If you know people who have owned their own business for a long time (or maybe not so long), they’ll have lessons to pass on. What you’ll typically receive from these people is rarely (if ever) going to be bad advice. I suspect most of these folks will be happy to suggest things you shouldn’t do, as well as things they recommend doing.
Here’s the secret process to making this work for you: Find a business owner. Ask an open ended question, like “What do you think about (something)?” In the meantime, here’s some really bad business advice for you. You may detect a little sarcasm. Or a lot.
It’s OK to fall behind in bookkeeping. No one really keeps up with it anyway, right? Also, never get a bookkeeper, even if you think you might only need them part time. You can handle it.
Never guarantee your work. As long as you’ve been paid, the job is done. The consumer needs to do the legwork to figure out who does quality work and who doesn’t. They are expected to take on 100% of the risk of their shopping choices.
Ignore your customers once you get their money. If they want something, they’ll tell you. Until then, leave them alone until they show up with more money.
Customer service is a waste of money. Your customers are smart enough to figure out how to use your products and services. If they aren’t, they’ve already paid. The really stumped ones will pay again even if they haven’t figured it out.
Be difficult to do business with. It gets rid of the lazy customers and those who aren’t willing to cater to your way of doing things. Or maybe you should be easy to do business with. You decide.
Safety isn’t a big deal. If your existing folks get hurt, you can always find new people to take their place.
Internet security risks are overblown. All the hype about viruses and hackers and stuff is mostly made up to sell software that probably doesn’t do anything.
Never call references. There’s really no need to try and find out if a candidate is motivated, or lazy, or awesome, etc. Don’t call them. Just keep hiring people and replace the bad ones. Calling them is a waste of time because it’s almost certain that their lawyer has advised them not to tell you anything. If they’re a smart person like you, they probably don’t have a lawyer and do it all themselves. Doesn’t matter. They still wouldn’t tell you because that airline magazine said don’t tell anyone anything if they call about former employees.
Try to be your own lawyer or CPA. Everyone thinks this is a good idea. I know all I need to know about lawyer-ing from that Law and Order show (Whomp-whomp). Accounting and the law is nothing more than math and stern letters.
Marketing is for losers. If your product or services are good enough, you shouldn’t need to waste time and money on advertising.
People don’t need to be trained. If they didn’t know what they were doing, we wouldn’t have hired them.
Salespeople rarely tell the truth. Even better, they rarely stick around for more than a few months, so it’s OK to pay them low commissions. Since they won’t be around long, it’s cool if they make up stories about your products and services as long as it closes a sale.
Foster a dog-eat-dog mentality among your employees. If they’re competing with each other, they’ll either get better or quit. They’ll also be too busy jockeying for position to spend any time getting together and causing trouble.
Never assume that your clients are smart. Presumably you’ve never suggested that your work is easy enough for your clients to do without you. If they were smart, you wouldn’t make so much money specializing in cleaning up the carnage caused by do it yourself clients.
Databases and customer relationship management is for people who can’t close. Relationships with customers are something for people who can’t sell.
When in doubt, use sarcasm. Seriously, though… All of the items above are obviously (I hope) sarcastic suggestions, so do the opposite. Business is hard enough without taking bad advice, particularly sarcastically bad advice.
Labor Day seems like a good time to talk about…. labor. Montana has a few labor conflicts going on right now. A commonly solution to such problems is for the employees to organize. In other words, they’d become employees subject to collective bargaining done on their behalf by their labor union.
Why do my employees want a union?
First, let’s talk about how an employer might find themselves in a place where their employees want to organize.
There are a number of reasons why your employees would want to be in a union. The best reason is that you hire skilled plumbers, electricians, riggers, iron workers, welders, etc. In other words, you need people with highly specific skills. These skills are usually in heavy demand – and today is no exception. Trade unions have historically been a great resource for training and managing the full career life cycle for highly skilled workers like those described above.
However, trade unions aren’t typically the ones you often hear about in the news. Instead, you probably hear more about organized labor unions. A fair percentage of them were provoked to organize due to poor behavior on the part of the employer.
What provokes employees to organize? Poor pay and benefits are obvious, but it sometimes goes beyond that. Poor leadership, which often creates a culture no one would choose to be a part of. Pushing everyone to fewer than 30 hours a week so that you can avoid some benefit costs. Consistently using inconvenient scheduling such as split shifts. Cutting staff to the point where employees can’t take the vacation time they’ve accrued. Creating separately organized companies for groups of employees. This is done to avoid hitting “headcount” thresholds that require additional employee benefits and/or record keeping.
When not to organize
Recently, a situation has arisen in Montana where a company told its people that they must either lay off the majority of their employees or close the business. This business was purchased a short time ago by a company who owns many businesses in their market.
It seems clear that the purchased business (a former competitor) was bought to remove them from the market. Happens all the time. Now the purchased “sort of competitive” (my words) business is being killed off. Employees affected by this are trying to organize a union. This tactic is intended to prevent layoffs and/or avoid closure of the business.
I don’t believe organizing is a viable long-term solution to this problem. When negotiating, it’s important to be able to trust whoever you’re working with. Avoiding negotiations with such parties is recommended unless you simply have no choice. If they plan to shutdown, how well will negotiations go?
Will it work?
Applicable wisdom: “When people tell you or show you who they are, believe them.“
This company has consistently demonstrated what to believe about them. They buy decades-old, locally owned businesses, then slash staff and ship many of the jobs out of state. The work these businesses do doesn’t benefit from remote work. Doing this work from out of town actually puts the business at a significant competitive advantage.
Organizing a union with a company like that is probably going to result in employees being treated poorly within the terms of their contract. That’s if they succeed in getting organized before the company shuts down the business. I think that’s a long shot. I don’t believe organization is going to stop this company from completing their shutdown plans.
The path to a long term solution for these employees is probably to start a competitor. I know it won’t be easy.
Difficulty created in advance
It gets tough when employees decide they need to organize when there’s almost no chance that the business is closing. The relationship between the company and employees just before organization is usually sour. Leadership needs to look in the mirror during these situations. A little research into what happened prior to organization might help. The patterns are fairly consistent, even if the details vary.
If your team feels like they’re the enemy, organization is a likely solution they’ll choose. People want consistency. They want some security that they’ll be around next month. Fear based management is a fast path to resentment and your team lacking any feeling of security.
Ego-free discussion between all parties is likely the sole route to business survival.
Update: Tuesday Sept 11, 2018 A single day after this post was published and 17 months after buying the business discussed above, the corporate parent locked the doors of the business and closed it. With no advance notice of the closure, they emailed all the employees telling them that the business was closed (they also called some and left voicemail). Employees were told not to visit the office and that they could make an appointment to pick up their things. They are paying their salaries until early October 2018. In other words, their behavior has not changed, as predicted.
Last week, I was in Chicago for a seminar. As you might imagine, public internet access is important to business travelers. My hotel had internet, but browsers and Outlook both objected when I attempted to connect to any secure site or resource. When I switched to the wifi hotspot on my phone, those issues disappeared. When I reached wifi at other locations, those issues didn’t reappear.
