Strategic Notepad: Take Ownership

Last week, we talked about the opportunity presented to you when you find yourself helping a client in a stressed, deadline-driven or other pressure-filled situation. You can either create a good memory or a bad one.

We’ve talked about how to make the best of these situations and we’ve talked about the opportunity created and what I experienced with a travel agent. Sometimes people act on your behalf because you have signed a contract with them to do so. For example, I have a client that owns a bed and breakfast and they are “represented” in some fashion by online booking agents, travel review sites (like Trip Advisor) and so on. If a reservation agent treats one of their clients rudely, you can bet it will reflect on the B&B.

Take ownership

Whether you like it or not, anyone who sells for you, advertises for you, reps for you or in any way helps you sell what you do REPRESENTS YOU. Make no mistake, if they do something wrong while working on your behalf, your client will associate you with the situation – and they should. While you can’t always control whether or not these situations occur, you can certainly impact what happens when it manages to roll downhill to you.

Here’s an example of the wrong approach:

When I contacted the car rental company about the situation I was dealing with, this was their response:

Hello Mark, I can understand how this experience would be frustrating for you. Expedia is an independent third party brokerage service that is not affiliated with Enterprise. If given the wrong information such as the address and pickup time, please contact Expedia for further investigation.”

Read that again… “NOT AFFILIATED WITH ENTERPRISE”.

While I have little doubt that this description is accurate from a legal / terms of service perspective, the reality is that I rented a Enterprise car via Expedia. Affiliated or not, anything Expedia does regarding that rental certainly reflects on Enterprise whether they like it or not. Expedia doesn’t own the cars. They’re basically a combination of Google (ie: a search engine) for flights, hotel rooms and cars – and a store that can hook me up with those time and location sensitive assets.

Keep in mind that this was the response vs. something like “Hmm, that’s unfortunate and I apologize that the site sent you to the wrong address. I will reach out to our Expedia vendor rep and make sure the rental location address is corrected.” Most importantly, there was no “Can we get you a car, or have you taken care of that already?” – remember, their business is renting cars, not tweeting. There was STILL a sales opportunity and more importantly, an opportunity to “come to the rescue”. That opportunity was squandered.

While it might seem like I’m busting on the support representative who sent me this message, that’s not the case. Almost certainly, the text of this was approved by management for situations like this. A few minutes later I received the same message intended for someone else. The only difference between the message addressed to me and the second message was that the second one was addressed to “Dan” and mentioned Travelocity rather than Expedia. I politely noted that to the rep so Dan would get his message.

Canned responses are a normal part of customer support. You wouldn’t want reps who handle hundreds of messages per day retyping them, much less authoring them on the fly. The rep did exactly what she was trained to do and in fact, provided the fastest response I received from anyone – but it didn’t help me get a car.

My response to the rep is the real message of this post:

I get that, but do understand that ultimately they represent you and I suspect, do so on millions of bookings per year. Its not solely on them.

If someone sends you thousands of purchases per day, for all intents and purposes, they represent you even if the TOS says otherwise. Take ownership. People are buying your stuff from you, even if someone else takes the money. YOU deliver.

The most serious error of this entire situation was the failure to close the sale and provide a car for me. That’s the business they’re in. NEVER forget what business you’re in, or your clientele might.

Strategic Notepad: Customer Service

Last week, I noted that how you should recover from a client’s poor experience with you is dependent upon the context.

For example, a four hour flight delay is meaningless if you have a six hour layover. It becomes serious if you have a three hour layover before an international flight late in the day, or if the delay causes you to miss an important meeting, a wedding, or a funeral. If the delay causes you to get bumped to a connecting flight later in the day, it might not be a big deal. If it causes you to get bumped to next Saturday…

Context matters a lot.

Serious context is a serious opportunity

When your client is under pressure, deadline, stress or similar, you have an opportunity to create a memory that can last a lifetime. Will that memory be good or bad? Whichever way it goes is likely to be how your relationship with that customer… unless you treat them like a client.

