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?

Hire for commitment over ego

The difference between a strong business leader and a weak one is easily detected: Who do they surround themselves with – and why? Do they hire for commitment or ego? Time and time again, you can see examples in business where a business owner surrounded themselves with one of three kinds of people:

The kind of people who will agree with everything the owner says or proposes, almost (if not never) disagrees with the owner, and when cornered, will err on the side of silence or “I’m undecided” rather than taking a stand that might later prove to disagree with the boss.

  • The group who will say little or nothing when they disagree with the owner.
  • The group who will make decisions independently, regardless of the owner’s stance / position, and aren’t inclined to hide that from the owner.
  • The group who will make decisions independently, regardless of the owner’s stance / position, but aren’t willing to offend / rile the owner by stating their disagreement.
  • The group who will disagree with the owner’s choices and decisions no matter how valid – simply because they’re the owner.

There are probably a few other groups / types that I missed, but this list covers the majority of what I’ve seen in the last 35 years.

Which group should you hire from?

From where I stand, neither 100% agreement or disagreement is a good thing, unless each decision is arrived at through analysis and thought. However, as we’ve all seen, some of these disagreements exist simply because they can (a minority, in my view) and others disagree because they feel the owner is making a mistake – however legitimate they feel that mistake might be. When you feel your boss the owner is about to make a mistake that could seriously affect your business, you have choices, which tend to fall into three categories:

  • You disagree, say so and make your case to your manager or the owner.
  • You disagree and say nothing.
  • You disagree and make your case to your peers.

When you hire someone, which choice would you prefer your future employee takes?

For me, it’s the first one, if you’re hiring for commitment over ego.

Making this possible is on you, the owner

So let’s say you’re on board with the whole “I welcome my staff to disagree with me as long as they’re will to discuss it” thing. It isn’t going to happen unless you create an environment that makes it clear that you appreciate it AND that disagreeing with you isn’t going to come with a cost. Saying it is rarely enough. You have to prove it. If it’s been a long time since you were an employee, you may wonder why you have to prove it, but trust me, you do. You might even have to create a situation where a reasonable (ie: calm) discussion gets started, even if you have to “stage” (pre-arrange) the start of the conversation. It might seem a little disingenuous to plan a discussion like this and arrange for someone to disagree with you, but it’s THAT important to show everyone that you’re willing to engage in such a discussion. You need to say and show that it’s ok to disagree with you. You will also need to find a way to communicate that it’s not OK to be a jerk when you disagree with the owner, but otherwise, it’s OK to do so.

Once the discussion is done, it’s also critical that you follow up both privately and publicly. After you’ve had time to reconsider your discussion given the input you received during the disagreement discussion, call the person into your office – and do so that it’s obvious you’ve called them in. Discuss with them what your decision is, whether you changed your mind or not. Explain to them what their comments made you reconsider and how they impacted any other work you’re dealing with. If they changed your mind, explain why. Either way, be sure that they know that the risk they took in front of everyone was zero risk and had a return on investment: You recognize that they have the best interests of the company at heart (commitment) when they publicly disagreed with you and that you appreciate it.

Hiring for commitment over ego means hiring someone who is willing to take a stand because they feel it’s best for the company.

Structure becomes infrastructure

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed the value of checklists. Checklists provide an obvious memory support mechanism and a sequence of events for work processes, but their value extends beyond that. They’re one of many tools you can use to provide structure to work processes, a comforting “I’ve got your back” to new employees or employees new to a role. In addition, they’re a means of creating some standardization of what you do. While your team doesn’t need these things for the same reason that a young child benefits from a structured life, the benefits to your business are at least as important. Structure becomes infrastructure.

Better information

Structure can take many forms in your business. A simple example is a gain in structure when you move from a cigar box to a cash register. Likewise, when you replace the simple cash register with one that’s integrated with your customer relationship management (CRM) system. These improvements increase your ability to share information and leverage it when making decisions of all kinds. Normally a CRM is viewed as a tool for sales and marketing, yet the organization that it brings to transactional data tends to improve service and your company’s understanding of client needs. Any time you can integrate data from multiple parts of the company, you’re almost certain to make the data more valuable. Put simply, having more complete information should yield better decisions.

That transaction data now takes on a behavioral component, since you’re better equipped to recognize order / re-order patterns, capacity expectations and the like. Seems like a sales thing on the surface, and to an extent it is. When you are the business who knows exactly when to refill a client’s supply of a critical component of their business, the trust and comfort level with you improves.

