Being ready for a new customer

In a sport, when a player isn’t ready when the play starts, bad things tend to happen. In some sports, a penalty. In others, the opposing team gains an advantage, sometimes big, sometimes a few points. In business, being ready when “the play starts” means you might get the business. Not being ready may mean you don’t get the sale. Sometimes this means a lot, sometimes a little. Worse yet, not being ready may mean you don’t get the customer. Not getting the customer is a critical failure. Few of us have a business where we can afford to miss out on customers. Some of us have businesses where if we miss out on that chance, we may never get another chance to sell that customer.

Being ready times lifetime customer value

Never having a chance to sell to the customer you missed can be costly. Any car dealer worth their salt can tell you how often (on average) they see a repeat customer. Do the math, and you’ll know how many cars they can sell that person’s family over a lifetime – assuming they don’t mess up the relationship. Factor in the relationship habit that often creates in children, referrals to friends and referrals to other family members and before long, you can see that the value of establishing that first relationship can be sizable. The same can be said for real estate, legal and financial assistance, among others. A relationship created by being ready when a new customer steps into your world as a real estate agent, attorney, lawyer or similar can result in a lifetime of steady, lucrative business, despite having the possibility of having years pass between transactions. Again, the family and friends referrals can mount up in value.. if you’re ready.

However, this type of substantial lifetime customer value creation isn’t limited to big ticket businesses. Retail, restaurants and many other businesses benefit from long-term relationships created by that first transaction or event… if you’re ready.

What does not being ready look like?

Not being ready comes in many shapes, colors & sizes. Are your people trained for the job you sent them to perform? Do they have the tools they need? Do they have the training to do that work? Do they have the materials needed? This includes brochures, business cards, safety gear, proper clothing, etc. These may seem like obvious questions, until if you ask your customers whether or not the people they work with seem prepared. I suspect you will find that they encounter ill-prepared staffers more often than you would like. Ask them if they encounter unprepared people at other businesses – without naming the business. This eliminates their desire to avoid embarrassing someone on your team, but provides examples you can use to check on your own team’s state of readiness.

Training your team is part of being ready

Making sure your team is trained is critical to making sure they’re ready for the opportunities they encounter. One of the areas I often see untrained team members is in front line positions that senior team members don’t want to staff. A good example is a real estate open house on a weekend. The listing agent can’t be in more than one place at a time when they have multiple houses open simultaneously, so the team members they book to staff the other homes is critical. If you’re the listing agent sending untrained or barely-trained people “into harm’s way”, consider the possible cost. If you send an ill-prepared team member to staff an open house, their lack of preparedness and/or tendency to act more like a house sitter and less like you can be costly. Will they collect leads? Will they follow visitors around the house like a new puppy? Will they have the home info learned well enough to answer questions without having to read the spec sheet for visitors? Make sure they have a process to follow.

A similar situation arises when a restaurant’s wait staff comes to the table not having tasted the food, wine, and other things their restaurant serves. While this might seem surprising, it happens frequently. Part of training your team is tasting the things you want them to sell. Recommendations from your staff matter.

Think about your encounters over the last week. Were they ready to serve you? How did their level of preparation make you feel about that business?

Photo by Leo Hidalgo (@yompyz)

Being prepared for employee turnover

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

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

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

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

Being realistic

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

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

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

Extend that thought to your key employees.

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

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

Photo by stu_spivack

Consistency vs. inconsistency

Consistent behavior, delivered consistently, is looked upon by your clients as a good thing. Even if your consistent behavior is patently customer antagonistic (yes – such companies do exist), at the least, the customers who continue to tolerate such behavior will know what to expect from you. On the other hand, inconsistent behavior consistently drives customers away. Think about your favorite restaurant. Why is it your favorite? Is it because the food is sometimes hot, sometimes cold and sometimes just right? Is it because the service is sometimes friendly, sometimes unfriendly? At your favorite hardware store, is the staff helpful on some visits and inane / incompetent / ambivalent during other visits?

Why does consistency matter?

Customers like a predictable outcome. They provide comfort when customers aren’t comfortable. This is particularly common when they are out of their element – such as during travel to an unfamiliar place. You’ve been flying all day, you’re tired, and you’re famished. You have a big day tomorrow. You may want some comfort food, but you also want a high level of assurance that you aren’t going to end a long travel day with a bad meal or an disconcerting experience.

One of the primary reasons that franchises do well (and that customers revisit them) is that they have an operations and training program that’s consistent across all locations. This includes a common and frequently updated operations manual that documents each job process in the business. However boring they may seem, you can generally depend on the consistency of behavior, service and product whether you’re visiting a franchise location in Springfield Illinois, Springfield Missouri, or Springfield Georgia. Franchises don’t have sole rights to having documented operations processes or a consistent training regimen for their teams. Your small business can create and use those things as well.

