The Self-Managing Business

If you get enough email from “gurus” and you see enough Facebook ads, you will find yourself reading discussions about that unicorn of unicorns, the self-managing business. It sounds amazing. “You mean I’ll have the freedom to go skiing, hiking, or fishing and when I return, my business will better than it was when I left?” Yes, they say. If you dig deep enough, they will begrudgingly admit that your business will be no worse than it was when you left. In some cases, that’s normal because the business actually gets more and better work done when you’re gone. But they leave out a lot of detail, or more often, people read far more into the title than is really there.

The four hour work week

Take Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week. Tim’s built an integrated team and systems that allow him to spend his best, most productive four hours of the week working on things he loves to do that no one else in his business can do as well as he can. It’s real work to create systems and train people to work autonomously, or at least close to autonomously. It’s worth it, of course. He shows how to build a business that lets you work from anywhere. Could you turn your bait shop into an absentee business? Sure – if you’re put the time into developing systems and training people.

However, it isn’t just about training people to do the work. That’s the easy part. If you are truly going to disappear, someone will need to make decisions for you. Presumably, you’ll want their decisions to be the same ones you would have made. Otherwise, it becomes more like the business of the people you left behind, not the business of the person taking the three week horsepacking trip. Upon your return, you might not like what you find.

What does self-managing business mean?

To some, it means that all the stuff that can be automated has been automated. A self-managing car might drive itself to the dealer (or your preferred mechanic) if it detected a problem that wasn’t enough that it meant the car couldn’t be driven. It might know when to get gas (etc) – and to go to a station that offers full-service, since it can’t fill itself from a standard pump.

It isn’t simply about automation. Automation simply buys time / speed, and reduces / eliminates human error. While automation is getting better every day, someone has to tell it what you want it to do. The same must be said about your staff. They need to be told HOW you want things to be done, but also, how to decide and prioritize those things. Everything, in fact.

Making decisions is also work. Sometimes it’s the work that makes a difference for the business – and it’s often the kind of work that repeatedly pays off. So how do you replace that?

Being Like Mike

This is the real work of “systematizing” a business. Building & implementing automated systems isn’t nearly enough. You need people who are prepared & ready to make decisions close to as fast as you do, based the same points and considerations you use, and after all that – make the same decision you would have made (mostly).

Until they do that consistently, how can you leave for a month?

Write down a short note about the last five decisions you made. I don’t mean major like “we bought a competitor”. I’m referring to the kind of decisions you make daily or weekly. With list in hand, take your best staffer for a walk. For each decision on the list, put your staffer in the scenario you were in, provide them with whatever info you had, and then ask them to make the decision they thought you would make. Now ask them to tell you how they arrived at that decision. After a few decisions, is the staffer on track?

If they aren’t, think about the training that’s necessary to get them there. Are your managers ready for that? If you left for a week, would they have the data, tools and decision-making process (from yours) to make it for a week without calling, texting, or emailing you?

Start slowly. Train them, give them the autonomy they need, & coach them. When they’re “ready enough”, start leaving them for longer and longer stretches.

Photo by Colynn

What makes your customers safe?

We have attorneys, insurance, OSHA, safety regulations, procedures, safety gear, training, etc to help us protect our business, while keeping our staff members & customers safe. We know that in some markets, someone still might get hurt despite all our preparation, training, safety equipment, etc.

If you run a hotel with a pool, offer zip line rides, take people on boat rides / float trips, lead hikes or offer horseback rides into the backcountry, there are obvious risks, but almost every business has some level of risk like this. Have you wondered how you’d respond if something horrific happen to your customers while they were at your place of business? It’s one of a few worst possible nightmares for a business owner. Could you, much less your business, recover from something like that? Could your staff?

There are (and will continue to be) a lot of what ifs related to the recent duck boat disaster in Branson. It’s difficult to comprehend, much less try to relate to what the victims’ families, the employees and the business owner are going through. While it’s the worst possible time for all involved, the rest of us owe it to ourselves, our team, and our customers to learn from it.

If your business involves activities that could put your employees and/or customers in a scenario where they could get hurt, you should watch the process closely as they talk to the media, address safety issues that are discovered, and change processes while customers are in their care.

Review. Look for clues. Ask for help.

What you’re able to see from the public perspective of this accident will help, but the opportunity to learn won’t stop there. There will likely be additional considerations discussed by your advisors that they will want to share with you. As an example, you’ll want to talk to your attorney, insurance agents, licensing and related safety enforcement agencies, as well as industry groups.

