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.

Why your growing company needs to work slower

You might have seen last week’s discussion of automating administrivia and clerical work simply as a systemization of the E-Myth. That’s fair, but remember that the goal was to reduce cognitive load on focus workers. We didn’t eliminate ALL administrivia and clerical work – and you can’t. Discussions on scaling a growing company rarely cover the burden this work creates. The key to keeping this work from bogging things down? Work slower.

Work slower?

A few years ago, Richard Tripp and I were talking about the challenges of installation and on-boarding in complex enterprise environments. He started the conversation by asserting that “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”

As he explained, you have to slow down your processes to improve them.

On a rough road, potholes, dips, and washboards make it difficult to drive safely at high speeds. On a smooth paved road, accelerating to and maintaining cruising speed is easier, safer, and more comfortable. The situation is exactly the same for a growing company’s admin and clerical work.

Note the emphasis on “and maintaining” in the previous paragraph. It isn’t fast to repeatedly accelerate, slow down, then accelerate back to cruising speed. It’s jerky and disruptive. If processes aren’t streamlined and capable of consistent speed and volume, then the work is neither smooth nor fast.

A flat tire on a busy highway

Process disruptions kill you when you’re trying to scale operations.

Fits and starts are demoralizing. One-offs to deal with random failures and issues consume a ton of time and take your team off task. This frustrates your team and delays work output – often backing up other work as a result.

These problems impact your operations like a flat tire affects travel on a busy highway. When a car has a flat, the impact isn’t limited to that car – it slows down the surrounding cars.

In your business, work (traffic) backs up, plus the task that suffered the failure (the car with the flat) is completely halted. Any work dependent on the stopped task is also at a dead stop. A shipment stuck in production can hold up packaging, shipping, the loading dock, invoicing, or other areas.

When you work slower, you create time and space that makes it easier to identify and eliminate the bumps and potholes in your processes. “Slow is smooth” takes shape. It’s about reviewing fundamentals, but also about the deconstruction and review of each part of the process.

Hummingbirds and governors

If you’ve ever watched a hummingbird fly, there’s not much to see. By naked eye, the wings are a blur at best. The bird hovers and appears to veer about as it flies. It seems anything but smooth.

In a slow-motion video, the beauty of a hummingbird’s flight is revealed. Every motion is smooth and consistent – motion that looks much different to the naked eye. Likewise, slowing down your processes and analyzing them step by step allows you to identify inefficient motion, poorly designed screens and paperwork, as well as unnecessary steps.

The elimination of inefficient motion isn’t the reason for a governor, but the idea is similar. A governor is a physical device that changes position as rotational speed of the governed mechanism increases. Eventually, rotational speed reaches a point where the governor moves into a position that cuts the throttle or otherwise limits the speed of movement.

Like speed, scaling reveals flaws

Governors are used to limit machine speed, giving the machine a means of protecting itself.  A mechanism without a governor could gain enough rotational speed to tear itself apart.

Your processes at at risk in the same way. If your business is used to shipping 100 items a day or onboarding 15 new customers a month, things change when you double those numbers – or add a digit. Where 100 shipments a day sustained you, 1000 a day might put you out of business. Under those conditions, an ungoverned not-so-smooth business can tear itself apart.

Smoothly-operated, well-rehearsed processes can accelerate to high speed and high volume without exploding – thus “smooth is fast“. You may need to get faster equipment to handle the volume, but faster equipment won’t fix a broken process. It simply breaks it at high speed.

Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of your work processes allows you to be ready to “remove the governor” at any time, without allowing the business to destroy itself.

Raise productivity by lowering cognitive load

Are you trying to figure out how to help your team become more productive? Traditional efforts to raise productivity will help, but are they enough? At some point, you’ll find that the law of diminishing returns will take over. Rather than give up, you & your team need to reassess the team’s workload and how it’s handled.

It’s important! It’s mandatory.

Traditional attempts at workload assessment usually include a re-prioritization of tasks. Regular priority assessment is a good thing, but not often a great thing. Sometimes it resembles “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. What takes a re-prioritization from good to great is leaving your team open to not assigning a priority to EVERYTHING – i.e.: giving permission to not do a task. It’s OK to identify work as “work we don’t need to do”, or “work we don’t want to do”. However, your team still has to do this work because “It’s important!” and/or “It’s mandatory”.

