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

Discarding clients & the math of job security

How often are you discarding clients? When fussy, needy, and/or high-maintenance clients complain repeatedly, there’s significant temptation to simply toss them out with the garbage. Some business owners build “filters” into their marketing designed to repel such clients.

When an existing client provokes thoughts of “Life’s too short to deal with this“, who fires them? How is the decision reached? Is the process documented? How is the decision communicated to the client and to your team?

Hammers, nails & curmudgeons

I asked some friends how they describe people they’d fire as clients. Their responses included unreasonable, unrealistic, frustrated, afraid, disgruntled, troublesome, pedantic, rebarbative, cranky pants, curmudgeon, etc.

Are you teaching your team that getting rid of imperfect clients is the only acceptable solution? Owners know there are situations that don’t merit dropping a client. Owners discard clients based on their experience. Does your team have that experience to back up their decisions? Take care that your team doesn’t use this tactic like a hammer while seeing every complaining customer as a nail.

It’s essential to be careful using “You’re fired!” as too-frequent use can damage your reputation. Businesses learn to detect bad apples and few are surprised when these clients get fired. Taken too far, your business can get a reputation for arrogance. People will think you discard clients the first time there’s an objection or even a question. You don’t want your reputation to be “At the first hint of a problem or even a question, they tell people to leave and not come back.” Some prospects will hear that and decide not to show up.

The math of discarding clients

Discarding clients sometimes feels as easy as pulling a splinter. The pain and aggravation fades quickly, making you wonder why you ever tolerated them. Even so, every choice to discard a client impacts your bottom line. While getting rid of high-maintenance “time vampires” will probably improve your bottom line, you have to be careful not to let your team believe that’s the only solution available. That’s where the math kicks in.

If your team gets rid of one customer a month, what does that mean to your bottom line? You likely know the typical customer’s lifetime customer value (LCV). Owners usually know how often the typical customer buys from them. They also typically know how much customers spend on average per transaction. Combined with the rate at which you are adding new customers, you can determine what an improper “firing” costs you and how long it takes to recover from it.

Uninformed profitability math

Employees don’t usually know the financial impact of discarding clients. When you explain the financials of your business to your team, it helps them understand why you think the way you do. Tools like “The Great Game of Business” (start with the book) help employees understand how the business works financially (free resources) vs. how they think it works.

Learning how the business works from a financial perspective encourages employees think more like owners. It can alter “I’m working my tail off for $15 an hour while the owner gets rich.” to something closer to reality. Even if the owner IS getting rich due in part to the risks they took & the investments they made, “uninformed profitability math” isn’t healthy. This “uninformed profitability math” rarely create behaviors that are positive for the business.

Many employees have never had the opportunity to see how their work (and how they work) impacts company financials. Meanwhile, business owners regularly complain how their people don’t think like owners. Part of that thought process is understanding the financial impact of events that occur in the business each day. Knowing that what your work does for the bottom line carries substantial value.

A “We’re having a good (or bad) month” message to employees is rarely accompanied by data explaining why. Understanding what good and bad month means affects the security a team member feels about their job. This impacts their confidence in their ability to provide for their family – and certainly affects job performance and attitude.

What does “we’re having a good/bad month” mean at your business? What message does it send to your team?

Photo by Shinichi Haramizu

Training: One cure for sales problems

When having a conversation about sales problems, I might remind you about the folly of only taking cash (depending on the type of business). I might also remind you to eliminate the tedious & annoying out of your buying process. There are cases where that’s useful, but mostly – it isn’t. But not today. Today, I’d like to remind you of the value of training your sales team.

You’ve got questions

Heard of Quora.com? Quora is a website where you can ask questions. Many times, you’d never have access to those who answer: world-class subject matter experts. If you asked an airplane question, you might hear from an engineer who helped design it & three commercial pilots who fly it.

Why Quora? Because I found a Quora question pertinent to this discussion: “What can businesses learn from the military?” It reminds me of the not well informed “Why don’t non-profits run like a business?” question, but this is a much better question.

A Marine named Jon Davis who deployed to Iraq & Afghanistan answered: “Training”.  His answer breaks down like this: 1) A detailed process to track progress. 2) Regular job specific training. 3) An annual schedule to ensure standards are met. 4) Find & reward teachers. 5) Ignore the “training them to leave” myth. 6) Discipline.

