What does freedom mean to business people?

When you ask business owners why they started their company, you frequently hear these words: Freedom and opportunity.

Opportunity tends to have a narrow definition. Someone sees potential in a market and goes after it. Opportunity may also mean the ability to make more than they could make at a job.

Freedom’s meaning seems to vary a bit more from owner to owner, at least as it relates to “I started my business because I wanted more freedom“. Knowing exactly what it means to you is critical. Those specifics will impact on how your company takes shape, how it’s run and eventually, how it appears to potential buyers.

I bring this up because I’ve recently been in a number of conversations with owners who are planning or considering the sale of their business. Some haven’t made the “I want to sell” decision yet. Those who haven’t decided yet are still  focused on improving their business practices. These changes will make their businesses more attractive to potential buyers if and when that time comes.

Working toward a better freedom

When discussing what needs to be done to sell your company, there’s usually a long list of things that the owner wants to improve before looking for buyers. Since your company will benefit from a subset of these improvements even if you don’t sell the company, be sure to focus on those things first.

Why?

First – Anything that makes the company better also improves it for you between now and the time you do close a deal. If you never close a deal, you still benefit.

Second – Some of the things you’d to prepare will only benefit you in situations where an “investor-class” buyer is involved, such as a private equity group.

Selling your business to “someone in your town” is much different than selling it to investors. The more sophisticated the buyer, the more complicated, annoying, and costly the due diligence process will be. Be sure that the prospect is dead serious before venturing into this process because it won’t be fun, cheap or easy – and it’s possible their intentions won’t be honorable. Doing your homework is essential.

How does this relate to freedom? The improvements you make should improve the freedom your business provides – and these things are almost always the same things that make the business more attractive to buyers.

What does freedom mean to you?

Specifically, what freedom does your business provide – or what freedom do you want it to provide?

Whether you are looking at what happens after you sell your business, or simply what will happen once your business reaches the point of being able to support you – it’s critical that you know exactly where you want it to take you.

Does freedom mean more time? What’s that mean for you?

Working fewer hours than at your last job? Working at home vs. having to commute? Being home every weekend? Not having to travel 25-30 weeks per year? Having the ability to come and go at will? Having a more flexible schedule day to day than at your last 8-5 job?

Businesses that provide time freedom typically have a team doing the day to day work. At first, the owner might be managing the team. Over time, owners need to recruit and/or develop someone to manage their team.

Companies structured like this can be easier to sell because they aren’t as dependent on the owner to run them day to day, much less to create revenue. They also provide smoother continuity if the owner dies or is disabled.

Does freedom mean more money? What’s that mean for you?

Does it mean that your income is more secure? More resilient? More diverse? Less likely to be at the whim of someone else?

What aspects of the business protect that income, your pipeline, etc? How resilient is that income if you have to interrupt your work (as owner) to care for a family member for more than a day or two?

Companies where income freedom is more important than time freedom can be harder to sell if the owner is critical to day to day operations.

Either way, the important thing is knowing what you want & structuring your business to support that over the long term.

Photo by USAG-Humphreys

Do towns benefit from building 2 pizza teams?

What’s the big deal about building an environment that creates the ideal conditions to form a two pizza team? Having startups to talk about at the Chamber lunch is exciting, but this isn’t about improving your cool factor. Improving the finances of your town’s families is important, but there are bigger benefits that affect everyone in town: economic diversification and risk reduction.

What risk?

When 100 families in a town depend on one employer, the current and future health of that town depends on that company, their management, the market they’re in, the market of raw materials they consume (if any), the owners, and so on. One mistake of the wrong kind can put the finances of 100 families at risk – all at once. When 100 (or 1000, or 10000) families in one town depend on one employer, the risk to the finances of that town is higher than the sum of the paychecks involved. All of us can probably cite an example where one of these companies failed, was forced out of business, or was bought out / divested, etc. The reasons don’t matter as we rarely have control over them. Diversifying your local economy is one defensive strategy against such events.

It isn’t that we shouldn’t seek big companies (no matter what “big” means to your town) or grow them locally. We should, but we have to do more than simply seek large employers to the exclusion of all other strategies. Expect that this won’t be what many are used to or expect. Be ready to defend those efforts with progress reports and outcomes, rather than “we know better than you” opinions. You should expect to be questioned about your efforts. The quality of your plans, your transparency, and the frequency and candor of your progress reports will all contribute to getting more people on board.