There’s “mandatory because the law requires it”, but there’s a second form of mandatory that’s rarely talked about: “mandatory because I said so”. Some tasks legitimately fit this criteria, but many shouldn’t. The quote “Mandatory is one of the crutches we use when we can’t lead people.” speaks to these tasks. I’ll bet we’ve all seen this type of mandatory task in the workplace.

Mandatory doesn’t mean a person has to do it

Mandatory workloads tend to be administrative and clerical work placed on non-admin / non-clerical team members. Sometimes, it even includes administrative and/or clerical work placed on admin / clerical folks. Some of this work is necessary and important, like timekeeping for employees whose time is billed out to a customer. The rest should be subject to re-prioritization.

Your team has to stop doing unimportant work so that they can focus on what IS important. I’m sure you’ve heard and thought that before. Even so, we continue to put more “administrivia” work on our people. Sometimes this work is important, but if you look a little harder at it, you’ll find that much of it can be delegated. My favorite team member to delegate this kind of work to is “systems”.

Why do you want to either stop doing this work or delegate it to someone other than an employee? Cognitive load.

Every task you give a person increases their cognitive load. Take a high-value employee who does focused work for you. If in addition to that work, they also have five or more daily administrative / clerical tasks on their plate, those things have to be remembered.

Why does cognitive load matter?

Ever notice how you suddenly remember things at two am, or when on a walk, or while on an airplane? At two am, you’re usually sleeping. On a walk, your mind is free of all the things at your desk. On an airplane, the restrictive environment means your phone is useless and often, so is your computer. Those environments have a lower cognitive load, and suddenly, your brain remembers things again.

Extra tasks competing for brain power create “rush hour traffic” for the brain. Driving a car full of kids in heavy, urban traffic is more mentally draining than driving them on the open road. The complexity of heavy traffic and urban roads make driving more challenging. Add a bunch of kids in the car and.. well, you’re probably all over what cognitive load means. Add darkness, rain, and fog. Each layer increases the cognitive load your brain must manage in order to drive.

New administrative and/or clerical work increase the total cognitive load for employees who do focus work, decreasing the importance of their “real work”. Are these admin tasks more important than the number one task any random team member is expected to complete that week? My guess is that they aren’t.

Lowering cognitive load via systems

Work that requires deep thought is sabotaged by interruptions. We “clump” meetings together in order to reduce interruptions and increase available focus time. We clean our office to reduce clutter – and thus visual “noise” / distractions. Unnecessary tasks, office clutter and interruptions all add to cognitive load.

People under high cognitive load don’t need darkness, fog, or rain (interruptions / clerical work) added to their “drive” (workload). While these tasks can’t always be eliminated, they can often be automated. If someone is making a phone call or checking a website multiple times per day to determine if an action should be taken, is there a way to automate that determination? If you have systems tracking various aspects of your business, is someone manually tabulating that info? Is there a way to automate that tabulation? What can you eliminate or reduce? What can you automate?

Photo of Atlas by Simon Cope

Discarding clients & the math of job security

How often are you discarding clients? When fussy, needy, and/or high-maintenance clients complain repeatedly, there’s significant temptation to simply toss them out with the garbage. Some business owners build “filters” into their marketing designed to repel such clients.

When an existing client provokes thoughts of “Life’s too short to deal with this“, who fires them? How is the decision reached? Is the process documented? How is the decision communicated to the client and to your team?

Hammers, nails & curmudgeons

I asked some friends how they describe people they’d fire as clients. Their responses included unreasonable, unrealistic, frustrated, afraid, disgruntled, troublesome, pedantic, rebarbative, cranky pants, curmudgeon, etc.

Are you teaching your team that getting rid of imperfect clients is the only acceptable solution? Owners know there are situations that don’t merit dropping a client. Owners discard clients based on their experience. Does your team have that experience to back up their decisions? Take care that your team doesn’t use this tactic like a hammer while seeing every complaining customer as a nail.

It’s essential to be careful using “You’re fired!” as too-frequent use can damage your reputation. Businesses learn to detect bad apples and few are surprised when these clients get fired. Taken too far, your business can get a reputation for arrogance. People will think you discard clients the first time there’s an objection or even a question. You don’t want your reputation to be “At the first hint of a problem or even a question, they tell people to leave and not come back.” Some prospects will hear that and decide not to show up.