If those six items are checkboxes – can you check any of them?

I’ve recently met several folks who work in the car business. The one I wrote about last week is the only one I’ve encountered recently who knew the product well. I don’t mean he could wake him in the middle of the night & tell me (blindfolded) how to change a timing belt. I mean he didn’t have to run to the showroom to find out the horsepower for a vehicle whose manufacturer makes cars with only two engine choices across the entire product line. Yes, it happened.

This isn’t a sales team failure. It’s a management failure. Are you preparing your salespeople to succeed? Product knowledge isn’t what sells cars. Rapport is. Guiding me to a “special value” (car that’s been on the lot too long) because it pays more than a mini (minimum commission) doesn’t build rapport.

A question about the value of rapport: What’s worth more to you, getting that “special value” off the lot, or creating a relationship that provokes me to return every x years to buy only from you for the rest of my vehicle buying days, while also encouraging my friends to do so? You decide.

Sometimes product knowledge is critical: “Can you help me find a good red wine?” The salesperson who knows less about your product than most prospects will struggle – & reflect poorly on your business. You need someone who understands the problems your prospects want to solve & how your solutions address them.

Don’t have a sales team? Still affects you.

One of the best parts of the answer Jon gives relates to on-boarding. He describes how the military trains recruits and leads them. He then compares that to the training that most businesses provide: haphazardly, if at all, and with little ongoing mentoring –  which unfortunately matches my observations over time.

You probably hire experienced people so they’ll step in & become effective quickly. Do they do it the way you want it done? Did they learn a completely different way of doing what you do? What if you don’t want them to do it that way? How will they learn your proprietary way of doing things?

Don’t assume an experienced new hire has mastered the systems, machinery, methods, and processes your business uses to succeed. Learn from their experience, but train / mentor them.

No matter what, the last thing you ought to be doing is turning them loose on your customers, prospects, products, and services and simply assuming that everything’s going to work out. Maybe it will. They might survive, or get by, or be good enough. Did you exert all that effort to find just the right person only to toss them to the lions with the expectation that they’d get by?

How much does it cost each time you have to replace a poorly trained salesperson who failed? How much does it cost to keep someone who isn’t as effective as they could be because they had to learn your ways by the seat of their pants?

Photo by formatc1

Sustainable revenue demands leadership

Recently, an employee of a tool company publicly commented (in a snarky way) about another vendor in their market. The target of his remarks isn’t a competitor. They create tools which complement what’s created by tools sold by the company that the snarky guy works for. Do employees who publicly snark about a vendor (or a client) think about the outcome of a vendor conflict that escalates badly? Perhaps. Let’s take a look at what’s at stake. The situation speaks to the leadership you provide to your people, even at a small company, and how it affects the sustainability of your company, and possibly that of your market.

What does sustainable company really mean?

We talk about sustainable companies and how culture, hiring, marketing, product, service, and leadership all contribute to create a company that lasts a very long time. Let’s tear this down into the pieces you and I can directly relate to. We’ll do it in the context of the two companies I’m referring to, but keep in mind that these things affect every company – including yours.

Many millions of dollars (and other currencies) are made each year from work created by the tools sold by the company that snarky guy works for. The company is rather small and one might think they’re insignificant in the big picture when compared to the big vendors who own that market internationally. You might think the same thing about your business. Don’t. When you look at regularly performed analyses of tool usage worldwide, the snarky guy’s company rarely appears on the list. In the rare occasions when it does appear on such lists, it’s in the second 50 or second hundred. In this market (perhaps like yours), it may seem insignificant. As such, why should we care what one employee said in public, right?

The leadership of that “insignificant” company should care. As should you when your people speak.

The math of an “insignificant” company

While there may “only” be 5000 to 10000 people worldwide who own tools made by snarky guy’s company, a portion of them are generating a good income – good enough to support their families for decades in some cases. This is not “random math”. I know a fair number of these folks. Many have employees. A few have 50 or more employees in the U.S. and/or scattered around the globe, and/or their products are a critical tools for companies with many employees.