Verdict: hotel internet was misconfigured, broken, hacked, or some combination thereof.
Reporting the problem
I reported the problem Monday afternoon to the front desk and to the hotel’s customer service account on Twitter. By the time I checked out early Friday morning, the problem still existed. It took their corporate Twitter people 28 hours to respond, despite the fact that they’re a substantial global hotel chain – or perhaps, becausethey are.
I noted to the Twitter reps that I didn’t expect the front desk to be network experts, thus I was reporting it to them so they could get the hotel property some corporate-level network help. This didn’t happen – at least not yet.
Their response was to contact the hotel manager. Based on his post-checkout email to me, he had no idea what I was talking about. As previously noted, I didn’t expect him to. Even better, they accidentally forwarded me the internal corporate support team email with the case number and all the contacts, all while leaving this hotel manager hanging out in the breeze to figure it out on his own.
So how does this affect you?
Public internet access quality matters
I don’t want to turn this into a geeky network security post. I mention it because there’s a lot at potential risk when networks offering public internet access have problems like this.
When your customers connect to a secure site from your wifi & that network is misconfigured, it may simply prevent use of the network. If your business is frequented by business customers, fix this quickly as you don’t want them to leave and decide never to return.
You may not think this is a big deal, but business customers do – especially if they’re on the road a good bit. Don’t think of them as one person who “isn’t even a local“. Think of them as all business travelers (or tourists) as a whole. There are sites and mobile apps out there that guide people to businesses with good internet. If your internet is bad and your coffee and croissants are awesome, many of these folks will go elsewhere.
If a regular traveler finds a spot to settle in for an hour or two of work and that spot is dependable, they’ll never forget it and they’ll return every time they’re in town. BJ’s Coffee in Forest Grove, OR comes to mind immediately for me.
If your network is hacked, the risks go well beyond repelling customers. Worst case, the bad guys can “see” your network traffic and send it to a place where they can store and review it. If they have what appeared to be in place at the hotel I visited, they can gather logins, passwords, credit card and other account numbers and so on.
While it’s not a good idea to use the same network that you offer to your customers, if you do so & it’s hacked like this, info on the cards you run could be at risk, even if you passed PCI-DSS certification a few months ago. To be sure, this depends on the hack, your network config & other things. The details aren’t the point.
The risk these situations expose you to …. that’s the point.
Add “network health” to your regular checkups
On a regular basis, you probably check in with your lawyer, doctor, CPA, and a couple of other advisors. You do this to reduce / avoid risk, maintain good health (physical and/or financial) and keep yourself out of trouble.
I suggest adding “network people” to that list.
Ask them to help you lock your network down without making it impossible / annoying to use (there is a balance to be had). Ask them to show you what to check and how to detect when something is “not right” so that you know when to call them for expert help. This landscape changes often. Your network and the equipment, customers and data that touch it are assets. They need protection too.
I graduated from college with a BS in Computer Science back in 1982. The timing was unfortunate. Interest rates had gone through the roof, cratering hiring, so the tried and true 1980s “every programmer graduate can find a job at an airline or oil company” situation was gone. My school’s BSCS was a very new program and really was more like a general engineering degree (lots of calculus, plus diff-e and more math, several physics courses, etc) with some programming courses tacked on. There wasn’t much resemblance to what most would consider a classic BSCS curriculum, but it didn’t matter too much back then.
My first job after college was at Ross Perot‘s Electronic Data Systems (EDS). Skipping forward several months, I came out of their training program, which everyone went through regardless of their degree. Didn’t matter if you had a CS degree or a history degree, you went. After training, my first mentor was a guy named Randall.
My first serious career lesson
Randall was few years older and had become a rising star in that area of the company. He was easy to look up to. He was smart, a bit of a jokester and someone people came to when they needed solutions to tough challenges. You could see what that meant to him and others. Unlike some in the tech space, he was happy to teach and provide access to resources to experiment with and learn from.
35 years later my strongest memory of Randall is a conversation that had a massive impact on my business life. It became a lifelong career lesson.
One day when I was tinkering around with something that probably had nothing to do with my job at the time (like an IBM mainframe virtual machine), he stared me down and said (paraphrased) “If you want to go places and move ahead (in this company), always be willing to take on new things even if you know nothing about them, then do whatever it takes to learn what’s needed.“
It was years before I realized that his advice had become a consistent theme across that all the work situations I’ve been in since that time. It’d repeatedly been a door-opening differentiator. Thanks Randall, your advice that day was the most valuable thing a boss / co-worker / peer ever gave me.
What about “Business is Personal”?
I didn’t say there could only be one lifelong career lesson. “Business is Personal” is a business foundation, while Randall’s advice became a personal mindset & perspective.
The seeds of “Business is Personal” grew out of watching my photographer clients about 20 years ago. The level of personal touch that these folks maintained in their business was something much different than I’d ever seen. They thought about their relationship with their clients very deeply and used it to not only improve sales, but to create clients who stuck with them through each of the seasons of life.
In true “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear” fashion, my business life turned a corner thanks to these folks. I suddenly saw every business through a different lens.
As an employer and business owner, “Business is Personal” took on a litany of nuances, year after year. It became the foundation of my consulting and writing because it has a broad application and touches so many parts of the business. It not only became a foundation for running a business, but it’s also a filter for businesses that I’ll do business with.
Some non-traditional (for me) work eventually exposed “Business is Personal” as a nuanced connection between businesses, their employees, and the local community. Acquiring, caring for and retaining clients stabilized and helped grow those businesses and make them more resilient.
That stability ripples across families, schools, and quality of life in a community, impacting job creation and retention, crime, local funding, tourism, etc. Yes, it’s Economics 101.
That said, when explaining the “obligation” to get better at sales, customer service and marketing to a business owner as a means of impacting quality of life in their community, rather than “just a way to make more” – the big picture jumps out at them.
I’m curious what your core career lessons are. Have you thought about it? Have you thanked those who first instilled them in you?
A young man I know is getting started in business. He provides handyman services for homeowners. In a display of wisdom beyond his years, he asked his Facebook connections for things to read and people to talk to re: business advice.
Getting started means wearing several hats
Running a business on your own means you get to do all the jobs, including:
Deciding who you are best suited to work with.
Deciding who you shouldn’t work for even if they’re throwing $1000 bills at you. Almost everyone does this at least once because we start out under the illusion that everyone can be our customer.
Letting people know that you’re available to help them. This includes discussing what you’re really good at and staying away from everything else (ie: learning to say no).
Pricing your work.
Selling / reaching an agreement to perform work.
Doing the work.
The hard work
When getting started in your own business, there’s some “hard work” that has nothing to do with your service. I say “hard work” because they’re often things you don’t want to do, don’t have the time or money for, or don’t see the purpose of.