The math of discarding clients

Discarding clients sometimes feels as easy as pulling a splinter. The pain and aggravation fades quickly, making you wonder why you ever tolerated them. Even so, every choice to discard a client impacts your bottom line. While getting rid of high-maintenance “time vampires” will probably improve your bottom line, you have to be careful not to let your team believe that’s the only solution available. That’s where the math kicks in.

If your team gets rid of one customer a month, what does that mean to your bottom line? You likely know the typical customer’s lifetime customer value (LCV). Owners usually know how often the typical customer buys from them. They also typically know how much customers spend on average per transaction. Combined with the rate at which you are adding new customers, you can determine what an improper “firing” costs you and how long it takes to recover from it.

Uninformed profitability math

Employees don’t usually know the financial impact of discarding clients. When you explain the financials of your business to your team, it helps them understand why you think the way you do. Tools like “The Great Game of Business” (start with the book) help employees understand how the business works financially (free resources) vs. how they think it works.

Learning how the business works from a financial perspective encourages employees think more like owners. It can alter “I’m working my tail off for $15 an hour while the owner gets rich.” to something closer to reality. Even if the owner IS getting rich due in part to the risks they took & the investments they made, “uninformed profitability math” isn’t healthy. This “uninformed profitability math” rarely create behaviors that are positive for the business.

Many employees have never had the opportunity to see how their work (and how they work) impacts company financials. Meanwhile, business owners regularly complain how their people don’t think like owners. Part of that thought process is understanding the financial impact of events that occur in the business each day. Knowing that what your work does for the bottom line carries substantial value.

A “We’re having a good (or bad) month” message to employees is rarely accompanied by data explaining why. Understanding what good and bad month means affects the security a team member feels about their job. This impacts their confidence in their ability to provide for their family – and certainly affects job performance and attitude.

What does “we’re having a good/bad month” mean at your business? What message does it send to your team?

Photo by Shinichi Haramizu

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

Where is the friction in your business?

What do you repeatedly force your clients to do that they simply shouldn’t have to do? Put another way, how does your business frustrate your clients? When dealing with your business, what drives them crazy?

What’s friction?

Can’t open the package without a Jedi sword? Can’t read your boarding pass printed in that microscopic font? Have to do this and this and this and that to buy or pickup a purchase, only to have to start over again? Can’t find out when something will be delivered? Have an appointment window that stretches from sunrise to sundown? Press one because your call is important to us and will be answered by the next available agent?

Yes, those kinds of things. They aren’t the sole domain of the cable company or that big company that’s easy to despise. Small businesses do these things as well, so we have to be vigilant and chase these things out of the building.

Sometimes these things are simple and inexpensive to fix, yet failing to address them creates a point of aggravation between you and your customers. These points of aggravation are often the tiniest of things. Like a grain of sand in your shoe, they could be the start of something much worse if allowed to fester.

Should it fester, you may lose a customer. Losing even one customer to one of these little things will transform that friction-creating “little thing” from inexpensive to very expensive. Remember, losing a customer usually isn’t losing a single sale – it’s losing all future sales from that customer. Friction is expensive.

How do I find these aggravating things?

Ask.

But what to ask? No matter who you’re talking to, poke around in their experiences with you regarding installation, deployment, service, customization, billing, paperwork, repairs, upgrades, financing, returns, shipping, etc. Ask questions about these things using different terms. Repeat yourself until you get the details you need. Using different terms in your questions will provoke different reactions and prod different memories from your customers.

Ask your best customers.

They’re the ones you’d hate to lose. The ones you know by name when they walk in the door. The ones whose names are familiar to your bookkeeper – and not because they don’t pay their bills. They’ll tell you different things than your newest customers, but that’s OK. There isn’t one frustration that fits everyone. Your business has many components. If you sell a number of products and services, you’ll need to ask the best customers of each. You’ll likely get different answers for each product and service.

Ask your newest customers.

Because everything is new, they’re quite likely to be more sensitive to oddities and more observant about every little thing your company does. Listen carefully to these folks. They may mention things that you’re vested in. You might get defensive. Fight that urge. There may be a perfectly valid reason for doing whatever it is. Brainstorm with the customer how you could accomplish this result in some other way.

Ask lost customers.

Did you lose a customer to another vendor? Give them a call, or see if they’ll set a time to visit in person. Make sure they understand that you aren’t there to sell them, but instead, you want to know what went wrong. What could you have done better? How did you frustrate or annoy them? This lost customer probably isn’t alone. Follow up with them once you’ve addressed the things they mentioned. A handwritten card thanking them and briefly describing what you’ve done to correct these things will both thank them and tempt them.

