilot. Autopilot implies “push one button, take a nap until it’s time to land the plane“. You DO have to set it up and regularly attend to it. However, it won’t make you manually sort through user lists, or deal with a number of manual tasks that none of us have time for. While it can automatically take action based on an event, you have to set that up. 

Do something. 

One of the benefits of marketing automation software is that it requires you to DO SOMETHING. When you spend money on something that can send emails at just the right moment, you have to have written and queued these emails. That’s not the same as looking at a fast approaching payroll date and semi-randomly rushing out a marketing email or calling someone to buy an ad (yes, it happens).

Likewise, while these tools can post to social media for you on a day when you’re too busy to do it, you have to have already written and queued that post.

In the presence of automation something interesting happens: we have to be better prepared. The power these tools provide “obligates” you to develop some marketing discipline. That’s what I meant earlier when I said marketing automation tools won’t improve your emails “sort of”. With advance prep and consideration, your email and other messages are certain to become more effective.

Circling back to the “credit” that marketing automation firms claim, well, some of that goes to you. “Accidental” marketing rarely works well, so a portion of the gains from automated marketing are due to better preparation.

Marketing automation won’t save you by itself, yet it’s quite likely to improve results if you prepare well, use the tools, & take action on the data produced. Combined with what’s in your head, these tools will help you find more of the people who need the solutions you offer.

The one thing you dare not automate

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.

Why automate?

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.

Photo by audrey_sel

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

Your backups are worthless

Last week, we discussed that business owners do a good job of protecting their business assets – except for work-in-process and data. While I could one-off any number of work-in-process situations, doing that in a vacuum isn’t particularly effective. I can, however, cover some common steps for making backups of your data that anyone can work from.

Backups don’t matter if…

Backups don’t matter if you can’t restore from them. That’s what makes them worthless. I once encountered a financial services client whose backup tape had not been written to for over five months. Meaning: They couldn’t have recovered any of the contracts, loan documents and other paperwork that had been processed for at least five months. Even worse, the tape was bad, so even the five month old backups were unusable. Their financial / account data was housed off-site, so it was not at risk. Even so, having no backups of those files could have put them at serious risk if a hardware failure occurred.

The take home: It’s important to check your backups to make sure they succeeded and to attempt a practice recovery on those files on a regular basis. If you can’t restore a backup, the time taken to make the backup is wasted and your business data is unprotected.

Don’t forget your website

While the next portion of this pertains specifically to WordPress, the steps and justification for the steps I’m about to recommend also apply to other web-based content systems – such as Drupal, Wix, Joomla, etc. These systems are popular because they allow you to build and maintain a nice site without an expensive custom programming job. According to research done by non-WordPress researchers, WordPress is used on 27% of web sites.

In February 2017, a WordPress bug related to their new REST API was fixed and rolled out. While WordPress fixed the bug quickly, they waited only a week after the bug fix was available before publicly revealing the details of the most severe part of the bug. Legit or otherwise, any delay in updating WordPress on sites that use it made a WordPress site subject to this hack. Within hours of revealing the previously mentioned details, the volume of hack attempts using this bug escalated into the millions of attempts over a few days. In a few days from Feb 6th through Feb 10th, over a million WordPress sites had been defaced. Fortunately, the defacing was easy to reverse.

While the flaw was on WordPress, it’s a painful reminder to keep your WordPress-based site updated. You can tell WordPress to auto-update itself, as well as themes and plugins. Despite the availability of auto-update functionality, only 37% of the many millions of WordPress sites are up to date, according to data published by WordPress.org.

In addition, replace or remove plugins that aren’t updated and tested regularly. Many once-popular plugins are no longer maintained. They may continue to work, but any security vulnerabilities in the plugin(s) won’t get fixed. Any security problems will be there until you stop using the plugin. Bottom line – Not worth the risk.

Finally, protect yourself against the cretins who do this kind of stuff. I recommend a combination of the free Sucuri security plugin and the paid WordFence plugin. The latter tool provides a flexible set of tools to block people from your site – including the ability to block users by country. If your business has no need to interact with folks from countries known to harbor hackers, then you can prevent most access by people in that country. “Most” because IP-based geolocation technology is dependable, but not 100% perfect.