Clients will recognize this and start to depend on your routine fulfillment – whatever that means for your relationship with them. Whether it’s a load of sand, a dozen bags of coffee, or a courier pickup – when they see a consistent, timely behavior develop, they’ll start to depend on as if it’s part of their own infrastructure. Eventually, they’ll build upon it. That’s not just sales – it’s service. While it may seem like a little thing to know that your coffee cup is always refilled in time, that same type of fulfillment isn’t a little thing – it’s worth time and money to your clients. You become part of their business – and perhaps a part that would be increasingly painful to replace.

Being painful and time-consuming to replace is a good goal, but don’t take advantage of it. Being ingrained in their business is sufficient advantage. Don’t make it the kind of pain of change that they’ll suffer simply to gain the pleasure of getting rid of you.

What tools and/or processes can you wrap around your existing checklists and other means of process control to make them more valuable? What two systems, tools or processes can you integrate to make each more valuable? Your people are often the best resource of this info. They’re in the trenches every day and frequently have just the insights needed to make their work more productive, more valuable and more efficient.

But you have to ask.

What structure isn’t

It isn’t control, at least in a negative form. Structure changes that increase your ability to get, stay and be organized are often looked upon as ways of increasing control and decreasing employees’ ability to use their imagination and creativity. While that’s possible, those are what I consider the wrong kinds of structure. Be sure your team understands the benefits you hope the company will gain from these changes. It’s far too easy to assume the wrong thing if you don’t tell them the intended outcome.

Tools and processes that increase the level of organization free your people to expend their energy on the things that require their intelligence and experience. If you use structure to control them and limit their ability to create and deliver solutions – you’re cheating yourself and your clients. Unless the controls you’re putting in place are intended to reduce / detect internal theft or similar problems, I suggest discussing proposed improvements with your staff so you are aware of possible downsides that you may not be aware of. Finally, deployment always benefits from front line feedback and of course, testing.

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.

Inauguration Week, a time to stay focused

I have written on this topic several times over the last 12 years: Inauguration Week. More specifically, what happens to the business world after Inauguration Day. When Bush 43 took over in 2001, there was hand wringing. Before Obama took over in 2009, there was hand wringing. And now, with Trump’s takeover days away, the sound of hands (w)ringing, toll yet again.

The problem? That new President-elect. “He / his policies / his party’s policies will ruin my business.” . Doesn’t matter which President-elect, even though it’s hard to imagine that the last three or four president-elects could be more different from one another. Even so, I hear the same refrain I’ve heard every four to eight years.

I can’t start a business with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

My business is in trouble with so-and-so / whichever party coming into power.

Sure, there is some impact

I don’t mean to say there won’t be some impact. This time around, like every time, there is likely to be some impact on the energy business, on taxes, on healthcare, etc. Thing is, they’re impacted seemingly all the time by legislation from both parties, by world events (war, finance, technology changes, OPEC) and more. Is the price of gas / diesel different than it was before Obama? Before Bush 43? Sure. And it will be pretty much every week for years until some point way off in the future when technology matures past the use of those fuels.

However, when it comes to most businesses, the impact is usually trivial and the concern overblown. How you serve your customers and how effectively you sell and market to them has a much bigger impact in most cases than anything some randomly chosen President can do.

Sure, there is a lot of change in Washington. There will be, as always, a lot of pieces moving around on the chess board, and there will be plenty of drama in the news. As there always is.

Little, if any, of this has anything to do with the success of your coffee shop, sandwich store, plumbing business, clothing store, software consultancy, etc.

Don’t let Inauguration Week and a new President distract you and your team. Stay focused on your plan and your goals.

Step away from the drama

There is plenty to look at in the news that can make you take your eye off the ball. Don’t let it win. There is plenty to distract and worry your employees and contractors. YOU have to maintain momentum and leadership. not the TV news. It’s your job to make sure your team doesn’t get distracted and lose confidence over whatever’s going on in the news.

Use all the change as a reason to refocus and stay focused. Use it to rally your team. Remind them that no President has ever had a dramatic effect on your business. Be sure they know that you believe that the group of people working there now will not be the one to allow this (or any) President to be the first to negatively impact your business.

I know this might seem silly to some, but the thought processes are out there. People are always worried about their future when these kinds of changes occur. It’s easy and the news doesn’t help.

You have a plan for the year, right?

I’m sure you have a plan for the year. We’re already halfway through January. Remind your team of where you are toward your January and 1st quarter targets. Given the lack of likely impact by the changes in DC, it’s an opportunity to show your team what early trends look like.

