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

Strategic responsibility: Client Care and Feeding

The custody, guardianship & defense of your clients is a strategic responsibility for anyone interested in customer retention. When you fail to provide timely, wise counsel to your clients, it creates risk. An aging example that has a very recent twist is Windows XP. The subject is only an example, as the lesson applies to all businesses.

In 2001, the beta of Windows XP was released. I installed it on my laptop before going to a trade show in Mobile. I walked back into the booth as my sales team finished a demo of our product (a back office management system for studio photographers). The prospect was tech savvy and he had visited our biggest competitor’s booth before stopping to see us. As I arrived at the booth, the sales team had this “we’ve got trouble” look on their faces.

As I arrive, the prospect turns to me and says “I have XP beta on my laptop. When I tried your competitor’s software on my laptop over there (pointing at their booth) and it died an ugly death. Will your software run on XP when it’s released?”

XP’s moment of truth

I turned and said “No”, pausing long enough for him to start to enjoy my answer, then finished my sentence… “The demo you watched is running on XP beta. It doesn’t look like XP because I’ve disabled the XP UI. Since most people haven’t seen it, I didn’t want to distract the sales process with questions about the new UI features.

Fact is, I also hadn’t told the sales team because I wanted unvarnished feedback from them and from prospects.

I’ve always been a bleeding-edger when it comes to a new OS. I don’t install the new system everywhere, but I use them enough to assess a level of trust. In this case, I had been running an XP beta on my laptop for several months. I knew it’d be available between August and October, so when the June beta was publicly available, I hopped on it. I did most of my development and testing on it at the time because I wanted to be ready on XP launch day.

Launch day was strategically important to Windows. Many applications used by my (often bleeding-edge) clients were getting major updates for XP, including Photoshop (remember, the company’s clients were photographers). We had to demonstrate that we had their back by launching an XP-ready version the day XP became available.

That doesn’t mean that I use it 16 years later.

Client advocacy is strategic care and feeding

Back in 2012 or so, Microsoft finally provided a drop dead date for XP. 18 months in advance, the advocacy went in motion. XP was already old news, but many clients still used it. On April 8th 2014, Microsoft said they would stop issuing patches and security fixes for XP, so it was time to move on. The same situation was coming in the summer of 2015 for Windows Server 2003. Both systems were a bit behind in the OS security world and had been left behind by most software developers.

Users feel differently. They’re comfortable. They aren’t fans of things that, to the naked eye, look like change for the sake of change. To this day, you can find XP running ATMs, kiosks, announcement boards, etc. The advocacy to convince people to upgrade from XP had to happen. Some vendors forced their clients to upgrade by refusing to provide installers that worked on XP and Server 2003 (this was the strategy I selected, coupled with almost two years of advocacy).

Some vendors let their clients decide. Last week, many of their clients learned a painful lesson when the “WannaCry?” ransomware disabled (so far) over 230,000 computers in businesses and hospitals world-wide. WannaCry was effective only because the affected systems hadn’t been updated. Did IT-related businesses who have WannaCry victims as clients do enough to motivate them to perform the proper maintenance on their systems? Probably not.

Care and feeding is a strategic responsibility

The custody, guardianship & defense of your clients is a strategic responsibility. You were hired by your clients because of an established, known, and respected level of expertise in some area(s). You know more than your clients on those subjects and they should expect you to be a mentor and advocate for them. Leverage your expertise and strengths to help them protect themselves.
Photo by kyz

Bounce rate too high? Set the stage

What are you doing to keep your website’s bounce rate down? Bounce rate is the percentage of visitors that visit your site and leave without looking at another page, or taking any action (opt-ins, etc). A high bounce rate would be a bad thing in most cases. There are sites where higher than normal bounce rates aren’t unusual, but for most business-oriented sites that have sales, service and related functionality – it isn’t usually a good thing. A business site may have some pages that have a higher bounce rate than the rest of the site, but those tend to have specific purposes and are self-contained (ie: everything the customer/prospect needs is on that page – like a phone number or the answer to a specific question).

High bounce rates can be caused by pages that are: boring, objectionable, uninformative, unclear, misleading, or didn’t match the expectation (reason) that the view believes that the page exists. For a home page, a high bounce rate might tell you that the page doesn’t do a good job of communicating what the company does and why you should be there. Think about the reasons why you leave a site after visiting only one page. You didn’t find what you wanted. The site isn’t what you thought it was. The site is too technical or is filled with jargon. The site isn’t technical enough and targets people far less experienced in the subject than you.