Automated and off-site

As with most things of this nature, I suggest automation. There are a number of tools you can use to automate backups for your website, whether or not the site uses a content management system like WordPress. There’s no reason to make this yet another manual task you have to do each day. As I noted above, backups are worthless if you can’t restore from them. Be sure to test your ability to restore from the backups you’re taking.

Last but not least, take a copy of the data off-location or use an online service. If your building burns, the backup media was sitting on the computer won’t help you recover. Dealing with fire or theft is tough. Losing your business data only makes it worse.

This year, customer follow up will be different.

For many businesses, two things happen this time of year. One: You get a bunch of new customers. Two: Many of the new customers you acquired during this time last year “forget” to come back. The customers on the first list cost time and money to acquire. A fair amount of the people who “forget” to come back were never asked to. In other words, the business didnt invest the time / money for new customer follow up.

There is a problem with this concept. Being able to follow up requires having some contact info for your clients. These days, people are all too used to being nagged incessantly, mostly by mail and email. They’re also concerned about privacy and identity theft, which increases their reluctance to provide you with their contact info.

Why they think you’re a spammer

While it keeps the FCC and others “happy” to publish boilerplate privacy and security policies, most people either won’t read them or won’t care that you have them. Until given a reason to think otherwise, they will group your request with all the ones they’ve received before. This means that you will be thrown into the bucket with the companies who used their contact info inappropriately.

Inappropriate doesn’t necessarily mean illegal but the net impact on the business is roughly the same.

While many marketing people and business owners think otherwise, they don’t get to decide what is spam and what isn’t. The recipient does. The legal definition is irrelevant. No matter how good you think the message is, the recipient decides whether your messages are out of context, incessant, annoying or of no use. If your new customer follow up message matches any of those criteria, they will unsubscribe, opt out and might even stop doing business with you.

Even worse, they will group you with all the other spammers and be super hesitant to provide you with information in the future – even if you need it in order to serve them as they wish.

Poorly conceived customer follow up has a hard cost

Spammers are of the mind that they can send millions of emails for free. They have the luxury of not caring if they retain a “customer”. You do not. They have the luxury of not caring about the cost of a lead, much less the lifetime value of a customer. You do not.

When you send a message that feels to your customer like spam and it causes them to unsubscribe, there’s a hard cost associated with that. Think about what it cost to get that person to visit your store or website. We’re talking about labor, materials, time, consultants, employee salaries, service costs, etc. Every lead source has a cost and a ROI. The latter comes from the lifetime of that client relationship with your company.

When your message causes the client to unsubscribe, your lead cost rises and your ROI is likely to drop because the lifetime customer value of that person or business will probably stagnate.

Great, so how does my customer follow up avoid this?

Expectation management.

When they provide contact info these days, people have questions about the use of their contact info:

  • How it will be used.
  • How it will be shared (short answer: DON’T)
  • How it will be secured.

You have to be crystal clear (and succinct) when answering those questions. You have to adhere to what you said. Stepping outside the bounds of what you said you’d do, even once, breaks what little trust was granted when their contact info was shared.

Whether you feel it’s justified or not, people are hyper-sensitive to this. If you want to build a lifetime customer relationship with them, your behavior has to show it.

A suggestion

Everyone likes getting stuff on their birthday. It doesn’t have to be a (heaven forbid) 50% discount. You don’t need their birth date – which they will be protective of due to identity theft. You only need the month. During their birthday month, a simple offer or add-on that is special to them is all you need. Do you have any low cost, high perceived value services that could be given away with purchase during their birthday month? Make sure it’s clear to them that you will use this info to send them something of value during their birthday month – and stick to that.

The alternative is to keep paying more for leads. There are only so many people in your market. Nurture your clientele and show them you’re always thinking about how to help them. Win the long term game.

How fast can your business go?

Is your business ready to face a no-huddle offense?

