The ingredients of effective criticism

Today we’re going to use a common political event (and some football) to discuss the effective delivery of criticism.

Recently a new candidate joined a local political race. The new candidate’s campaign has spent plenty of time pointing out things that are broke, need attention, or didn’t go well. That doesn’t mean the candidate has nothing to say, nor that they have nothing valuable to add to the conversation about how their community is run. Even so, this “list” dominates their campaign while offering no specifics about their qualifications for office.

Criticism is not a qualifying skill

We all have the right to bring attention to things that aren’t working or need improvement. Even so, the ability to identify problems doesn’t qualify us to run the organization exhibiting those problems.

For example, my alma mater is (putting it politely) having a rough decade on the football field. It’s easy to note my team’s problems (or at least the symptoms), including their consistent inability to win a game after trailing at the half. When this doesn’t happen for six years, it stands out.

The ability to identify the team’s problems doesn’t qualify me to run a NCAA football program. That’s why I didn’t offer a solution. I might have theories, but management expertise doesn’t make you a coach.

The same kind of expectations exist for that political office. It’s real work. The ability to criticize isn’t enough. The job requires related experience.

If you want a job that requires leading the management of a $25 million budget, people expect that you’d have a fair amount of experience successfully managing a budget of at least low seven figures. Criticizing your opponent’s handling of the budget is fair game. Likewise, so is the public’s desire to hear about your experience and specifics about what you’d do differently and why.

If you want a job that requires leading the management of a team of ~900 employees, you should have experience successfully leading the management of a team of 100 or more. Tell us about your management successes, what you learned from your management struggles, and specifically how you’d make things better. Don’t think we won’t be taking notes and coming back to them to remind you of your suggestions if you win.

Criticism in the workplace has similar demands. If you provide context and propose specific solutions, great. If you’re simply complaining – does that help you, the company, or your target?

Embarrassing people isn’t criticism. It’s ego.

While I frequently discuss inept, unfortunate, or unproductive business behaviors I’ve experienced, I avoid mentioning the business. Why? Embarrassing an employee or business owner serves no purpose. It doesn’t improve the lesson / advice. It doesn’t positively serve the reader, or the business. It’s the kind of criticism that accomplishes nothing.

I prefer to shine a light on things a business can improve how they serve their customers. In turn, this gives the business a better chance of not just surviving – but thriving. It should also build job security for their team, and help the owner’s family benefit from the risk they took wh en opening a business.

To make your team’s feedback loop more valuable, teach them how to deliver effective criticism.

Criticism delivery determines the response

Whether running for office, grumbling about your team, or criticizing how you were treated in a local business, how you deliver that criticism says more about you than it does the recipient. It also plays a substantial part in how your criticism is received and the response you receive.

Criticism is not a bad thing. We all need it. It serves the recipient, not the one delivering it. Much of the criticism people given these days serves only the ego of the person doling it out – and does nothing for the person receiving it.

Ego-driven criticism looks like this: “(business / org / person) is terrible at (whatever). Fire them.

Effective criticism is intended and designed to help those receiving it, rather than drawing attention to the provider.

When delivering criticism, include specifics and where possible, suggestions for improvement. Describe the problem behavior / activity / outcome. Compare it to the desired behavior / activity / outcome. Discuss solutions. Ask how you can help. The outcome is usually what needs to be fixed, not the person.

Think about the best criticism you’ve received. What made it so valuable? Consider that when criticizing the work of others. You’re giving them a gift.

Photo by AutrementDit Toronto.

Why your growing company needs to work slower

You might have seen last week’s discussion of automating administrivia and clerical work simply as a systemization of the E-Myth. That’s fair, but remember that the goal was to reduce cognitive load on focus workers. We didn’t eliminate ALL administrivia and clerical work – and you can’t. Discussions on scaling a growing company rarely cover the burden this work creates. The key to keeping this work from bogging things down? Work slower.

Work slower?

A few years ago, Richard Tripp and I were talking about the challenges of installation and on-boarding in complex enterprise environments. He started the conversation by asserting that “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

As he explained, you have to slow down your processes to improve them.

