Brainstorming your 2017 Business Roadmap

It’s a hair after five am on January 2nd. 2017 is barely underway. Have you started working through the first task on the detailed 2017 business roadmap that you painstakingly carved out last month? I’m referring to your checklist of all the things you want to get done to grow and improve your business this year. I suspect that list includes a number of tasks that execute on the strategies you worked out to improve your finances, marketing, sales process, and customer service – all while edging your way into adjacent markets, right? If that’s you, I hope you stay the course, crank through your roadmap and make some great things happen.

If that isn’t you and you’re beginning to consider what aspects of your business need your focus for 2017, maybe this 2017 business roadmap brainstorming discussion will help.

What’s your business roadmap expected to accomplish?

Without knowing your specific business, it’s tough to focus on the exact challenges you’re facing. So what do we do?

Experience tells me that you likely have one or more of these four things on your todo list for 2017:

  • Increase sales.
  • Reduce expenses.
  • Improve profitability.
  • Improve quality

While those are all good things to accomplish, let me first suggest that you nail down exactly what you want to accomplish with this list.

What does “Increase sales” mean to you? Does it mean double or 10x your sales? Does it mean sell one more car a day? Does it mean that each salesperson will sell $1000 more a week?

Until you decide what “increase sales” means, it’s going to be pretty hard to hit that goal. The same goes for each of these targets. Once you’ve decided, then there’s more drill down to plan each project that moves you to these goals.

You may tire of this process, but it’s exactly what you need if you’re looking at a 2017 goals list that looks like the four item list above. You need to know how far (and where) you want to go and what is involved in producing with the increase you’re striving for. Not advisable: Wandering off in a goal’s general direction and hoping you’ll get there.

What’s hiding inside “Increase sales”?

As an example, the first item can and should be broken out into multiple goals even if each one of them isn’t applicable to your intent to triple sales:

  • Get new customers. (What kind of customers? From what lead sources?)
  • Keep more existing customers.
  • Sell more to existing customers (selling more frequently, selling more expensive things, or both.)
  • Find new products to sell to your customers. (things that make sense in the context of your relationship)
  • Find new services to sell to your customers. (ditto above)

These can be broken down as well. Drill down until each goal’s first step is obvious. You’ll have to delegate. Delegation won’t go well without specifics.

Now you have a bit of a template for breaking down annual goals so that you can start executing.

What’s involved in tripling sales?

Let’s say you sold $340,000 last year and you want to triple sales this year. A 300% increase is a tall order, but it isn’t impossible. The big question is “What makes this possible?”, because the effort is in the details.

If I ask for explicit details on what you need to do, you need to know what it’s going to take because there are resources that must be invested to make that kind of growth happen.

Let’s say you have two sales people and each of them sold $170,000. To hit $1.2 million, you’re either going to have to hire four additional sales people capable of selling $170k a year, or have your existing sales people work *at least* four times as hard, or some combination thereof.

But that’s not all.

Four more sales people will need four times the leads. Customer support will be affected by a 300% increase in sales, as will delivery, storage, accounting, supplies (and suppliers) and finances.

You need to think about exactly what it’s going to take, map it out and then start implementing your plans. Then you get to repeat the process for each goal.

Running off the roadmap

What if you miss a month? Or a quarter? How does that affect your execution of the impacted areas (service, delivery, etc)? Have a plan B figured out in advance so that you don’t have to figure out plan B while plan B is being executed. Last minute, panic or fear-driven planning seldom works out well. Think about contingencies for each aspect of your plan that has risk of failure. Communicate early and often if it happens.

Focus alone isn’t enough.

If you’re a frequent reader on business improvement, you’ll undoubtedly read something that encourages you to focus. Focus on one niche. Stop multi-tasking and focus. Worry about the numbers – they should be your focus. Focus on the customer or on your employees, or on <insert list of more focus items here>.

OK, so what should I focus on?