In case you aren’t a football fan, here’s a quick summary of differences between “regular” and “no-huddle” offenses:

  • A regular offense has 25-30 seconds (depending on the league) to “read” signals (instructions) from coaches on the sideline, swap players in and out from the bench (if desired), huddle (have a brief meeting) and start the next play. In the huddle, the quarterback tells everyone what the play is, communicates the information necessary to run the play, and makes sure everyone knows what signal they’ll use to trigger the hiking of the ball to start the play. The read, swap, huddle process starts as players walk and/or jog back to their teammates at the end of the previous play.
  • A no-huddle offense handles the read signals, swap players and huddle steps as they run back to the line to setup for the next play. As soon as they are set, the ball is usually hiked to start the play. Instead of 25-30 seconds between plays, you might see 8 to 12 seconds (on average) on a well run no-huddle offense.

The big difference between these two setups is that the defense also has the same time to read, meet, swap and setup for the next offensive play – with the regular offense. With the no-huddle offense, the defense has to react much more quickly. While the offense has to move fast to keep the defense “unprepared”, they at least know what’s going to happen next – even if the quarterback makes last minute changes (audibles) before the play starts.

A no-huddle offense quickly exposes defenses that haven’t practiced against no-huddle offenses. More importantly, it exposes a team without a system in place to deal with playing a no-huddle team.

Ok, that was a long-winded setup, but I didn’t want to lose anyone unfamiliar with football in the U.S. The point of comparing the regular offense and the no-huddle offense is that there are parallels between how defenses handle the tempo of a no-huddle game and how your business deals with the increasing tempo of business, much less the pace of change.

Are you feeling the pressure to deliver faster than last year? Did you go faster last year than the year before? Do you expect this need to accelerate every year is going to continue, or do you think that things will go back to normal once you get past this next push?

I think you need to plan on need for speed sticking around for the duration.

Two ways to go fast

With that expectation on your back, the need to increase There are two ways to go fast – with haste, or with a system.

While those who start off with haste might get a lead, it’s pretty typical that they will find themselves assembling the plane while rolling down the runway. Some pull it off. Most don’t, because they aren’t designed for speed. Instead, they simply decided to go fast.

Deciding to go fast is OK. Deciding to do it without a system designed to keep the quality of everything at level your clients are used to (or better) is risky.

Systems are the key

A system of systems is what you’ll need to increase speed without losing the quality and other factors your clients already depend on. Each system can be simple, but you have to be able to replicate it, perhaps automate it and most of all – depend on it to perform a certain job. A system’s job might be to check the quality of one step of a process, or simply to verify its completion. 10 systems might check quality at 10 places, or might make sure you follow up properly, insure that you have the right data recorded, or confirm that you have the right materials and labor scheduled for a particular item. These processes become a system of systems when they work together to help your business work.

When this system of systems is designed to protect the moving parts of your business, then you’re designed for speed and can increase the speed of production and delivery without risking quality and reputation.

Once you have these things in place, you’ll be more difficult to compete with. Not only do competitors have to keep up with your quality, but now they also are forced to deal with the pace you maintain.

Filling cracks with automation and metrics

How many emails did you send last Tuesday? How many phone calls did you make last Thursday? How many things fell through the cracks last week or last month?

The first two are trivia until you start thinking about the time they consume compared to the return they produce.

The last one is the big one: tasks that fall in cracks, meaning you forgot to do something, or have someone else do something – like make a call to close a sale or follow up on a lead.

I’m guessing you have no idea how many things disappeared into cracks last week unless they’ve cost you business since that time. If they didn’t have a cost, does it matter? I think it does, but not for the reason you might think.

Metrics are lonely fellas

Metrics are great, until they aren’t. Their failing? Metrics tell you what happened and in some cases, what is happening, but they don’t tell you what to do next. By themselves, metrics can get lonely.

Automation can cure that by either telling you act on what’s happened (or is happening), or by doing it on your behalf with your advance permission.

You need to get metrics hitched up with automation, but not solely to get your metrics delivered regularly. While that’s certainly a very good idea, there’s more to the marriage of metrics and automation than prompt and consistent delivery.