What’s the difference? A customer is a transactional thing. Customers buy and consume “stuff”. Clients are like patients – under your constant (or at least regular) observation and care. Which are you more likely to take better care of, based on that definition? My guess is the client. Despite the definition, it’s all about perception. If you perceive them as an asset to be cared for (and to extract revenue from for a lifetime), you’re likely to treat them differently than you would if you think you might never see them again. Thing is, if you treat them like you’ll never see them again, you might experience that.

The opportunity to save the day / be a hero in your client’s most stressful, pressured, awful moment is a gift – but only if you open it. Sure, you might push COGS a little higher for their transaction. You might take a little heat from your manager if you take the initiative to solve a client’s problem in a slightly unorthodox way – but not if they truly get it because they’ll know you’re protecting the business.

Are you encouraging initiative?

One of the things that seems to be getting being “beaten” out of employees these days is initiative. Evidence? The fact that people are so impressed when someone takes initiative to help them as if they read the Business is Personal playbook. Businesses have produced a generation of workers who fear helping clients in an appropriate manner (when context calls for it) because not adhering to policy and procedure is often considered as a firing offense, even if you acted in the client’s best interest.

Even if you can’t stretch, provide options

Last month, I reserved a car rental with a pickup at 3:00pm. The rental location address provided by the vendor was wrong – fortunately it was wrong by a few blocks (and across the street). However, the rental location closed at 3:00pm and the nearest open branch was about 50 miles away. After waiting on hold for 54 minutes, customer service basically said the whole thing was my fault because I arrived a few minutes after the pickup time. By the time my call came off hold, I was more than an hour’s drive from their only open location and due to my appointment schedule, I was unable to visit that location. I made it clear that I was more or less stranded but my comments were ignored.

How could this have been handled – even if the customer service person couldn’t spend a dime? They could have offered to send someone to pick me up – but at 5pm on a Saturday (which tells you how long I was on the phone), there was no extra staff at the airport to shuttle a car to me. Had they said they checked and couldn’t do that due to a lack of extra staff on duty, I would have appreciated it. They could have asked which hotel I was at and (because they are a travel agency), offered to rebook me at a hotel close to me and have the car delivered the next morning.

Instead, they chose to blame me for the entire situation. They were focused on shifting blame, rather than helping a client juggling business and family travel on a very important family day. I will not forget and neither will your (former?) clients.

Protect your business by protecting your clients.

Protecting your business

Business owners protect their business by reducing risk, managing cash flow, getting appropriate legal advice and insuring their people and assets properly. The thing is, you can do those all things properly and still leave your business open to damage that’s incredibly difficult, expensive and time consuming to repair. How? By providing out of context customer service.

Specifically, I’m referring to what tends to occur when you’re trying to recover from a mistake. The perfect time to show them you have their back… or to turn your back.

Which do you do?

Every once in a while, you make a mistake. Hopefully you learn from it. If it was caused by a systemic failure, you know by now to put a system (preferably automated) in place to prevent it from happening again and of course, integrate it into the rest of your systems. If it wasn’t caused by a systemic failure, then the problem might have been caused by a customer service flub, a product or service mistake, or a failure to deliver – regardless of the reason.

What happens next is where I see businesses repeatedly making a mistake: How they recover for the customer. That’s when context becomes critical.

Recovering FOR your client

When approached by a disappointed, angry, concerned, distraught customer, it seems that many businesses have trained their people such that their Customer Service Prime Directive is to protect the business at all costs.

Guess what. Recovering from your mistakes in a way that preserves the customer relationship IS protecting the business, but only if it’s done right. While protection of the business is essential in these circumstances – your legal paperwork and insurance should have already done that. The third leg of the stool is how the customer feels when the exchange is over.