When you take that community as a whole, we’re conservatively talking about between 100,000 and 200,000 people affected by the income generated via products created by these tools. Included in that figure are employees, customers, family members of the vendors, client companies, and other groups directly affected by that income. Expand that to the users of the products created by these people by adding those who make a living from the products. Add those making a living where these products are a critical tool in their work day. Now add their employees and families. Add the vendors all of these companies and families buy from. While this tool isn’t a global leader (and that’s OK), it still creates a significant amount of impact. For those who keep the lights on and their kids fed based on income rooted in those tools or businesses run by products created with those tools, it’s quite personal.

I suspect the 100,000 to 200,000 figure is quite low, even though it’s the estimated cumulative impact of one small tool maker who rarely (if ever) shows up on the radar of their industry. Small, much like the impact from any number of small businesses in your town. Including yours, perhaps.

So how does leadership affect sustainability?

The impact of even the smallest of companies must be taken seriously. Your company may seem insignificant compared to large multi-nationals, but the sustainability and leadership of your company has real impact. It affects homes, cars, kids, retirements, groceries, utility bills, and college plans for more families than you may have considered. Your team’s behavior follows the leadership example you set, which reflects upon your community, your company and you. Counsel your people about speaking about your company, your clients, your competitors, and those you collaborate with even in the smallest of ways. The smallest of things start a forest fire. When they do, everyone gets burned. Photo by Payton Chung

“Sink or Swim” is not training

Pentagon Secretary Rumsfeld once said “…you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” He wasn’t referring to the Army personnel, or to their level of training, but to the number of Humvees that were not armored and therefore prepared for Iraq-style guerrilla warfare, IEDs, etc.

While you don’t need armored equipment for your team, they do still need to be prepared to succeed in their roles. Failing that, they will show up and do their best. Rumsfeld’s troops may have lacked the amount of armored equipment, but they didn’t lack training.

That is one of the primary differences between the military and business: Businesses often fail to invest sufficiently in training. It doesn’t matter if they are new to the business or experienced. Your team needs training and equipment. A lack of training might prevent reasonably effective use of the equipment you provide.

Sink or swim isn’t training

Employees are sometimes expected prove their worth via “sink or swim”. They’re expected to get started and become effective and valuable on their own. Failing to do so is “sinking”, and may result in the loss of that person’s job. When the employee is new, and the skill require is sales, sink or swim is usually little more than setting up the employee for failure.

I’ve seen this touted as a means of “separating the men from the boys“, so to speak. The euphemism is about identifying who is ready and able to produce results, but the reality is more nuanced than that. When you put an untrained or poorly trained sales employee on the floor, on the lot, or wherever they work with prospective customers, never forget this: They’re dealing with prospects.

At your car lot or furniture store, you know the business. If 100 people walk in on a Saturday, you can probably tell me within a small margin of error how many are “just looking” and how many are ready to buy. Likewise, you probably can tell me how many of that 100 you’ll likely sell that day. How many of those prospects are you willing to give to someone else because an untrained salesperson loses them? First impressions are everything. If your team is ineffective when the prospect makes that first visit to the showroom, lot or office, you probably know the likelihood that they will return.

Sink or swim undermines a new (or inexperienced) employee’s confidence, which will certainly be reflected in their performance and interaction with every prospect and client. Worse yet, your prospect may leave and never return because they had an ineffective, unproductive experience with someone who simply wasn’t trained well enough to provide for their needs.

Think of the most valuable customer you have. The one who buys furniture every 10 years for their 50 employee office. Or the one with a fleet of pickups for their on-site service people. How would you feel if you found out your new salesperson was sinking when they met the person who would have been your next “most valuable customer”?

Training isn’t fluff. You can tie real dollars to it.

Got the basics?

They’re called “The basics” because everyone should know them. Don’t assume everyone knows them. Train the basics. Vince Lombardi started a championship run by saying “This is a football” to a roomful of experienced pro football players. Take nothing for granted.

As I visit businesses with the intent of making a purchase, I routinely encounter salespeople who exhibit behavior that leaves the impression that they are untrained, or perhaps under-trained. Some are young and perhaps inexperienced, yet some are not as young and not as inexperienced.