As details come out about what went wrong in Branson, you may find subtle gaps in your tools, gear, processes, inspections, or training. Even if you have 40 years of experience in your business, as the boat tour business does, you can still learn from the lessons and discoveries that come out of this.

Your customers know they’re putting themselves at risk to take part in adventures. They expect your team to be experts. Reviewing your current procedures, training and equipment use is at least as important as making sure that you’ve developed enough of a sales pipeline to have the necessary cash flow to make payroll three months from now.

One more critical tool

There’s more to this than safety equipment and training.

When bad things happen, time has a way of changing. For some people, time stands still, or more commonly, slows down a good bit. For others, it accelerates.

It’s easy to find stories about highly accomplished people (athletes and others) who describe what happens when they get really good. They’ll say the game or activity “slows down”. It means that they are so ready, so fit, so well-trained, and so mentally prepared that the activity feels as if they have plenty of time to do whatever they’re good at. It looks easy when they do it because to them, it is. For the rest of us, the game or activity feels like it keeps getting faster and faster. When we try to keep up at a pace we aren’t used to, we start making mistakes.

Leadership works this way too.

When bad things happen, preparation slows things down. When you’re the owner and 20 people are asking questions at once, preparation, experience, and practice help you keep your bearings, calm everyone, and handle the questions.

You aren’t the only one who needs this preparation. Your ENTIRE team needs leadership training. When everyone else panics (and perhaps rightfully so), they will need leaders to help them find a safe way out. Leave no one out. That kid in produce might be the one who takes charge and guides your customers to safety when the worst happens.

Train your entire team. All of them will need one another to get through it, both during the event, and afterward. You’ll need their leadership most of all. If the worst never happens, you still have a team of leaders. Your customers will notice.

Photo by Symic

Went to the gym once. Didn’t work.

You’ve probably heard about things that didn’t work in someone else’s business. The story probably included an assertion that whatever isn’t working for someone else also wouldn’t so won’t work in yours. The tool itself is generally irrelevant. More often than not, the problem is a lack of consistency.

Execution isn’t easy. We do the wrong things. We do the right things at the wrong time. We fail to prioritize, or prioritize poorly – often doing the urgent rather than than the important. Each of those things have their own solution, tactic, or cure. The challenge is executing every day, every hour, every appointment – as appropriate for the solution, tactic, or cure. To be as effective and efficient as possible, all of these things require consistent execution.

We all have a ton of things to do. It takes a systematic intent to consistently eliminate tasks of no / low value, making room for the high value work our peers and customers need most.

Consistency gives

Consistency has a number of benefits. If you are consistently good, people will depend on you / your company – and soon get to the point where their expectations are that you will always do, say, and deliver what they expect. This clientele will tell people. Some of them, the most rabid types, will tell lots of people. A small percentage of them will practically take it as an insult if one of their friends or colleagues don’t use their consistent vendor.

Consistency gives your clients something steady to latch onto at a time when many of them feel there is little they can depend on other than themselves. Outside of your spouse and perhaps a few others, do you have a vendor you can depend on no matter what? One that you would bet your business on? Think about the peace of mind that would give you if you had that kind of vendor (or vendors) in place.

Consistency is a quality you can sell, price higher, and use as leverage when competing for a new customer. Anyone can make a single sale. Consistent vendors make that sale while claiming an asset – a new, long term customer.

Consistency takes

Do you have vendors or places you do business with as a consumer where you always have to remind about delivery or deadlines? Do you frequently have to correct a vendor’s work or invoices / paperwork? Do their work habits force you to be the one who must consistently follow up about promises, on-time delivery, service windows, quality and completeness? Is that the exception or the rule?

How does that make you feel? What’s it feel like the next time you have to purchase or get service from a vendor like that? Do you dread it?

Are you repeatedly changing vendors in an attempt to find one that you can consistently depend on? How does that feel?

Does your business track churn?

Churn happens when a business gets X new customers and loses Y customers each month. If you have to track it, you’ve probably got a churn problem. Maybe it reflects the direction and growth of your MRR (monthly recurring revenue) due to your business model.

Churn happens because customers cannot depend upon multiple vendors in your market. Yes, others are part of this as well, otherwise new customers wouldn’t be filling YOUR bucket that’s also leaking customers every month. Some may be new to the market, but a reasonable percentage of those new customers are coming from other vendors who aren’t taking good care of them. How long will you keep them? Consistency is a factor.