Focus alone isn’t enough. You can’t really give the proper amount of dedicated attention to 37 different things. You’re going to have to figure out what YOUR list is and either delegate, skip or outsource the rest. Otherwise, nothing will get the attention it deserves and all aspects of your business are likely to suffer.

In the early days, this is toughest because it might just be you and no one else. So what drives your decision to let something slide a little, be it a day, a week or “forever”?

The long term.

It depends on your long term goals, but most of the small business owners I talk with tend to be 50+. As a result, they are seeing retirement a decade or two out. In most cases, they’re at cruising altitude with their business and have left behind the years of struggle and work to keep it open, then make it profitable and so on. They’re focused on maximizing the value of the business in the time that remains before they decide to sell.

The best have focused on building that company from the outset. “What do I focus on when it’s just me?” was answered for them years ago. Notwithstanding the random short term challenges that we all face now and then, their answer is “What can I do that is most important for my clients while growing the value of my company over the long term?”

The upside is that for a small business, it focuses you on the things that should get and keep your attention even if your plans to sell are 30 to 40 years away.

So your eyes are riveted on the buyout?

Yes, even if it’s decades away.

Building for a buyout is much different for a small company than for one on Wall Street. A privately-held company can focus on becoming more attractive to a buyer via predictable, consistent positive cash flow and profitability – with no stock price to lose sleep over. These things come over the long term through obvious accomplishments that most small businesses strive for: solid products and services, repeat business, great customer care, etc.

Obvious, right? The things that make a company profitable to the owner will eventually be the things that make it attractive to purchase. Part of that attraction is eliminating as much risk as possible from the buyer’s purchase. I don’t mean guaranteeing revenue or profits. I mean by selling a company that is inherently low risk due to the way it operates.

For example, you can reduce risk and build value by building quality, value-packed products, services and systems that produce dependable recurring revenue. You can reduce risk and build value by providing great customer care. Those loyal customers produce recurring sales and provide referrals that lead to new clients. You’ve reduced risk by structuring your company to survive the day you get hit by a bus. The same strategies will protect the company if you decide on short notice to fish Alaska for six months.

Do you feel your business is ready to sell?

When you sell a house, there’s that list of projects you have to get done in order to make it easier to sell. Once you finish the projects that seem essential to selling your home, seller’s remorse sets in a little bit. You wish you had made those improvements years before so that you could have enjoyed them. You enjoy the home a little more in your final days there – in part because of the changes you put off for months or years for whatever reason.

A business often has the same list. They make the business some combination of less risky, easier to run, more profitable, and/or less hassle. Over time, the value of these projects pay for themselves and make the company more attractive to the right buyer.

Making the company more attractive to the right buyer takes a long term view. You and your team will benefit in the meantime.

Would a succession plan save your business?

What happens the day after you’re gone or incapacitated? Do you have a succession plan in place for your business?

While I suspect that most business owners have taken care of the family side of things – i.e., they have a will and/or a trust, etc. Has the business been taken care of?

We’ve talked in the past about how few businesses survive a fire, mostly because they haven’t taken care of the contingency planning necessary to continue operations when the business’ physical facilities have been destroyed.

A succession plan is different from a contingency plan. It provides a plan so that the business survives the death or incapacitation of the hands-on owner-manager, or even hands off owner in a family-owned business.

What happens tomorrow?

Going back to the contingency plan for physical business damage, look back at the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. Despite the destruction of their facility and the loss of all but one employee on site that day, the credit union was open for business the very next day by virtue of off-site employees and redundant systems.

This required the foresight to discuss and put together a plan, which included off-site backups, training for all involved and an execution plan.

Whether or not you are ready for a physical disaster at your business, the likelihood of tragedy striking the owner is just as important – perhaps more important.

An important question starts the conversation: Do you care if the business outlives you if the worst happens? If you don’t, this seems like something your family, clients and employees should know – though I’m not sure you’d tell them if you feel that way.