Over the past 20 years, there are two places where I have seen the most obvious differences in these areas:

  • the employee on-boarding process after a new hire
  • process documentation for day to day jobs.

Interestingly, these are connected, since one of the first things a new hire often encounters is a lack of process documentation for a job they’re expected to do. This doesn’t mean they don’t receive training, but without a documented process, the training they receive will be inconsistent from trainer to trainer. Each employee is likely to perform the task with slight differences and train differently as well. One of the best things about documenting a process is the discovery of nuance and surprises that occur when producing the documentation. The process being documented rarely manages to fail to produce something that the person documenting it will not be told by anyone who performs the task. There will be dependencies on materials, staff and/or timing. There will be gotchas, both known to management and most likely unknown as well.

Left undocumented, these differences in business process performance and execution become dependent on the attitude, experience and wherewithal of the staffer performing them. Consider your business. Do processes exist in your business that, when performed differently, can substantially alter customer experience? Does that experience depend on performance trifecta of attitude, experience and wherewithal of the staffer? I suspect it does. What tools or systems (even a checklist counts as a “system”) do you use to assure that quality standards are consistently achieved by your staff?

These things don’t have to be perfect on day one. Start small and implement incremental improvement, both to your processes and the documentation and training intended to improve them.

“Without a leader, there are no standards. Without standards, there is no consistency.” – Chef Gordon Ramsey

Remaining: On-boarding

One of the single biggest differences between most small businesses and high-performing businesses is their new employee on-boarding process. One of the best assets for your on-boarding program is the process documentation discussed above. While it shouldn’t be the only component of on-boarding, it’s a critical one. On-boarding needs to include delivery and configuration of work equipment, internal IT systems, mundane work space gear like phones and staplers, facility familiarization, emergency training, process training, culture (which should have been part of hiring), and how to deal with various human resource-related functions. You can probably think of others. If you’ve ever held a job working for someone else, think back. What made joining a new company stand out at the best companies? What made it regrettable at the worst of them?

Photo by Internet Archive Book Images

Strategic responsibility: Client Care and Feeding

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

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

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

XP’s moment of truth

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

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

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

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

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

Client advocacy is strategic care and feeding

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

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

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

Care and feeding is a strategic responsibility

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

When is it OK to kill a product?

Does your company struggle with product life cycles? Some products make it easy to exterminate them. They get a tepid welcome in the market, produce little sales and/or are difficult to sell. It gets difficult when these product produce a decent amount of revenue – say 10% of your company’s gross income. In more difficult situations, these products may turn a profit, but it might be hard to find.

All of the sales, marketing and intellectual effort combined to keep the product alive can match or even exceed its revenue – making the decision seem easy. If there are multiple products in that situation and several of these products aren’t in the early part of their life cycle, you have work to do and revenue to replace.

In a manufacturing or assembly situation, there is inventory, equipment and floor space to consider, much less the potential lost opportunity cost of the space and funds being consumed for this product. When it comes right down to it, it’s hard to cut yourself off from that 10% of gross revenue.

If the product is profitable, we might only be talking about two or three percent of your profit. To a company with profit all over the building, the decision is probably easy. To a company losing five to ten percent of revenue, it means going in the red, even if only for that year. The repercussions of that loss can be more serious. There could be tax implications and possible impacts on lines of credit, etc.

Given all these considerations, how do you decide when a revenue-producing product’s life cycle is over? No one ever said this would be easy.

What makes it easy to kill a product?

I suspect I can get easy answers from your team about products they’d love to get rid of. The answers will sound something like this:

  • The product requires a difficult on-boarding, ramp up and/or installation process that customers don’t enjoy.
  • It’s difficult to pay a sales commission on the product, making it less attractive to the sales team, which makes it harder to sell.
  • The product requires substantial ongoing support or customer service.
  • High maintenance and service costs and related downtime make the product value harder for clients to realize.
  • The product attracts the worst kind of clientele. “Worst” from your company’s perspective, not mine.

You may have other reasons more specific to your situation.

What makes it hard to kill a product?

A better question might be “When is it not OK to kill a product?”

You can find any number of books, courses and strategic direction documents on how to manage a product life cycle. You may be an expert at managing a product through its life cycle. Even so, there are reasons why you wouldn’t want to kill a product that would normally get the ax for overhead or other financial reasons.