There’s curing that crack problem.

Preventing cracks is better than fixing them

If you drive a diesel pickup, particularly one that’s chipped, tuned and so forth – you know what I mean. If you’re a tuner, you probably have an Edge or similar device monitoring exhaust temperatures and other engine information.

Those are metrics.

If you have an Edge or similar, you may even have it setup to tune your engine’s “brain” as engine metrics signal a need for something different.

The tuned diesel truck owner uses tools like this to prevent engine rebuilds while getting the best possible performance out of their truck. In a similar fashion, stock traders use automation to sell stocks when they hit stop loss points because they want to prevent portfolio rebuilds while getting the best possible performance from their investments.

Create a crack prevention system

Metric driven automation like that used by the stock trader and the tuned diesel owner can likewise keep our business fine tuned simply by making sure we’re aware of things that need to get done on a daily basis.

Simple but effective methods include making appointments for yourself and keeping reminder-enabled todo lists in your phone. Obvious? Sure, but they can be all but life saving when chaos finds its way into your week.

I use a few simple online tools to keep track of my work, but I’m always on a quest to find a way for them to nag me more intelligently. These tools help me remain responsible by making sure I get the right things done at the right time.

For example, after seven years, my Flathead Beacon editor knows he’s going to get this column from me every week, even if isn’t there on deadline day (five days before press day). When he gets to his desk on Monday (press day), he knows it’ll be there and it won’t require editing, except for rare occasions when my headline is a bit over the top.

Occasionally, 11pm Sunday arrives and the column isn’t finished. I have a reminder on my phone to tell me to get up 90 minutes early on Monday (ouch, right?) so I can get it published on time, allowing him to meet his commitments.

Here’s the crack prevention: Automation helps me meet my commitment, no matter how hectic life gets, no matter where I am. If the automation was fully data-driven, the reminder would only occur on Sundays when my column hasn’t yet been posted. Some situations will demand that level of data-driven automation. You don’t have to cut it as close as 11pm on the night before. Getting up 90 minutes early on Monday is my self-inflicted punishment / motivation not to let that happen.

Together, automation and metrics allow you to become more dependable as your business / volume grows, while still remaining independent. Don’t forget to show your team how to use automation to improve their performance.

The importance of performance metrics

Last time, we talked about metrics that answer questions to help you increase sales.

Metrics aren’t solely about sales and marketing. Quality and performance metrics drive your business. Can you identify a few that would cause serious concern if they changed by as little as five percent?

If there are, how are you monitoring them? Monitoring and access to that info is what I was initially referring to last time. The performance metrics I’ve been working on are a mix of uptime, event and work completion information. In each case, a metric could indicate serious trouble if it changed substantially.

Uptime metrics

An uptime metric shows how long something has been running without incident. In some fields, particularly technology, it’s not unusual to have seemingly crazy uptime expectations.

Anyone who has picked up a landline phone is familiar with the standard in uptime metrics – the dial tone. For years, it was the standard because it was quite rare to pick up the phone and not get a dial tone. Its presence became an expectation, much as our as yet unfilled expectation of always-unavailable cell and internet service is today. The perceived success rate of the dial tone is probably a bit higher than reality thanks to our memory of the “good old days”.

Today’s replacement for the dial tone is internet-related service. Years ago a business would feel isolated and threatened when phone service went out. Today, it’s not unusual for a business to feel equally vulnerable when internet service is out. The seemingly crazy uptime expectations are there because more businesses function across timezones (much less globally) than they did a few decades ago. Web site / online service expectations these days are at “nine nines” or higher.

Nine nines of uptime, ie: 99.9999999% uptime, is a frequently quoted standard in the technology business. Taken literally, this means less than one second of downtime in 20 years. There are systems that achieve this level of uptime because they aren’t dependent on one machine. The service is available at that level, not any one device. Five nines (99.999%) of uptime performance allows for a little over five minutes of downtime per year. Redundancy allows this level of service to be achieved.

Events that idle equipment and people are expensive. What’s your uptime metric for services, systems, critical tools like your CNC, trucks on the road (vs. on the side of the road), etc?