If you want the business to outlive you, you have to confront that situation and discuss it with your team and your family. Who takes charge? If you don’t lay this out in advance and have agreement with your family, your death could set in motion a struggle that could destroy the company despite your wishes.

Who takes on your day to day responsibilities? It’s likely that more than one person will have to do so, depending on your role. It needs to be discussed with your executive team and documented for your family, whether they will be hands on or not. Think of it as a living will for your business.

How will things work in the first day, week, month, quarter?

Is there a documented, step-by-step checklist to get critical, keep-things-running work done? Who knows what to do? How do they know? How does everyone know that they (one person or several) have the authority to act?

Oh, they just know” isn’t the answer you want. If you don’t believe me, call your senior people into your office and tell them you are leaving for a 90 day sabbatical in the morning and you will be unavailable by phone or email. Ask them who will run things while you’re gone. Who will be responsible for x, y and z? What duties are they unaware of or untrained for?

Are you comfortable with their answers? Are they?

Can you…

  • Make payroll?
  • File payroll taxes?
  • Deal with property taxes and the state?
  • Pay bills?
  • Get the mail?
  • Write a check?
  • Deposit receipts?
  • Access online payments and transfer them to a bank account?
  • Access your bank accounts and line(s) of credit, if any?

Who pays the power bill that’s due three days after your death or permanent incapacitation? If you’re the only one who can sign a check, how does that work when your picture is in the paper the next day and your vendors (and your bank) keep seeing checks with your name signed on them? Sure, much of this is electronic, but there will be scrutiny on the accounts. What happens if the bank freezes your accounts?

Who takes care of things like that in the short term if you are temporarily incapacitated? Even if unhurt, but simply lost in the woods on a hunting trip for a week, the inability to sign a check or access your business accounts could create a problem.

Smaller things have derailed companies, or killed them, given the wrong timing.

But I don’t trust anyone with that stuff!

If so, you have work to do. Your attorney, accountant and banker can help, but if you still don’t trust anyone, that’s a fundamental problem to tackle. A business with no trusted senior employees is in a really bad spot. I understand that “trusted” doesn’t necessarily mean “trusted with the checkbook”, but you still need a solution if you care about the post-you business.

Are you communicating company goals?

The natural thought process for small business owners at this time of year is often about goals, i.e.: “How can we do better next year?”

Before you can answer that, you need to decide what “do better” means. What’s your process for thinking that through? If you decide it’s about increasing a high level focus item like profit (rather important), you’re going to have to break it down so you can focus on the actions that produce the increase you’re looking for.

Departmental goals matter too

Once you’ve settled on an area to improve, don’t limit improvement ideas solely to your focus. If you have a staff, you have to get them involved. If you’re big enough to have multiple departments, you have to get them involved. Get them together and take them through the process you went through. For each department or area of the company, what data should they review? For each department or area of the company, what else needs review and discussion? What do they think they can improve upon this year that will have the most significant impact on their area’s quality and speed? Each department needs to understand how achieving their goals will contribute to other departmental goals, and vice-versa. Finally, all departments or areas of the company need to understand how their area’s goals contribute directly to company-wide goals.

Communicate company-wide goals

Most business owners are pretty good at breaking down the achievements required to reach their goals, but a common misstep is to overlook the communication required to make sure that the owner’s company-wide goals have “Why does this matter to me?” context at all levels of the company, for every employee.

This is a critical step for several reasons, most of which are connected to the need to provide employees with context to the company’s goal(s). When discussing the context of the goals with your team, answer these questions from the employee’s perspective: Why should I care? How can a brand-new employee contribute to such a high-level goal? How can an employee who feels their work is “menial” possibly believe their effort is critical enough that it rolls up into the company’s goals? What do I need to hear about my work to make this company goal important? (If they don’t know these things, they won’t likely be bought in to company goals.) My low-level work seems unimportant, so why does this matter to anyone? I watch the clock all day, how could my work be of importance to the company?