If you ever ask a former customer who churned away from you, they will almost always say they left because of price. Price is an easy excuse to use and it’s one they know you will be least likely to argue about. However, churn is rarely about price. More often than not, it’s the last straw after a customer has lost patience in the consistency of your product / service quality. First they get frustrated, then the investment seems like a waste, and finally, they’ve had enough.

No one gets into business to intentionally be bad at something. It takes effort. Wasted motion. Lost focus. Lack of intent.

Process by process, employee by employee, consistent execution improves quality. Going to the gym once doesn’t produce ideal results. Neither does inconsistent execution.Photo by Dan Harrelson

The ingredients of effective criticism

Today we’re going to use a common political event (and some football) to discuss the effective delivery of criticism.

Recently a new candidate joined a local political race. The new candidate’s campaign has spent plenty of time pointing out things that are broke, need attention, or didn’t go well. That doesn’t mean the candidate has nothing to say, nor that they have nothing valuable to add to the conversation about how their community is run. Even so, this “list” dominates their campaign while offering no specifics about their qualifications for office.

Criticism is not a qualifying skill

We all have the right to bring attention to things that aren’t working or need improvement. Even so, the ability to identify problems doesn’t qualify us to run the organization exhibiting those problems.

For example, my alma mater is (putting it politely) having a rough decade on the football field. It’s easy to note my team’s problems (or at least the symptoms), including their consistent inability to win a game after trailing at the half. When this doesn’t happen for six years, it stands out.

The ability to identify the team’s problems doesn’t qualify me to run a NCAA football program. That’s why I didn’t offer a solution. I might have theories, but management expertise doesn’t make you a coach.

The same kind of expectations exist for that political office. It’s real work. The ability to criticize isn’t enough. The job requires related experience.

If you want a job that requires leading the management of a $25 million budget, people expect that you’d have a fair amount of experience successfully managing a budget of at least low seven figures. Criticizing your opponent’s handling of the budget is fair game. Likewise, so is the public’s desire to hear about your experience and specifics about what you’d do differently and why.

If you want a job that requires leading the management of a team of ~900 employees, you should have experience successfully leading the management of a team of 100 or more. Tell us about your management successes, what you learned from your management struggles, and specifically how you’d make things better. Don’t think we won’t be taking notes and coming back to them to remind you of your suggestions if you win.

Criticism in the workplace has similar demands. If you provide context and propose specific solutions, great. If you’re simply complaining – does that help you, the company, or your target?

Embarrassing people isn’t criticism. It’s ego.

While I frequently discuss inept, unfortunate, or unproductive business behaviors I’ve experienced, I avoid mentioning the business. Why? Embarrassing an employee or business owner serves no purpose. It doesn’t improve the lesson / advice. It doesn’t positively serve the reader, or the business. It’s the kind of criticism that accomplishes nothing.

I prefer to shine a light on things a business can improve how they serve their customers. In turn, this gives the business a better chance of not just surviving – but thriving. It should also build job security for their team, and help the owner’s family benefit from the risk they took wh en opening a business.

To make your team’s feedback loop more valuable, teach them how to deliver effective criticism.

Criticism delivery determines the response

Whether running for office, grumbling about your team, or criticizing how you were treated in a local business, how you deliver that criticism says more about you than it does the recipient. It also plays a substantial part in how your criticism is received and the response you receive.

Criticism is not a bad thing. We all need it. It serves the recipient, not the one delivering it. Much of the criticism people given these days serves only the ego of the person doling it out – and does nothing for the person receiving it.

Ego-driven criticism looks like this: “(business / org / person) is terrible at (whatever). Fire them.

Effective criticism is intended and designed to help those receiving it, rather than drawing attention to the provider.

When delivering criticism, include specifics and where possible, suggestions for improvement. Describe the problem behavior / activity / outcome. Compare it to the desired behavior / activity / outcome. Discuss solutions. Ask how you can help. The outcome is usually what needs to be fixed, not the person.

Think about the best criticism you’ve received. What made it so valuable? Consider that when criticizing the work of others. You’re giving them a gift.

Photo by AutrementDit Toronto.

Training: One cure for sales problems

When having a conversation about sales problems, I might remind you about the folly of only taking cash (depending on the type of business). I might also remind you to eliminate the tedious & annoying out of your buying process. There are cases where that’s useful, but mostly – it isn’t. But not today. Today, I’d like to remind you of the value of training your sales team.