Event metrics

Event metrics are about how often something happens, or doesn’t happen – like “days since a lost work injury” or “days since we had to pull a software release because of a serious, previously unseen bug“.

In those two examples, the event is about keeping folks focused on safety first and safety procedures, as well as defensive programming and completeness of testing. You might measure how many crashes your software’s metrics reported in the last 24 hours and where they were. Presumably, this would help you focus on what to fix next.

What event metrics do you track?

Work completion metrics

Work completion metrics might be grouped with event metrics, but I prefer to keep them separate. Work completion is a performance and quality metric.

Performance completion not only shows that something was finished, but that successful completion is a quality indicator. Scrap rates and scrap reuse get a lot of attention from manufacturers in part because of the raw material costs associated with them. Increasing scrap rates can indicate performance and quality problems that need immediate attention.

One system I work with processes about 15,000 successful events a day – not much in the technology world when compared to Google or Microsoft, but critical for that small business. If the number dropped to only 14,900 per day, their phones and email would light up with client complaints, so there’s a lot of emphasis on making sure that work completes successfully. Catching and resolving problems quickly is critical, so redundant status checks happen every 15 seconds.

Events of this nature are commonly logged, but reviewing logs is tedious work and can be error prone. Logs add up quickly and can contain many thousands of lines of info per day – too much to monitor by hand / eye via manual methods.

These days, business dashboards are a much more consumable way of communicating this type of information quickly and keeping attention on critical numbers – such as this example from klipfolio.com:

business performance metrics dashboard

What work completion metrics do you track?

Half of China’s companies do this

Recently, I was reading a story in the New York Times about a Chinese city’s effort to vastly expand their use of industrial robotics. The story’s video hits home 98 seconds in.

The official being interviewed indicates that the city’s goal is to reduce the number of employees by half and finishes his sentence by saying “many companies are working toward this goal“.

Not one company in one town. Not the company responsible for the birth of Chinese industrial robotics, but “many companies”.

Why expand robotics use?

They’re doing this by working toward the creation and deployment of high-quality “human-like” robotics technology.

A senior manager at one of their leading manufacturers of industrial robots says “China’s demand for industrial robots has been on the rise year after year. Compared to America, Japan and Europe, the increase in demand is enormous.

When I dig a little deeper, I find that there are a number of reasons for this drive to expand the robotization of China – and not all of them are expected:

  • They can’t hire enough people fast enough.
  • Their level of output has stagnated because there are only so many places to put all of these people, which drives…
  • They are encouraging people who have abandoned rural areas to move back to their hometowns – in part to take some of their skills with them.
  • To cut manufacturing costs.
  • To increase safety

What’s this got to do with your small business?

Perhaps nothing. However, a few of the items on China’s list are likely to fit business needs where you are, even though the scale of your project might be dwarfed by a large Chinese manufacturing business.

Can’t hire enough people fast enough.

Not a week goes by without hearing this from someone. Now, to be sure, some of this is driven by salary levels, but most of it is driven by the availability (or lack of it) of trained people in some skill areas. It’s of particular concern in rural areas where you find specialized businesses putting down roots, or simply growing out of local need to create jobs and enterprise.

One of the key things that challenge the expansion of modern businesses in rural areas is the availability of skilled workers with advanced skill sets. Not everyone needs these, but those who do struggle to fill openings when they’re ready to expand.

Abandoned rural areas

China’s encouraging people to move back to their hometowns, in part because some of their urban centers are overwhelmed. Hopefully some of this is also because of a desire to improve urban worker lifestyles. The abandonment of rural hometowns isn’t limited to China, however. In the U.S., rural communities have been shrinking due to “brain drain” as their graduates move away to college and either don’t ever return, or perhaps don’t return for several decades. If they wait several decades, they don’t necessarily come back to town and start families. Instead, they come back as empty nesters.

To lure graduates with newly-gained modern skills, their hometown needs a place to work where they can use those skills. Kids don’t run off to college and get an engineering degree so they can move back to town and manage a franchise restaurant.