Each person, regardless of what they do, needs to understand how their work contributes to the company’s goal(s). They also need to understand what their department’s goals are. They need to be reminded that the most “menial”, seemingly “low level” task is important because that work is often where the company has significant contact with the customer. If they don’t truly understand the importance of what they do – their leader needs to step in and help.

Obvious, but often overlooked

You might be thinking this is all so obvious, but in small, closely-held companies, these things are not commonly communicated, or are not explained to a level that makes them resonant with the staff. If your company goals don’t resonate with the staff, they really aren’t company goals at all. The same goes for departmental goals, which can produce silo’d behavior that leaves people with the impression that the performance of one group or even one person is not all that meaningful to the rest of the company, when the truth is that all of these pieces working in sync are critical to making the entire company’s goals.

Things to consider

What are the three most valuable pieces of information you learned about your clients this year? Of those three, which demand that you leverage them with into the new year? Is any one of them such a competitive advantage?

What is an area of strength in each department that can be leveraged for the entire company? Is this a strength limited to that department, or can that department teach the rest of the company how to gain from it?

When you sit down to look at these things and discuss them, be sure that you’re thinking about and discussing the data, rather than going on gut feel. It’s way too tempting to do this by the seat of the pants, but don’t do it.

Is your New Year planning done?

New Year planning for your business is often a mechanical process involving adding x% to various budgets and reducing others or leaving them the same. While financial planning is important, be sure to invest some time at a deeper level so that next year isn’t simply a repeat of this year with a different calendar.

Even if this year has been your best year to date, there’s always room for improvement. In fact, the year after your best year often requires even more focused effort to maintain your current pace. On the other hand, if this year wasn’t so great or was “simply OK”, then these discussions will be in context to turn things around.

Here are some questions to consider for your New Year planning…

Strength Training and Leverage

Who isn’t getting the training they need? What parts of the company would likely produce improved performance after receiving additional training to leverage their strengths? What sort of training is required? For whom? This review should involve everyone in every department, from the owner to the newest employee.

While training can go a long way toward dealing with strengths that need reinforcement, the real solution is often found by delegating certain work to other people. Fighting someone’s weaknesses is usually a waste of time, talent and money. Can they be overcome? Perhaps. Is it worth it? It depends on experience and whether or not the questioned work is the person’s real gift.

You might be tempted to think “They run the cash register. How is that a gift?

The register isn’t the point. The people at your register, at your receptionist desk, on your support lines, taking inbound calls… they’re the people who make the first impression at your company. They’re great at public facing work, or they aren’t. Some will grow into it. Some never will, but may excel at other things. In the meantime, every new prospect and client interacts with these folks. Wouldn’t you prefer they interacted with someone who rocks that register, receptionist desk, or inbound call?

Ever had a great experience at a hardware store cash register? Ever had a bad one? Ever called in or met a receptionist who was a company’s best asset or worst first impression? How are these things going at your place?

Assess Leadership

Over the last year, you can probably name the high and low points from a leadership perspective. This includes owners, managers and team members. Last week I talked about the comfort you feel when you know someone has your back. A good bit of this is driven by leadership and example setting.

For every leader on your team, consider what would help them grow as a leader in the coming year. What can you do to help? What about everyone else? Have you and your managers taken the time to identify staffers who show potential as leaders? What process will be used to do that?

If you’re a team member and you want to lead, two things: Continue leading by example and be sure to let your manager know that you want help becoming a better leader. Assuming they can read your mind isn’t a great plan for your future.

Communication

As with leadership, you can probably identify the highs and lows communications-wise over the last year, both with your clientele and your team. What’s your plan to learn from them, train based on what you learned, reproduce the wins and address the less than ideal?

Is there anyone on your team who needs communications training? Do you cringe when you read emails from some people? Does anyone on your team struggle to get their point across verbally? What can you do as an owner to help them?

If you’re the one having difficulty communicating, who can you ask for help / suggestions? Again, don’t assume anyone will come to your rescue. Take initiative. The ability to communicate effectively is a big differentiator for you and your company.