You’ve got questions

Heard of Quora.com? Quora is a website where you can ask questions. Many times, you’d never have access to those who answer: world-class subject matter experts. If you asked an airplane question, you might hear from an engineer who helped design it & three commercial pilots who fly it.

Why Quora? Because I found a Quora question pertinent to this discussion: “What can businesses learn from the military?” It reminds me of the not well informed “Why don’t non-profits run like a business?” question, but this is a much better question.

A Marine named Jon Davis who deployed to Iraq & Afghanistan answered: “Training”.  His answer breaks down like this: 1) A detailed process to track progress. 2) Regular job specific training. 3) An annual schedule to ensure standards are met. 4) Find & reward teachers. 5) Ignore the “training them to leave” myth. 6) Discipline.

If those six items are checkboxes – can you check any of them?

I’ve recently met several folks who work in the car business. The one I wrote about last week is the only one I’ve encountered recently who knew the product well. I don’t mean he could wake him in the middle of the night & tell me (blindfolded) how to change a timing belt. I mean he didn’t have to run to the showroom to find out the horsepower for a vehicle whose manufacturer makes cars with only two engine choices across the entire product line. Yes, it happened.

This isn’t a sales team failure. It’s a management failure. Are you preparing your salespeople to succeed? Product knowledge isn’t what sells cars. Rapport is. Guiding me to a “special value” (car that’s been on the lot too long) because it pays more than a mini (minimum commission) doesn’t build rapport.

A question about the value of rapport: What’s worth more to you, getting that “special value” off the lot, or creating a relationship that provokes me to return every x years to buy only from you for the rest of my vehicle buying days, while also encouraging my friends to do so? You decide.

Sometimes product knowledge is critical: “Can you help me find a good red wine?” The salesperson who knows less about your product than most prospects will struggle – & reflect poorly on your business. You need someone who understands the problems your prospects want to solve & how your solutions address them.

Don’t have a sales team? Still affects you.

One of the best parts of the answer Jon gives relates to on-boarding. He describes how the military trains recruits and leads them. He then compares that to the training that most businesses provide: haphazardly, if at all, and with little ongoing mentoring –  which unfortunately matches my observations over time.

You probably hire experienced people so they’ll step in & become effective quickly. Do they do it the way you want it done? Did they learn a completely different way of doing what you do? What if you don’t want them to do it that way? How will they learn your proprietary way of doing things?

Don’t assume an experienced new hire has mastered the systems, machinery, methods, and processes your business uses to succeed. Learn from their experience, but train / mentor them.

No matter what, the last thing you ought to be doing is turning them loose on your customers, prospects, products, and services and simply assuming that everything’s going to work out. Maybe it will. They might survive, or get by, or be good enough. Did you exert all that effort to find just the right person only to toss them to the lions with the expectation that they’d get by?

How much does it cost each time you have to replace a poorly trained salesperson who failed? How much does it cost to keep someone who isn’t as effective as they could be because they had to learn your ways by the seat of their pants?

Photo by formatc1

Sustainable revenue demands leadership

Recently, an employee of a tool company publicly commented (in a snarky way) about another vendor in their market. The target of his remarks isn’t a competitor. They create tools which complement what’s created by tools sold by the company that the snarky guy works for. Do employees who publicly snark about a vendor (or a client) think about the outcome of a vendor conflict that escalates badly? Perhaps. Let’s take a look at what’s at stake. The situation speaks to the leadership you provide to your people, even at a small company, and how it affects the sustainability of your company, and possibly that of your market.

What does sustainable company really mean?

We talk about sustainable companies and how culture, hiring, marketing, product, service, and leadership all contribute to create a company that lasts a very long time. Let’s tear this down into the pieces you and I can directly relate to. We’ll do it in the context of the two companies I’m referring to, but keep in mind that these things affect every company – including yours.

Many millions of dollars (and other currencies) are made each year from work created by the tools sold by the company that snarky guy works for. The company is rather small and one might think they’re insignificant in the big picture when compared to the big vendors who own that market internationally. You might think the same thing about your business. Don’t. When you look at regularly performed analyses of tool usage worldwide, the snarky guy’s company rarely appears on the list. In the rare occasions when it does appear on such lists, it’s in the second 50 or second hundred. In this market (perhaps like yours), it may seem insignificant. As such, why should we care what one employee said in public, right?

The leadership of that “insignificant” company should care. As should you when your people speak.