This includes “Getting organized”, which include making sure your bookkeeping is under control, getting all the permits and licenses that you need, doing whatever is necessary to make sure you are operating legally wherever you live, and getting the proper bonding (if needed) and (definitely needed) insurance to protect you and your customers so that if and when you make a mistake, it doesn’t cost you everything you own now and ever will own.
These things will seem like a pain, but the reality is that the pain they cause is much smaller than the pain created by not taking care of them.
Marketing and sales
Items two through five may generate an “OMG, seriously?”
A few thoughts about them…
If your typical happy customer is married, lives in 59912, works outside the home, and has a spouse who travels, then you’ll want to focus on identifying and attracting those specific people to your services. Don’t waste time advertising to 100,000 people who don’t “fit the profile”.
Come up with a one page (both sides) piece of paper that tells EXACTLY what you are great at (and what you actually want to do). Include your contact info.
Get a box of your business cards made into fridge magnets. Old school, but people will leave them on the fridge forever once they trust you. Even if you’re in their phone contacts, that fridge magnet is in their face every day. Make sure the visible side has your name, phone number, name and what you do. It’s OK to make a special card for magnets.
Figure out what you need to make from each job, including the expenses you might not be thinking of, like insurance, fuel, uniforms, marketing, downtime, taxes, etc. If you do everything else right and mess up your pricing, you won’t be happy.
Be humble, but don’t be shy. If you’re great at something, simply tell people you love to do that work.
As you prepare to leave the customer’s home, ask for more work. Say “Is there anything else that you’ve been meaning to get fixed?“, then let them think long enough so they’re the next one to speak. If they say no, say “OK, I’ll be happy to come back if you something comes up.“
Ask your mom, your grandma, and the moms of a few of your friends these questions:
“What frustrates you about repair guys that you’ve had in the house?”
“Who is your favorite repair company?”
“Why are they your favorite? What makes them so special?”
I can predict the answers, but I want you to ask anyway. YOU need to hear these words coming from folks who resemble your customers. These conversations will help you prepare to sell to the customers you want. It isn’t about convincing them to do the work. It’s about showing them you’re the right guy for them.
Do the work, follow up
I’m not going to tell you how to do the work, but I will suggest how things work while you’re at the customer’s home.
Show up in a clean truck.
In Montana, this isn’t always easy, but do the best you can. Your rig sets a first impression when you arrive. It doesn’t have to be a $60,000 diesel rig. It just needs to be clean.
Park on the street.
You don’t want to park in the customer’s driveway and drop a bunch of mud, gravel and whatever else you’ve been driving through that day. You also don’t want to be in the way when someone gets home, someone needs to leave, etc.
Show up in a clean shirt that tucks in.
This means buying at least 3-4 uniform shirts. Get your company name, your name, and your logo sewn onto them (if you have a logo). If you want to go a little crazy, put a big logo, phone number and website address on the back. No matter what, make sure your company’s name is visible through the window of someone’s front door. You want the shirt to tuck in because repeat customers don’t call you because they like seeing your rear hanging out under an untucked shirt. Enough said.
If a job trashes a shirt for the day, change into a clean shirt before arriving at your next job. Yep, you might have to carry several clean shirts with you. Pro athletes don’t take the field in dirty uniforms and neither should you. Show up looking like a pro every time. Meanwhile, you’re a walking billboard.
Buy a box of those silly little shoe booties.
If you walk into someone’s home leaving a trail of muddy, snowy footprints, I guarantee you won’t be asked to come back. Yes, it’s a bit of a hassle to pull them on and pull them off repeatedly, but it beats losing a customer you worked hard to get. You want to be the service they choose first. When some other handyman asks for their business, you want them thinking “Nope, never using anyone but (that guy).“
Make it like you were never there.
After you’ve left a customer’s home, you don’t want them to find any evidence you were there except for the repaired item, a receipt, and a business card. If you made a mess, clean it up. If you tracked something in or the job generate a mess, be sure you have the stuff needed to clean it up. If someone has to clean up after you, they’ll never ask you to come back.
Sign up for Square
… or a similar service that lets you get paid via card using your phone. Many competitors will take credit / debit cards. Yes, it will cost you a few percent of your sales, but it will get you sales as well. Be sure to put the card logos on your business card and one page brochure.
Find customers that can help you during lean times
One of the frustrating aspects of managing rentals is dealing with maintenance. Become the dependable guy for people who own rentals, or rental management firms and you’ll have business that keeps feeding you when you aren’t sure where your next gig will come from. Think about other opportunities similar to this.
Call or text the customer the next day and ask them if everything is ok. Leave a voice mail if they don’t answer. Almost NO ONE does this. You will stand out by doing so. 1000 handyman services might read this and STILL, few of them that don’t already do it will start doing it habitually. If things went well, it’s a natural time to thank them and remind them that your business depends on referrals from satisfied customers. If they didn’t go well, it’s a chance to save that customer. Sure, you have to hustle a little, but people refer vendors who took great care of them.
Get some help with Facebook marketing
Your business is ideal for marketing to people on Facebook. Despite all the noise about Facebook data in the news, it’s important to know two things:
Most data was given with implicit permission that was granted when someone took a poll on Facebook.
This data has been collected for 100 years. Facebook’s is a bit easier to use.
For example, you can ask Facebook to put your ad in front of homeowners who live in the 59912 zip code who have a household income of $xx,xxx. You can optionally have them echo the ads to Instagram. You can have them eliminate homeowners who aren’t married and otherwise filter out people who don’t fit your ideal customer profile.
Few other advertising mechanisms can put your smiling face in front of *exactly* the right people, much less charge you only for the ones who click on your ad.
A small group I belong to was recently asked by a member of the group to identify some “unmet needs”. The context was “any business” and his question related to a course on self-reliance that he and his wife are participating in. This friend and another in the group are in the fitness and weight loss industry.
My suggestion for him was the lack of effort most gyms make to get (and keep) members engaged and training at their gym. Most gyms scan a barcode membership card or have some sort of sign in process.
Despite this, if you don’t show up on the normal days you’ve showed up in the past, you’ll hear nothing from them. If you don’t show up for two weeks, you’ll hear nothing from them. If you don’t show up for three months, you’ll hear nothing from them. As long as you keep paying the bill, that is. So that was an example of an unmet need for his course.
To be sure, self-motivation is a lot of this, but a short text or email to say “Hey, are you still alive? We haven’t seen you in three months” might be the kick in the tail feathers that they need. Or maybe life has been hectic and they need a little push to get back in the habit. Regardless of the reason, none of this happens in most gyms.
So that prompted more thought on the subject, which is why we’re discussing unmet needs today. There are at least three kinds of unmet needs:
Those you know of and haven’t satisfied
Those you know of and refuse to address
Those you don’t know about
Unmet needs that you know of and don’t satisfy
Using the context of the gym, what does your gym to do set itself apart from the others? Does it miss you when you don’t show up for an unusually long time? If you’re a persistent daily user, does it miss you when you miss a single day?