Consider what happens if a flight attendant accidentally spills a cup of black tea in someone’s lap on a plane. The passenger’s linen skirt is stained (a bit embarrassing for now), but it could impact the skirt wearer’s day severely if they’re being met at the airport by an important new prospect. What if their next direct manager is meeting them at the airport for an interview? What if the flight arrives at midnight and the traveler simply has to grab their bag and drive home alone at midnight.

The subconscious loss of confidence in the client / employment situations could alter the airline client’s entire life. Maybe that’s good, maybe not. How the airline reacts FOR their customer can determine how that customer feels about them for the rest of their lives. People remember how they were treated – particularly in situations like this. The context the client provides (even if you have to extract it from them) is critical to the level of your response.

I’m reminded of a surprise Peter Shankman received in 2011 from Morton’s Steakhouse after he jokingly asked for a steak to be delivered to Newark airport. You might think that was an expensive response resulting only because Peter had a lot of Twitter followers at the time. I think they saw an opportunity to make a lifetime memory for a good customer, even if they knew that he’d blog/tweet about it. Five years later, where do you think he takes clients to dinner more often than not?

How you recover for the client in their current context is everything. If Peter was landing in Missoula (which has no Morton’s), then a clever tweeted response might have sufficed, though they could take if further if they had a connection to a solid steak house in MSO.

In Customer Service, context is everything

Sometime’s a “Sorry” and replacement / discount will suffice. Sometimes, the client’s context makes your $154 mistake a memory that could last for years. Imagine you had a romantic evening out of town planned with your significant other and when you arrived at the hotel, they didn’t have a room – even though you’d paid in advance. What if the town is booked solid because of a local event? There’s “no room at the inn”… ANY inn.

How you protect the business is everything at that point – keeping in mind that the wrong kind of business protection creates customer defection. If you’re going to create a lifetime memory, make sure it’s a good one.

Where’s the Maitre’ D?

When a new client arrives at your store and/or on your website, do they know exactly where everything is? Probably not.

If not, are there clear introductions to where things are, what the rules of the road are, how (and where) to get help, what the buying process looks like, where to find service help and so on?

Guidance needed

In a retail store, these things are somewhat common – at least the basics. You’ll probably see signs that say things like Parts, Service, Lawnmowers, Chainsaws, and whatever the other departments of your store are. Even so, is there guidance in any form that helps people figure out where they can get warranty, financing or delivery information?

Think of it like a website that you’ve never visited before. When you first get on a retailer’s web site, you often have to dig around a little to find policies and procedures, or how they handle refunds, delivery/shipping, etc.

You have two choices when onboarding a new visitor who will presumably become a client:

1) Guide them step by step in a logical manner and provide them with the tools they need to have exactly the experience you want them to have, and position them to be the ideal buyer.

2) Let them figure it out for themselves and explain where they went wrong when they find themselves painted into a corner, or stuck trying to figure out how to get service, delivery, refunds, exchanges, on-site help, upgrades / updates / improvements, financing and repairs.

Think of it like a restaurant

At some restaurants, you are greeted at the door, guided to your seat, provided with a menu, and introduced to your wait staff (or advised of their name). You might then have your expectations set regarding the arrival of someone to take your drink order, explain the menu, share the night’s special entrees and desserts, as well as any other information you might need. Later, you might be asked additional details about how you want your order, whether or not you want dessert, coffee, etc.

Obviously, this varies a bit depending on the type of restaurant, but I suspect you’ve experienced this level of guidance – all to do something you do every day: Eat.

The alternative, even in the same restaurant, might be to provided none of that guidance, have menus on the table, be expected to place your order at the counter, pick up your food at the counter and pay on your way out the door.

Neither of these is wrong, but both types of guidance are designed to fit the type of restaurant you’re in. Generally, you probably know what to expect when you enter the first restaurant vs. the second. If the experience is not in sync with the type of restaurant you’re in, the “system” seems out of place or the experience feels broken. When I experienced things like this with my dad, he would say “This would be a great place for a restaurant” – noting of course that we were in a restaurant at the time.