Commissioned salespeople walk around without business cards, don’t know their product as well as the prospect, don’t attend to new arrivals “in the sales arena”, etc. At some level, these problems are the salesperson’s responsibility, yet new and under-trained salespeople don’t often realize they are under-trained. They can lose a great prospect who “appears indecisive”, but in reality is annoyed. Ultimately, these issues are on management. Management decides who gets trained, when, and for what skills.

Good salespeople deliver value. I visited a Michael’s Saturday to get a frame re-glassed. The employee in framing told me exactly what would happen, when it would happen, what else I could expect, and the guaranteed service window. This was not a big ticket purchase – yet this person was obviously well trained in what to communicate to me. I’ll go back because that guy made a routine purchase memorable. Isn’t that what you want?

Photo by Jay Phagan

Being ready for a new customer

In a sport, when a player isn’t ready when the play starts, bad things tend to happen. In some sports, a penalty. In others, the opposing team gains an advantage, sometimes big, sometimes a few points. In business, being ready when “the play starts” means you might get the business. Not being ready may mean you don’t get the sale. Sometimes this means a lot, sometimes a little. Worse yet, not being ready may mean you don’t get the customer. Not getting the customer is a critical failure. Few of us have a business where we can afford to miss out on customers. Some of us have businesses where if we miss out on that chance, we may never get another chance to sell that customer.

Being ready times lifetime customer value

Never having a chance to sell to the customer you missed can be costly. Any car dealer worth their salt can tell you how often (on average) they see a repeat customer. Do the math, and you’ll know how many cars they can sell that person’s family over a lifetime – assuming they don’t mess up the relationship. Factor in the relationship habit that often creates in children, referrals to friends and referrals to other family members and before long, you can see that the value of establishing that first relationship can be sizable. The same can be said for real estate, legal and financial assistance, among others. A relationship created by being ready when a new customer steps into your world as a real estate agent, attorney, lawyer or similar can result in a lifetime of steady, lucrative business, despite having the possibility of having years pass between transactions. Again, the family and friends referrals can mount up in value.. if you’re ready.

However, this type of substantial lifetime customer value creation isn’t limited to big ticket businesses. Retail, restaurants and many other businesses benefit from long-term relationships created by that first transaction or event… if you’re ready.

What does not being ready look like?

Not being ready comes in many shapes, colors & sizes. Are your people trained for the job you sent them to perform? Do they have the tools they need? Do they have the training to do that work? Do they have the materials needed? This includes brochures, business cards, safety gear, proper clothing, etc. These may seem like obvious questions, until if you ask your customers whether or not the people they work with seem prepared. I suspect you will find that they encounter ill-prepared staffers more often than you would like. Ask them if they encounter unprepared people at other businesses – without naming the business. This eliminates their desire to avoid embarrassing someone on your team, but provides examples you can use to check on your own team’s state of readiness.

Training your team is part of being ready

Making sure your team is trained is critical to making sure they’re ready for the opportunities they encounter. One of the areas I often see untrained team members is in front line positions that senior team members don’t want to staff. A good example is a real estate open house on a weekend. The listing agent can’t be in more than one place at a time when they have multiple houses open simultaneously, so the team members they book to staff the other homes is critical. If you’re the listing agent sending untrained or barely-trained people “into harm’s way”, consider the possible cost. If you send an ill-prepared team member to staff an open house, their lack of preparedness and/or tendency to act more like a house sitter and less like you can be costly. Will they collect leads? Will they follow visitors around the house like a new puppy? Will they have the home info learned well enough to answer questions without having to read the spec sheet for visitors? Make sure they have a process to follow.

A similar situation arises when a restaurant’s wait staff comes to the table not having tasted the food, wine, and other things their restaurant serves. While this might seem surprising, it happens frequently. Part of training your team is tasting the things you want them to sell. Recommendations from your staff matter.

Think about your encounters over the last week. Were they ready to serve you? How did their level of preparation make you feel about that business?

Photo by Leo Hidalgo (@yompyz)

Sidewalks, groundhogs and accounting

A couple weeks ago, Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow. As the legend goes, this indicated that we’d have six more weeks of winter. Given the kind of winter we’ve had so far, I expect more shoveling before April and May get here. Yet we’re not here to discuss the weather, at least not specifically. As I’ve roamed Montana this winter, I’ve noticed a pattern that struck me and made me a bit curious. Is the condition of the sidewalk and parking lot in front of a business an indicator of how things are being run inside the building?