These kinds of things don’t pertain solely to a gym. Does your oil change place miss you when you stop going there, or when you’re a month later than usual? Do they even notice? What about your dentist? Your dry cleaners? Your beer store?
These things aren’t limited to retail. They’re only limited by how much attention you’re paying to your customers. Are they “suddenly” spending twice as much or half as much as they have for the last five years? There’s a reason. Maybe it affects you, maybe it doesn’t.
Unmet needs hide in places like this.
Unmet needs that you refuse to address
Refusing to address certain needs is OK. Even when the need is there and legitimate, there may be any number of reasons why you’d want to avoid it. Maybe it’s none of your business, even though it’s in context with the products and services you provide to your clientele. Maybe this need is too costly to meet. Meeting it might require invading the privacy or “personal space” of your customers. Perhaps meeting this need might even annoy your customers, despite the fact that they know they need it.
Give yourself the latitude to say no, even if you’d rather say yes (to the income).
The ones you don’t know about
This one always reminds me of the famous Rumsfeld quote about unknown unknowns. In other words, there are things we don’t know that we don’t know about. Have you ever heard of the citric acid cycle? It’s also called the Krebs cycle. I suspect that for most people, it’s an unknown unknown. IE: It’s something we weren’t aware of the existence of, plus we don’t know anything about it now that we’ve been told it exists.
These are the things your customers will tell you if you listen closely. But… don’t wait until they tell you. Ask them. “Is there anything that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we would take care of?” Notice that I didn’t say “Is there anything we can sell you that you don’t already buy from us?” That’s a different question. It’s about you, mostly.
“Is there anything that we aren’t doing for you that you wish we would take care of?” is about them and their unmet needs – and probably unspoken ones at that. Ask questions that make it about them.
Recently I traveled to visit a family member. Their town is practically devoid of parking in the retail and business sections of town. Weirdest thing ever. I haven’t seen anything quite like this in years. Parking was almost non-existent.
In the main retail part of town, you had to use a parking structure six blocks away. It was damp and poorly lit. Given that this is an area where meth has substantially influenced the nature and volume of local crimes, it wasn’t a place I’d want family members walking to and from. What little front door parking the retail area offered was completely consumed – and as I watched for a while, these cars were there for the long term. Normally, retail spaces have fairly frequent turnover, but not here. I suspect the spots were taken by employees of nearby businesses – whose building owners weren’t required to provide parking for a reasonable percentage of the building’s expected occupancy.
This isn’t unusual. Many times a substantial new building will be built in an area that is already under serious pressure parking-wise – and the building’s owner isn’t expected to allocate space for parking by the building’s occupants. The result is an area under even heavier parking pressure, which is not particularly good for business.
Except in large cities, transit usually isn’t an option. That was the case in this town of about 10,000 people. As a result, travel happens in individual vehicles, which means parking is a critical resource for the success of these retail businesses.
Business parking in a box
In the “office-y”, business section of town, there were a few small (two or three story) office towers and medical facilities. These buildings were clumped together in a downtown (formerly dense retail area) with surprisingly few parking spots – and none on the street. Collectively, these buildings were big enough to house several hundred workers. The result? Some of those employees were parking in adjacent residential areas and were obviously walking across four lane roads that were not pedestrian friendly areas. Down the road about 300 yards, it appeared that “overflow” parking was happening in the corner of an abandoned box store’s parking lot.
I have no idea where customers of these businesses would park. Maybe they circle the lot like a buzzard until a spot opens up. I don’t know about you, but when a business offers nowhere to park, I go somewhere else. They chose the location and the parking situation, or they chose not to move when the situation became difficult parking-wise. If the location and parking options are inconvenient, seriously sub-standard, or just plain terrible, I choose one of their competitors. I’ll bet you do too.
Did I say parking? Sorry about that.
Parking is a critical resource for businesses, particularly those that serve the public, whether they’re retail or “other business”. Certainly, we want to have safe parking for our employees, but for businesses that serve the public, it’s like oxygen.
When I was talking about the town I visited, rather than parking, I was referring to a startling lack of internet access at every location I tested. But now you get the idea about scarcity of a resource – and the problems are similar whether we’re talking about parking or broadband.
35% of the US workforce freelances and a substantial percentage of them telecommute full or part-time. Six percent of working Montanans telecommute. Given the nature of business and the needs of the US work force, these numbers are likely to keep increasing.
While you might think that telecommuters are all geeky software jobs – that isn’t the case. Telecommuters work in finance, law, medicine, pharma, research, insurance, higher education, customer service, government (yes, really), marketing, sales, cybersecurity, and many other fields. In other words, many “office jobs” of the past have become telecommuting jobs.
Broadband is a strategic economic resource
When entrepreneurs leave town, it’s not usually a good thing. Those two issues will make it difficult for a town to be the place where two pizza teams form.
If something good happens, they usually see it as a reason to buy, except when odd Wall Street logic prompts them to sell instead. Likewise, they usually use bad news as a legitimate reason to sell.
Outside the context of Wall Street, the repercussions from an event can get a bit more personal. When these things involve (or appear to involve) a local business, people either flock to the place or abandon them as if they have a contagious and permanent disease.
Sometimes things get worse. What’s worse? When mob mentality takes over and a group of people decide your transgressions mean that you deserve to be forced out of business, or worse.
Dealing with the aftermath
No matter what happened, and no matter how at fault you and /or your business may be (including not at fault at all), you have two choices: tell the truth, or say nothing.
Why say nothing? Because your lawyer said so.
Why tell the truth? Because the whole story will eventually come out anyway and no matter how bad it is, lying about it to your customers, prospects, and community is always going to come back to bite you far worse than the truth will.
In these times, you might get the idea that there’s either no such thing as the truth, or that there are multiple truths for different people.
Which truth is that?
Clearly, there will be people who won’t believe you no matter what you say. They don’t care about the truth (certainly not from you, that is), so telling the truth isn’t about them. Remember, they only want to see you shut down, in jail, and / or publicly humiliated, so the real truth has a way of not mattering to most of them.
Even if you were right or not involved, you’ll take some heat. Nothing you say will mute the haters. Ignore them as much as possible, but always defend the facts. Leave the personal stuff alone and don’t make it personal. Make sure your family, friends, and employees stay out of it, particularly on social media.
Of those who eventually discover and recognize that you did nothing wrong (when that’s the case), history has shown that only a small percentage will acknowledge their discovery. The rest seem to be more worried about the fuss they made to their friends, family and others. That’s their ego and /or fear talking.
The truth is for everyone else.
Recovery and Communication
When these things happen, a timely response is essential. Do it as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it gets and the more anger you’ll have to defuse. Inaction or procrastination both make it look like you don’t care. You have enough to deal with as it is (right or wrong) without an extended delay that makes you appear not to care about the situation.
If you were wrong or somehow involved, own it, make it right, and take the punch.
If you weren’t wrong or had nothing to do with it, own that too.