Restaurantize your business?

Now overlay those restaurant experiences onto your business. Think about each step of the dining experience (in both types of restaurants). Which one of these experiences is a better fit for a new visitor to your business (or your website)? Which is a better fit to a long-time client?

Before you decide which experience is best for an experienced client vs a new one, let’s back up a step… even when you go to a restaurant with a highly guided experience, does the maitre’d recognize that you’ve eaten there before? If so, do they hand you a menu and point at the dining room and leave you to figure out the rest, or are you guided through the process in a similar manner to every other visit?

Which of those experiences makes sense for visits to your store? Which experience makes sense for visitors to your site? Which experience creates a new client who is more prepared to purchase what they really need vs. what they think they need? Which experience produces the client retention you want? Is there a difference? How do you know? Testing helps.

Fine tune the experience for each stage of your client lifecycle in a way that creates an optimum client experience for them while producing the ideal client for you.

Let someone help

This past week seems to have been a perfect storm of paths crossing about getting help from coaches, mentors and teachers.

In the past, I have suggested a few times that you should seek out help from those who have been where you are, struggled with some of the same things – and let them help you overcome them. These stories are no different. The key is letting them in.

Three little things

In the elevator at a trade show, a guy tells me he got off the golf course that day – playing in a tournament at a trade show. He said he had a pretty good day on the links – was driving straight and long. Despite that, one of the guys playing with him was out-driving him by over 100 yards on every hole. They were on the same team, so the very long driver (who also happened to be a scratch golfer) suggested that the guy I shared the elevator with could improve his game by tweaking “three little things”.

Despite being a pretty good golfer, elevator guy said “Sure, I’ll give them a try.” Before that day on the course was over, these three little things made an almost-instant improvement in his accuracy, consistency and distance. His improvement before the round was substantial enough to mention it hours later in an elevator.

What three little things are awaiting your arrival at a place where you are ready to listen and learn?

Mister C

Recently in a local paper, the retirement of a long time English teacher was announced. A guy who was lauded for coaching oh so many state speech and debate championship teams, for making high school English the best class of the day, and for being far more than “just a teacher” to many students. When the story of his retirement hit Facebook, a number of students posted multiple paragraphs long thank yous about the impact this teacher had on them – in some cases, despite never having him as a teacher. One of the stories that went unmentioned was about a student who was struggling with a number of things – including some typical teenage angst with authority figures – and went out of his way to challenge the teacher via their work. Rather than handle this with more authority and repression as many of us might, this teacher created an environment that allowed the student to find their way, gain respect for the teacher and eventually recognize that teacher as their mentor – and a role model to guide them along with their parents. Eight to ten years later, the respect is still there. While Mister C is more than a coach to a generation of students, he’s very good at that too.

What would a serious coach with high expectations ask you to do to improve yourself? If you know these things need to be done – why haven’t you done them?

Sometimes you have to ask

People won’t always offer unsolicited advice – at least not the ones who you’d really like to get it from. Many of them are used to being asked for their help, only to see it go unused or ignored. Quite often, their help will come with terms. They might be living highly scheduled lives and will need a commitment from you to meet during the only time they have available. Consider it a gift that someone with this much going on is willing to let you into their sphere.

I’m doing ok, I don’t need a coach

Even if you’re the best in town, you might not be the best in the state. If you’re the best in the state, you might not be the best in your national market. No matter how good you are, there are always coaches, mentors and others to learn from. Most of them have a knack for observing things about your performance, methods and practices that you might not notice, or might not see the importance of. That’s what their insight is for – to help you see the things you can’t see on your own.

The things you pick up from someone who has gone beyond where you are will often be little, but transformative things. Prepare yourself mentally to let someone like this into your life so they can help you become an even better version of you.

Complete the important work

What are you not getting done? Why aren’t you getting those things done?

