Does your business reality match theirs?

If you happen to pay attention to any of the business turnaround reality shows on TV (I see them on rare occasions), you’ll know that the pattern is the same for most of them – regardless of the type of business.

Typically, there are some quality and cleanliness problems, a management issue or two (or five),  a lack of performance that’s often attributable to training and consistent systems and processes, and last but not least, a lack of attention to the numbers.

In some rare cases, the businesses seem to be more of a hobby or an escape than an actual business – a situation that never escapes the consulting expert, and always infuriates them.

On the rare occasion when I see these shows, three things always come to mind:

  • How could they have let the situation get this bad?
  • How could they not see these obvious problems, much less fail to address them?
  • How do business owners who read my stuff feel when seeing these shows?

If you haven’t seen one of these shows, here are the things you should be looking for in your business’ reality.

Filth

One of the universal failures of the businesses in these shows is that they’re consistently filthy. Some are worse than others, with some downright unbelievable.

The reason this can get out of control in your business is the gradual creep of muck. You get used to a certain level of clean and it never again seems to be the kind of clean you’d want to see in a place you’d visit.

My wife and I visited a Cajun restaurant in the south earlier this year and found the dining room’s tile floor filthy. It was hard not to wonder if they simply got used to the dirt.

How are you doing on the filth factor?

Management Vacuum

Another consistency of the businesses profiled in these shows is a partial to total lack of management.

Sometimes, the problem is the owner(s) acting as if the business is a hobby (and often creating a massive distraction – much less money suck), while in others, it’s a failure to delegate and then use the time savings to actually manage the business. Managers in these businesses often have owner-instigated conflicts that prevent them from exerting any authority on day to day operations – making them ineffective at best.

Do any of these situations sound familiar? Ask your manager(s) about it. If you sense hesitation…

Systems and Processes

One of the most common problems in these businesses is a lack of order and consistency.  Many of them have no point of sale system or have nothing more than a cash register to balance at the end of the day.

In the episodes where food and drink are part of the business, food and drink costs are always out of control and highly variable from serving to serving and drink to drink.

They not only have inconsistent production (and thus inconsistent quality), but they also tend to have no measurement / tracking / purchasing controls in place. They have no idea how much they’re spending on food and drink or if they are even turning a profit.

Key to the resolution of these problems is creating systems to manage and track materials, sales and purchasing. Yes, I know… this seems like Doctor Obvious speaking, but you would be surprised at the times this has been missing from businesses in these shows (and in my personal observation).

Do you know how much that $8.95 meal costs your business? Don’t serve food or drink? You still have production costs of some kind.

Training

A tightly integrated issue with systems and processes is staff training. Inconsistency in these businesses starts with a lack of systems and processes and ends with inconsistent (or non-existent) training of the staff.

A universal component of the reality-show-fix is a combination of new systems, processes and staff training on those systems and processes.

Systems and processes combined with training breed consistency, which breeds quality.

Watching the numbers

Beyond cost of production numbers, a common issue for these reality show businesses is a disconnect between what the business is doing sales and cost-wise and what the owner(s) / manager(s) think the business is doing.

Do you know what your real numbers are?

What’s the reality at your business?

Quaint is no substitute for quality


Recently, I’ve spent some time on Amtrak.

It’s easy to compare the differences between train and air travel.

Speed and cost are the really obvious ones and they remind me of the old consultant’s saw: “Quality, Speed or Price, choose any two.”

Meaning, of course, that you can choose 2 of those, but the 3rd is likely to suffer.

When it comes to long-distance public transportation, you mostly get to pick one – as long as you take for granted that “quality” typically means “You got there in one piece.”

Most people I talk to tend to choose speed, unless they’re going from NW Montana to Salt Lake, Seattle or Portland with a car-sized group of staff members.

Making the speed/quality/price choice

Recently I had the speed/quality/price choice to make and decided to try Amtrak a couple of times. My wife and I recently became empty nesters and had wondered about taking the train the next time we went somewhere.

Being the family guinea pig, I took Amtrak’s Empire Builder from Portland to Whitefish after driving with my youngest (in his rig) to Oregon (on the hottest day of the summer, of course) in order to drop him off at college.

Returning on Amtrak wasn’t just the slow, cheap choice – it was the obvious one: Board at 5pm in Portland, avoid a 12 hour drive after 3 long days, spend less on train fare than on gas and do all of that without any effort on my part – ie: get on the train and ride home vs. flog my rig all the way home, get tired, get a room and end up using up a decent chunk of 2 days traveling.