What does make it right look like? It looks like what you’d want someone to do when making it right to your grandma.
Who do you tell? A better question might be who don’t you tell. When the news starts to spread (guilty or otherwise), do you want other people telling your story? No. As with marketing, you need to be the one telling it, even if the story is bad news.
If new information becomes available, lead with it. Whether it’s good or bad, you need to take the reins on communication. If you don’t have all the information or even think you don’t, say so. Certainly the story can change in complex situations with confusing timelines and / or a lack of confirmable information.
A lot of this is common sense, but we sometimes need a formula to fall back on when we’re under pressures . These fallbacks are helpful for the same reason we use checklists and documented processes.
Remember, listen to your lawyer. Also remember that I’m not that person.
Back in November 2017, my wife hit a deer at 70 mph on a four-lane road on her way to work in the pre-dawn hours a few days before Thanksgiving. The events that followed provided a number of takeaways for business owners, in addition to pointing out the importance of asking questions while the answers still matter.
tl;dr – If you have an admin with little or no domain knowledge make the initial sale, review what they sold. Call or email to suggest any changes based on your experience, what you know about your customer, or tell them you did so and have no changes to suggest. Speaking of, follow up regularly with customers who have damage claims. Consider what carnage has been introduced into their lives. Don’t make your customers do your job. Even better, have a documented process for your team thats over and above what the national carrier forces upon you. Don’t be an order taker.
Monday 11/20 – National claim office person tells me they expect the car to be totaled. They tell me to run out and collect whatever I need from the car because they are going to tow it to a salvage facility. I make 2 trips out to the car, which is 12 miles down the road. 1 of those trips is my fault, forgot the garage door opener and the plates. Took the plates since we may never see it again. Presumably we’ll be able to use them on the replacement car. Tow truck driver also predicted it would be totaled because five air bags were deployed.
Tuesday 11/21 – Based on what the national claim center told me on Monday 11/20, they are supposed to pick up the car from the tow place today. They didn’t.
Wednesday 11/22 (day before Thanksgiving) – Salvage yard’s tow truck goes to pick up the car, a day late. The tow place that originally picked up the car is closed for Thanksgiving.
Thursday 11/23 – Thanksgiving. Didn’t expect anything to happen today.
Friday 11/24 – Nothing happens. Not really surprising. Tow place is probably still closed.
Monday 11/27 – I call the claims office and find out nothing has happened. Person I spoke to seemed kind of short with me. Maybe they think I’m asking too many questions or being too persistent by expecting them to predict / commit to dates when something will happen. I didn’t get fussy (yet) so maybe she was getting abused by someone else before getting me.
Interestingly, when I call, the system knows I have a claim based on my phone # and asks me to press 1 to confirm that’s the claim I’m calling in about. Despite that, when I am connected to an agent, they ask for my name and claim number. Agent tells me that they haven’t got any scheduled date in the system for review of the car. Then they tell me it was never picked up from the tow place (this was supposed to happen on Tuesday).
I get the idea that this process will never complete without me hounding them every single day. I no longer feel like a client whose car was ripped from my hands. I now feel like a transactional sucker who pays someone to abuse me when and if I need their services.
It has been a week since the accident. Zero contact from the agent.
Takeaway – If you make your customers do your job, they are going to be frustrated, or they are going to expect a great deal. Set expectations up front.
Tuesday 11/28 – I will call and see if the car got towed to the salvage yard today. I will ask if an adjuster is now scheduled to visit the yard and assess the status of the vehicle. Call the agent and ask what the process is supposed to look like. Am I expected to nag the adjusters and the claim office every day or twice a day to get this stuff done in a reasonable timeframe?
Called mid-afternoon. Spoke to a very helpful woman named Tonya. “Tow dispatched but we cant tell if it was moved yet.” Adjuster will “automatically” check the car once it is “checked in” at the salvage yard, but that check-in hadnt happened yet. Otherwise, she didn’t have further info on the schedule.
Wednesday 11/29 – Called about noon. Got Donna (I think – was hard to hear at first). She was very friendly and ended up having to call the salvage yard and other people to find out out what was going on. The car is now at the salvage yard and checked-in, so the adjuster is expected to look it over in the next 2-3 days. Tomorrow is possible, but she couldn’t give me a firm date as the adjusters apparently work their own schedule. Doesn’t sound like they are insurance company employees, but I might be reading too much into her comments about their appointment schedule and work load. It’s possible that adjusters work for an adjuster firm that handles estimates / assessments for multiple insurance companies in rural areas. I don’t know the workload of these folks, but that would seem more efficient than every company having their own and trying to keep them all busy. I’m guessing someone who reads this might have more information about that.
Takeaway – When a situation clearly has the potential to frustrate a customer, a little extra effort on the part of your team goes a long way.
Thursday 11/30 – Received a voice mail about 820am saying that the vehicle is repairable (ie: they will not total it). They asked me to call them back. Called and reached Paige, who explained the situation and the benefits (warranties and such) that selecting a body shop that the insurance company “works with” (ie: trusts, has ongoing experience with, saves them money and probably hassle/paperwork). She emailed me a list. I reviewed the list, posted a few names on Facebook to see if any Missoula-based people had suggestions about the list. Chose one of the shops suggested to me. Called insurance company back, told them which body shop to use.
Later in the day, called back, asked Raul to explain the benefit that you get when using a body shop on insurance company’s preferred list (you can choose anyone, including a vendor not on their list). The deal is that repairs and anything else that comes up related to the wreck are guaranteed by the insurance company for as long as you own the car. NOTE: I haven’t seen the actual terms of this guarantee as yet. Given that we keep cars until they “BluesBrother“, this is a potentially valuable benefit, so we chose a shop on their list.
This is what I mean by “BluesBrother”:
Estimate arrived in my email. Called claim line again, turns out this estimate is actually from the insurance adjuster. $6200. Car is scheduled to be towed to the body shop on Friday.
Takeaway – Give your customers a good reason to make the choices you want them to make.
Friday 12/1 Car being moved from salvage yard to Action Auto Body in Missoula.
Monday 12/4 Called body shop, talked to John, who happened to be the guy finishing up the estimate. Tells me it will take a week to get parts and 2 weeks to do the work. Very nice, detail oriented guy who seemed happy to answer all my questions without sounding the least bit tired or annoyed.
Takeaway – Having technically adept people on the phone who also fully understand how to work with a customer who lost use of a car is a big plus. Being able to do that job and put up with 15 minutes of questions from me without getting frustrated is impressive.
Tuesday 12/12 While I haven’t heard a word from anyone at the insurance company or the body shop since 12/4, today I received an automated survey email from insurance company. The nine page survey asked me to evaluate the claim handling. The survey clearly isn’t designed to be filled out until the claim is completed, yet it allows only 10 days to complete the survey – which will expire at least a week before the body shop expects to have the car back to me. Obviously, the technology generating the surveys has no visibility into the status of the claim in question.