On a rough road, potholes, dips, and washboards make it difficult to drive safely at high speeds. On a smooth paved road, accelerating to and maintaining cruising speed is easier, safer, and more comfortable. The situation is exactly the same for a growing company’s admin and clerical work.

Note the emphasis on “and maintaining” in the previous paragraph. It isn’t fast to repeatedly accelerate, slow down, then accelerate back to cruising speed. It’s jerky and disruptive. If processes aren’t streamlined and capable of consistent speed and volume, then the work is neither smooth nor fast.

A flat tire on a busy highway

Process disruptions kill you when you’re trying to scale operations.

Fits and starts are demoralizing. One-offs to deal with random failures and issues consume a ton of time and take your team off task. This frustrates your team and delays work output – often backing up other work as a result.

These problems impact your operations like a flat tire affects travel on a busy highway. When a car has a flat, the impact isn’t limited to that car – it slows down the surrounding cars.

In your business, work (traffic) backs up, plus the task that suffered the failure (the car with the flat) is completely halted. Any work dependent on the stopped task is also at a dead stop. A shipment stuck in production can hold up packaging, shipping, the loading dock, invoicing, or other areas.

When you work slower, you create time and space that makes it easier to identify and eliminate the bumps and potholes in your processes. “Slow is smooth” takes shape. It’s about reviewing fundamentals, but also about the deconstruction and review of each part of the process.

Hummingbirds and governors

If you’ve ever watched a hummingbird fly, there’s not much to see. By naked eye, the wings are a blur at best. The bird hovers and appears to veer about as it flies. It seems anything but smooth.

In a slow-motion video, the beauty of a hummingbird’s flight is revealed. Every motion is smooth and consistent – motion that looks much different to the naked eye. Likewise, slowing down your processes and analyzing them step by step allows you to identify inefficient motion, poorly designed screens and paperwork, as well as unnecessary steps.

The elimination of inefficient motion isn’t the reason for a governor, but the idea is similar. A governor is a physical device that changes position as rotational speed of the governed mechanism increases. Eventually, rotational speed reaches a point where the governor moves into a position that cuts the throttle or otherwise limits the speed of movement.

Like speed, scaling reveals flaws

Governors are used to limit machine speed, giving the machine a means of protecting itself.  A mechanism without a governor could gain enough rotational speed to tear itself apart.

Your processes at at risk in the same way. If your business is used to shipping 100 items a day or onboarding 15 new customers a month, things change when you double those numbers – or add a digit. Where 100 shipments a day sustained you, 1000 a day might put you out of business. Under those conditions, an ungoverned not-so-smooth business can tear itself apart.

Smoothly-operated, well-rehearsed processes can accelerate to high speed and high volume without exploding – thus “smooth is fast“. You may need to get faster equipment to handle the volume, but faster equipment won’t fix a broken process. It simply breaks it at high speed.

Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of your work processes allows you to be ready to “remove the governor” at any time, without allowing the business to destroy itself.

Raise productivity by lowering cognitive load

Are you trying to figure out how to help your team become more productive? Traditional efforts to raise productivity will help, but are they enough? At some point, you’ll find that the law of diminishing returns will take over. Rather than give up, you & your team need to reassess the team’s workload and how it’s handled.

It’s important! It’s mandatory.

Traditional attempts at workload assessment usually include a re-prioritization of tasks. Regular priority assessment is a good thing, but not often a great thing. Sometimes it resembles “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. What takes a re-prioritization from good to great is leaving your team open to not assigning a priority to EVERYTHING – i.e.: giving permission to not do a task. It’s OK to identify work as “work we don’t need to do”, or “work we don’t want to do”. However, your team still has to do this work because “It’s important!” and/or “It’s mandatory”.

There’s “mandatory because the law requires it”, but there’s a second form of mandatory that’s rarely talked about: “mandatory because I said so”. Some tasks legitimately fit this criteria, but many shouldn’t. The quote “Mandatory is one of the crutches we use when we can’t lead people.” speaks to these tasks. I’ll bet we’ve all seen this type of mandatory task in the workplace.