The economic diversification that comes from the creation of an annual two pizza team will surely be slow, but few lasting things of this nature happen quickly. The political (not necessarily election-related) pressure on economic development teams to bring 100 or 1000 jobs to town at one time is tempting, but in most cases, it isn’t realistic. Enabling and encouraging the entrepreneurs in your town to build new payrolls at a steady pace while other efforts continue is best. You aren’t creating a competition – you’re making your community’s interdependent economy more resilient for everyone.

Job security comes, in part, from economic diversification

Not everyone is going to be interested in taking the leap and creating one of these companies – and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, those who don’t take the leap still need work.

Finding a new job is not a fun experience. It’s sometimes easier not to change jobs and employees. Given the difficulty of hiring and being hired, it sometimes seems like neither employers nor candidates want to go through the hiring / interview process one more time. Despite the mix of sometimes unsightly job / employee seeking situations, there are companies out there who want to find good employees, pay them fairly and keep them. Likewise, there are employees who want to find a solid employer and stay with them for a long time.

The companies that start off as two pizza teams and stick around are likely to be able to do these things. That they’re working toward giving up whatever job security they have *and* creating something new leaves the impression that they want something better. You’d think that they will want something better for their staff as well.

Jobs at these kind of companies often go beyond “just a paycheck”. The motivation for these startups is frequently rooted in the founders’ previous financial / job hardship and/or insecurity, so creating that kind of security for employees is a high priority. The job insecure folks in your community have a job, or two, or maybe three. When those jobs are at risk, and/or seasonal, and/or part-time, the stress and related cognitive load on that family affects everyone.

The obvious benefits of adding new (hopefully stable) payrolls to your town’s families are positive, but the benefits go beyond a particular family’s new source of income. Spreading the creation and stability of family economies across different industries and companies creates a resilience more towns could use. Photo by checkyourhead90 Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read

Your town can fuel the rise of two pizza teams

Last time, I noted that Amazon received no HQ2 (second Amazon global headquarters location) proposals from communities in a number of rural states. At the time, I noted that the decision to pass on that opportunity was a well-considered choice.

More importantly, I asked the following question:

What would the impact be if your community had five new, active payrolls of that size five years from now? “Technology” could be software, wood products, water purification, medical research, etc.

Payrolls “of that size” refers to two pizza teams, ie: a team small enough that you can feed it with two pizzas.

I’d like to talk about what communities can do to encourage the formation of two pizza team. Every community can gain from the benefits these teams produce.

You’re not too rural for pizza

Rural communities can benefit from the kind of jobs HQ2 will bring, without bringing Amazon to town. If your community manages to do what’s necessary to help build only one new 300-400K payroll in town every year or two – the benefits are substantial.

The initial question to address is “What should communities do to create a local culture that encourages the formation of these teams?”

Your town already has an entrepreneurial petri dish, but in most cases, new business creation currently depends on:

1) the bullheaded optimism of entrepreneurs (and sometimes, their access to capital), or

2) Desperate situations demanding that the impacted family do something, anything to create an income.

In both cases, these creations tend to be tied to a short list of highly-motivated (internally or externally) individuals. Some families have always started businesses, so their kids learn to do the same. Others are forced into it. Both groups experience varying levels of success.

We want to create conditions that make your entrepreneurial petri dish a bit warmer and a bit more nutritious, making it easier to grow something in it. A stronger entrepreneurial culture is more likely to hatch a creation that can survive on its own when transplanted into the real world.

While funding is important for some businesses, most two pizza teams start off as knowledge-based businesses that don’t need large capital expenses to get started. Capital needs will likely appear during periods of fast growth.

Fuel for two pizza teams

Two pizza teams need:

  • ideas that serve a hungry market
  • people with the right skills and the spare time to devote to their “side hustle”
  • the confidence to adjust & keep trying when things aren’t going so well

Communities don’t need an inventory of unserved ideas to hand out to wanna-be entrepreneurs. Instead, create conditions that consistently produce ideas. These include Startup Weekends, makerspaces, meetups, & coworking spaces.

Almost any clean, empty warehouse / retail space will do. Dedicated, fancy areas aren’t required. Start with a library or business conference room. Meeting in a clean, safe, empty warehouse or retail space is an inexpensive way to get meeting space while raising awareness of a space looking for its next productive use.

The keys? Create a constructive environment for discussion, formation, & execution of ideas – and get the right mix of people there.

How can community leaders help?

Every community has people with the skills to create a side hustle. What they often lack is experience, confidence, a group to brainstorm with and to ask “Does this make any sense at all?”.

What encourages people to have the confidence to suffer through the rough times? Experience. Mentors. Sounding boards. A community of business owners / side-hustlers who are going through & have gone through that bramble of thorns and roses.