Takeaway – If you care about survey responses, make sure the surveys are sent at the proper time. Automation handles this kind of stuff in it’s sleep – if it’s automated with the right data. “Ask questions while the answers still matter” also means don’t ask too soon.
Thursday 12/15 Received a mailer from insurance company suggesting that I could refinance the Subaru at a lower rate. Only if they’re offering negative interest.
Takeaway – Wording on your direct mail matters as much as it does in tweet or email. The assumptions you make can make your marketing piece all but invisible.
Friday 12/16 Talked to body shop. As of today, all the parts showed up, so they will start work on Monday the 19th. Parts were supposed to take a week, but my guess is that ground shipping has been impacted by Christmas shipping season. It’s clear we wont’t get the car back in 2017.
Tuesday 12/20 30 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.
Friday 12/29 Work is underway, had to order another couple of parts for previously unseen damage, and those parts have not arrived yet. Holiday shipping traffic and people on vacation have probably slowed delivery. Body shop estimates the car will be completed sometime the week of the 8th-12th.
Monday 1/8 Checked in with body shop. They asked me to bring in plates so they could drive it. They say the car is pretty much done, looks great. Told me that they were taking the car to Subaru to get it started again and certify sensors and automated driver-assist systems, etc. He cannot start the car, so Subaru apparently has to reset the computer or similar. Once they get it back from Subaru, they will highway test it to make sure all is well, and then we’ll be done with it.
Wednesday 1/10 Checked in with body shop. They reminded me to get plates to them. I have no car since the Mrs is driving mine to work and they are not open outside normal working hours, so I’ll have to drop them off during off-hours.
Saturday 1/13 Dropped the plates by the body shop so they could drive it.
Tuesday 1/16 Spoke with John at the body shop. Subaru has had the car for about 10 days. They were unable to get the car started for days. Apparently, they were unable to convince the computer to allow it to start and no one knew what to do. I’ve seen what happens when this occurs at other dealers – the service manager calls the factory and gets some help. Apparently, they managed to get it running a couple days later because a factory-certified master mechanic happened to be passing through Missoula and helped them figure it out. Makes me wonder if our local dealer has any factory-certified mechanics for 2018 vehicles. John tells me they told him to come pick it up. He did. On the short drive back to his shop, John sees that the dash is lit up like a Christmas tree – every light is on. Clearly, the dealer didn’t finish the job and left the car in a state where it is running, but not ready to return to the customer (ie: me). No idea if driving in this condition would have eventually caused engine damage. Body shop guy turns around, returns the car to them, tells them not to bother giving the car back until it is 100% perfect. I suspect it wasn’t worded that way, but the point was still made.
Takeaway – Notice how the body shop advocated for the customer? Can you imagine the response you’d get if you made a similar demand of your dealer’s service department?
Takeaway – Don’t all dealers have at least one factory-certified master technician? If you have them and you know the other dealers don’t, why isn’t your advertising letting people know this important detail?
Friday 1/19 Spoke with John at the body shop. He tells me that Subaru seems to be making progress. They found a sensor or something that needed to be replaced, so they ordered it for Monday (1/22) delivery.
Saturday 1/20 60 days since hitting the deer. Zero contact with the agent during that time.
Tuesday 1/23 Spoke with John at body shop. Dealer still has not returned the car to them. He didn’t know if they received the part on Monday, or what progress had been made. Said Dar has been working with them and that he would know, but he was gone for the day.
Wednesday 1/24 Called body shop to see if they had any news from Subaru. Dealer is still trying to figure out engine issue.
Friday 1/26 Body shop called. Subaru dealer still lost on what’s going on. Thought it was figured out, they gave him the car on Thursday. Once again, on the drive back to the shop, it started throwing engine failure warnings, so he turned around and took it back.
Monday 1/29 Body shop called, said that Subaru finally reproduced the problem so now they seem to have it narrowed down to a computer error or an oil sensor error. Apparently the problem is intermittent. Every programmer you know will tell you this makes the problem harder to find.
Wednesday 1/31 Called body shop. They explained that after they called Subaru late on 1/29 after we last talked and found that Subaru techs determined that the one of the car’s computers was messed up. They figured this out by swapping a new car’s computer into our car and re-testing, as well as swapping ours to a new car. As your programmer friends will tell you, this is debugging 101. Replace / disable the components that are involved, but do so one at a time. Why it took three weeks to arrive at that point, I have no idea. Interestingly, the dealer does not stock computers for the current model year even though the Outback is the highest selling model in the U.S. as of 2016 with a mere 16.0 days to turn (ie: days on lot before it gets sold ). Perhaps computers don’t fail that often. Dealer apparently isn’t allowed to take the computer from a new car, so they had to order one (delivery time: three to four days). Body shop was hopeful (but not super confident) that he would get it back late Thursday or early Friday so he could get it to us before the end of the day on Friday.
Friday 2/2 Body shop called in the morning to say that he got the car back and that it was OK. They need it for a few more hours to finalize cleanup and then we can have it. I was able to pick up the car about 4:30pm. The total repair bill was just short of $16,000. Later that night, I got a detailed email receipt from the body shop, as well as an automated email from the insurance company that an “updated claim estimate” had been received. The body shop gassed it up before returning it.
Takeaway – Filling the tank was not required and not expensive, but it was a nice gesture when returning someone’s car after over two months. What “not required and not expensive” things can you do to impress your clients?
Saturday 2/3 Received an automated email from the insurance company noting that the claim had been paid. On a Saturday. Despite decades of working on automated systems, I’m shocked this didn’t require management approval, particularly given the amount (almost $16K). It appears from Friday night and Saturday driving that the car is back to pre-deer condition. Body shop’s paint/finish job was very well done.
Takeaway – Systems work. While the efficiency provided by inter-company systems produce a time and cost savings benefit to the insurance company, body shop and dealer, these systems are also a benefit to customers.
Verdict of the experience:
Body shop – Great job, both on the work and as an advocate for me when dealing with the local dealer. Slower than expected, but three holidays and the shipping time for multiple parts orders didn’t help. At times, they seemed surprised that I didn’t go ballistic on them or at least take out my frustration with the situation on them during our calls. I never felt the need to do that because they kept me informed, set expectations, and were clearly playing the role of advocate for me when dealing with the dealer. They didn’t make me do their job.
Local dealer – They had the car for over three weeks. I wonder what would have happened if that factory-certified technician from somewhere else hadn’t been in the area twice while our car was being diagnosed. I got the impression that this guy was the savant who twice rescued the dealer’s service department from throwing up their hands and giving up. Imagine if a random customer had been dealing with the dealer instead of a peer in their industry. The body shop guys tell me that they still believe in the dealer’s service department, so that goes a long way. The dealer should appreciate that they were held to the body shop’s standards.
National claims office – Outside of a slow start with the tow (which added a week) and the adjuster (which added another week) and one episode of snark on the phone, they performed as expected.
Local agent – Was a non-factor in the process. Agent missed a substantial opportunity to create a relationship and show how they care for clients.