A few answers come immediately to mind:

  • When the product consistently attracts new customers who historically have a high LTV (lifetime value – ie: the revenue gained on average per customer), even if the value is usually delivered by another product.
  • A substantial percentage of the product’s customers ascend your product ladder.
  • The product acts as an add-on to your higher-end products.
  • Deployments of this product are an essential component of your product platform or ecosystem.
  • The addition of this product, however trivial, makes your overall offering unique and/or as a whole allows it to create much higher value than competitive product platforms.
  • This product attracts customers who can be described as ideal takeaways from your competition. I’m not a big market pie slicer (vs. expanding the size of the pie), but this is different. Ideal takeaways are the clients that you would cherry pick from your competition, if you could choose.

Bigger picture considerations

Before you kill a product, make sure that you’ve looked at it holistically, in other words – in the context of the entire company, strategy, market and the life cycle of your client community.

Does the product fit your overall strategy? Do the product’s clients fit the profile of clients you want and need? If the product still seems wrong when considering those two items, you may find that your overall strategy and/or client profile requires re-examination. In an extreme case, the “bad product” might be telling you that the market has changed and that it’s time to “fix the company”.

Photo by oneiric wanderings

Bounce rate too high? Set the stage

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

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

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

Set the stage

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

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

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

Compare it to face time

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

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

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

Photo by jacopast

Paradise by the dashboard light

As a business owner, you have so many numbers to keep track of and take action on. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by them and find yourself at a point where the forest and the trees blend together into a big, green, meaningless smoothie. When all you have is a “pile” of numbers on a spreadsheet, it’s far more difficult to communicate to others what your numbers mean, where they are going, and how they’re related to one another.

If you use open-book management, it’s even more important to be able to convey your numbers in a clear, simple manner so that you and your team can start to see the engagement and ownership that OBM promises.

A dashboard is a simple, visual way to bring clarity to your numbers.

What info belongs on a dashboard?

That’s up to you, because you decide what’s important enough to display on your dashboard. Like the indicators on the dash of a car, the things you most want to be aware of on a daily basis should be on your business dashboard.

What numbers represent those things? Sales YTD? Sales YTD vs last year’s sales YTD? Number of leads this month? Revenue this month? Percentage of budget for sales, specific expenses, and/or raw materials?

You might find that each department has a number that’s most important to them.

Marketing might want to see average cost per lead, cost per new customer, churn rate or new leads this month vs last month. Sales might monitor some aspect of their pipeline, or new customers so far this month vs last month, or vs this month last year.

Manufacturing or programming departments may want to display backlog size, cycle times, days till a big milestone, and/or defects over a specific period of time. Shipping may wish to monitor mis-ships, damage claims, and/or returns.

Accounting will want to monitor things like total accounts receivable, the average age of receivables, or at a startup, the number of days of cash flow on hand. They may change their mind on that last one if things aren’t going well.

There will likely be some numbers of broad, across-the-company interest, such as monthly recurring revenue (MRR), number of customers, and sales YTD vs this time last year.

Having different departments “suddenly” seeing what’s most important might provoke some conversations that make everyone take more ownership.

It’s not critical that all of this comes together on day one. Your dashboard might start as a weekly email until you figure out all the pieces and parts to include and how to get that data into a tool that will help you display it for the entire company.

Dashboards don’t have to be difficult

While you can get plenty “sexy” when it comes to dashboards and technology, it isn’t necessary. The data is what’s important, not the tool used to convey it.

A whiteboard and dry erase markers is a good next step after a weekly email.

Once sunlight is shining on this data, provoking people to ask questions and talking about the data and their impact on the company’s numbers, you may wish to ratchet up your game a bit with a real-time dashboard.

Getting fancy with dashboards

If you want a dashboard that’s connected to your company’s data, there are a lot of tools out there to help with this effort. I suggest checking out the paid-for and open-source dashboards before building your own.

If you have software people or skills, you may want to check out open-source dashboard tools like Re:DashDashing or Freeboard, as well as dashboard / data collection APIs like Keen, Mixpanel, Amplitude, and Segment.  Paid dashboard systems include Geckoboard, Datadog, sassmetrics, and Klipfolio.

Most of these systems have built in features to make it easier to present the data on a large screen digital monitor or TV. This can be useful in the common areas of a shop or office – making sure the data is available no matter what an employee’s job duties involve. When you consider placing these displays in a common area, keep in mind who might visit that area from outside your company. Open-book management doesn’t mean showing your numbers to anyone who stops by.

When your team can easily wrap their heads around the numbers critical to their department, it’ll change their behavior. A dashboard can help you get there.

Photo by Paul Jerry

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/