Mandatory doesn’t mean a person has to do it

Mandatory workloads tend to be administrative and clerical work placed on non-admin / non-clerical team members. Sometimes, it even includes administrative and/or clerical work placed on admin / clerical folks. Some of this work is necessary and important, like timekeeping for employees whose time is billed out to a customer. The rest should be subject to re-prioritization.

Your team has to stop doing unimportant work so that they can focus on what IS important. I’m sure you’ve heard and thought that before. Even so, we continue to put more “administrivia” work on our people. Sometimes this work is important, but if you look a little harder at it, you’ll find that much of it can be delegated. My favorite team member to delegate this kind of work to is “systems”.

Why do you want to either stop doing this work or delegate it to someone other than an employee? Cognitive load.

Every task you give a person increases their cognitive load. Take a high-value employee who does focused work for you. If in addition to that work, they also have five or more daily administrative / clerical tasks on their plate, those things have to be remembered.

Why does cognitive load matter?

Ever notice how you suddenly remember things at two am, or when on a walk, or while on an airplane? At two am, you’re usually sleeping. On a walk, your mind is free of all the things at your desk. On an airplane, the restrictive environment means your phone is useless and often, so is your computer. Those environments have a lower cognitive load, and suddenly, your brain remembers things again.

Extra tasks competing for brain power create “rush hour traffic” for the brain. Driving a car full of kids in heavy, urban traffic is more mentally draining than driving them on the open road. The complexity of heavy traffic and urban roads make driving more challenging. Add a bunch of kids in the car and.. well, you’re probably all over what cognitive load means. Add darkness, rain, and fog. Each layer increases the cognitive load your brain must manage in order to drive.

New administrative and/or clerical work increase the total cognitive load for employees who do focus work, decreasing the importance of their “real work”. Are these admin tasks more important than the number one task any random team member is expected to complete that week? My guess is that they aren’t.

Lowering cognitive load via systems

Work that requires deep thought is sabotaged by interruptions. We “clump” meetings together in order to reduce interruptions and increase available focus time. We clean our office to reduce clutter – and thus visual “noise” / distractions. Unnecessary tasks, office clutter and interruptions all add to cognitive load.

People under high cognitive load don’t need darkness, fog, or rain (interruptions / clerical work) added to their “drive” (workload). While these tasks can’t always be eliminated, they can often be automated. If someone is making a phone call or checking a website multiple times per day to determine if an action should be taken, is there a way to automate that determination? If you have systems tracking various aspects of your business, is someone manually tabulating that info? Is there a way to automate that tabulation? What can you eliminate or reduce? What can you automate?

Photo of Atlas by Simon Cope

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

Is it better to keep a customer or replace them?

“$29 per month… NEW CUSTOMERS ONLY!” Most of us have seen something like this and thought less than pleasant things about a vendor who hangs these new customer offers out in public where existing customers can see them. That bargain basement deal that’s not available to existing customers doesn’t make you feel good about your decade-long relationship with that business. The loyal customers who have stuck through good times and bad with that vendor – including their mistakes (which we all make).

The thought?

“Where’s my screaming deal?”

It isn’t that these deals are inherently bad. The mistake is putting them out there in front of everyone – including your current customers. If you can find a way to avoid showing the “loss leader for new customers only” offer to existing customers – avoid it. In some media, you can’t avoid it – so don’t use that kind of offer there. It ticks off your loyal customers. Every. Single. Time. Your customer service team gets to take flak about this each time you run these promotions.

Meanwhile, a lack of communication to existing customers plants the thought in customers’ minds that their vendors take them for granted. We know you’re thinking of us when you outsource customer service to Jupiter to save $1.29 per hour, or when you discuss how to shrink receivables. What sort of effort do you invest to retain existing customers?

If you have convinced your customers that you aren’t thinking about them & that you’re more concerned about getting new customers – why should they feel differently about you? You’re advertising for new clients everywhere. While those ads are out there chasing down more new customers to fill the leaky customer bucket, are your long-time loyal customers (and the rest of your customers) being ignored?