What’s missing from this timeline?
A personal contact from the agent.
The lady who cuts my hair knows more about our experience with the deer hit and the subsequent repair adventures than my (former) insurance agent. If this seems normal, you have the wrong agent or you are the wrong agent.
In the nine weeks between hitting the deer and getting our car back, our only contact with the agent’s office has been my call to their office where I talked to his admin on the morning of the deer hit. She was pleasant, asked if everyone was ok, took a little bit of info, then transferred me to the national claim office. That part was expected as the priority at the time is to get started on repairing the car once we’re clear that there were no injuries.
A week after getting our car back, it was clear our agent wasn’t going to reach out. I called them to move our coverage to the CFalls agent we previously worked with for almost 15 years (call it a corrected oversight). The old agent’s admin was pleasant and said she would take care of it, noting that she would contact me if they needed more info. She didn’t ask about my wife or the car, which tells me that their customer contact software doesn’t give them any sort of recent history to help “make conversation” & check in on a customer’s satisfaction level during customer calls.
The next day, the agent called me for what I believe is the first time in three and a half years.
He was calling to tell me that he had released our policies to CFalls & to ask if we were moving because of something they’d done. It was too late to ask. They might be able to fix it for someone else, but for anyone wearing the customer hat, it doesn’t matter. Some might share, but most are going to say whatever gets the guy off the phone – and that’s exactly what I did. I was busy with work at the time and didn’t have time to get into what would probably become an hour-long discussion. Interestingly, the agent said he asks the same question of customers transferring business to his office – ie: what made you leave the other agent? What about the gap between getting and losing a customer?
It’s critical to ask good questions, but be sure to ask them while the answers still matter.
Fill gaps of inattention
So let’s get back to the real reason I bothered to share all of this with you: To help you understand how you might be leaving gaps of inattention in your relationship with your customers.
After my wife hit a deer at 70 MPH on a pitch dark morning just before 6:00 am, no one called during that nine week period to ask if:
… the driver is still doing OK (injuries and issues often show up days/weeks later)
… we’ve gotten the car back or to ask if we know why it’s taking so long (we have and I do).
… if we’re satisfied with the repairs (we are).
… if we want to make any coverage changes (we do).
This is below my expectations.
Some agents might say they “aren’t allowed” to make that sort of contact with customers. Don’t confuse being a real person who cares about their clients with being an order taker.
If your parent company doesn’t allow you to have personal, caring contact with your clients, find another company to represent. If anything, that sort of rule may indicate how that company will treat you someday.
Some insurance agents reading this might be thinking “we’re not told to do that“. Bear in mind that there are many things you should do to keep and care for a client that no one tells you to do.
Don’t be an order taker.
An order taker says “Do you want fries with that?”, yet an order taker can show some humanity and assess the purchaser on their feet and comment/question accordingly when appropriate.
An order taker can be replaced at will. I can switch to another agent for the same company without a second thought. I can switch to another insurance company without much thought, if all I want to do is compare dollars and cents.
On the other hand, if a client is madly in love (maybe that’s a stretch) with the care and attention provided by their insurance agent and their team, you’ll have to pry them away in most cases.
Which agency do you want to own? Which agency do you want to use? The order taker or the caring, attentive team?
A friend who owns a manufacturing business recently decided to hire a remote software developer – his first remote employee. He asked if I had some advice for managing remote employees as he knows I’ve done so. In fact, I’ve managed remote team members in some way, shape or form since 1998. While the folks I work (and worked) with have been a mix of folks close to home and scattered around the globe, he’s starting with a remote developer here in the U.S.
Why remote employees?
Hiring a remote employee might seem like the craziest idea ever. Even so, remote work has been growing steadily since the late ’90s for several reasons: People have roots. Their families have jobs, friends, schools & communities they love, outdoor recreation your community can’t compete with (and vice versa), etc.
In the ’60s-’80s, when a company transferred or hired an employee who lived somewhere else, they generally paid movers to pack and move that employee’s possessions. In some cases, they would buy the employee’s old house if it didn’t sell within a reasonable amount of time. Serious investment. Remote work during those decades was difficult, but it still happened. Companies like IBM (“I’ve Been Moved”), Kodak, Xerox and others had field sales / service reps all over the country – and not always based out of a local company-owned office.
Today, such transfers are far less common. Companies lower their standards, extend their search effort, hire remote people or find another solution.
If an ideally trained, experienced candidate with domain-specific knowledge for your opening lives somewhere else, and cannot (or doesn’t want to) move to your town, do you:
Do without and settle for someone who isn’t ideal.
Keep looking and wait until the right (or close enough) local appears.
Hire no one and leave the opening unfilled.
Hire a local and invest in the proper training.
Ask a candidate to move to your town (think about how you might feel about that if the situation were reversed)
Questions to ask new remote employees
“Have you worked remotely before?” should have been discussed during the interview. After the hire is not the time to start this conversation. The first time an employee transitions from in-office work to remote work is a substantial shift – more so than you hiring your first remote team member.
“What’s your schedule?” and “What times do you regularly need to be away?” aren’t probing personal questions. They let both sides discuss expectations and avoid surprises.
For example, I take kids to the bus stop a little after 8:00 am. I pick them up a little after 3:00 pm and a little before 4:00pm. As you might expect, there’s a few minutes of “cat herding” that takes place before the morning bus stop and after the two afternoon bus stops. While no one depends on me to be in a certain place with immediate availability at any specific moment of the day, it’s important to communicate the team’s schedule on both ends.
Likewise, it’s on me to make sure someone understands my schedule when we’re trying to arrange a meeting time. If I am trying to finish up before the bus stop or am rushed to get to a meeting just after a bus stop time, meeting prep (or the meeting itself) isn’t as productive or focused. That isn’t fair to clients or your remote employer. It’s as important to discuss the times where all hands are expected to be available for scrums, meetings, standups, etc.
Lunch is a good example of scheduling, even though you might not give it much thought. Some people eat lunch at their desk. Some like to get out of the house and meet a friend. Some mix it up a bit, often because working at home by yourself can be lonely. Some people need regular interaction, and text chat (like Skype, HipChat, or Slack) doesn’t feed that need. None of these things are wrong, but when your phone rings and you don’t answer, or you answer and a noisy restaurant is what your employer hears – they’ll wonder. It’s natural. You don’t want to make them wonder. You want them to know what to expect.
It’s OK to say “On Thursdays, I meet a few friends for lunch, so I’m not around from 11:30 to 1, and I start early or finish late those days“, as long as you’ve worked that out with people who need to reach you. This isn’t about someone expecting to know your butt is in your seat every minute of the day. It’s about being considerate of both parties. It’s about trust.
“Tell me about your workspace” – also isn’t a probing personal question. An employer or client has an expectation that you aren’t trying to work in a room full of toddlers, barking dogs, or gaming teenagers. Speaking of, summer plans are important. If you have young school-age kids, how will they be cared for while you’re working? Will they be in a different space than you? If the kids are older, it generally isn’t a problem, while two to seven year olds don’t generally manage their day on their own.