Your team and your market has had over two months since the election to settle down. If your business is down since that time, I hope you know why. It might be normal for this time of year. If it isn’t, determine the cause and share it with your team. The last thing they need is to let the belief that four or eight years of that is inevitable.

For the same reason, if your business is up over the last two months, be sure to explain why. Your team needs to know why and how their work is affecting results and not that something completely out of their control (like political change) is driving your business’s performance.

Keep them up to date on the plan, its progress and course corrections you’re making. Keep your eye (and theirs) on the ball.

My business is too small!

It may seem that the strategies and tactics we talk about here that are intended to improve your business might relate solely to bigger businesses. A company with lots of staff, a big office and plenty of cash can make these things happen easily, right? And these things apply only to those bigger companies, at least, that’s what you might be thinking. Thing is, that really isn’t true. If your first thought tends to be “my business is too small to do that“, give yourself a chance. Step back a bit and look deeper at what we’re trying to accomplish and let the complexity fade to the background. The key is to pan for gold: find the fundamental outcome that these discussions are about.

A small company will almost never implement things the same way a bigger one would. That doesn’t mean that the small company shouldn’t implement them. Both have the same fundamental needs, like more sales, better leads, faster delivery (or something), and so on.

For example, the discussion might be something that seems complex, like a marketing calendar or lead curation. Both of those things may seem like overkill for a small company – but neither of them are. If we drill down into what they’re trying to accomplish, I think that will become evident.

Let’s talk about what lead curation really is. Why? It’s a great example of one of these “bigger business” things can be implemented by a small, or even one person business… Even if you think “my business is too small”.

What is lead curation?

Leads come into your reach in different stages. They might be ready to buy. The late Chet Holmes said his experience showed that three percent of your market is always ready to buy. The other 97% might be researching, recently decided to investigate, may have determined that their existing solution isn’t doing what they need, and so on. Out of 100 or 100,000 leads, you will find natural groupings like this.

If someone is ready to buy, your sales team (even if the entire team is you) needs to know they’re ready so that someone can start a “ready to buy” conversation with that lead. If someone from your team (or you) have an early-in-the-process kind of conversation with them, you may lose them.

A lead who has recently started researching solutions like yours will likely be put off by a sales person who opens a “ready to buy” conversation. Someone else (or you, if there is no someone else) needs to have the kind of conversation with that lead that will help fulfill their research needs as it relates to your product. This might be the time to provide them with a comparison form (ie: buyer’s guide) that helps them make a purchase decision.

For each stage a lead is in, the conversation that the lead needs to have with your sales team (or you) is a conversation that helps them come to the conclusion that it’s time to move to the next stage. Bear in mind, they don’t necessarily think in these stages, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

That is but one example of “something your business should do”. It’s a good example of something that a bigger company might have software or some sort of system to manage.

You may not have or need those things, but that doesn’t mean the process isn’t important to your success and growth.

“My business is too small for lead curation”

Based on this description of lead curation, it’s not a size thing. It’s all about having the right conversations with people based on where they are in the process of deciding to buy. The smallest company needs to do this – and in fact, the smallest companies are both awesome and horrible at this. You’ll either see them having the same conversation with every lead (horrible), or they will cater very specifically to each lead (awesome).

For a small business, figuring out how to perform lead curation and keep track of what has been done to move your leads through each stage of buying is still important. It isn’t important how the smallest of small businesses does this. It isn’t important how the bigger business does this. It isn’t important that the bigs and the smalls use the same tools or techniques.

What’s important is that it gets done.

Brainstorming your 2017 Business Roadmap

It’s a hair after five am on January 2nd. 2017 is barely underway. Have you started working through the first task on the detailed 2017 business roadmap that you painstakingly carved out last month? I’m referring to your checklist of all the things you want to get done to grow and improve your business this year. I suspect that list includes a number of tasks that execute on the strategies you worked out to improve your finances, marketing, sales process, and customer service – all while edging your way into adjacent markets, right? If that’s you, I hope you stay the course, crank through your roadmap and make some great things happen.

If that isn’t you and you’re beginning to consider what aspects of your business need your focus for 2017, maybe this 2017 business roadmap brainstorming discussion will help.

What’s your business roadmap expected to accomplish?

Without knowing your specific business, it’s tough to focus on the exact challenges you’re facing. So what do we do?

Experience tells me that you likely have one or more of these four things on your todo list for 2017:

  • Increase sales.
  • Reduce expenses.
  • Improve profitability.
  • Improve quality

While those are all good things to accomplish, let me first suggest that you nail down exactly what you want to accomplish with this list.

