Your systems should focus on your clients

Do your systems serve your internal customers or all of them?

By internal customers, I mean your accounting department, the staff on the shipping dock, customer service representatives, sales people and so on.

Systems that serve your internal customers do things such as accept, validate and record orders, track commissions, automate shipment notifications, manage inventory and a multitude of other things necessary to make sure that orders for products and services are properly fulfilled.

These systems (investments, really) serve your “real” clients as well, but in many cases their service to the client is indirect. I say indirect because your client rarely sees this service, even though they benefit from it. These systems enable your staff to serve your clients, keep track of where their package is and keep track of the fact that they’ve paid their bill. That’s service they benefit from – even if it is indirect.

Clearly, these investments are valuable. My assertion is that these systems don’t often focus on the client’s needs, even though they ultimately serve that client.

For example?

You knew I’d have an example or two.

You’ve probably seen a cryptic medical bill at some point. These bills have improved vs. the bills of five or ten years ago, but they could still be easier to read. Focusing on client needs might mean making the effort to create a customer-focused bill where info other than the total amount due is intelligible to the patient and their family.

A recent cold snap snuffed the battery in my wife’s car. When I went to replace it, I had to take it to a different store in the national (but locally owned) chain where I buy auto parts. Because the store’s systems are focused on internal customer needs, they were able to see inventory in stock and tell me which stores in the area had the battery I needed. While that’s useful information to help me get a new battery, it fell short of the staff’s needs and my own.

Unfortunately, they had no way to access my purchase information from a few years ago so that they could provide the appropriate discount on the new battery, since the old one expired during the warranty period.

The last time I bought a battery from these guys, they calculated the discount from the date on the battery (ie: the month and year that are picked off at the counter when the sell it to you). This time, that date was considered irrelevant. Further, I was scolded for not having a three year old receipt (which I probably have, but haven’t found).

I asked for advice to avoid this in the future, since I was used to the prior system where the pick-off date on the battery was what the trusted. The guys at the counter suggested that I tape the new receipt to the battery so that I’d have it next time. It seems like a good idea, but tape plus battery plus Montana weather times three or more years tells me that reading that receipt might not be so easy in the future.

Where’s my warranty discount?

The discount was trivial and really isn’t the point, but the situation provides a good example of a business system that primarily serves internal customers. The store that sold me the new battery has the ability to check inventory of the store where I bought the old battery and get a part from that store – both of these features primarily serve internal customer needs. A missing internal customer need that would also serve the external customer would allow store personnel to confirm a purchase at another store in the chair, as well as track the purchase for warranty purposes.

You’ve seen this before. Pharmacies are able to track prescriptions at any of their stores and refill them in any other store even if the original was called into a pharmacy thousands of miles away. To be sure, there are laws covering the record keeping of these purchases, but they could make it much more difficult to buy in the second location than they do.

Why do they buy from you?

The point is that your clients have a choice. If your internal systems make it easier for your clients to buy, redeem, refill, obtain service, and buy again…. they’ll likely buy from you.

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?