Some of those reasons are legitimate, depending on the person coming to the site and their expectation. It’s the reason audience-specific landing pages exist – the home page can’t be everything to everyone. Even so, your site (like a retail store) needs to set the stage.

Set the stage

When you walk into most retail stores, someone either says Hello (or welcome). In many cases, the store’s next action is for a staff member to ask if they can help you. Sometimes the ask is inquisitive, sometimes it’s asked in a tone that clearly hopes you say no, sometimes it’s perky. No matter how the question is asked, the most common answer is “Just looking”, of course. The possible translations of “just looking” include: “I got this”, “Leave me alone”, “I don’t need help, thanks”, and others. Sometimes, “just looking” is OK. Sometimes, they’re showrooming – but they’re in your store, so reducing their bounce is what you do next.

In far too many cases, “Can I help you?” is a conversation that tends to feel like this: “How was school today?” “Fine.”

Many stores handle in-store visitors in a more effective way. Some explain how the store works, particularly if it has an unusual process or there’s something non-obvious about it. A good example: “If you see an item you like, and you want it in a different color – please let us know. We have every color of every item in stock and ready to take home.” Is there a similar comment your website could make to set the stage for the visitor to accomplish what they came for? Take that same “we have every color…” angle and look at your website.

Compare it to face time

I looked at a computer bag / luggage site recently. Their site made it clear which laptops fit which bags. It showed how to measure the dimensions of your laptop (vs. trusting “15 inch laptop”) so that you’d be sure your gear fit. My guess is that poor fit is a common reason why people return computer bags. Their site makes sure I buy the right thing and don’t bounce due to uncertain fit. What makes your visitors bounce?

What would you say if a web site prospect was sitting with you at a local coffee shop or cafe? If they walk in and sit down with you, how would speak for your website in a way that encouraged them to look further, or help them find the answer they’re looking for? What would they say as they were seated?

What’s the first thing you would say to them to help them feel comfortable, welcome and knowledgeable about what your site is all about? What would you say to enable them to take the next logical step, assuming they are the type of person (or business) that you want to visit your site? Is that what your site says now?

Photo by jacopast

What premier service do they reach for?

How do you keep your clients excited and/or interested in your company? This shouldn’t be any problem doing this for your highest-value clients as I expect you already have premier programs and services for them. I’m talking about your newest clients, as well as those who have been around a while but haven’t yet “made it big”. Have they seen a premier service or product waiting for them on the next rung of the ladder?

What convinced your newest clients to buy ProductX? How do their reasons vary from those who have used ProductX for a decade or more? These two types of businesses could be quite different. It’s likely they see your business and your offerings in two completely different light.

Why did your newest client buy your products and services? Right now, you would hope that means that you’re best of breed. The long-time client not only wants the product that supports their needs, but they also have to see a compelling reason that prevents them from changing to another provider. The pain of change is a substantial contributor to decisions not to move to another solution, but you’d probably prefer that the primary reason for not changing is that you are keeping up with (and preferably anticipating) their needs.

Both groups need to climb the ladder.

What’s on the next floor?

One thing that you rarely see from companies that have multiple levels of product and/or service offerings is guerrilla-style marketing of those options to people who don’t yet qualify for them, or don’t know of them. This creates a gap in your clients’ understanding of the maturity of your business and what offers to them. As an example, some hotel chains have concierge floors. These are typically available only to clients who have a long history of stays with that hotel chain.

If you haven’t yet developed an allegiance to a hotel chain, or don’t see much difference between them, you’re likely to pick the cheapest one that fits your level of comfort. That isn’t what the chain wants, yet they seldom do anything to inspire allegiance, much less aspiration to the next level.

Have you ever toured the concierge level facilities of a hotel prior to earning access to them? Have you seen the differences between a regular and concierge level rooms? If not, what motivates you to choose that chain consistently and move up to a frequent lodging level that has access to those floors?

While a hotel couldn’t do this every night, on nights when room capacity is lower, the hotel’s systems could automatically identify a handful of travelers for a free upgrade to a concierge level. They should be people whose stay history indicates they’ll be good candidates for the company’s frequent lodging programs. If the systems can’t do that, local management can make the upgrades happen.