To cut manufacturing costs

As I noted above, the graduates we want to keep at home need a place to leverage their skills and that place needs to be competitive in the global market they serve, otherwise the jobs are tenuous as the employer simply cannot compete in the long term.

To increase safety

Safety has been a topic for discussion here in Montana for a while, due to a less than ideal safety record in recent years. While some of this can be addressed through training and safety equipment, there is another way to cut down on dangerous work.

Yes, robotics

These last four items can be addressed in part – not completely – through robotics. Maybe you aren’t ready today. Maybe you don’t manufacture today. Maybe you already have some automation in place. Maybe you and your staff worry that you will be risking your business and its jobs by involving robotics.

Maybe you’ll be risking your business and its jobs if you don’t involve robotics.

While it’s not applicable to every business, it’s worth a look. A safer, more productive workplace creates jobs that more likely to stick around.

A simple, high value tactic many miss

When people know that you help small businesses and you’ve had a newspaper column since 2007, everyone who has a bad (or even mildly annoying) experience at a business wants to tell you about their latest adventure in commerce.

Sometimes I hear about situations that really aren’t the fault of the business. Other times, the stories I hear make me wonder what the business owner(s), or their staff, is thinking. Of course, there are always two sides to any conflict, including the parts you never hear from either side.

Conflict isn’t number one

While you might think disagreements and conflicts are the number one think I hear about, that isn’t the case. Today’s topic isn’t really about conflict, but it can easily become a source of conflict if the affliction goes untreated.

The affliction? No follow up. Insufficient follow up often feels like no follow up. Prospects call or email and want to order something. Their call or email goes unanswered. They get frustrated. They call someone else in your market. You not only lose the sale, but you probably lose the possibility of ever having that person as a client.

Recently, I heard a story from someone who wanted to buy an item, called several vendors in that market, failed to get any follow up action or contacts by anyone in the market, then called a nationwide retailer with a local presence and didn’t even hear back from them. When they contacted the retailer, the retailer’s staff couldn’t provide any information about when the item would show up, much less if it was on its way. At this point, months have gone by without any progress, despite involving several vendors.

So, on a $500+ purchase, multiple vendors in the same market appear to be unwilling to do the work to close the sale. Normally, this situation would make me a bit suspicious of the would-be purchaser’s mood, but in this case, I know them well enough that this isn’t about the person wanting to buy.

Follow up. That’s all.

While this is a pretty unusual situation, the key for all of this is follow up. Return calls, emails, etc are a necessity to close a sale and keep a client. So why would vendors who routinely sell a $500-3000 item fail to do that? I can’t explain it. What I can do is tell you that this isn’t unusual. Lots of businesses fail to follow up enough, or fail to follow up at all.

Solo entrepreneurs fail to do it. Small companies fail to do it. Medium sized companies fail to do it. Large companies fail to do it. I can’t explain why, but I can tell you it is the number one source of frustration of the people I talk to. I hear it about salespeople, order departments, support and customer service as well as repair and service people.

Communicate. It’s that simple. It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign you care about your business, much less about your clientele and their needs. It’s an incredibly easy and inexpensive way to make a client stick around and develop a loyalty to your business that’s incredibly hard to break. Think of it as an almost impregnable fence that your competition can’t get past to gain access to your customers. It’s not expensive or complicated.

Why doesn’t follow up happen?

Follow up doesn’t fail to happen because the business owner or their staff don’t want to take care of their clientele. Most of them do care. Sometimes it isn’t obvious that follow up isn’t happening, or the owners and staff don’t realize that some of the most important follow up is letting their clients know what’s going on even when nothing has changed.

The most common reason that follow up doesn’t happen is that there’s no system to manage it. Without a system to make sure it happens, today’s daily chaos takes over and those follow up tasks are soon forgotten.

When I say “system”, I mean a mechanism that makes sure that you follow up with clients, whether or not the system consists of paper, technology or something else.

The key is that you put together something that you and the staff will actually use because “I need to remember to call Joe” isn’t a system for anything other than disappointing Joe.