All the single ladies

Look at it this way: If you’re someone’s steady “significant other” and they are constantly out chasing down new “others”, most of you wouldn’t take that so well.

Why should your customers feel any different when they aren’t being wooed, cared for, thanked, communicated with, or given any special attention? They only seem to get attention when they call to report (or complain) about a service, delivery, or product failure. Once the initial sale is concluded, is the only time you connect with your clients when they contact you, or something has broken or otherwise gone wrong?

“That’s what everyone else does.”

You might be thinking “That’s what everyone else does. Why should I behave differently?

You are, or have been, a customer of car dealers, cable companies, dry cleaners, restaurants, various repair shops, handyman services, plumbers, sewage tank pumpers, electricians, hair salons, clothing stores, hardware stores, quick lube shops, etc. Almost all of them are advertising for new customers this week. How many of them are ALSO communicating with you to keep you, to bring you back, to make you feel good about being a customer, and/or encourage you to refer them to someone you respect and/or care about?

Very few.

They’ll likely continue appearing to take you for granted for weeks, months, or years – all while chasing new customers, all while grumbling about churn as they slowly lose customers to someone else’s $29 new customer offer. Don’t be that business.

Doing only one of these (looking for new, caring for existing) is not sustainable. Yes, I know it’s more work to do both. Most places need to get new customers, but most of those same places spend a lot more money & effort to get a new customer than they do to keep and care for an existing customer. Doing both means making an effort to protect the asset you paid for – yes, customers are an asset. Perhaps not in accounting terms, but in the real world where customers don’t grow on trees, we’d all rather have more long-time customers and others begging to do business with us.

Don’t spend $12 to get a customer this month, only to ignore them hereafter and hope they stick around, and then go spend $12 to get another one. That assumes you know how much it costs to get a customer (and it’s always more than you think).

Recycling customers is expensive.

Take better care of your existing clientele. Well cared for clients tend to buy more, buy more often, & for a longer period of time. They refer their friends & colleagues because they finally found someone who gets it. Be that someone.

Photo by martin.mutch

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

Where is the friction in your business?

What do you repeatedly force your clients to do that they simply shouldn’t have to do? Put another way, how does your business frustrate your clients? When dealing with your business, what drives them crazy?

What’s friction?

Can’t open the package without a Jedi sword? Can’t read your boarding pass printed in that microscopic font? Have to do this and this and this and that to buy or pickup a purchase, only to have to start over again? Can’t find out when something will be delivered? Have an appointment window that stretches from sunrise to sundown? Press one because your call is important to us and will be answered by the next available agent?

Yes, those kinds of things. They aren’t the sole domain of the cable company or that big company that’s easy to despise. Small businesses do these things as well, so we have to be vigilant and chase these things out of the building.

Sometimes these things are simple and inexpensive to fix, yet failing to address them creates a point of aggravation between you and your customers. These points of aggravation are often the tiniest of things. Like a grain of sand in your shoe, they could be the start of something much worse if allowed to fester.

Should it fester, you may lose a customer. Losing even one customer to one of these little things will transform that friction-creating “little thing” from inexpensive to very expensive. Remember, losing a customer usually isn’t losing a single sale – it’s losing all future sales from that customer. Friction is expensive.

How do I find these aggravating things?

Ask.

But what to ask? No matter who you’re talking to, poke around in their experiences with you regarding installation, deployment, service, customization, billing, paperwork, repairs, upgrades, financing, returns, shipping, etc. Ask questions about these things using different terms. Repeat yourself until you get the details you need. Using different terms in your questions will provoke different reactions and prod different memories from your customers.

Ask your best customers.

They’re the ones you’d hate to lose. The ones you know by name when they walk in the door. The ones whose names are familiar to your bookkeeper – and not because they don’t pay their bills. They’ll tell you different things than your newest customers, but that’s OK. There isn’t one frustration that fits everyone. Your business has many components. If you sell a number of products and services, you’ll need to ask the best customers of each. You’ll likely get different answers for each product and service.