New Year planning and individual goals

All of the things we’ve discussed above relate to individual goals. Either you want to improve or you want your direct reports to improve, or both. What have you done to communicate the company’s goals for the coming year? What about your departments? What about your personal ones?

It’s time to have these conversations.

Strategic notepad: Small Business Saturday

The Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday rushes are over. If things are going as planned, your sales are on target with no signs of missing your revenue budget for the holiday season. Unless things are going poorly, you might not have started thinking about what you’ll do differently next year – yet now is the perfect time to plant the seeds for those changes.

Why am I asking this moments after the Black Friday / Small Business Saturday / Cyber Monday trifecta? Because the wounds from the sting of procrastination, “didn’t have time to get it all done”, and “shoulda / woulda / coulda” you suffered through the last few days are still sensitive. While the tenderness remains, and the rushes are behind you, it’s time to take a brief moment to reflect on what you learned the last few days, and continue to make note of what you notice over the next few weeks. How long is brief? Long enough to make a note. This doesn’t need to be an afternoon of deep thought.

In the heat of these rushes, did you notice things you’d forgotten to do, prepare for or setup prior to Thanksgiving? Did you notice things that weren’t organized or communicated as well as you would have liked? Did you notice things that could be improved? Write it down.

Simple examples: Did your business run out of coffee, shopping bags, change, receipt paper or rewards plan signup materials? Were all of your shifts covered with enough people, but not too many? Did you have enough inventory on special items? Were shelves restocked/pulled enough? Did a certain group of customers not show up? Did you have the new client traffic you expected? Write it down.

Planning and backdating for Small Business Saturday

You probably have a list that helps you keep things sane for November / December, and that list probably includes tasks that have to be performed months earlier. Are these items already on your calendar with perpetual reminders? Are they backdated to build in sufficient time for completion? Are their prerequisite tasks given sufficient lead time to avoid cascading deadline failure?

For example, to get a mailing / email / Facebook promo (better yet, all three) out prior to Thanksgiving weekend, your marketing calendar needs tasks for promotion planning, email sequence planning, ad / email copywriting, artwork creation, printing, etc. You can’t wait till November 1st to start. If it didn’t happen this year, build it into next year’s calendar so it DOES happen. Write it down.

Write it down now, consider and plan later

While the memory of your “How did we miss / forget that?” moments are fresh, take a moment to make some notes so that when you have some solitude / planning time, you don’t forget the little things you noticed as the rushes occurred. Put a pad next to each register, next to the phone, next to the coffee pot, next to the back door, next to where you keep today’s mail.

Notepads in all of these places allow you and your team to jot down something in the heat of the moment while “that thing” is fresh in your mind. Take a moment at the end of the day to consolidate (and date) the notes for the day. If there’s anything you can take immediate action on, get that done ASAP and review the rest later.

It’s critical that you go back over what went well and can be improved, as well as what didn’t go so well. Don’t wait until you finally relax for a few minutes after January’s inventory and try to remember the little things that happened weeks earlier. You won’t remember them and that will likely mean you’ll encounter them again next year. Keep these notes and your calendar for 2016 updated with the things you notice every day for the next 5-6 weeks.

Include your staff in Small Business Saturday planning

Encourage and remind your staff to write these notes and initial them so they can provide more details when time permits. They probably see different things than you do, and often from a different perspective. Their feedback will likely have a more direct impact on your clients’ experience as well as the ability of your staff to deliver to the best of their ability.

Take advantage of the lessons, gotchas, highs and lows. Write them down.

Planning for a strategic trade show

Last week, we discussed why you shouldn’t skip a trade show. During that conversation, I mentioned that you need to work trade shows strategically and with a plan.

This week, I’d like to elaborate on what that means. In order to do that, let’s break down what happens at a trade show.

Who attends a trade show?

First, let’s consider who goes to a trade show, as that’s a critical piece in planning what you do.