Have you have heard the theory that the condition of someone’s car is a reflection of their home and/or their life? You may have heard the same about someone with a messy desk. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an interesting parallel to the pattern that I referred to earlier. The pattern is that businesses that I know to be well-run, well-executed “tight ships” always seem to have parking lots that are cleaned up quickly after it snows – and the sidewalks in front of them in almost every case is routinely spotless, salted and kept free of ice.

I don’t have internal knowledge of all the businesses in this pattern – ie: the ones who fit and the ones who don’t, but it’s quite accurate among the ones that I have internal operations knowledge of.

Broken windows

Years ago, there was a book about crime called Broken Windows, which was based on an often argued theory that doing things like immediately fixing broken windows and removing graffiti soon as it appears sends a message to the community that the area is cared for and monitored, so the criminal element goes elsewhere. New York City applied this during its well-known (and successful) battle to reduce crime over the last couple of decades.

Crime is a complex thing when you’re looking at a large urban area. First impressions, however, are not. When you arrive at a business and notice broken windows, dirty bathrooms, dirty floors, messy work areas, a sketchy parking lot, etc – it’s difficult not to wonder how things are going in the back room. How well is that business run? What sort of initial and ongoing training to the employees receive? Are their books a mess? You may not care about how under control their accounting is, but if they can’t seem to do a good job of recording your payments, you’ll start caring.

All of these things can be indicators of bigger, deeper or widespread problems. You can’t necessarily assume – everyone has bad days or makes a mistake now and then. It’s tough to keep up with the snow when you get 48″ of snow in three days.

Why does it matter?

How businesses deal with these things tends to be an incredibly accurate indicator of what’s going on elsewhere in the company. Some have well-thought out plans for what happens on days when roads are all but impassible. For some, it doesn’t matter. For those who you need to go to the hospital, I’ll bet you’ll want them to have a snow “disaster plan” that makes sure the hospital is staffed regardless of the intensity of the weather.

You can see similar things when working with employees. It’s crystal clear which businesses invest in their staff and which ones leave them to learn by the seat of their pants. While experiential learning is often a good thing, training and reinforcement gives everyone the same foundation, and sets minimum standards within a company. Without those things, the customer-facing experience and work quality can differ substantially – the last thing you want.

Why is that important? Consistent experience is everything. People don’t want to worry about which version of your business they’re going to experience today. Why else would someone repeatedly visit the same franchise restaurant as they travel the country? They know they will have a consistent experience. They know how long it will take, what it will cost and what the food will be like – regardless of the class of fare that restaurant serves.

A consistent experience is critically important to customers. The expectation (and history) of a known-to-be-consistent experience is frequently the deciding factor when “all else is equal”, even when it isn’t.

Keeping that in mind – What kinds of signals does your business send?

Chaos, frenetic activity and burning buildings

Years ago when the photo software company first started, it was not all butterflies and rainbows. Quite the opposite. Day one was full-on chaos. On Friday, the check was delivered and a jointly-written email (and written letter) from the old owner and I went out to every client. On Saturday, the code assets arrived. On Monday, reality arrived with a vengeance, along with a few hundred new-to-me (and annoyed) clients.

Instead of day one of a software company being a blank page full of “OK, what do we want to do and where do we start?”, day one was about the phone ringing off the hook. Most of the people calling eventually told me they were glad that someone took it over, but that was well after an awful lot of rescuing people (and their businesses) from the software equivalent of a burning building. While I didn’t create the situation, that didn’t matter. My purchase of that software meant that I also bought the chaos and inherited the responsibility (if not the blame) for it.

Without question, this is the worst kind of multi-tasking (as if there is a good kind). As a whole, my newly acquired clients looked more or less like this: Everyone panicking. Everyone worried about being able to take care of their clients. Everyone wanting a solution as soon as possible. Immediately would be OK too, of course, but most of them were surprisingly reasonable and patient (thankfully). I “inherited” it all via the purchase, so I clearly asked for it. Over the next few months, it took daily (or multiple daily) releases of software to bring all of that chaos to a halt. Back then, one (or five) releases a day seemed like such a big deal. Today, web-based software that runs companies like Uber and Etsy deploy thousands of changes per day.