You’d be surprised how a “small favor” like this can turn a relationship up a notch and generate long term loyalty.

Peek behind the curtain

The same sort of idea works for an airline, or a company that has multiple service levels. I was recently on a sparsely seated flight to Minneapolis and was surprised to find eight empty first class seats on the plane. These days, that’s very unusual.

A smart automated system should have identified fliers in economy who are close to reaching the next frequent flier level and upgraded them to a higher level seat moments prior to boarding. These systems might choose a passenger whose originating airport is a United hub, presuming that a percentage of those passengers might be ripe for change.

Similarly, if your company staffs premier service levels such as extended weekday or weekend hours, you may have people in place who can service a one-time upgrade. When someone asks for help outside their allotted service window, they’d normally expect to wait until the next business day. Instead, you could occasionally deliver service right then – even if they aren’t paying for extended service.

Be sure to explain what you’re doing and offer this to a good candidate for your premier services. A follow up with their management to explain why you provided a taste of up-level service might be the conversation that moves them up a tier.

Every business should seek ways to provide an ascension ladder for their clientele – and create the desire to climb it.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tipsfortravellers/

Truth in advertising?

Ever watch a TV commercial for a restaurant and see examples of food that you know they’ll never serve? Of course you have. It’s particularly common among national fast food restaurants. At this point, do you have any expectation that the food in the ad will even remotely resemble what you’ll receive if you eat there?

Probably not.

Advertisements which present something the restaurant will never deliver set the tone for what people expect from all advertising – including yours. You need to inoculate your marketing so that it never makes this mistake.

It takes one time for people to lose trust in your advertising. ONE TIME.

Politics – an obvious example

A politician’s financial or legal issues make for an ideal illustration. Are financial problems all that unusual for folks who have dealt with long-term health care challenges? Among all the people you know, probably not. How much different is this vs. a lawsuit over stream access? While you may not know anyone who has dealt with the latter, you can be all but certain that neither party will present these situations accurately and completely.

In their minds, the truth seems to be something to be used only when it’s a weapon. In both cases, the actual truth might be seem reasonable – but we’ll be sure that each candidate’s negative ads will carefully paint these situations to make them look as evil and/or incompetent as possible.

OK, sure. No one believes anything they see in a political ad. Or… no one believe anything in a political ad for the opponent of the person you plan to vote for. And we’re so used to it that we expect everything but the truth.

Just like the ads from many national restaurants.

Don’t create problems for yourself

For a politician, these kinds of problems occur when you don’t get out in front of your own issues. When you let the opponent and their party announce your problems, they get the pleasure of positioning them for you. They also get first shot at defining “the facts”. No matter how true their version is, if they’re first to bring up your flaws or mistakes, you’re the one with the terrible strategy.

It’s no different for your business. You have to bring up common sales objections that others would use against you. Anyone who has done their homework has probably already thought of these objections. Anything you think you can ignore, wave away or hide is best handled by you on your terms, before you get cornered.

Inoculate your marketing

When it comes to your advertising, you have to think hard about this from the customer’s perspective. What are they really looking for? What about my business is a reason to grab their attention? What is unique about what you do and how you do it that would attract a certain person looking for a certain product or service?

If your ad manages to successfully convince someone to give your business a chance, what would possibly make you think that you can show them something in an ad that they’ll never get, or never see when they visit your place?

How do you react when that happens to you? Would you ever go back? Think back to the last time you felt this way.

Given that feeling – what’s necessary for you to inoculate your marketing against producing something like that for your prospects and customers? Start by asking others for their first impression of the ad. Get out of the echo chamber (as politicians, parties and big media should). Ask someone you trust if your ad accurately represents what you do. Ask them if it identifies something that’s important about the decision making process that would make them choose your business.

Ask around

Now ask a trusted customer what they think. Does it resonate with them? Does it ring true to them? Do they feel it’s an important factor when selecting your business, much less your products and services?

Imagine if a politician or a party asked an undecided voter what they thought about their ads. Thinking of your prospects as undecided voters, ask yourself this: Would this help or hurt my cause?

What would someone who didn’t choose your business say about your ads? How do they feel about the ad you currently feel is your best?

What halftime advice would you give your staff?