Attendees break down into two or three groups. You’ll have up and comers and newbies to the business of all ages. You’ll also have industry veterans – people “everyone” knows. They may have worked for several vendors and/or market leaders in the industry.

The industry veterans may have created groundbreaking new products, processes or services in your industry. Some of them will be so knowledgeable and so well-networked that they are not only the go to person for anyone who needs an answer, but they’re also right person to offer the backstory on that answer and can give you a list of the subject matter experts who know even more about that particular topic than they do.

These attendees will work at your clients, competitors, partners and prospects. Your trade show strategy needs to consider how your pre-show and post-show marketing communicates with each of these attendee subgroups. Your products and services are often targeted at different expertise levels, sophistication levels, experience and/or business sizes. Your booth’s message and the overall presence you have at the show needs to be crystal clear about communicating in a way that provokes attendees to think to themselves, “Those are exactly the people I need to work with.

Smart attendees come to the show with a plan. They want to meet certain vendors, find certain products, investigate certain services and renew their relationships with existing vendors. Think about how you can help an attendee get the most out of the show. How you do that may differ for clients vs. prospects.

Partners and competitors

Shows give you a unique opportunity to meet partners, improve your network, discuss plans and check up on competitors. Don’t be shy about introducing yourself to the people in your competition’s booth and be pleasant about it. You never know what a conversation will lead to. Even the largest industries boil down to a network of influencers who set the tone and make things happen. You want to know who those people are and you want them to know of you, particularly if you intend to be one of them.

Their booth and overall presence at the show will say a lot of how they’re doing, what they intend to get out of the show and how important the show’s audience is to their business. Study what they’re doing – and what they’re not doing. You might get ideas (or not), but knowing what they’re doing will help you understand what this show means to them.

Email and the phone are great when you have no choice, but face to face discussions with potential and existing partners can be far more productive means of communicating, while building and strengthening the relationships that great partnerships require. Take advantage of the brief face time you have with them.

Run up and follow up

One of the biggest differences between companies that leverage their appearance at a trade show and those who don’t is what they do before and after the show.

Today’s shows either seem to be growing or shrinking. How will they find you? How will they recognize your booth from the other end of the aisle? Why should they make the effort to attend a shrinking, but still-important show? What important client-only events should they attend?

Your communications prior to the show should help them not only be a better attendee, but also help them learn and plan how to make the most of the resources your business will be offering at the show.

Will your experts be there? Trying to get some private time in a busy booth to discuss a client’s not-so-public projects doesn’t work too well. Give them time to set appointments in advance in non show floor time where possible.

We’ve only scraped the surface of what you need to think about when planning a strategic trade show appearance, but this is where you start.

Reinvigorate your business on a budget

While I suspect you’ve already done your strategic business planning for 2015, you might still be wondering what else you could do to “turn the knob” on all or part of your business.

It’s a natural thought process at this time of year. In the words of Saturday Night Live… you think your business needs more cowbell.

Here’s a checklist of baby steps you can take that will help you reinvigorate your business without spending a ton of money.

Marketing

The best way to not spend a ton of money on marketing is to track the response you get. You can do this with tools ranging from a yellow pad and a pen, to a spreadsheet, to sophisticated software. The key isn’t the tool you’ve chosen as much as it is that you actually track response and make future marketing decisions based on what those responses tell you.

For example, if you advertise on the radio, on cable TV, in a newspaper, email, web advertising and via direct mail, you need to be able to tell which of those are making the phone ring AND making sales happen. It may not be one of them, it might be all of them or a subset of them.

You need to know which media work for you and which don’t. It doesn’t matter if one works for someone else if it doesn’t work for you.

Likewise, sales copy that works on the radio may not work on one or more of those other media.

You need to know which campaigns work on which media.

Ultimately, you need to know what works so you can stop spending money on what doesn’t.

Accounting

Do whatever it takes to make this as easy as possible. Without a clear view into your numbers, you might be making decisions that are taking your business in the wrong direction.