That isn’t why I bring up this story. The chaos is.

Chaos management

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you know that it’s easy to panic. To this day, I am not sure why I didn’t – other than having been in the software business for 15+ years at that point. Despite having been responsible for plenty of high value, high pressure systems prior to that, I always had others to help out if I needed them. This time, I didn’t. Sometimes you want something bad enough that you might even forget to panic. Maybe that’s what it was. I don’t say this to humblebrag. I mention it because I’ve taken part in numerous situations where other people were involved and I want you to think about the impact of this sort of chaos on your customer-facing staff members.

Business owners might find it easy to shrug off the panic and take the chaos in stride. You may have dealt with experiences that allow you to juggle all of this and handle it without freaking out. Where you have to be careful: your staff. If they’ve never been in this kind of situation, it’s on you to make sure they get the support they need and the guidance that helps them deal with the customer service equivalent of Black Friday at Wal-Mart.

If you haven’t dealt with this before, there’s a simple strategy that’s easy to forget when the overwhelm hits: One at a time. That’s it. While it’s simple and obvious, if your team doesn’t get a calming influence and “one at a time” (or something) from their leadership (whether it’s you or one of your managers), they could panic. They could shutdown. They could unintentionally say or do something damaging to your relationship with the client.

Responsibility for handling and communicating all of this is on you (and your managers). Your team needs your backing and guidance – and preferably know this in advance. They need to know that they can escalate to you or a manager if things get bad. Obvious (again), but it’s easy to forget these things if you’ve been out of the trenches for a while.

As for clients, I suggest this as a starting point to reduce panic on the other end of the phone:

  • Communicate early and often.
  • Make sure clients know you understand the situation’s urgency and severity.
  • Deliver incremental progress. Don’t wait for perfect.
  • How your team handles recovery from a mistake is often more important than the mistake itself.

Checklists delegate a process, not a task

One of the things that tends to plague solo business owners and managers in smaller companies is delegating complex tasks as the company grows. In “E-Myth” fashion, the owner and technician (whatever that means in your line of work) is faced with the choice of delegation or overwhelm as their company grows. Sometimes there are skills issues that slow this delegation, but I often find that the complexity of a simple (to the owner) task contributes to the challenge. Consider a task that is taken for granted by someone who has done it for years. Being able to take it for granted depends on experience and the benefit of having the mental version of muscle memory to perform these tasks. The delegating party doesn’t have to think hard to remember the steps, even if the steps are challenging, technical or difficult. Where things get interesting is when you delegate a technical task such as diagnosing a SQL problem.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what SQL is – it doesn’t matter. Replace my references to SQL with a relevant and challenging delegation subject. The subject can be any detailed topical area (technical or not) in your business, whether it’s international legal contracts, electronic ignitions or chainsaw chain sharpening. The WHAT doesn’t matter. The process is what we’re getting at.

Checklists build confidence

When I had to turn over some detailed SQL troubleshooting to folks who weren’t super experienced at SQL diagnosis, the area that tended to stop them wasn’t the individual tasks performed during diagnosis. The problem was determining (or knowing) which step to perform first… and why. This created a mental roadblock at first, even though these folks could perform each of the steps that I would perform while diagnosing a SQL problem. Their biggest challenge was not performing the troubleshooting tasks, it was knowing which tasks to do and in what order to perform them.

I solved this challenge (and some similar ones) with simple checklists. The solution is an obvious one to solve the roadblock that held up productive delegation of this work. Once I provided a checklist with some description of why I perform the steps at the time I perform them, things changed. Suddenly, I wasn’t getting questions about which step to try first, or “What should I try next?”. The checklists were taking the one remaining confusing thing off the table: What to do, when to do it and why to do it at that moment.

When you talk to someone who is experienced in diagnosing problems or performing similar tasks like this – they have an experience-based, innate sense of what to try first, next and next. While some of it is Occam’s razor, a good bit of what to do when comes from having been there before. The checklists helped fill a good bit of that experience gap simply by giving folks a sequence to follow even though it was simply sequencing tasks they already knew how to perform. Eventually, their own experience fills in the gaps and they start adding their own checklist steps and notes for why that step is next.

