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/

Three things or seventy three

How many projects does your company focus on at a time? For many companies, the number of active projects is often related to team size. How do you control, or at least manage this? What does that process look like? Do you use a tool, software, a manager, or something else?

The benefits of keeping control

What happens if you keep projects under control? While control is relative and may seem to consist of things not moving as fast as you’d like, it’s still critical.

“Control” does not demand a state where that things that look static, never changing, not growing, etc. Instead, we’re likely to see active projects where the mental headroom is available to thoughtfully consider the next step, much less the current one.

When that kind of space is available to teams working on a critical project, they tend to make fewer mistakes and overlook fewer things. These same things will be painfully obvious in hindsight.

A mind allowed some breathing room is less likely to work in a semi-constant distracted state where they’ll make mistakes, get injured, and / or overlook what will later seem obvious.

While it’s happening, it’s difficult to measure the cost of task switching and frenetic activity that comes having too many projects and too few hours / people to tend to them. What I tend to see from this is “doing 100 jobs poorly”. While your team might not be doing 100 jobs, they might be trying to do so many things that they don’t do any of them well. This damages your satisfaction with the quality of their work as well as theirs. These situations cause your team to do things a second time because they didn’t have time to do them right the first time.

Some iteration is a good thing, as our ability to provide a contextually accurate solution increases as our initial plan gets tested against reality. However, when the first iteration is almost always an attempt to check a box, the box really doesn’t get checked. That first iteration tends to be a solution that doesn’t satisfy your team or the client (internal or otherwise). Once you’ve trained your client not to bother implementing 1.0 of anything you create, it’s a tough place to battle back from.

We discussed the loss of trust a week or so ago. This is another type of trust – can your clients trust your new products, new services, new releases of software, new salespeople, new service writers, new mechanics, etc? When your project management and controls create a level of comfort for any or all of those new things / people / projects in your business, it creates a higher level of trust with everyone you work with.

How would your team benefit if they trusted each other more than they do now? How would your business, clients and partners benefit if your clients trusted practically anything or anyone new that you exposed them to? Same question – if your partners trusted practically anything or anyone new that your company exposed them to?

It’s not just a matter of quality and consistency. It’s a matter of what those things create. When you pay bills on time, people assume you’ll keep on doing that. When you don’t, it’ll take a while before paying them on time allows them to trust you.

What happens if you lose control?

While control is a bit of an illusion, seemingly out of control, frenetic behavior is fairly easy to see. If you aren’t careful, you’ll start seeing activity just so people can show that they’re doing something. Look at what’s being accomplished.

Inefficient activity often results from these situations. Have you ever gone to the grocery store without a list and found yourself bouncing all over the store as you think of the things you need? I remember as a kid that my mom grouped her grocery list by department, i.e.: produce, dairy, etc. While I’m not sure it sunk in while I was a kid, the benefits of that little effort on “elapsed time in grocery store” became obvious later in life.

Imagine a plane that gets to 80 knots on the runway and then decides to stop, change runways and take off again. It wastes a lot of energy starting and stopping, while getting little accomplished in the way of actual travel. Think of your projects in the same manner. Avoid changing runways.

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

Who would you keep when forced to bend?

If you were forced by financial circumstances to (perhaps temporarily) lay off every employee but one, who would you choose to keep? Why would you choose that person? Think about it now, so that you make a considered decision if that unfortunate situation occurs. Your company will benefit from that thought process now, even if that person never leaves.

Support, challenge and grow

You might be thinking “Benefit? Are you nuts? How in the world can I benefit from thinking about who will be the last worker standing?

Easy.

The benefit is that you start thinking about things that help you deal with change, with short term resource deficits (like vacations, travel, etc). And you do it when you are of sound mind and body, not when you are freaking out because you lost your best client, your last line of credit, your best investor/partner, or your most valuable employee.

What are you doing to challenge, support and grow that essential person? What are you doing to challenge, support and grow those who will fill their shoes if they get promoted and no longer perform the critical task that belong to their current role?

The short answer is to document them as noted in the E-Myth. This serves at least three purposes:

  • It prepares you for a time when that person can’t do the work due to sickness, family emergency, travel, etc.
  • It documents a process so that it can be evaluated for delegation.
  • It creates a training asset.

Preparing for these possibilities sends a message that you are building a resilient company. It gives people confidence that the company has their back and that an unfortunate departure, drop in sales or some other negative event isn’t going to kill the company (or put their job at risk) because the company has strategically prepared to take a punch. If you react with behavior(s) rooted in fear, it undermines your team’s confidence and leaves them wondering about the stability of their jobs. They lose focus. Work quality will likely suffer.