What does “Increase sales” mean to you? Does it mean double or 10x your sales? Does it mean sell one more car a day? Does it mean that each salesperson will sell $1000 more a week?

Until you decide what “increase sales” means, it’s going to be pretty hard to hit that goal. The same goes for each of these targets. Once you’ve decided, then there’s more drill down to plan each project that moves you to these goals.

You may tire of this process, but it’s exactly what you need if you’re looking at a 2017 goals list that looks like the four item list above. You need to know how far (and where) you want to go and what is involved in producing with the increase you’re striving for. Not advisable: Wandering off in a goal’s general direction and hoping you’ll get there.

What’s hiding inside “Increase sales”?

As an example, the first item can and should be broken out into multiple goals even if each one of them isn’t applicable to your intent to triple sales:

  • Get new customers. (What kind of customers? From what lead sources?)
  • Keep more existing customers.
  • Sell more to existing customers (selling more frequently, selling more expensive things, or both.)
  • Find new products to sell to your customers. (things that make sense in the context of your relationship)
  • Find new services to sell to your customers. (ditto above)

These can be broken down as well. Drill down until each goal’s first step is obvious. You’ll have to delegate. Delegation won’t go well without specifics.

Now you have a bit of a template for breaking down annual goals so that you can start executing.

What’s involved in tripling sales?

Let’s say you sold $340,000 last year and you want to triple sales this year. A 300% increase is a tall order, but it isn’t impossible. The big question is “What makes this possible?”, because the effort is in the details.

If I ask for explicit details on what you need to do, you need to know what it’s going to take because there are resources that must be invested to make that kind of growth happen.

Let’s say you have two sales people and each of them sold $170,000. To hit $1.2 million, you’re either going to have to hire four additional sales people capable of selling $170k a year, or have your existing sales people work *at least* four times as hard, or some combination thereof.

But that’s not all.

Four more sales people will need four times the leads. Customer support will be affected by a 300% increase in sales, as will delivery, storage, accounting, supplies (and suppliers) and finances.

You need to think about exactly what it’s going to take, map it out and then start implementing your plans. Then you get to repeat the process for each goal.

Running off the roadmap

What if you miss a month? Or a quarter? How does that affect your execution of the impacted areas (service, delivery, etc)? Have a plan B figured out in advance so that you don’t have to figure out plan B while plan B is being executed. Last minute, panic or fear-driven planning seldom works out well. Think about contingencies for each aspect of your plan that has risk of failure. Communicate early and often if it happens.

Adding value to gathering feedback

Being obsessive about the customer-facing activity of your business requires some discussion about the company’s process for gathering feedback.

Ironically, these systems and processes for gathering feedback tend to be at their worst when the customer would benefit most from being heard. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine that the process for responding to feedback typically trails a company’s collection of feedback.

Why is feedback broken?

Because feedback is a multi-faceted beast, it tends to be broken in any number of three ways, including these:

  • No one is collecting it.
  • Someone or something has made it incredibly difficult to share.
  • When it’s collected, it goes nowhere.
  • When it’s collected, it isn’t tracked (no source, no situation, no financial impact etc).
  • When action is taken on it, there’s no effort to follow up.
  • When action is taken on it, there’s no communication to the rest of your customers.
  • It isn’t used to improve the rest of the company.

Feedback has four parts

Feedback is a four part activity, so be sure that none of the pieces are broken.

The pieces are: Collection, Valuation, Action and Communication.

Collection is a matter of letting your customers be heard. Many times, simply giving them an outlet for their feedback will satisfy them. In some cases, people simply want to vent and may not care if you respond (you should). Finally, feedback often comes in the form of a suggestion, and in many of those cases, people don’t expect a response.

Collection is more than simply saying “Thanks, we got your comment”, but that should be the absolute minimum if that’s all you can manage. There’s always time to improve, since every day is a good time to improve something.

Valuation is an often ignored part of the collection process. It’s easy to take a complaint, tell someone you’re sorry and give them a coupon for next time (or some such), and then move on. Unfortunately, that wastes the value and opportunity that hides deep inside the feedback.

Valuation

Valuation assesses the feedback and its impact on your clients, and your company. For example, you may get feedback about certain things which only come from the customers who buy your most expensive products, but only during third shift on the weekends. The when and where both matter since many businesses function a bit differently during “off-hours” or non-prime shifts.

Sometimes feedback points out “reaching demand”, a client behavior (doing something, hiring someone and/or spending on something) that identifies a need that should become a part of your offering. Other times, feedback points out a failure point in a product or service that needs attention. It could be about quality and workmanship, or a lack of clarity in marketing materials or sales processes that creates a disconnect between expectations and reality.

