What makes your customers safe?

We have attorneys, insurance, OSHA, safety regulations, procedures, safety gear, training, etc to help us protect our business, while keeping our staff members & customers safe. We know that in some markets, someone still might get hurt despite all our preparation, training, safety equipment, etc.

If you run a hotel with a pool, offer zip line rides, take people on boat rides / float trips, lead hikes or offer horseback rides into the backcountry, there are obvious risks, but almost every business has some level of risk like this. Have you wondered how you’d respond if something horrific happen to your customers while they were at your place of business? It’s one of a few worst possible nightmares for a business owner. Could you, much less your business, recover from something like that? Could your staff?

There are (and will continue to be) a lot of what ifs related to the recent duck boat disaster in Branson. It’s difficult to comprehend, much less try to relate to what the victims’ families, the employees and the business owner are going through. While it’s the worst possible time for all involved, the rest of us owe it to ourselves, our team, and our customers to learn from it.

If your business involves activities that could put your employees and/or customers in a scenario where they could get hurt, you should watch the process closely as they talk to the media, address safety issues that are discovered, and change processes while customers are in their care.

Review. Look for clues. Ask for help.

What you’re able to see from the public perspective of this accident will help, but the opportunity to learn won’t stop there. There will likely be additional considerations discussed by your advisors that they will want to share with you. As an example, you’ll want to talk to your attorney, insurance agents, licensing and related safety enforcement agencies, as well as industry groups.

As details come out about what went wrong in Branson, you may find subtle gaps in your tools, gear, processes, inspections, or training. Even if you have 40 years of experience in your business, as the boat tour business does, you can still learn from the lessons and discoveries that come out of this.

Your customers know they’re putting themselves at risk to take part in adventures. They expect your team to be experts. Reviewing your current procedures, training and equipment use is at least as important as making sure that you’ve developed enough of a sales pipeline to have the necessary cash flow to make payroll three months from now.

One more critical tool

There’s more to this than safety equipment and training.

When bad things happen, time has a way of changing. For some people, time stands still, or more commonly, slows down a good bit. For others, it accelerates.

It’s easy to find stories about highly accomplished people (athletes and others) who describe what happens when they get really good. They’ll say the game or activity “slows down”. It means that they are so ready, so fit, so well-trained, and so mentally prepared that the activity feels as if they have plenty of time to do whatever they’re good at. It looks easy when they do it because to them, it is. For the rest of us, the game or activity feels like it keeps getting faster and faster. When we try to keep up at a pace we aren’t used to, we start making mistakes.

Leadership works this way too.

When bad things happen, preparation slows things down. When you’re the owner and 20 people are asking questions at once, preparation, experience, and practice help you keep your bearings, calm everyone, and handle the questions.

You aren’t the only one who needs this preparation. Your ENTIRE team needs leadership training. When everyone else panics (and perhaps rightfully so), they will need leaders to help them find a safe way out. Leave no one out. That kid in produce might be the one who takes charge and guides your customers to safety when the worst happens.

Train your entire team. All of them will need one another to get through it, both during the event, and afterward. You’ll need their leadership most of all. If the worst never happens, you still have a team of leaders. Your customers will notice.

Photo by Symic

Are you testing your training?

By the time you read this, we’ll have finally arrived home from an almost six week long work / play trip. What that really means is that I worked as we travelled and she played. Ok, I played a little bit too. The beauty of having a business that isn’t tied to a single physical location is that you can do that work from anywhere. BUT… that isn’t today’s topic. I think I’ve harped on the value of remote work enough, at least for now.

This was a long road trip. We saw long “lost” relatives we hadn’t seen in 20 years, had a little bit of beach time, spent time with family and college friends, as well as knocking off a few things on our “gotta do this” list. One of the constants of a road trip – particularly one that takes consists of a lot of time in the high desert plains and mountains – is thirst quenching. There’s a certain drive through place we visit that has a happy hour twice a day – half off or very cheap drinks (no, not THOSE kind). These places are (almost) everywhere along our trip’s path, so we managed to visit quite a few of them.

At almost every one of these places, we found that we had ordering problems. An unbelievable frequency of them, in fact.

The problem is not the problem

At first, we thought it was my accent. I don’t have one, according to me. Ok, I really don’t have one and I have had enough trouble with this at drive ups that I tend to be that guy who enunciates every word slowly so that even Siri could understand it.

Didn’t help. When you’ve had this issue in Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and a few other states whose people talk far differently accent-wise, you start to get the idea that it isn’t you.

The same data and experiences that help you figure out that it isn’t you also help you figure out that it isn’t the person on the other end. That was the good news.

Eventually, we started asking questions. Yes, I know. Who does that?

The real issue?

At first, it really wasn’t clear what was creating this issue at so many locations. While I was still thinking it might somehow be me or engine noise, the problem was consistent in too many places, even with the engine off. Plus we were driving a Subaru, not a diesel pickup.

What was clear was that employees of this franchise system were having massive problems all over the West, Midwest, and as far east as the Florida panhandle.

After talking to a few employees at different locations (after we had trouble ordering at each of them), we found out that they were having terrible struggles with their point of sale ordering system. It wasn’t clear if it was new, poorly designed, unclear, and/or if an awful lot of people hadn’t been getting trained well, or all of those things.

It eventually became clear that the more experienced employees were doing ok with the system (think: Morning visits usually staffed by a manager), while afternoon visits were the source of the struggle. It finally seemed to come down to newer employees who may have recently started for the summer. They would be less familiar with the menu and the point of sale system, as well as the challenges of voice ordering.

In one case, the flustered person trying to take a two drink order finally called over their manager, who cleared up the point of sale issue almost immediately. The manager was very apologetic to us, but I don’t think we deserved an apology. I think the employee who perhaps hadn’t been trained enough or mentored enough was the one who should have received the apology (and some additional training).

The point? Test, train, repeat.

We encountered similar things at other businesses during our trip.

If you implement point of sale, tech support or order management systems in your business – whether you own/run a restaurant or a heavy manufacturing business, find a local fast food joint that has deployed do-it-yourself ordering kiosks.

Every manager (including senior ones) will benefit from watching the general public as they use these systems. Having done that… watch newly trained employees do the same with your systems. Only then will you know if your training is working.

Photo by familymwr

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.