Bend but don’t break

The natural opposite of the conversation we’ve had so far MUST be considered: What if this critical person leaves your company? Eventually, it’s likely to happen. People’s needs and wants change. Opportunities pop up – and in many cases, they are opportunities that the person leaving wasn’t even ready for when they started working with your firm. For motivated people who grow their skills and take ownership of things that happen on the job, opportunities “magically” arrive even if they aren’t looking. In fact, opportunities are offered to them regularly because people know them, know what they bring to the table – and most employers want people like that. You probably want people like that.

So one of them might leave. This is likely to happen every few years if your company is a great training ground for people stepping up to the next level, which is a good thing despite how it feels when you lose them. When that happens, what do you do next? Do you have checklists and documentation for the processes those people own every day or every week? Or do you scramble around for a month or more trying to put Humpty back together again?

Deal with this in advance. Talk to the people you’d most hate to lose. What’s their ambition? What is your company doing to feed it? What makes them crazy about the company? How often do those things happen to your most valuable players? How many of the things they do are documented so that someone else can do them when they are on vacation or sick? These people aren’t going to object to this because some of these tasks need to be given to someone else, but they also worry about them when they’re on vacation. They don’t worry because they believe no one else can do their work. They worry because they take ownership. Checklists and process documentation give them some comfort because they’ve put their thinking about the process on paper. Process documentation is more than “Do this step, then do this step.” There needs to be a why, a what to look for, a “get worried and evaluate this if you start to see that“.

How you handle these things is as important as what you’re doing to avoid laying people off.

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

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

Sidewalks, groundhogs and accounting

A couple weeks ago, Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow. As the legend goes, this indicated that we’d have six more weeks of winter. Given the kind of winter we’ve had so far, I expect more shoveling before April and May get here. Yet we’re not here to discuss the weather, at least not specifically. As I’ve roamed Montana this winter, I’ve noticed a pattern that struck me and made me a bit curious. Is the condition of the sidewalk and parking lot in front of a business an indicator of how things are being run inside the building?

Have you have heard the theory that the condition of someone’s car is a reflection of their home and/or their life? You may have heard the same about someone with a messy desk. Whether it’s true or not, it’s an interesting parallel to the pattern that I referred to earlier. The pattern is that businesses that I know to be well-run, well-executed “tight ships” always seem to have parking lots that are cleaned up quickly after it snows – and the sidewalks in front of them in almost every case is routinely spotless, salted and kept free of ice.

I don’t have internal knowledge of all the businesses in this pattern – ie: the ones who fit and the ones who don’t, but it’s quite accurate among the ones that I have internal operations knowledge of.

Broken windows

Years ago, there was a book about crime called Broken Windows, which was based on an often argued theory that doing things like immediately fixing broken windows and removing graffiti soon as it appears sends a message to the community that the area is cared for and monitored, so the criminal element goes elsewhere. New York City applied this during its well-known (and successful) battle to reduce crime over the last couple of decades.

Crime is a complex thing when you’re looking at a large urban area. First impressions, however, are not. When you arrive at a business and notice broken windows, dirty bathrooms, dirty floors, messy work areas, a sketchy parking lot, etc – it’s difficult not to wonder how things are going in the back room. How well is that business run? What sort of initial and ongoing training to the employees receive? Are their books a mess? You may not care about how under control their accounting is, but if they can’t seem to do a good job of recording your payments, you’ll start caring.

All of these things can be indicators of bigger, deeper or widespread problems. You can’t necessarily assume – everyone has bad days or makes a mistake now and then. It’s tough to keep up with the snow when you get 48″ of snow in three days.

Why does it matter?

How businesses deal with these things tends to be an incredibly accurate indicator of what’s going on elsewhere in the company. Some have well-thought out plans for what happens on days when roads are all but impassible. For some, it doesn’t matter. For those who you need to go to the hospital, I’ll bet you’ll want them to have a snow “disaster plan” that makes sure the hospital is staffed regardless of the intensity of the weather.

You can see similar things when working with employees. It’s crystal clear which businesses invest in their staff and which ones leave them to learn by the seat of their pants. While experiential learning is often a good thing, training and reinforcement gives everyone the same foundation, and sets minimum standards within a company. Without those things, the customer-facing experience and work quality can differ substantially – the last thing you want.

Why is that important? Consistent experience is everything. People don’t want to worry about which version of your business they’re going to experience today. Why else would someone repeatedly visit the same franchise restaurant as they travel the country? They know they will have a consistent experience. They know how long it will take, what it will cost and what the food will be like – regardless of the class of fare that restaurant serves.

A consistent experience is critically important to customers. The expectation (and history) of a known-to-be-consistent experience is frequently the deciding factor when “all else is equal”, even when it isn’t.

Keeping that in mind – What kinds of signals does your business send?

Hire for commitment over ego

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

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

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

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

Which group should you hire from?

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

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

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

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

Making this possible is on you, the owner

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

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

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