Categories
Customer service Leadership Management

When obvious is invisible

Have you ever had an interaction with a vendor that you don’t understand? As in, “How could they be this clueless?” I had one of these conversations lately, and suspect I’ve been the subject of them as well.

Missing the obvious

A few weeks ago, a nice lady asked us if we would stop sending mail to her deceased husband. His account already showed “retired/deceased”. This was odd, since we’d not sent direct mail to anyone in over a year. We wondered if a recent email reminded her of a mail piece from that period. We send automated reminder emails when something’s about to expire. Since we filter retired and deceased people out before sending reminders, we wondered if we had a bug.

She didn’t call for no reason, so we started digging. We guessed someone had used an export from our customer system to create a mailing – and used the wrong export. One of our exports is for generic use. Mail / email work shouldn’t use that export, yet it happened.

Exports designed for that use automatically exclude people marked as retired or deceased. They’re not going to buy anything and they don’t want us to bug them. This intent wasn’t enough to avoid the problem.

Since a generic export is useful at times, we took a more assertive step. After the change, address info moves to a non-exportable location when this situation occurs. Ideally, this change allows us avoid this type of problem in the future – without deleting the info permanently.

I then asked the business office to reprocess everyone marked as deceased or retired. So we got that cleaned up and feel comfortable it won’t happen again.

You might be thinking this situation doesn’t apply to your business. It’s possible. It’s also possible you have a different flavor of the same problem.
For example, consider companies that do home improvement. They re-roof homes, (re)carpet them, or replace old carpet with hardwood floors. Do these companies send offers to addresses known to be rental property? Apartments, for example. Wasteful. Annoying. Obvious.

What you don’t ask

Last week, a group of long term customers (25+ years) were discussing a product from a vendor common to them. They were wondering aloud about fundamental aspects of the vendor’s product. The vendor has never documented or explained them, despite requests for that info.

As the discussion ended, I asked a rhetorical question. “How many of us have customers who are as confused about our products as we are about (vendor’s)?”

No one answered. We all knew the answer wasn’t one we’d like. Even so, what could have become a complaint session morphed into a valuable question.

Asking ourselves what’s right in front of us that we’re not seeing.

Wondering what our customers don’t understand about our company and our product. The reason is obvious. We’re too close to understand what we’re putting our customers through.

Question their obvious

I’ve listed some suggested questions at the end of this piece. I hope the questions are useful to you from a tactical angle, but they aren’t the point.
The point is that we need to be aware of how easy is it for leadership to miss issues obvious to our customers.

Suggested questions:

  1. What are we doing well?
  2. Is there anything we do that doesn’t align with the rest of what we do and how we do it?
  3. What annoys you about our business?
    Note: Some answers may identify intentional business components you don’t plan to change. That’s OK. Ask anyway.
  4. Is there a reason you’d hesitate to renew our service?
  5. Is there a reason you’d be uncomfortable recommending us to a peer or a friend?

My favorites are questions 2, 4, and 5.

The last two feel like they’re asking the same question. They are. The interesting thing is that they often get different answers. The first question brings answers specific to the customer’s situation. The second question produces more serious issues – often big picture items. These are often things customers accept as an annoyance they’ll tolerate. The price of doing business with you.

The only way to learn of these issues is to ask.

Photo credit: @Ev at Unsplash

Categories
Management Sales

Follow up to make the sale

This weekend, we drove to Seattle to look at a camper. Why? Because the only salesperson who followed up was in Seattle.

As I mentioned here a few months ago, I’m looking for a camper. I knew there was going to be some lead time due to current market conditions. I started placing phone calls back in December. I called people in Missoula, Boise, and Seattle.

At first, I got a few follow ups. I got a text message follow up from a guy in Missoula who offered to arrange a time for a tour of a unit. From Boise, I got a similar offer by email. Seattle emailed and left a phone message.

So a few weeks go by and it’s time to get things moving. The guy in Missoula said he’d be in touch about the date and time for a tour. He never called back or texted or emailed, so the tour never happened. After an initial few replies from the guy in Boise, he went silent as well.

But the kid in Seattle – and by kid I mean 30-ish – he kept following up. When he got something on the lot that matched what we were looking for he called and left a message. And then he emailed. That he did both is important.