Does important work often go undone? If so, is that work truly important?

Delegation

Why aren’t you getting those things done?

Is it because of other things that keep you “busy”?

Are you busy because you aren’t delegating enough?

Are you unable to delegate?

Are you unable to delegate because you have no one to delegate to?

Are you unable to delegate because you don’t have time to document the task to be delegated?

Are you unable to delegate because the task requires skills that no one on the team has?

Do you have a system to develop people on your team? Is the system producing people that you can delegate tasks to?

If not, what should be changed so that the system produces team members who can take over the parts of your work that can be delegated?

Is it because you aren’t developing the “former” you in your team so that you can spend more time being the current you?

Systems

Is it because you don’t have an organized manner (system) of keeping track of what needs to be done?

Is it because the system (whether it’s paper, phone or computer-based) doesn’t work?

Is it because the system doesn’t work like you do?

Is it because the system doesn’t remind you of work that is scheduled or that needs to be done?

Is it because you don’t use a system that you have?

If you don’t use a system you have, why don’t you use it?

Focus

Is it because you aren’t giving yourself enough focus time?

What mechanism do you have in place to create focus time for yourself?

Does the mechanism work? If it doesn’t work, why is that?

Do others ignore the things you place in the way to allow you to have focus time?

If others ignore your focus time barriers, what have you done to clarify the situation or “discipline” those who ignore the barriers you build to create focus time? Are others aware of these barriers?

Classification

What is the cost of not getting these things done?

Is the cost, benefit or other financial impact what you use to determine the importance of a particular piece of work?

Does not getting these things done imply that they weren’t important after all?

Is the mechanism you use to identify work as “important” performing effectively?

If you look back at the work you considered important last month, do you still think it was important?

If not, how will you fine tune the system you use to assign importance?

Is there a system you use to classify work as important, not important, etc? One such system identifies work in four quadrants: “important and urgent”, “important and not urgent”, “urgent but not important”, and “not urgent and not important”. This system is often credited to “Seven Habits” author Stephen Covey, but there are also documents dating back to President Eisenhower’s use of the so-called “quadrant of work” system to decide what to do, what to decide upon, what to delegate and what to delete from the todo list.

Costs

Do sales or project goals depend on whatever you aren’t finishing?

Is the important work you’re not getting done tactical or strategic?

If so, is that a consistent situation? If not, have you recently been fighting through a situation that required you to focus on tactical?

Of the work considered important, is the cost of doing the work more than the benefit of doing that work?

If the cost exceeds the benefit, what makes that work important?

If the cost exceeds the benefit, should the work be done at all?

Turning that toward the less important (busy work?) that is consuming time best spent on the important work – if the cost of the busy work exceeds the benefit, should this work be done at all?

Do the important work

Consistently being able to identify the important and completing it while delegating what isn’t important IS the important work. The work you delegate may not be as important for YOU to do, but the fact that it can be delegated is the critical difference.

What’s the important work for you this coming week? What’s in place to make sure you get it done?

If you don’t have your system fine tuned yet… Does your staff?

The sales prevention department

Have you ever encountered a “sales prevention department”? Let’s discuss how the sales prevention department’s role works and how you can look for ways to get rid of yours if you have one.

The tale of the register tape

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched the adventures of a GoToMeeting administrator. In one case, they were working with a sales person at a competitor to GoTo Meeting. I’ve been a GTM user for a long time, and in the last few months the quality and stability of the service has suffered a bit. I suspect it’s nothing terribly serious but it is a business distraction and it can impact sales if the timing of a stability problem is unfortunate. More on that in a moment.

GTM has a sales prevention department. Here’s how theirs works:

A GTM administrator manages an account with 12 seats of GoToMeeting. The admin’s company wants to add more seats. Can you login and simply add x seats to your license? No. Enter the sales prevention department. You have to call someone, wait for a call back and then deal with the potential of a sales pitch about things you may not want – all to add a few seats. This is a task that would have been completed in two minutes or less on a modern software as a service (SAAS) platform. Instead, it takes as long as a couple of days to complete this simple transaction.