Ask your newest customers.

Because everything is new, they’re quite likely to be more sensitive to oddities and more observant about every little thing your company does. Listen carefully to these folks. They may mention things that you’re vested in. You might get defensive. Fight that urge. There may be a perfectly valid reason for doing whatever it is. Brainstorm with the customer how you could accomplish this result in some other way.

Ask lost customers.

Did you lose a customer to another vendor? Give them a call, or see if they’ll set a time to visit in person. Make sure they understand that you aren’t there to sell them, but instead, you want to know what went wrong. What could you have done better? How did you frustrate or annoy them? This lost customer probably isn’t alone. Follow up with them once you’ve addressed the things they mentioned. A handwritten card thanking them and briefly describing what you’ve done to correct these things will both thank them and tempt them.

Preventing the growth of friction

Bear in mind that these things aren’t often created intentionally. Most of the time, “they just happen” and we miss them long enough that they become systemic. Once they become systemic, they seem normal and we have to battle a little harder to identify and evict them from how we do things.

Create a culture of ownership for finding and fixing these things. When your team has the permission to fix these things on the spot and bring the situation to your next process improvement discussion (ie: lunch), fixes don’t have to wait. Set boundaries as needed, but be careful to encourage improvement without waiting for seven signatures and a wax seal.

Photo by theilr

Work, Caring, and Filtering Employers

While last week’s “don’t work and don’t care” piece was inspired by comments about millennial workers, those “tests” evaluate things important about all prospective employees. Yet there’s more. One non-millennial responded: “Saw your blog post. Filtering employees is only part of the problem. The other side of the coin is filtering employers.

Exactly. So how do you filter employers?

Don’t filter employers because…

Do you avoid employers who filter prospective employees as I described? Don’t. The more care someone takes when hiring someone to join your team, the more likely that person will fit in and carry their share of the load. Good employers have learned to place small obstacles or tasks in the process to identify those who don’t pay attention to details and/or don’t follow instructions. “Email your resume to gimmeajob@company.com in Microsoft Word format” tells someone you aren’t a bot, you read and follow instructions, and you have a baseline of necessary skills. Can you use Word? Can you email an attachment? Is your grammar horrific? Did you use a spellchecker? If you submit a resume littered with errors, employers will rightly discern that you aren’t a good fit for their work, or the quality their work demands. For some jobs, these kinds of skills things are critical – even if they aren’t the core job skill.

Some employers have a complex interview process. As long as the interviews are engaging, it’s OK. If some interviewers are disinterested or not engaged (such as during a team interview), give the impression they don’t want to be there, or are unprepared to interview you, investigate. Ask about their hiring process. They’ll either be able to describe it, or not. If they tap dance, beware. Ask why they are involved in the process of selecting you as a candidate, but do so late in the discussion. You don’t want probing questions to take the interviewer off-task.

Even so, they need to sell you on their company as a good place to work. How prepared for the interview was this person? Did they seem to know little about you? Did you get the impression they were reading your resume, cover letter and other materials for the first time while conducting the interview? This could indicate a lack of organization, a lack of preparation, a random “Hey, go interview this person” assignment, or it could be that the person who normally conducts that interview is traveling or sick.

Filtering employers

You already know that you’ll be asked if you have questions. Do you prepare for them in advance? It’s clear from my comments that you should expect the interviewer to be prepared – and the same holds for you. The quality of your questions is critical.

Your questions during the interview:

  • Indicate whether or not you did your homework on the company.
  • Identify reason(s) to walk away, or become even more enthusiastic about the job.
  • Help the interviewer figure you out while letting you play detective.

About 20 years ago, I flew to West Virginia to interview for a senior executive-level position. Something seemed off, so I dug deeper than usual. At the time, online information was scarce, except for stock market info. I found news of a buyout, a bankruptcy, & reorganization. I asked about these things during my visit. They were floored – no one else asked about these events. They told me later that these questions were the turning point to them making an offer. I didn’t take the job, but I learned a valuable lesson about homework.