If this isn’t the new employee’s first remote rodeo, it’s a good idea to ask them what worked and what didn’t work in previous remote gigs. Take advantage of their experience and perspective – it will almost certainly add nuance to my comments. This gives you the chance to learn from another owner / manager’s efforts at no charge, and it will help you understand the persona, priorities and needs of your new remote worker.
Work out a protocol for communication during travel, weekends, evenings and during emergencies. This is really no different for a local employee than it is for a remote one, other than the fact that a manager can’t easily show up at the front door of a remote employee. If you’ve ever done that for business purposes, your communication plans probably need work. Showing up to pay your respects or attend a BBQ isn’t “business purposes”.
An emergency might be that your biggest client is having a meltdown or that there’s an angry boyfriend at the office. Either way, establish a protocol for getting the word out, conveying its severity, & indicating what action (if any) is necessary.
Keep in mind that every family (thus, every team member) may have different needs. Babies, shift work & roommates impact phone/ringer use.
Mentoring & the “first friend” – No matter how many years of experience they have, they’re new to you. New people need mentoring. Even if they don’t need it with the work you hired them to do, there are plenty of reasons why their “first friend” at work will prove beneficial.
Do you hire someone to stay in the same position “forever”, or do you want them to grow into a position they aren’t yet ready for? Even if you don’t expect a new hire would be ready to run your shop in five years, they’ll almost never get ready without training, mentorship and interim experience to prepare them for that role.
Qualified people still need mentors. They also need to be mentors. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sooner than later – and with intention.
Connection – Remote employees need connection to the nest. Bring them on-site early and often. It’s particularly important to make this happen early on. Everyone at the home office needs connection with those remote employees. They need to be able to trust their word, trust their work and think of them as they do any other member of the team. This isn’t just about the line employee. It’s about the managers as well. When the remote employee becomes a black box in a room in another town that no one can see, the unseen person and their work are easy to devalue. This could happen even if their work happens to be strategic. The reverse is also true. They need the opportunity to understand the value of their peers work as well their colleagues do.
Team meals – For a business with on-site employees, team meals (on campus or not) are a commonly-used way to build team harmony and nurture relationships between team members. This may not be easy particularly effective with remote employees, so be sure to have these meals when remote employees are on site.
Video meetings (IE: conference calls with webcam) – Some people really dislike the addition of video to a call. People are fussy about their hair or generally how they look, don’t want to be seen eating during a call, are sensitive to what’s visible in their work space (like that monstrous Siamese cat laying next to the keyboard), and/or the idea of others seeing them appear to be disinterested because they’re multi-tasking during a meeting.
Ease into this. Start with short, less critical meetings to raise the comfort level. You’ll probably need to set the example for a while so people get comfortable with it. It’ll make everyone more aware of the ambient noise and distractions in their (and others’) workspace. In a face-to-face meeting, most people can manage their facial responses to a speaker’s comments. Experienced conference callers have learned to mute early and often, but may not be practiced at managing expressions when video is introduced.
The lesson: Don’t make a big deal out of the expressions you see on video. Use them as a signal to ask for group feedback. It’s natural for facial expressions to change when we hear something we have questions about, don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t understand. I prefer the Zoom (all faces on screen) way of doing this, mostly because it seems to train everyone that their expressions change while listening to people talk. Most of us don’t want to embarrass a co-worker, much less ourselves. Use it as an advantage and an opportunity to improve, not as a way to create drama.
Does this differ for workers outside the US?
The differences between inside-the-US & outside-the-US team members include (in decreasing order of owner/manager/employee pain & suffering): Culture and values, enterprise experience, time zones, environment, infrastructure, payment & language.
Culture & values – Not everyone thinks like a U.S.-based employee/owner. Start by remembering that and keep remembering it. You’re used to what you’re used to. Others are just as used to their experience and how their work habits were formed.
Remember when asking for help was considered by some to be a sign of weakness? It remains that way among some groups because the pace of change differs among groups, and likewise among cultures. Every country’s culture has its range of work habits, inclination to ask for help, communication styles, etc. If you find yourself frustrated, ask questions that allow new people to unwrap what happened. Cultural learning is difficult to change. Differences in cultural norms should be expected. Both parties need to take steps to help everyone understand one another.
Company cultures and values work the same way. There are things that your company does your way – your culture and values. You should expect employees to take those seriously, regardless of their upbringing, culture, etc. Sometimes this takes training, mentors, etc. Someone who has never experienced a culture like yours will need help (and time) to them learn your culture and values. You may hire someone who is used to being browbeaten over deadlines, or they may have never worked under a deadline. No matter what their experience has been in the past, your experience is probably different. It will take time for your culture and values to become their new normal. Trust takes time and it goes both ways.
Enterprise experience – Enterprise experience is about more than buildings full of servers or time working at large multi-national companies. It’s about having a mindset that goes beyond the current project. It’s about having the ability to look around corners (and knowing that’s important), seeing the big picture, understanding inter-departmental needs, and communicating effectively with others whether they’re C-level execs, your team’s family members, prospects on the trade show floor, or high school kids on a field trip. Enterprise experience can mean more than that, but it starts with mindset, the big picture, and communication.
Time zones – Time zones can be a blessing and a curse. When your team member is seven to ten time zones east of you, you might start your day at 3:00 pm or later in their day. Good, because you have a bunch of work to review. Bad, because you only have an hour or two before the end of their day. Some folks work their normal hours (ie: 8:00am to 5:00pm in their time zone), some work normal hours in yours. You have to figure out what works best for you and for your team member. One thing about having them work your hours is that it may tempt them to take a job in their time zone, then work your job once the other job’s time is done. You need to ask that question. You don’t want your work to be their second job – which could affect your pay scale for them.
Environment -Not everyone lives in a pleasant, treed cul-de-sac in a neighborhood with people they’ve known for a decade, or on five quiet acres on the edge of town. I have had remote team members tell me that their apartment building was hit by gunfire – and they kept working. Culture & experience train you to know when it’s time to take cover, leave, etc.
Infrastructure – People in some countries lose power far more often than U.S. folks are accustomed to. This is not something your remote worker can control, other than by moving to another country. The good news is that a laptop combined with a UPS can easily fuel a full day’s work.
Payment – Five years ago, this was much harder. Paypal, TransferWise, Upwork simplified the process & traditional methods are still available. Some countries are still a bit of a challenge but for the most part, this barrier has all but evaporated.
Language – Most business people I encounter from outside the U.S. speak English fairly well. This has been my experience with both solo consultants and employees of large companies outside the U.S.
One more thing about remote folks. Visit them a couple times a year, if you can. It won’t be cheap. It probably won’t be easy and it will occasionally frustrate – but most of the negatives come from getting there, not from being there. When you visit them, you learn far more about them, their motivations and how they work than you’d ever learn in a video meeting or a phone call.