Community leaders can leverage their connections to experienced business owners / managers & local angel groups to get them involved and gain access to meeting space. Like-minded people with the right skills & spare time meet each other at these gatherings. When experienced business owners add their voice, their insight & mentoring builds confidence in those trying to figure it all out.

The confidence part is important. When a small group of people is dedicated to turning an idea into a side hustle & then a payroll, they need the self assurance to weather whatever storms come over the ridge. They need know that it’s OK to pivot (ie: adjust their business and business model to reality) rather than quit.

Every community has a meeting space, experienced business people & folks looking to start a business who need advice & critical mass. Get them together.

Photo by cote

Do rural communities need Amazon HQ2?

After Amazon announced they would be building a second headquarters somewhere in the U.S., they received a predictable flood of urban tax incentives and offers of “Take my community, please” (apologies to Mr. Youngman). 238 of them, in fact, because few companies can say they’ll bring 50,000 jobs to a community and back it up with action. Amazon is one of them.

Why rural didn’t apply

If you look at the map, you’ll notice that no community proposals came from Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Hawaii, Arkansas, or Wyoming. If you live in one of those states, you might be frustrated by their failure to apply.

I don’t believe it was a failure. It was a well-considered choice. In the past, I have chided some rural communities for not applying for community-transforming projects like Google Fiber. This time, no application was the right call for these areas.

Speculation in the tech press stated that Amazon received no applications from these states for reasons that are “unclear” and that it might be “anti-corporate sentiment“, or because these states were “off-put by the company’s preference for government incentives“. The reasons for the lack of rural applications seem pretty obvious if you live in a rural area.

Some examples, and a few counterpoints to the speculation:

  • Amazon’s stated desire is to build HQ2 in an area with a population of at least a million people. Several of these states have barely a million people total, much less a metro area of that size.
  • An Amazon HQ2 building with 50,000 employees would be the second, third, or fourth largest city in the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming.
  • No one in their right (ethical) mind would apply knowing that they can’t come close to filling 50,000 new Amazon jobs with local people. Amazon can build a successful data center here, but a new HQ? Nope.
  • These rural states don’t have the airport routes / seats / facilities that HQ2 will demand. We can build the facilities, but the seats and routes will take time. Upside: The additional routes and seats required to support HQ2 would benefit us as our low traffic numbers balloon our air travel costs to ridiculous levels.
  • These states already provide government incentives to other businesses, though not likely at the scale Amazon might be seeing. We have plenty of sizable corporations – even some multi-nationals.
  • Hawaii makes no sense due to massive amount of air travel required.
  • The ideal Arkansas metro area for Amazon HQ2 is in the northwest corner: arch-rival Wal-Mart’s back yard. No one in NWA is crazy enough to enrage WMT, even though the land availability, cost of living, and the necessary volume of in-context skill positions are available.

Yes, but we’re too rural for Amazon

Yes, you are – and it’s OK.

Even if Amazon lost its mind and came to your rural community – is that what your town really needs? Probably not.

While small, rural communities can’t get, don’t need and can’t handle hosting a facility the size of Amazon’s new headquarters, they’d still benefit from the kind of jobs HQ2 will bring. So what do you do to bring these jobs to rural communities?

The too-obvious choice is often to chase companies that are trying to move or expand from other areas. Rural communities don’t need tens of thousands of these jobs. In fact, they need fewer than they might think.

Suggestion: Think small.

Two pizzas

Jeff Bezos’ famous “two pizza rule” says if it takes more than two pizzas to feed a team, it’s too big. Figuring two or three slices per person, you’re looking at feeding a team of five to eight. Can your community do what’s necessary to help its people create just one new two-pizza-team each year?

You might be thinking “One team per year? Why bother?”

A team might be one administrative position, one founder / manager type, and three to five technical people (whatever “technical people” means). Figure a total annual payroll of somewhere between $300K and $450K. The total might be higher, but it probably shouldn’t be lower – unless you want to lose repeatedly lose people. Startups don’t need that.

What would the impact be if your community had five new, active payrolls of that size five years from now? “Technology” could be software, wood products, water purification, medical research, etc.

Next time, we’ll talk about what communities can do to encourage the formation of these teams.

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.

Accepting change: How can you help?

New technology is full of emotional change. Everyone finds their own pace when it comes to accepting the changes that come when adopting new technology. With brand new technology, the differences in adoption rates widen even more. Some folks won’t touch new technology. Other people prefer to wait a little while and let someone else take the punches that “first implementers” must often withstand. There are those who consider how the new tech can help them, and if it can, they’ll dive in wholeheartedly. Finally, some chase the Bright Shiny Object (BSO) – no, not the eclipse. The BSO distracts them just like a randomly reflected spear of piercing sunlight off a car windshield grabs your attention while driving.