One of the things I noticed when providing a checklist is that the skills improved quickly once they had the list to follow. Rather than facing the blank page of “what do I do first” and the mental overhead that creates, these folks were using the checklist to help them learn the progression of steps. This eliminates the overhead and provides the mental headroom to improve their SQL skills while the checklist provides a framework or a process to work from.

Checklists – Not solely for the owner

The benefits of delegation checklists aren’t limited to owner / manager delegation. The often-missing (or incomplete) but sorely needed process documentation across the entire business is tough to get rolling. Rather than looking at it like the great American novel, start with what helps right now. Who has the next vacation? Who was recently out sick? Start with their tasks. Once you get rolling, it’ll be easier to step into the job and identity the types of tasks that demand a checklist. The priority of need for these checklists will start to become more apparent with each vacation, sick day and checklist creation.

A well-armed minutiae: Urgent, not important.

Yes, I said “minutiae”, not “militia”. The similarity and power of these two words struck me, so I thought I’d substitute one for the other. One of the most dangerous things in your (and your team’s) day to day productivity is the “crisis of the unimportant”. IE: tasks that seem important only because someone interrupted you with them. Minutiae are the little things that, left uncontrolled, will consume your day and leave it unfulfilling, perhaps annoying and almost certainly empty of substantive accomplishments. Stephen Covey spent his career preaching about preventing these tasks from consuming your day – categorizing them as “urgent, not important”.

Eliminate minutiae with systems

As the owner or a senior manager, it’s critical to get out of the “interrupt me early and often” mode as soon as you can – but that doesn’t mean you can ignore the needs of those who interrupt you. You simply need to find a way to deal with them and set boundaries for them. A system helps.

Back in the days of Photo One, photography studio owners asked me to solve this problem for them. To the studio shooter, the most valuable revenue-creation time was in the camera room – ie: behind the camera time with the client in a room full of props, lights and other tools of the studio photographer. When they’re in that room with a client, the value they’re creating can create revenue for years, so the last thing they want to happen once they have “warmed up” the subject is to have the rapport / groove interrupted by someone asking where the coffee filters are, or how to process a refund for a charge split across two cards, or similar.

One answer to this is a system that provides answers to “interruption questions”. A studio owner told me that they had an answer / procedures book to deal with this, but they didn’t like the maintenance headache that it caused. This book predated Google docs and wikis, so they edited everything in Microsoft Word (or similar) and then printed the answers / procedures and put them in a three-ring binder.

The process established in the studio was to consult the book if you didn’t know the answer, then ask your manager and only then could the shooter in the camera room be interrupted. That interruption was OK only if it couldn’t wait until the camera room appointment was over. Obviously, this becomes a training issue at first so that the proper habits are established. Beyond that point, the book should get updated with one-off requests quickly so that camera room interruptions fall off quickly.

Make sure your minutiae cure is scalable

The studio owner came to me because they had a big studio and one book wasn’t enough. They needed multiple copies, but managing all the changes was a chore. Since most of the users were lusing Photo One all day, it made perfect sense to include the equivalent of “the answer book” within our software. That allowed anyone to get to it, plus the answer book functionality in the software allowed them to print a copy of the book so there were always printed copies available.

Resources like this can provide answers to questions, as well as step by step checklists or processes that allow the owner and managers to get things done the way they want, even if they aren’t available. One memorable example was “How to arm the alarm at end of day”. Do this wrong and you have no security or incorrect security. Do it right and the owner / manager gets some slack and the employee builds confidence in their ability to close the shop for the day.

A wiki, a FAQ, anything

These days, a custom desktop software feature like that really isn’t necessary because it’s so easy to build something like this into the private side of your company’s website as an internal wiki or frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) page. These assets are valuable not only for managers and your subject matter experts (SME) who get interrupted by such questions, but also for new employees or temps who come into your shop and need a resource other than “Ask Jennifer” umpteen times per week.

The last time I started getting overwhelmed by these things, I started writing down the context of the interruptions. That allowed me to see trends, identify what needed to be documented and get out of interruptionville.