If you look back at recent comeback victories in sports, you have to wonder about the halftime advice those teams received. In Super Bowl 51, the Patriots were down 21-3, yet came back to win. The second half performance of both teams looked nothing like their performance in the first half. What did it take in the locker room to get the Patriots to turn that around? What was said in the Falcons locker room? After weeks of preparation, what can be said and done in 20 minutes that can radically turn around the performance of a team of professionals to such a degree that they overwhelm another team of professionals?

Halftime isn’t just about comebacks. It’s a chance to review and adjust, which we all should be doing after a positive or negative outcome to most business activities. For a football team ahead by a lot (as the Falcons were), what has to be said to prevent that sort of letdown? Teams come into halftimes needing to be reminded that they deserve to be there, that they can come back, that they are capable of doing what got them there, and that each individual is a piece of something bigger.

It’s no different in your business. The concept of a game’s halftime doesn’t necessarily align well with the events on the timeline of a company’s life, but that doesn’t matter. There are always turning points in projects, products, careers, marketing campaigns, etc. Projects and products both have natural “halftimes”. They look like points in time where it makes sense to stop, assess, adjust and re-engage.

Team and company are interchangeable concepts. Whether teams win or lose, the best ones get together afterward to review what happened, both positive and negative, and what can be learned. Military units review after action reports (AAR) for the same reason. They ask the question: “How can we improve upon what just happened?” regardless of whether it was good or bad.

Looking back to Lombardi

Every Vince Lombardi speech covers fundamentals. He knew he was dealing with professionals. Their performance occurs at a level most never reach. They see and understand parts of the game that amateurs and “mere TV viewers” cannot. For the very best, the game “slows down” as if everyone else moves in slow motion so they are able to arrive at a critical location on the field with perfect timing. Lombardi knew this, yet repeatedly returned to fundamentals.

Is there a lesson in that for your team? Do your best staffers remember and execute fundamental behaviors more frequently than everyone else?

What halftime advice do you give a team who had a great month?

Your team had a great month. Now what?

What changed month-over-month that made last month so great? What performances stood out as the keys to making that happen? What short list of behaviors or tactics can be identified that were essential to the month’s outcome? What should be focused on so that your team can reproduce that performance? Who learned something that they leveraged into a successful outcome? Who stopped doing something and noticed an improvement as a result? What systemic changes can we implement to make this month’s success more easily reproducible?

What halftime advice do you give a team who had a bad month?

Your team had a terrible month. Now what?

What historically key success behaviors are still valid and were not achieved last month? What happened that threw us off our game? How do we correct those things? What systemic changes can be made to automatically prevent those problems from reoccurring? Who needs help meeting performance expectations? Who needs a mentor? Who needs coaching? What fundamental behaviors fell off last month and need to be improved? How can we remind each team member of fundamentals that we assume will be performed? What distracted us this month? Has everyone’s performance fallen off, or only certain groups?

Call a timeout

Halftime provides a natural break in the action to reflect, assess, adjust and re-engage. For a company, use them like a timeout. When things aren’t heading in the right direction, don’t wait. Call a timeout. Step in, discuss what’s going wrong (and well), share what you’ve learned, advise and re-engage. Are the staffers who are failing following the plan? Are the staffers who are succeeding following the plan? Is the plan failing?

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usaghumphreys/

Would your employees recommend your company?

While listening to recruiter Bob Beaudine‘s Entreleadership podcast this week, some comments he made about recruiting and networking suddenly mixed themselves together. When your company is looking for new people to fill positions, do your employees recommend your company to their friends and family?

While such recruiting would be dependent on whether or not your friends and family are qualified to do the work, in many companies, that isn’t a problem. When a company needs a receptionist, mechanic, manager, or salesperson – there’s almost always someone in your circle of family and friends who could be interested in that opportunity.

Question is, do your employees recommend your company? I suspect you’d be interested in hearing what they might say to a friend or family member about their work and their employer. Chances of you hearing that verbatim are probably not good, yet it’s something worth pursuing.

Make it easier to recommend your company

Put together a brochure, something on letterhead or a web page that elaborates on why you encourage employees to recruit friends and family. Your reasons for encouraging this may resonate with your team. For example, you wouldn’t expect an employee to recommend someone who won’t reflect well on them. If they will be working together (something to be careful about), you wouldn’t expect an employee to recommend someone they’ll have to carry or that they can’t depend on.