Preventing the growth of friction

Bear in mind that these things aren’t often created intentionally. Most of the time, “they just happen” and we miss them long enough that they become systemic. Once they become systemic, they seem normal and we have to battle a little harder to identify and evict them from how we do things.

Create a culture of ownership for finding and fixing these things. When your team has the permission to fix these things on the spot and bring the situation to your next process improvement discussion (ie: lunch), fixes don’t have to wait. Set boundaries as needed, but be careful to encourage improvement without waiting for seven signatures and a wax seal.

Photo by theilr

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

“Sink or Swim” is not training

Pentagon Secretary Rumsfeld once said “…you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” He wasn’t referring to the Army personnel, or to their level of training, but to the number of Humvees that were not armored and therefore prepared for Iraq-style guerrilla warfare, IEDs, etc.

While you don’t need armored equipment for your team, they do still need to be prepared to succeed in their roles. Failing that, they will show up and do their best. Rumsfeld’s troops may have lacked the amount of armored equipment, but they didn’t lack training.

That is one of the primary differences between the military and business: Businesses often fail to invest sufficiently in training. It doesn’t matter if they are new to the business or experienced. Your team needs training and equipment. A lack of training might prevent reasonably effective use of the equipment you provide.

Sink or swim isn’t training

Employees are sometimes expected prove their worth via “sink or swim”. They’re expected to get started and become effective and valuable on their own. Failing to do so is “sinking”, and may result in the loss of that person’s job. When the employee is new, and the skill require is sales, sink or swim is usually little more than setting up the employee for failure.

I’ve seen this touted as a means of “separating the men from the boys“, so to speak. The euphemism is about identifying who is ready and able to produce results, but the reality is more nuanced than that. When you put an untrained or poorly trained sales employee on the floor, on the lot, or wherever they work with prospective customers, never forget this: They’re dealing with prospects.

At your car lot or furniture store, you know the business. If 100 people walk in on a Saturday, you can probably tell me within a small margin of error how many are “just looking” and how many are ready to buy. Likewise, you probably can tell me how many of that 100 you’ll likely sell that day. How many of those prospects are you willing to give to someone else because an untrained salesperson loses them? First impressions are everything. If your team is ineffective when the prospect makes that first visit to the showroom, lot or office, you probably know the likelihood that they will return.

Sink or swim undermines a new (or inexperienced) employee’s confidence, which will certainly be reflected in their performance and interaction with every prospect and client. Worse yet, your prospect may leave and never return because they had an ineffective, unproductive experience with someone who simply wasn’t trained well enough to provide for their needs.

Think of the most valuable customer you have. The one who buys furniture every 10 years for their 50 employee office. Or the one with a fleet of pickups for their on-site service people. How would you feel if you found out your new salesperson was sinking when they met the person who would have been your next “most valuable customer”?

Training isn’t fluff. You can tie real dollars to it.

Got the basics?

They’re called “The basics” because everyone should know them. Don’t assume everyone knows them. Train the basics. Vince Lombardi started a championship run by saying “This is a football” to a roomful of experienced pro football players. Take nothing for granted.

As I visit businesses with the intent of making a purchase, I routinely encounter salespeople who exhibit behavior that leaves the impression that they are untrained, or perhaps under-trained. Some are young and perhaps inexperienced, yet some are not as young and not as inexperienced.

Commissioned salespeople walk around without business cards, don’t know their product as well as the prospect, don’t attend to new arrivals “in the sales arena”, etc. At some level, these problems are the salesperson’s responsibility, yet new and under-trained salespeople don’t often realize they are under-trained. They can lose a great prospect who “appears indecisive”, but in reality is annoyed. Ultimately, these issues are on management. Management decides who gets trained, when, and for what skills.

Good salespeople deliver value. I visited a Michael’s Saturday to get a frame re-glassed. The employee in framing told me exactly what would happen, when it would happen, what else I could expect, and the guaranteed service window. This was not a big ticket purchase – yet this person was obviously well trained in what to communicate to me. I’ll go back because that guy made a routine purchase memorable. Isn’t that what you want?

Photo by Jay Phagan

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

Paradise by the dashboard light

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

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

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

What info belongs on a dashboard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dashboards don’t have to be difficult

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

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

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

Getting fancy with dashboards

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

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

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

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

Photo by Paul Jerry