If this means getting help, find a way – even if you have to use temporary help or an online service. If it means changing the tools you use, do it.

Even though accounting is not particularly sexy or fun, it’s the only scoreboard you have.

Sales

Close the sales prevention department.

The “sales prevention department” includes all of those things that make prospects shrug their shoulders and walk away.

Among other things, it’s the sign that they can’t read, the phone that wasn’t answered, the salesperson who didn’t attend to them, the cashier who barely looked up from the register except to look at their phone, the website they can’t use to do business with you, the process that made buying not worth the trouble, and the inane, repetitious paperwork that wore them out before they could give you their money.

Customer service

If your customers bought something in the last 90 days, have you followed up with them simply to check that their purchase did what they wanted? What if it didn’t? What did they do? Was your staff of any help?

Follow up.

Back office and Infrastructure

What costs your business time and money every day? If you asked each staff member what would help them do their work more effectively and efficiently, what would they say?

Ask them. You might learn something.

Cover your assets

If you can’t find instructions that would help someone restore your data if computers were stolen or burned up, your business is at risk. What are you going to do about it?

Do you care if your business outlives you? If you do, ask yourself this: “What would happen to my business over the next month or so if I died in a terrible accident today?

Communications

Can you reach all of your customers with a message personalized to them?

Can you reach all of your customers without placing an ad on TV, radio and in the newspaper?

In both situations above, can you do so by the end of the day today? How about the end of next week?

Website

I could discuss this topic in great detail and suggest lots of changes, but remember, we’re talking about reinvigorating your business website on the cheap.

Does your site have your phone number on it? Does it have a map on it? Does it have your physical address on it, where appropriate? Little, easy to forget things make all the difference.

 

 

Pricing custom work well is a strategic advantage

How good is your business at pricing custom work?

If you don’t have a way of pricing custom work that consistently accounts for your costs and labor, how do you know if you’re making any profit on these deals? How would it feel to find that you’re losing money on half your custom work?

Do you have a spreadsheet or software program to help? If not, do you have some other formulaic means of pricing work?

If you read the May 12 New York Times “You’re The Boss” piece by the owner of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers, you’ll learn that these guys are fortunate enough to have a formulaic method to determine the price of a custom item.

That they have this formula puts them ahead of most businesses that do custom work. However, the trouble starts when they discuss what’s going on behind the scenes as there are a number of things going on that conspire to cause problems when reality and the pricing formula meet on the shop floor.

The failure points

Downs mentions that the spreadsheet’s material prices haven’t been updated in over 6 years, that material use and overages are not tracked, that tool use and labor methods have changed and that the info in the spreadsheet is sometimes entered wrong and fails to match the reality of the work actually being done.

As you read about all the possible failure points of this spreadsheet and how they’ve allowed it to become outdated and stale compared to their business reality, you can’t help but wonder how they got to that point.

Here’s the thing… this type of situation is pretty common.

Our tendency to think we’re too busy to address these critical, but tiny (at the time) maintenance issues has a way of giving us permission to postpone giving them attention. We think we’ll take care of them someday since some other thing seems more important right now.

It doesn’t seem to work that way, despite the best of intentions.

What usually happens is that the business lets these little things get out of sync an hour at a time, a day at a time, a week at a time and so on until we find that our internal systems look like they were designed to run some other business (or none at all).

At some point, things will have crept so far out of line that you’ll have no choice (like Downs) but to address them. Not only has the job you face become massive, your strategic advantage of having accurate, formula-driven custom pricing will have become the exact opposite.

Why does it matter?

The trouble with getting your business into this situation is that it severely damages your ability to see trends, know if you have enough (or too much) raw material or labor to deliver upon your work commitments.

If you’re already stuck, you have to consider the cost of continuing with a broken pricing model, assuming you have one.

If you aren’t sure you’re turning a profit on custom work – the showpiece work of your business – this merits immediate attention.

This is your best work. It’s the work that generates the reputation that earns your bread and butter work. It’s the work that you use to get your best, most profitable clients.