Valuation helps you assess what parts of the company can be improved by the feedback, beyond the context of the complaint.

Taking action

If your company’s feedback loop ends at “Sorry, here’s a coupon for next time“, who misses out the most? Your management team.

That eliminates an opportunity to take a high-level view of the problem for further action. Nordstrom is famous for its empowerment of employees to make things right in these situation, and their feedback loop doesn’t stop at the employee.

While these complaints might seem to be “employee failure alerts” that a line employee might want to hide from their manager, they often point out where management needs to provide better support and/or infrastructure to their staff.

Without complaint awareness, it can be difficult for managers to see trends that (going back to valuation) can be incredibly wasteful and expensive. This is particularly true when there are lots of part-time people involved across changing shifts – negating the ability to see such trends.

Communication

Many times when you file a complaint, you get a response indicating that the company isn’t staffed to respond personally to each complaint. If you can respond to each one, I suggest doing so. If you have thousands of clients and get a lot of feedback, it can be overwhelming to respond individually.

However, individual responses can often be avoided if you respond in a way that serves many. Use your website, email list or text subscriber list to discuss complaint resolution, including the actions taken. Share internally with your team as well.

Preparing your business for sale, or not.

As you get a little older, one of the natural things you start to think about is “What am I going to do with this business?” While you might find a buyer (as many do), or you plan to involve your family in some way. Anyone else might have to search for a while. While you’re considering that (family or not) and dealing with the day to day, it’s worthwhile to spend some time preparing your business for sale.

One of the ways to do that is to start thinking about what happens the day after closing. In many cases, your buyer is likely to request some sort of financing, which often comes as a revenue split payable to you. If you have to (or want to) do this, you’ll be a lot more interested in the buyer’s success.

Leaving a road map

Leaving the new owner a road map can’t hurt, no matter how experienced they are.

What roles will have to be filled to take over your business?

  • Daily operations
  • Product management and development
  • Finance
  • Infrastructure management
  • Marketing
  • Sales

You may have others, depending on your business.

What do these things involve?

Daily operations

In brief, run the business day to day, relieving the owner of all tasks. Making sure everyone on the team is communicating and is being communicated with. No mysteries, no surprises. If you had to be replaced tomorrow, what would it REALLY take?

Product management and development

Managing employees, consultants, their projects and the quality of those projects. Planning and executing testing so that quality meets or exceeds both your own and your customers’ expectations. Working out ongoing product plans, deployments and deadlines so these projects can be coordinated with other parts of the business.

Finance

Monitoring AR / renewal rate / renewal speed, keeping the bills paid, updating metrics, etc. Making sure your financial records resemble something a buyer and their people (banker, investors, etc) expect to see.

Infrastructure management

What infrastructure do you currently have to manage and care for?

Marketing

Planning, design, development, and execution of marketing efforts per your marketing calendar. What prospects are you not reaching? Are there prospects who need what you do, but simply aren’t exposed to your company because of (what, exactly)? When you have churn, what is the cause? When someone declines to purchase, what are the reasons? The answers to these questions change over time, so they must be asked on a recurring basis. This includes lost customer re-acquisition.

Sales

Improve, manage and document the sales process. If there isn’t one now, develop one. It’s “easy” to take a company to two times current revenue by doing more of what you’re doing now, the same way you’re doing it now – throw “bodies” at it. However, it’s all but impossible to 10X a company that way.

Investigate expansion into adjacent markets

Are there closely adjacent spaces you aren’t yet addressing? Do the people that work with the people who work with your products and services all day need your help in a way that relates to your existing business?

Identification of partner and cross-marketing opportunities

Investigate partnering and cross-marketing opportunities where you can leverage your reach to help your partner and where your partner can do the same for you.

Standardize and organize company finances

Investors, angels and prospective buyers expect (hope) to find well-organized finances in forms they’re used to seeing. I don’t mean to say that your finances aren’t organized now (are they?), but they may need to be more formalized. What you want is something that wouldn’t raise concerns when an investor and their professional finance team sees them. Being able to provide such numbers to them on relatively short notice sends a message.

Other benefits of preparing your business for sale

Everything here is about ultimately about preparing for exit. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t focused on customers, in fact, it means just the opposite.

Everything you do to prepare a company for sale prepares it to withstand market challenges, slow months or quarters, while also making it more attractive for purchase. In particular, the road map makes it easier for you to “replace yourself” in the event you decide not to sell and instead, decide to become a passive owner.

No matter what direction you go, making the business stronger benefits you and the new owner.