Rather than leaving that unsaid, discuss it in your recruiting communications and in staff meetings. Make it clear that you understand that employees aren’t going to recommend someone they don’t trust and believe in. Be sure your employees understand that their recommendation is a function of their reputation in the company. Not only will this likely make the employees more selective about who they recommend, it will also reinforce your belief in them and in who they recruit.

What if they aren’t recommending your company

If your employees aren’t actively reaching out to friends and family to suggest they apply for openings, there may be good reasons. Some folks don’t like to combine their work and personal lives. That may seem a little odd to company owners, but it is your employees’ choice. However, if you see or know of your employees socializing outside of work, then it’s unlikely that combining work and personal lives is a concern. For those employees who mix socially, do you get recommendations for job candidates from their friends and family? Presumably this would come out in interviews or recommendations, so you would know most of the time.

Find a way to ask your employees why they aren’t recommending that their friends and family apply for work at your place. You may need to make this confidential – there are easy to use online survey tools that can help.

Of course, there are legitimate reasons why an employee wouldn’t recruit friends and family. I would be wary of suggesting that both people in a couple work for the same company, particularly if the company isn’t on very solid financial ground. The last thing a couple needs is for both of them to be worried about losing their job, or worse, having it happen to both of them at the same time.

Whether or not your staff recommends the company to friends and family, it’s worth discussing with them. Focus on the employees who will be frank with you. You need someone to tell you want you need to hear, even if you don’t want to hear it. Be sure they know that you won’t hassle or punish them for their comments – but you may ask for their help. You want honest feedback. If your staff wouldn’t recommend your company, you need to know why.

They need to understand that the lack of recommendations is serious, and that you want them to share with impunity. That doesn’t grant a free pass to be mean-spirited, rude, or abusive – and you should advise them of that in advance. Communicating bad news properly is an important life skill. Done poorly, this discussion will be tough for an owner to forgive and forget. What you don’t want is information presented in a way that will derail the goal: the need to learn what’s holding back their recommendation to others. Remember, the reasons they don’t recommend you are probably the reasons people leave.

Your backups are worthless

Last week, we discussed that business owners do a good job of protecting their business assets – except for work-in-process and data. While I could one-off any number of work-in-process situations, doing that in a vacuum isn’t particularly effective. I can, however, cover some common steps for making backups of your data that anyone can work from.

Backups don’t matter if…

Backups don’t matter if you can’t restore from them. That’s what makes them worthless. I once encountered a financial services client whose backup tape had not been written to for over five months. Meaning: They couldn’t have recovered any of the contracts, loan documents and other paperwork that had been processed for at least five months. Even worse, the tape was bad, so even the five month old backups were unusable. Their financial / account data was housed off-site, so it was not at risk. Even so, having no backups of those files could have put them at serious risk if a hardware failure occurred.

The take home: It’s important to check your backups to make sure they succeeded and to attempt a practice recovery on those files on a regular basis. If you can’t restore a backup, the time taken to make the backup is wasted and your business data is unprotected.

Don’t forget your website

While the next portion of this pertains specifically to WordPress, the steps and justification for the steps I’m about to recommend also apply to other web-based content systems – such as Drupal, Wix, Joomla, etc. These systems are popular because they allow you to build and maintain a nice site without an expensive custom programming job. According to research done by non-WordPress researchers, WordPress is used on 27% of web sites.

In February 2017, a WordPress bug related to their new REST API was fixed and rolled out. While WordPress fixed the bug quickly, they waited only a week after the bug fix was available before publicly revealing the details of the most severe part of the bug. Legit or otherwise, any delay in updating WordPress on sites that use it made a WordPress site subject to this hack. Within hours of revealing the previously mentioned details, the volume of hack attempts using this bug escalated into the millions of attempts over a few days. In a few days from Feb 6th through Feb 10th, over a million WordPress sites had been defaced. Fortunately, the defacing was easy to reverse.

While the flaw was on WordPress, it’s a painful reminder to keep your WordPress-based site updated. You can tell WordPress to auto-update itself, as well as themes and plugins. Despite the availability of auto-update functionality, only 37% of the many millions of WordPress sites are up to date, according to data published by WordPress.org.

In addition, replace or remove plugins that aren’t updated and tested regularly. Many once-popular plugins are no longer maintained. They may continue to work, but any security vulnerabilities in the plugin(s) won’t get fixed. Any security problems will be there until you stop using the plugin. Bottom line – Not worth the risk.