Ask about:

  • … company meetings: Do they have an agenda? Are people there who don’t need to be? Are they frequent or infrequent? Are they productive? These things speak to management style and organization, among other things.
  • … projects: How are projects managed? What happens after a successful project? What about an unsuccessful one? Ask to hear project “war stories”.
  • … the sales team: Some companies have them, some do not. The longevity of the sales team, if there is one, can indicate how things are going.
  • … how they use data: Is there a CRM or other strategic data use?
  • … their on-boarding process. What should you expect day one?
  • … crisis management. How did the last crisis / emergency get handled? What did the company learn from it? Was it something that allowed a change in process / design so it could be prevented in the future? How did this affect the staff?

If someone wonders why you care about these things – tell them that you’re looking for a solid, well-run company to grow with, not simply a paycheck.

Photo by adpowers

They don’t want to work & they don’t care like I do

Human resources. Human capital. Two terms that I really don’t care much for (especially the latter one), yet they attempt to describe what is usually the most important part of your business: employees.

You might think your customers / clients are the most important part of your business, but without good employees who want to take care of your clients, one of two things happens: Either you won’t have any clients or you’ll be doing all the work yourself – which sounds more like a job than it does a business. Two complaints I hear most often: “They don’t want to work” and “They don’t care like I do“.

They don’t want to work

If you have people working for you who don’t want to work, it’s not their fault. It is your company’s fault because the company hired them.

They may be lazy. You may be exactly right about why they are lazy, but it doesn’t matter. The fact that they are lazy and the reason(s) for that laziness are irrelevant. It’s relevant that the company hired them before figuring out they were lazy. Your job as the hiring manager is to find a way to figure out who is lazy (etc) and be sure not to hire them.

Repeatedly complaining (for example) that “all millennials are lazy and don’t want to work” is not only incorrect, but a waste of time. If the millennials your company hired don’t want to work, blame the broken process used to hire them. If three of every 100 applicants show the right stuff, then make sure your process finds the three.

Hiring people is easier if you put a process in place that makes it all but impossible for someone to join your team when they have the attributes of someone who can’t be successful at your place. This process doesn’t come in a box from Amazon. You can’t simply open the box and plug it in. It requires ongoing attention. It’s work. It takes time. It isn’t easy. The process needs to involve the people a prospective employee will work with, and those they will work for.

There are people who shouldn’t work at your place with your people. Your job is to eliminate them before you hire them. To eliminate each attribute that you don’t want working at your business, you add steps to the process that identify those attributes. “Drama queen” is a one of the attributes I eliminate, noting that these folks are both male and female.

Do you want to hire passive aggressive jerks who will tick off your customers? If not, your hiring process needs a way to filter out those people. Sometimes, it isn’t easy, but if you wanted “easy”, you shouldn’t have started / bought a business.

Attributes like lazy, passive aggressive, or any other that cause you to wish you’d never hired someone are no different than “must be able to lift 70 pounds”. They are a minimum qualification for employment. It isn’t the job prospect’s responsibility to apply only for jobs that they are ideal for. That might be nice, but isn’t realistic. It’s your job to sort them.

They don’t care like I do

Of course they don’t. Remember, they aren’t owners, so it will be rare that they will care like you do. They don’t have as much at risk as the owner and they sure don’t have as much potential upside as the owner.

Expecting someone to act like an owner at $10 an hour is silly. Training them to think like an owner and then giving them more responsibility (and more cash) when they act that way is a whole different thing. Some will still work hard, but won’t think like an owner. Some will work hard and think like an owner once they are trained and learn that there are things to be gained by doing so.

A rare few will act like an owner, at least to the extent they can. “These people” will start caring when they figure out that you do. That starts at the hiring time. If you find a way to stop adding lazy, crazy, and dazed to their department, they will notice. If you ask them for referrals, they won’t suggest you hire their dodgy, lazy friends. It simply makes more work for them. Instead, you’ll get the friends they trust to do their part.

Photo by jonny goldstein