This isn’t limited to technology

Segmenting the speed of accepting change isn’t new. A series of books by Geoffrey Moore, starting with “Crossing the Chasm“, examined this in detail. However, the phenomena isn’t limited to technology. Anything in our lives that introduces change tends to fit into these segments of how much (and how early) we’re willing to dive in. We’re creatures of habit, even in how we change. Our hesitancy or comfort to try new things impacts every purchase – including the uptake of anything new or different. Some of us love change. Some hate it. Most are somewhere in the middle. Many occupying the “fat part of the (Bell) curve” need a reason to change. Maybe not a big reason, but a reason all the same.

Ever tried to get a young child to try a new food? If so, you probably didn’t give them an adult-sized serving the first time you had them try it. As with the kid and that broccoli they (at first?) loved to hate, it’s often best to ease people into a new thing. Sometimes, you have to offer them something they crave (like ice cream for dessert) if they’re brave enough to choke down their broccoli.

It’s no different with adults. Try to convince a pickup driver to change from Ford to Chevy or Dodge. Ask a golfer to change clubs. Ask a frequent flier to change airlines. In each case, you’ll probably face substantial resistance.

How is that different from you wanting them to switch to your restaurant, hardware store, dinner menu, or IT company from the one they’re comfortable with?

IT ISN’T.

Risk reversal reduces friction

If you need someone to make a change in order for your venture (or career) to succeed – you need to figure out where the friction comes from. Whether you’re trying to work with the pickup driver, golfer, or frequent flier, what creates the resistance that keeps them from considering a change? Risk is a common source.

When we wanted people to change to our software years ago, almost everyone had a 30 day money-back guarantee. A few had a 60 day one. We changed ours from 30 to a full year. The difference in refunds is trivial between 30, 60 and 365 days. The perception of who takes the risk, however, changes completely.

I was on several car lots over the weekend. Of maybe eight different dealers, I met one salesperson who was hustling. He clearly understood that the goal was to get a new customer, not simply to sell a car. Almost anyone can sell a car (or whatever you and I sell), a real salesperson is looking to create customers for life.

Anyhow, this guy offered to send a car home with me for a few days to make sure it fits. Sure, I know how this works. It’s like a test drive on steroids. If they get you to test drive it, they know how much more likely it is that you’ll buy (trust me, there’s lots of data). “Take the car for a few days and see how it fits” is the next step up from a test drive. Even so, it’s a proven risk reversal strategy. We know we’re likely to miss something on a test drive. When our neighbors see the car, when we see that it fits in the garage, & when the rest of the family reacts – it’ll be tougher to return it.

Your challenge: Determine what’s necessary to reduce resistance to the point that your prospects will consider making a change. What risk(s) must you take off the table? “Change” in this case means make a sale and get a new client.

Photo credit: Frank Winkler

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

Listen to clients. They say the darndest things.

I love polarized lenses. Sunlight reflected off snow or water is brutal on my eyes. Polarized prescription shades make it all better. They aren’t inexpensive, yet the payoff in improved vision and eye strain is huge. These special lenses help me see things in a way I can’t otherwise experience. Taken further, consider the special lenses available for folks with color blindness. Many YouTube videos show a thrilled & tearful reaction to wearing these lenses for the first time.

You need special business lenses for the same reason.

A special lens filters out glare, distractions and visual “noise” while making it easier to see what’s not normally apparent. This is why  I repeatedly suggest the use of dashboards. Trends and intermediate figures stick out on a dashboard. They don’t typically become apparent (or appear at all) on an income statement – or they’re buried in other numbers.

One of the best lenses for viewing your business is the lens your clients see through. You might see things that you might not normally value – at least not how your client values them.

New clients vs. long-term clients

One area where it’s easy to miss this data is in the difference between your newest clients and the ones you’ve had forever. I visited a long-term client a while back. When I asked “Where do you the value in what we do for you?”, they mostly talked about how (and why) the relationship started. Eventually, the discussion turned to the feeling that they felt protected and that we had their best interests at heart, even after all these years.

I felt like I wasn’t getting “the dirt”, so I asked what makes our stuff critical to them day-to-day. What affected them more than anything was being on time, every day. Not 15 minutes late. On-time meant six figures of difference in their daily cash flow.

While new clients may have bought your stuff because of the latest, greatest thing you’ve done, not everyone fits that mold. Long-term clients may not need the newest stuff you’ve done because whatever you do inherently has more impact on their business day-in and day-out.