Finally, protect yourself against the cretins who do this kind of stuff. I recommend a combination of the free Sucuri security plugin and the paid WordFence plugin. The latter tool provides a flexible set of tools to block people from your site – including the ability to block users by country. If your business has no need to interact with folks from countries known to harbor hackers, then you can prevent most access by people in that country. “Most” because IP-based geolocation technology is dependable, but not 100% perfect.

Automated and off-site

As with most things of this nature, I suggest automation. There are a number of tools you can use to automate backups for your website, whether or not the site uses a content management system like WordPress. There’s no reason to make this yet another manual task you have to do each day. As I noted above, backups are worthless if you can’t restore from them. Be sure to test your ability to restore from the backups you’re taking.

Last but not least, take a copy of the data off-location or use an online service. If your building burns, the backup media was sitting on the computer won’t help you recover. Dealing with fire or theft is tough. Losing your business data only makes it worse.

Protecting traditional assets isn’t enough

Protecting traditional assets is one of the most important duties of a business owner. You’re constantly taking steps to deal with the need to protect and maintain your assets including buildings, cash flow, receivables, furniture/fixtures/equipment (FFE), etc. You have insurance, attorneys, maintenance contracts and any number of other processes, mechanisms and protections in place to sustain the value of the things you’ve invested in, and in some cases, to keep you out of trouble.

Yet despite all that effort and all that expense, I encounter at least one sizable business leaving themselves at significant risk… every single week. However, I don’t mean about FFE and other hard assets. There are at least two other assets worth protecting – and they’re as important as the ones you spend plenty of time, effort and money protecting. While you might be able to think of other assets that need protection, I’m speaking of work-in-process and data.

How do you protect work-in-process?

Every small business knows the pain of trying to get work out the door when they’re sick or an employee has to call in sick – or quits. The smallest of businesses, such as those with no staff, have to suck it up and deal with it. Sometimes this means having to tell their client(s) that they can’t deliver on the previously predicted schedule. Even when they deliver a little bit late, it plants a seed with that client that their vendor might unintentionally put them at risk by being unable to deliver at some random time in the future. If Murphy has his way, the timing won’t be ideal.

While many businesses do cross-training, the most resource-constrained ones struggle to make the time to do so. The resource-constrained small business isn’t the exception, it’s often the rule. While you might have plans in place when losing a “key employee”, that isn’t necessarily what causes the pain. It isn’t necessarily about losing your best welder, hairstylist, millwright, programmer, salesperson or finish carpenter. What gets hurt is what they’re doing when they depart, whether the departure is permanent or temporary. Do you have people sitting around who can simply step in and take over without missing a beat?

In most cases, that isn’t reasonable.

A salesperson who has been working a deal for months is tough to replace. They’ve established rapport with the decision makers. Starting over is likely to delay closing that deal. A hairstylist has the same kind of rapport and trust established with their 20 best clients. Your best welder may not be able to take over a job that someone was doing because they are backed up, or they aren’t used to working under water, or they can’t leave town to work due to their family situation. Your best programmer is unlikely to step in and immediately do their best work on code they’ve never seen on a subject matter they might know nothing about.

There isn’t a magic wand to these kinds of problems, only hard, important work. There’s documentation, cross-training and meetings (yay!). It probably seems normal to ask your best players what they’d recommend in these situations, but don’t forget to ask everyone else so nothing is missed. Who do they think can take over? Who needs to be cross-trained? What processes need to be excruciatingly documented? Talk about it and plan for it as best you can before the uncontrollable happens.

It’s time to treat data as one of your traditional assets

I see data at risk on a regular basis. The maintenance and protection of data and computing equipment is often left to the end user – who is all but certain to have no experience in such things, or will not have the tools (or time) to do the job. I regularly hear from businesses who were held hostage by ransomware, by systems with no anti-virus, or by hardware failure. Years back, I had a bank client that hadn’t backed up in over five months. How did I know? The ONE backup tape they had was dated five months earlier. It was damaged.

Can orders be filled without order data?

People ask me how often they should backup. I usually respond with “How much work can you afford to re-do?” It isn’t a flippant question. Can you afford to pay your staff to redo everything they did last week? Yesterday? The last two hours? What delay can you afford?

Photo credit Rita Willaert