For some services, a consult is necessary before a change of this nature. This isn’t one of them.

In this case, the sales prevention department is introducing unnecessary delays for the client, who only wants to give you more of their money and get more of their people working with your tools. Don’t make this difficult for your clients.

Who else has a sales prevention department?

In the time it took to deal with the process GTM places in front of their users, the GTM admin could have signed up for a competitor’s service and had a day left over…. unless it was with the competitor whose sales team I was dealing with on the GTM admin’s behalf.

The GTM competitor happens to be owned by a fairly large IP phone service that is currently receiving about $2500 a month in service fees from this company. This fact is ignored by the GTM competitor, which puts them at risk of losing not only the GTM-like business, but the IP phone service as well.

This competitor has a free, limited scope service that matches the free limited scope service GTM offers. Premium services (like recording a meeting) are critical to this evaluation, so I asked to have one account turned on for two weeks.

The answer? No, but we could come to your office and do a demo of the premium features.

At this point, the conversation is over. The GTM competitor has made it clear that they really don’t want the business. What they don’t seem to understand is that their handling of this $400 a month sales prospect threatens the $2500 monthly business they already have.

This is the sales prevention department at work.

Do you have one?

You might be wondering if you have a sales prevention department. The best way to learn that is to secret shop the sales line of your business. If you don’t have one, monitor the sales and support emails for a bit. Search them for terms like “upgrade”, “expand”, “merger” and “buyout”. The last two are possible signals that two companies have joined together and they are shopping how to supply your services to “both” companies.

You can also look at your orders for the last few months and randomly choose a few new clients, a few clients who changed the scope/size of their use of your products and services. Call them and ask to speak to whoever made the purchase. Ask them if it was easy to buy from your company. Was any part of this process difficult or frustrating? Do they have any suggestions to make the process easier?

Every time the sales prevention department takes root in your business, it hurts revenue and can cost you clients. People walk away because they don’t want to deal with a company that’s hard to work with. If it’s difficult right off the bat, that’s usually a sign of what’s to come.

Key person: Scalia and you

The loss of a key person, such as the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, is a critical moment in any organization. His passing sharply increased the temperature of an already highly-charged Presidential election season. It was already forecast that the next President will likely have to opportunity to make at least two and probably three appointments to the bench. What it make me think about was the impact of a Justice’s death on the day to day business of the court.

And that reminded me of you and your business.

Why? Events like this can have a critical, if not fatal impact on your business. Could your business survive your death or permanent disability, or that of key employees?

Regardless of your answer to that question, consider what’s in place to assure that the business will survive you. Is there insurance? A plan? Anything?

Key person insurance isn’t enough

While there is key person insurance available to help subsidize the cost of dealing with these kinds of situations, it often does little more than take care of expenses related to an orderly dismantling and/or sale of the business. Why? Because there was no plan to do anything else.

The real work, if possible, is the work necessary to survive the situation and keep the business running. That’s often the root cause of business failures that occur after an event that prevents the owner from being involved in the daily operations of the business.

Do you have a plan to survive a key person event? Without any instructions from you, could your family and/or your team know exactly what to do to get payroll out this week? A bank will work with you to get payroll out the door, but who can fund the payroll account in the first place?

What about the business that will transpire this week? What about the leadership void you would leave? Does your spouse take over? If so, do they have the necessary written instructions (or a video, or something) to help them get their feet under them in the short term? Have you organized the guiding information they need to take this on for the long term?

Keep in mind that in the early days, they will be trying to do this while suffering through the unexpected and sudden loss of you. This will certainly affect their decision-making abilities and focus, even if only temporarily.