During that trip, the train’s crew was highly-tuned. If the schedule said 5:21pm departure, that’s when the train started to glide forward. If they said you had 3 minutes to step off the train for some fresh air, you’d better be stepping back on at 2:58.

This happens in part because someone (or everyone) on the staff clearly wants to be on time (I suspect they get some pressure about that – just like the airlines), and it’s helped by spreading out the stops – a luxury Amtrak doesn’t have in more urban areas.

I wasn’t too worried about being on time to the minute. I was on a train *because* my schedule was a little flexible. I’d heard a fair share of horror stories about late trains from folks in the Midwest and East, so I wasn’t exactly ready for seriously-on-time. In fact, I’m rarely ready for it when I’m on a plane – with good reason.

The Amtrak Experience

What I was really interested in was comparing the customer / passenger experience between Amtrak and the last few airline trips I’ve taken.

On an airplane, you’re so beat up, annoyed, hot, cramped, belittled and so on, by the time you get in your seat, you mostly don’t want to talk or look at anyone. On a plane, you will often find 3/4 of the passengers in this detached, staring-at-nothing state of mind where all they can think about is how many more minutes till it all ends.

It’s not that the people are “bad”, I think a lot of it is the series of annoyances and inconveniences that people are submitted to prior to taking off.

On the train, it’s like another planet. It’s like a big traveling party and a sleepover rolled into one – and the seats are bigger. There are more families and college aged folks and fewer suits percentage-wise than the average airplane, but just as many opportunities for people to annoy each other. Yet they dont.

The big traveling party is in the observation car, where you might see people playing Uno, Scrabble, Texas Hold-Em, or just talking with a crowd of people they just met. The dining car is like a cafe with too few seats, so you sit where the empty chairs are – even if there’s a couple already there in mid-meal. You sit (because the train staff said “That’s your seat”) and you shoot the breeze. And no one acts like you stepped on their toes.

The difference is the process.

The cattle car isn’t the cattle car

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that the airlines and airports hired the “Evil Captain Kirk” version of Temple Grandin to design the process of getting people from their cars, through ticketing, past security and onto a plane.

That often seeps into people on a plane. You know what I mean.

It’s not the speed, it’s the how and the what.

On Amtrak, it’s given that everything (and I mean *everything*) is slower. On time (in my limited experience), but slower.

The experience is far less tense and there is none of the “We just need to get through it, so you’re just gonna take it” that you get when flying. My impression is that you’re far less likely to run into the Evil Kirk.

Why?

To be sure, if you Google around, or even search Twitter for #amtrak, you’ll find plenty of experiences both positive and negative. Meanwhile, no one waxes poetic about a recent plane ride – even if they did have wifi on board.

Sure, there are some folks in the airline business who are pleasant, friendly and happy to help. On Amtrak, almost everyone seems that way.

Both groups are obviously under pressure to produce. Neither is raking in the profits.

Neither group has excuses to use about why they treat their customers the way they do. They just do.

The process is what creates the pain…or not.

It’s also what makes the difference between the experience found by your customers vs. your competitors’.

Take nothing for granted about the process your customers experience.

How do you welcome them?

We’ve all been there.

You mosey (at least I do) into a doctor’s office for the first time and the experience is practically identical to almost every other first visit to almost every other doctor’s office.

You get handed a clipboard of paper forms to fill out, as if they don’t know you from Adam. Yet you have an appointment, so they already know your name and at least some (if not all) of your contact info.

The forms usually require that you repeat yourself, filling out the same contact, insurance and referral info over and over again because the office’s intake process that hasn’t been examined for efficiency, functionality or intelligence. In many cases, the forms are copies of copies of copies as if no one has a clue where the original is.

The process almost always seems to make you feel as if your time is worth nothing – and in fact, as if theirs isn’t worth all that much either.

Intake Process?

That’s what they call what happens to you when you enter a doctor’s office – you go through their “intake process”. Maybe if they called it “New Patient Welcome”, it might become a more patient-friendly, efficient, intelligent process that becomes a(nother) competitive edge for them.

It isn’t just about the doctors though.

You’ll find a similar situation when being “welcomed” to many service businesses. In those cases, the business hasn’t gone to the trouble to transform their “first impression process” from the lowest common denominator to “welcoming, efficient (cheaper, more accurate, time-saving) and intelligent”.

As a result, new customers experience the same process as a customer who has been coming there for 20 years. Not necessarily a positive thing.

What really stands out is the process at a business that has studied what they do, why they do it and made (often minor) changes to streamline the process.