The math of an “insignificant” company

While there may “only” be 5000 to 10000 people worldwide who own tools made by snarky guy’s company, a portion of them are generating a good income – good enough to support their families for decades in some cases. This is not “random math”. I know a fair number of these folks. Many have employees. A few have 50 or more employees in the U.S. and/or scattered around the globe, and/or their products are a critical tools for companies with many employees.

When you take that community as a whole, we’re conservatively talking about between 100,000 and 200,000 people affected by the income generated via products created by these tools. Included in that figure are employees, customers, family members of the vendors, client companies, and other groups directly affected by that income. Expand that to the users of the products created by these people by adding those who make a living from the products. Add those making a living where these products are a critical tool in their work day. Now add their employees and families. Add the vendors all of these companies and families buy from. While this tool isn’t a global leader (and that’s OK), it still creates a significant amount of impact. For those who keep the lights on and their kids fed based on income rooted in those tools or businesses run by products created with those tools, it’s quite personal.

I suspect the 100,000 to 200,000 figure is quite low, even though it’s the estimated cumulative impact of one small tool maker who rarely (if ever) shows up on the radar of their industry. Small, much like the impact from any number of small businesses in your town. Including yours, perhaps.

So how does leadership affect sustainability?

The impact of even the smallest of companies must be taken seriously. Your company may seem insignificant compared to large multi-nationals, but the sustainability and leadership of your company has real impact. It affects homes, cars, kids, retirements, groceries, utility bills, and college plans for more families than you may have considered. Your team’s behavior follows the leadership example you set, which reflects upon your community, your company and you. Counsel your people about speaking about your company, your clients, your competitors, and those you collaborate with even in the smallest of ways. The smallest of things start a forest fire. When they do, everyone gets burned. Photo by Payton Chung

Work, Caring, and Filtering Employers

While last week’s “don’t work and don’t care” piece was inspired by comments about millennial workers, those “tests” evaluate things important about all prospective employees. Yet there’s more. One non-millennial responded: “Saw your blog post. Filtering employees is only part of the problem. The other side of the coin is filtering employers.

Exactly. So how do you filter employers?

Don’t filter employers because…

Do you avoid employers who filter prospective employees as I described? Don’t. The more care someone takes when hiring someone to join your team, the more likely that person will fit in and carry their share of the load. Good employers have learned to place small obstacles or tasks in the process to identify those who don’t pay attention to details and/or don’t follow instructions. “Email your resume to gimmeajob@company.com in Microsoft Word format” tells someone you aren’t a bot, you read and follow instructions, and you have a baseline of necessary skills. Can you use Word? Can you email an attachment? Is your grammar horrific? Did you use a spellchecker? If you submit a resume littered with errors, employers will rightly discern that you aren’t a good fit for their work, or the quality their work demands. For some jobs, these kinds of skills things are critical – even if they aren’t the core job skill.

Some employers have a complex interview process. As long as the interviews are engaging, it’s OK. If some interviewers are disinterested or not engaged (such as during a team interview), give the impression they don’t want to be there, or are unprepared to interview you, investigate. Ask about their hiring process. They’ll either be able to describe it, or not. If they tap dance, beware. Ask why they are involved in the process of selecting you as a candidate, but do so late in the discussion. You don’t want probing questions to take the interviewer off-task.

Even so, they need to sell you on their company as a good place to work. How prepared for the interview was this person? Did they seem to know little about you? Did you get the impression they were reading your resume, cover letter and other materials for the first time while conducting the interview? This could indicate a lack of organization, a lack of preparation, a random “Hey, go interview this person” assignment, or it could be that the person who normally conducts that interview is traveling or sick.

Filtering employers

You already know that you’ll be asked if you have questions. Do you prepare for them in advance? It’s clear from my comments that you should expect the interviewer to be prepared – and the same holds for you. The quality of your questions is critical.

Your questions during the interview:

  • Indicate whether or not you did your homework on the company.
  • Identify reason(s) to walk away, or become even more enthusiastic about the job.
  • Help the interviewer figure you out while letting you play detective.

About 20 years ago, I flew to West Virginia to interview for a senior executive-level position. Something seemed off, so I dug deeper than usual. At the time, online information was scarce, except for stock market info. I found news of a buyout, a bankruptcy, & reorganization. I asked about these things during my visit. They were floored – no one else asked about these events. They told me later that these questions were the turning point to them making an offer. I didn’t take the job, but I learned a valuable lesson about homework.