Will there be a battle at the office to see who takes charge? If you don’t have a leadership assumption plan in place, what would happen? If your spouse isn’t ready to lead the company in the short term – regardless of the reason – who should their confidant be? Have you briefed the person charged with getting them up to speed on what’s important and how you make decisions? Is this information in writing?

Is the plan you left in place legally binding?

Key people need access

If you don’t pass on, but something happens to prevent you from having your normal access to business data, paperwork, assets etc or prevents the business from having normal access to you – what impact would that have?

Some events could impact almost any business, like these:

  • The owner, operations manager or a key employee has a stroke.
  • The owner, operations manager or a key employee leaves without notice.
  • The CEO’s spouse is taken to intensive care without warning, and the forecast is that he will be there for months.

For a larger business, international travel is likely – and that opens the door to many more possibilities:

  • Any of the items above could happen while an executive is out of the country, adding complexity to an already-trying situation.
  • The CEO could be stuck in a situation out of their control that keeps them out of the country for months.

How could this happen? Easy. If the boss is in South America, how will it affect your business if she can’t return for three months? It isn’t much of a stretch for the Zika virus (or something similar) to cause a country to close their borders, or for it to provoke the U.S. to disallow flights from the Zika-borne country.

How would the inability to perform simple tasks like signing checks impact your business? Little things can sometimes become big things when you lose control of them.

Is your business ready?

Project Management: Is it done yet?

When I was young and a bit green at project management, I somehow managed to have responsibility for a number of big projects. Some came in OK, some never seemed to get rolling properly, some were late, and some seemed to take on a life of their own. A latter group tended to include projects whose scope was a moving target or had many unknowns.

The worst of these have a way of being the unknowns you never see coming, often gestated from a family tree of assumptions and incorrect or changed information.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld famously said that decisions are made while dealing with “known unknowns and unknown unknowns“. Anyone with large project experience knows exactly what he meant. Interestingly, Rumsfeld credits a NASA manager with the terminology.

Project management requires discovery

The software business has a sketchy reputation for delivering projects on time, despite a lot of internally-driven improvement over the last two decades. This reputation is sustained by the memory of failures of very large software projects.

Agile project management and related methodologies have helped a great deal. Many of these methodologies can trace their roots back to Lean manufacturing / management methods taught by Deming in Japan after World War II.

Success with these management strategies depends on early discovery of issues, challenges and changes in the information driving your decisions. This, along with our human tendencies, is why the MVP (minimum viable product) construct works. The earlier the customer sees your work, the earlier you’ll find out if you’re on track.

Usually, you get to decide how this discovery occurs: organically as the project work occurs, or in advance, thanks to discussions of expectations, requirements and manufacturing options during the design phase.

Poorly managed projects are often started without sufficient discovery and discussion. Even today, many projects are started and finished with very little advanced thought. No one would build an airliner as it rolls down the runway. While that sounds a bit ridiculous, this is exactly what happens.

The context of the design is critical as well. Work done in a vacuum, even with the best of intentions, often produces incorrect assumptions thanks to the aforementioned unknown unknowns.  The project’s scope is an known unknown and the unknown unknowns are often a simple matter of lack of experience with the environment where the completed project will be used. The gap between expectations and results matters whether you’re building a crescent wrench, a software program or a Mars rover.

When will it be done?

While you may not have an accurate answer to that question, better design will improve your ability to give an estimate that someone can actually trust.

Better design? How?

The most common problem I see is not breaking things down into small enough pieces of work. Granularity is critical to the design and estimation of highly detailed / technical work. The volume of dependencies and unknowns in this type of work compounds the miscalculations and omissions resulting from a lack of detailed analysis, resulting in inaccurate estimates and missed expectations.

An estimate of days, weeks or months without a detailed breakdown of subtasks is symptomatic of the problem. I find that estimates require subtasks no larger than two to four hours to create a design that’s thought out well-enough to meet expectations, discover obstacles in advance, while producing a reasonable estimate.

But it’s not perfect!