And yet you aren’t sure exactly how much profit you make on it?

If a close friend was in that situation, you know how you’d react. You’d go out of your way to make the situation clear to them, helping them if possible.

Why not do the same for yourself?

Should this take six months?

No, it shouldn’t. While Downs says his expert worked on this for six months, I suspect what he really means is that it took six months from start to finish – not that his expert worked on it eight hours a day, five days a week for six months.

The important thing to remember is that this doesn’t have to be perfect the first time.

Start with the highest impact item you can wrap your head around. and implement it. Tweak and add pricing components one at a time to improve accuracy.

This allows you to see results and adjust for accuracy and additional information without allowing any single change to be so complex that you have no way to assess its worth, much less its accuracy.

Get to work!

Choose your market or craft it?

Sometimes you choose your market, and sometimes it chooses you. Today, we get a little of both.

A discussion with some software business owners prompted this piece, but you should stick around even if you aren’t in the software business – because these problems are universal no matter what business you’re in.

During these discussions, there was a lot of talk about cheap clients.

The discussion started with the group lamenting that their clients are constantly falling back on their lack of a budget as the reason they can’t do things.

The comments started like this:

  • “Our clients say they have no money for tech support.”
  • “Our clients say they have no money for newer hardware, so their 10 year old XP machines will have to do.”
  • Our clients don’t have (this and that).
  • Our clients can’t do (this or that).

The conversation continued for a bit, discussing the kinds of things you’d prefer to avoid when seeking clients.

Thing is, many small businesses are in a position where they can’t avoid clients like this, at least not when they’re small and getting starting.

No matter what market you’re in, you have clients and prospects that have these issues – or say they do. For many business owners, it’s pretty frustrating.

Dump ’em?

Normally, I would counsel you to find a way to sort these guys out from the rest. Actually, I’d still suggest that to a fair number of my clients, but not everyone is in a position to fire a bunch of customers.

Even if you are in a position to shed those customers, you need to be selective about how to do it and even then, do so carefully and kindly.

Why selective? Because a sizable handful of those customers will figure it out, get out of bootstrapping mode and become the best clients you’ve ever had. Your job is figuring out which ones are the keepers. We talk about that fairly often.

What we don’t often discuss is what to do if you’re the one who has to keep most (if not all) of these customers – and what to do about it.

By force or by choice

What happens if you decide to (or must) work with them regardless of their situation?  Not everyone can get out of this situation easily.

Perhaps you manage part of (or work in) a business that this kind of client and you have no control over the situation.

If you own the business, perhaps it’s a situation you’ve unintentionally created over the long haul and it’s either hitting you square in the forehead and wallet simultaneously that it’s an expensive situation, or you’ve known about it all along and are now managing to come up for air long enough to take some action to deal with it.

Either way, it needs to be addressed.

Long time readers would probably guess that my plan “A” would be to execute my time-hardened battle plan to help you help them transform from mere customers to good clients. I don’t say “mere customers” lightly. It isn’t a meaningless smear, as there is a serious difference between mere customers and good clients.

Thing is, plan A has two benefits: While it’ll help some of them become the clients you want, it’ll also tell you who the doers are.

Even if they aren’t good at some (many?) of the things you put in front of them, the doers will try almost everything. Keep them around unless they drive you absolutely crazy. I mean visit your house at 11pm on a Sunday night kind-of-crazy.

Why? Because those are the guys who won’t quit trying. You need clients like that and they need you.

What about the rest?

The doers will listen and execute based on what you tell them. Many of them will get it and grow into the kind of client you wanted in the first place.

The rest? Well, those are the ones that you can part with once you’ve done your transformation work on the rest…unless you just can’t let them go.

If you can’t, then ponder what you’re willing to do about it. They consume time, effort and money that might be better leveraged on other projects. Can you help them? Do you have time to help them? Will they listen if you offer help? (Their effort on Plan A teaches that).

Give them a chance, then make a decision.