Ask about:

  • … company meetings: Do they have an agenda? Are people there who don’t need to be? Are they frequent or infrequent? Are they productive? These things speak to management style and organization, among other things.
  • … projects: How are projects managed? What happens after a successful project? What about an unsuccessful one? Ask to hear project “war stories”.
  • … the sales team: Some companies have them, some do not. The longevity of the sales team, if there is one, can indicate how things are going.
  • … how they use data: Is there a CRM or other strategic data use?
  • … their on-boarding process. What should you expect day one?
  • … crisis management. How did the last crisis / emergency get handled? What did the company learn from it? Was it something that allowed a change in process / design so it could be prevented in the future? How did this affect the staff?

If someone wonders why you care about these things – tell them that you’re looking for a solid, well-run company to grow with, not simply a paycheck.

Photo by adpowers

The Value of Trust

In personal relationships, trust is something we generally have a handle on. We know whether or not to trust a family member or friend (and how much) based on their behavior over time. In a business environment, things may not be that simple. Think about it… If you have employees, do you trust them? If you have people working under contract, do you trust them? If you work for someone else, whether you’re considered an employee, team member, associate, or staff member, do you feel as if the business owner (or your manager) trusts you? Likewise, if you’re an employee or working under contract, do you trust your manager / the business owner?

Brick by brick, we build trust over time, yet it can be lost in an instant. What creates that trust? Your pile of bricks grows as time passes based on your consistency, dependability and/or responsiveness. And what else?

What owners need to trust a team member

What do owners see in team members that provides the faith to trust them? Owners like to know you have their back. They’d like every employee to behave and think like an owner at some level. Note that I said BEHAVE and THINK like an owner.

The best employees think like an owner, even if their responsibility is limited to coffee machines, ice machines, and floors in your building. When you think like an owner, you want the machines to be cleaned and disinfected regularly so no one gets sick, even if they don’t get sick enough to take time off. Clean, puddle-free floors are safer than cluttered floors that occasionally have puddles like the one that your peer slipped and cracked their elbow on.

When you behave like an owner, you don’t walk past that puddle because you aren’t the one in charge of the floors. You mop it up before someone gets hurt.

What team members need to trust a business owner

Some owners work 80 hours a week. When owners think “behaving like an owner” means their employees should also work 80 hours a week, they aren’t really looking for people to behave like an owner.

Owners: What trust doesn’t mean

If you are thinking “I can’t trust my employees because…”

  • they don’t work as hard as I do.
  • they don’t think like an owner.
  • they don’t take ownership of their work.
  • I have to monitor everything they do.

Ask yourself if you worked as hard as the owner did in your last job. Rather than expecting them to be as vested as you (assuming you have everything on the line and everything to gain), consider your last gig as an employee. How’d you feel about it? What’d you like? What’d you dislike? Did you trust the owner? Did the owner train you to think like they did?

If your people don’t take ownership, do you encourage them to take responsibility and own their work? More importantly, do you reward them based on those actions? Do you “over-manage” them? Some might call it micro-management, but over-manage might be more descriptive.

MBWA (management by wandering around) isn’t micro-management. Training isn’t micro-management. Good hiring, middle managers, documented work processes and management systems take the place your innate need to “monitor everything they do”. It’s an adjustment as your company outgrows you – which it should do. Employees expect owners to focus on strategic work that prepares the company for its next challenge(r), not over-managing.

Employees: What trust doesn’t mean

If you are thinking “The owner doesn’t trust us because…”

  • they installed a security system, digital access keypads for some areas, etc.
  • they installed security cameras.
  • they ask us to have a peer confirm bank deposit before we head out the door with the bank bag.
  • they ask us to have a peer double check the shipping list before we close a box going out to our largest commercial customer.

… you aren’t thinking like an owner.

When you complain about these things, it sounds like you aren’t interested in protecting the company’s assets or reducing the company’s risk. The value of double checking deposits or shipments to an important customer is obvious. Mistakes happen. Security systems limit access to assets by those with no business need to access them. Increased risk increases costs. These systems impact insurance costs & provide evidence gathering capability that protects good employees from bad ones.

When a family member threatens their ex who works with you, your spouse or your kid, it’s the owner who worries about whether or not it’s safe to allow people to come to work. Before you doubt that, bear in mind that I’ve lived that situation and had those thoughts. You can’t install security cameras and harden your business overnight. You have to be “a bit more ready” when you can afford to be.

Put yourself in the other person’s place, no matter what your role.

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