Human nature also creeps into the equation: We like completing tasks.

It’s such a part of our us that people tend to focus on less important tasks simply because we can complete them before the end of the work day. We feel accomplished despite leaving big projects untouched.

If you’ve ever written things on a checklist that you’ve already done so that you could check them off, then you know what I mean.

Rather than fight the fixation on small projects that we can “download” and complete in a work period, feed it with subtasks of your big, important projects that conform to the need to complete something the same day.

Life has a way of being incredibly creative when it comes to finding ways to delay a project’s completion. Build these project management tactics into your design, estimate and build workflow so that you can get better work done faster – even on big projects.

Why do startups fight city hall?

This past weekend, I had a brief discussion about Uber, France, tech startups and the need to “fight city hall”. It all started after I posted a story about an upcoming Paris taxi strike, which is designed to send a warning message to the French government and French people from a highly entrenched monopoly.

The message is “Don’t support something that threatens our monopoly or we will shut down the city.

The key thought in the article was that French government’s handling of the Uber situation is an illustration of what’s wrong with entrepreneurism in France and that the situation affects all French startups rather than solely impacting Uber.

It seems the laws in France are designed to frustrate entrepreneurs attempting to enter established markets, if not to suppress all new business entries. The article goes on to make note that all of this goes on while France’s leadership talks about how they want to encourage entrepreneurship.

Why care about what happens in Paris?

What in the world does this have to do with small business in the U.S.?

Similar things occur here in the States and in many cases, startups end up feeling forced into a situation where they are left with no choice but to fight city hall – often because the alternative is to be legislated out of business with the help of an entrenched competitor. Sadly, this “competitor” isn’t the least bit interested in competing. They’re happy to use the local and regional governments’ desire to protect the citizenry as a means of raising the bar into entering “their” market.

Most U.S. based entrepreneurs tend to avoid such battles because they are expensive, frustrating and quite often do nothing more than waste a business owner’s time and money.

Yet startups like Uber are often found doing that very thing – taking on governments to eliminate protections that were once created due to a public safety interest but have been perverted into something that seems perfectly designed to preserve and protect entrenched businesses not only from new entrants into the marketplace – but from their clientele as well.

Why startups?

Why are tech startups picking on established markets? And why do so many of them seem to want to fight city hall?

They often do this because that’s where the market is. We talk about the opportunity you create simply by improving service to clients here on a regular basis – and do so because it is one of the easiest ways to transform your business. Service – one of the essential things a business delivers – has gone from a foregone conclusion to a differentiating factor.

Uber is perhaps the most obvious and the easiest example to make note of, but they are far from alone on this one. Part of their attraction to consumers is how easy they make it to use their services when compared to most of their competition. Even now, their obstacle isn’t that cab companies all over the world have increased the quality of their cars, the ease of booking and paying for a ride, etc. No, their biggest obstacle is local / regional governments, many of whom have fought to keep Uber out.

The thing is, it isn’t really about Uber. They’re simply today’s easiest and most visible example to understand. What this is really about is creating more barriers to entry into a market.

Old rules that favor one company or one technology are what start ups deal with every single day. In fact they often focus on those areas because they make the market attractive. Markets with poor service often slowly become that way because of a lack of competition created by artificially created barriers to entry. Often companies in those markets treat their customers so poorly that people do business with them only because have no other choice.

These are markets that have repeatedly sent a message to their clientele that they need to be taught a serious lesson. Most local entrepreneurs can’t afford to fight City Hall. Only those who are highly capitalized have that luxury in most situations – the luxury of out-waiting and perhaps, out-spending city hall, something no small business owner can do.

As any small business owner knows, there are plenty of barriers to entry as it is. Be careful not to ask your representatives to help you create more of them, as the next time, it could be your business that’s targeted the next time. Each one of these barriers that is successfully installed makes it easier to create another one.

Starting a new business is hard enough as it is. Let’s not create more barriers.