The new stuff we’d done was designed to deal with issues that didn’t exist when we first started working together. Even so, those issues paled in comparison to the impact of not being on time. Anything that can affect a company’s cash flow by six figures each day is pretty important (British understatement). It might allow them to avoid hitting a line of credit that week, or even having to have that line of credit. It might be what allows them to take that “month off” each year that many lines of credit require.

Ask openly

When you listen to clients, you have to be careful what you ask, and how. I don’t know if I would have heard about the daily cash flow impact if I had asked about a particular feature, service or product.

Instead, I simply asked them to tell me how (and why) they felt they benefited from continuing to do business after all this time. You could drive an airport snowplow through the opening I provided. Not only did that allow them to tell me about something super critical, but to do so outside of the product / service context.

Cash flow has nothing to do with what’s sold to them, at least not directly (as I learned). What it clarified was that a slower than normal response from customer service could cost them $100K+ that day. To some clients, that hour isn’t important. Getting a quick response at a certain time of day was huge to these folks. Setting up with a special rapid response service would likely benefit them greatly multiple times per year.

Listen to clients without an agenda

While your clients may not have that kind of time-bound value tied to certain hours of the day, there are things to learn from asking open-ended questions that don’t necessarily point at product / service topics – and then listening intently to what they say.

When you listen to clients openly and without an agenda, the value of what you learn can be huge. Questions intent on confirming what we think we already know serve no one. Instead, ask better questions.

Photo by mattlucht

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)

Being prepared for employee turnover

There’s an old saying that you’ve probably heard about employee training. “What if I pay to train these people and they leave?”, the short-sighted one asks. “What if you don’t train them and they stay?”, responds the sage. One of the most expensive activities your business can experience is employee turnover. When employees leave, a piece of the company leaves with them. Their knowledge of work processes, clientele, things they do without thinking due to “muscle memory” and so on. Then there is the act of replacing them.

Hire too fast and you risk getting a culture mismatch, someone with the wrong work habits and/or someone who can’t step into the role and be reasonably productive. Sometimes you might feel “forced” to hire solely based on culture fit, which means you’ll have to give them time to grow into the job. Even when you find an experienced person who can step into the role, the expense is substantial. While working that process, there’s work that isn’t getting done, isn’t getting done as well or as quickly, or it’s getting done by someone who is already doing their fair share. The process of properly finding, vetting and eventually hiring a replacement for a lost team member is expensive when done right. When done wrong, the cost can skyrocket.

Sometimes, a place is so toxic for one reason or another that it is literally a revolving door. A couple of years ago, I visited a logistics warehouse that was losing 100% of their workforce every 30 days. Read that again and consider how a situation like that would impact a business. They weren’t losing the warehouse managers, but they were having to replace the entire staff every 30 days for positions actually doing the “real work” in this warehouse – that is, moving pallets around, driving fork lifts, dealing with the related paperwork and trucks. None of the people there on June 1st were there on May 1st. It was impressive that they managed to keep the place operating at all, particularly without sharply increased injuries. The investment in interviewing, on-boarding and training time had to be unbelievable.

Imagine being in that situation. It’s difficult to process the pain this would cause simply dealing with it one time, much less having to deal with it month after month.

Being realistic

While that warehouse was a real situation, it’s not normal. The turnover you experience is troubling enough. You hate to see it happen, even if you’re happy for the opportunity your quality people found. Even so, they were accomplishing something at your business, leaving you with a hole to fill. Do you really know everything they do? Do your people really realize everything they do? In some roles, it isn’t unusual to find work that gets done intermittently that can be forgotten. What work at your business is undocumented?

Even if someone doesn’t leave, they might get sick for a week. They might have to travel out of the country for two weeks. They might go fishing in the backcountry and spend a week in places with no cell coverage. How will your business survive that week? In my experience, a company can easily take a punch that only affects them for a week. Where you get into trouble is losing someone permanently, or even for a month. A parent gets sick, or someone has to have a knee replacement. If this happened to someone at your place, how would it affect production? Day to day operations? Management? If you had to replace your administrative person (assuming you have only one) for a month, would the replacement be able to step in and find documented processes and a list of all the things that must be done each week of the month?

Now extend that to your highly skilled people. Is their work documented? I know, I know. It seems like busy work… until you lose one of them. Or two. Or three. The timing of these things never seems to be kind even when it isn’t malevolent.

Extend that thought to your key employees.

Finally, there’s you. What doesn’t happen if you disappear for a month? Who makes sure people get paid? Who can sign checks and manage company funds? What else doesn’t happen? You get the idea.

Being prepared for employee turnover isn’t solely about being ready to deal with losing employees. It’s about building resilience for the situations that life brings.

Photo by stu_spivack