You may have seen some of those. Some offices, usually those of orthodontists or chiropractors, offer a completely different front office patient experience. The reason is that the “practice management” industry is better at getting into their offices than those of other specialties. The best practice management firms excel in making the processes of medical/dental practices more welcoming, efficient, intelligent and yes, profitable.

Most doctors and dentists (and their office managers) could learn a thing or twenty simply by making a friend of a local chiro or orthodontist and sitting in their office, observing what happens when a new patient comes in.

Yes, I said a doctor’s office could learn from a chiropractor’s office. Get over the AMA vs. chiro religious argument for a moment, please.

Don’t be the LCD

Most intakes are at the lowest common denominator. If you are going to stand out, you have to do things differently better and *constantly* be on the lookout for ways to improve. Not just the care/service you deliver, but how you deliver it.

While I realize that there are some legal hoops to leap through (HIPAA, for example), when I am referred from one doctor to the next and the originating doctor’s office actually makes an appointment for me, we’ve already crossed a line.

Upon referral, there is zero good reason (including HIPAA, unless you’re lazy) that I should have to sit down and fill out forms that contain contact, emergency, insurance and holy cow, which doctor’s office referred me (remember, they made the appointment for me). Likewise, I shouldn’t have to write that info multiple times on different pieces of paper.

That leaves me open to making mistakes, introducing errors from my horrid penmanship, while creating unnecessary work of your staff, since they’ll have to interpret my hieroglyphics and enter the info into the office computer (once again introducing opportunity for errors).

I’m not talking about putting the Fed’s Universal Health Care Data Chip in my head. I’m talking about streamlining processes and creating efficiency – and yes, within the bounds of the law.

Waste

As you might have guessed, I had this joyous experience recently.

After the initial paperwork lovefest, I was pleased to see a tablet pc used to get a “reservation” started for day surgery (nothing serious, relax folks), but disappointed to find that the doctor had been nailed for $30K for the tablet system. Despite that price tag, it still didn’t communicate directly with the hospital that was so close to his office, I could peg the day surgery front door with a baseball from his parking lot.

Doc sounded confident that process of integrating with hospital systems was underway and I hope he’s right. At the time, it seemed like a waste to fill out a form on a tablet pc and then print it out and walk it across the street where someone else will likely scan it and/or re-type the info yet another time.

Can you say increased health care costs? Yes, I thought you could.

Be Welcoming

While few probably have sympathy for the medical industry because of the “class warfare training” we get from the media, this isn’t just about the medical business.

Can you remember the last time you walked through your business’ intake process and experienced what your patients (clients) deal with? Even if you change oil in 19 minutes or less, you still have an intake process.

I’ve found businesses doing things because of the ways things had to happen back in the days of mimeograph machines, or because of the limitations of 1990s-era fax quality.

Why are we even talking about such things? Neither should be a barrier to improving processes today.

How To Fix It

Your goals: Get your work done efficiently and intelligently. Send me home in a frame of mind that has me unable to stop talking to my friends and family about something as mundane (yet “Wow”) as a doctor’s office visit.

Do you complete the process?

Sweet Temptations
Creative Commons License photo credit: williamcho

I like that Amazon lets me prod a publisher into Kindle-ing a book.

The only problem with starting a process like the “request this book on Kindle” thing is that many businesses fail to finish what they started.

For example, does Amazon notify me when the Kindle version becomes available and email me a link to purchase that version? I have no idea.

Wouldn’t that be the ideal conclusion?

I’m not sure if they do this or not, but I’ve never received a notification. Would seem a bit odd that none of the books I’ve prodded them about have been Kindle’d but it’s possible.

Amazon also doesn’t ask me if I want to automatically purchase the Kindle version when/if it comes out.

Coffee?

It isn’t just tech businesses that get into this kind of trouble with processes. Non-technical businesses do too.

On Sunday, my wife and I went out for dinner after a long day of working around the house. We decided to go to a new restaurant in town that we hadn’t yet visited.

A few moments after dropping off our food, the wait staffer asked how the food was, without seeming to break stride as she passed our table. I hadn’t had time to take a bite and didn’t get a chance to reply before she was gone.

Having a checklist for your process is ok. Not having proper timing for each step is not.

At the end of the meal, we weren’t asked if we wanted coffee or dessert. Usually we don’t. On this night, we were ready and this was the sort of place where you expect to be asked.

We bailed out and went to another restaurant. There, we were told that dessert isn’t on the menu but they just happened to have a few things to choose from and he reeled off the items they had.

He got a better tip for 2 coffees and a dessert.