Some people see emails every five minutes. Others see emails every five days. Some are in the middle of those two extremes. Some people don’t take unscheduled phone calls (like me). I didn’t tell him that.

He made sure that I got his message by leaving a message and emailing.

Consistent persistence

Because of his consistent but not annoying persistence, we drove all the way out to Seattle. Sure, it’s an easy drive and it gave me a chance to see Junior while on the way, but it was unnecessary, until it wasn’t.

We were going to go last weekend, but Snohomish got a ton of snow, which tends to turn Seattle a little crazy. So we backed off for a week. He still stayed in touch.

The day we showed up, his company was starting the move to a new location. While there was a bit of chaos from an entire company packing to move – he was there to help when we arrived.

I guess it seems obvious by now: Salespeople have got to follow up.
I checked back with the guy in Boise since he had followed up a few times a month earlier.

It turned out he didn’t have any stock. I expected him to circle back every couple of weeks. “Hey, we haven’t forgotten about you, but we don’t have anything right now” is enough.

His sales manager should expect that too. The prospect needs to know you’re still working to help them, even if you can’t help them right this minute.

Working to help customers is what salespeople do. They help people solve a customer’s problem, or their need or want.

I get curious.

This sales guy is no older than my boys. He’s been selling for five years. I told him he’d become the only one following up with us and that’s why we drove all the way to Seattle.

I asked him, “I suspect you have lots of people calling you because of the current lack of inventory. What do you do to manage all the different contacts, wants, and needs?”

I wasn’t sure what to expect.

“Well, I used to keep it all in my head. But then I figured out that didn’t help me very much. And it didn’t help our customers very much. And it didn’t help my sales at all, because there’s only so much you can remember at one time.”

“Now I have an Excel spreadsheet of all the people who are looking for a unit. It has their contact info, when I last contacted them, what kind of unit they want… that kind of stuff. When we get a new unit in, I can sort the list and figure out who to contact. It only takes a few seconds.”

“So that’s what I did with you when this unit came in. I sorted my list and you came up. So I gave you a call and sent you an email.”

Simple.

Since he started using this system he said he’s been much better at staying on top of prospects. People don’t fall through the cracks.

Your salespeople can do that too.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Management

A loss you can’t afford

Have you ever lost something you couldn’t afford to lose? When asked this question, most of us think of a favorite dog, our wallet, an heirloom (like that folding Sog pocketknife… sigh), or similar. While a personal loss hurts our heart or wallet – business people often point to a bigger pain. The loss of a critical employee.

We’ve talked before about taking care of these people re: finance and opportunity. Those are easy fixes. Where you run into serious trouble is the loss of senior leaders and front-line employees. The former are already enjoying some level of financial and opportunity success. The latter often aren’t, unless you’re paying attention.

Losing senior leaders

Sometimes you’re going to lose them anyway. No matter what compensation you offer. No matter what opportunities you have to offer. It happens. People leave.

Sometimes, the compensation is so far out of your budget, there’s nothing you can do but say “Congrats”. In others, the opportunity is one you have no way to counter. In the rarest of cases, someone finds both. You suffer a big loss.

This points to the critical need to always be developing new leaders. Obvious, sure. Now ask a few friends who own businesses how they are developing new leaders. If they aren’t, think about what the loss of a critical leader would hurt them. You’ll see why that’s a weakness for them before you recognize it in your company. Once you see why it’s their weakness, it’ll be easier to accept you have one too.

If a lot of people leave your business and get great gigs, it’s often a sign your company is a great training ground. That’s good, though it does mean you need to work harder to keep people, unless you “enjoy” losing them.

Losing critical front-line people

The loss of critical front-line employees can hurt worse than the loss of a senior leader. I know – that seems counter-intuitive. Adept seniors leaders are critical to your success – and they can be difficult to find.

Even so, there’s someone who binds everything together. In my experience, they’re the one willing to take on anything. A tranny, a computer, a fussy stuck valve under the building. They’re the one who says they’ll give it a try when a customer is stuck – even if they haven’t a clue what the problem is.

They hop in and learn on the go. They have a great attitude. They’re good at 100 different things. Sooner or later, someone will recognize that in them. If the right firm makes an offer this critical person can’t refuse, they’re gone.

Often, it isn’t because of you. It’s because they want more. They’re driven. And sure, they have kids to feed, or similar.

People with many capabilities and a willingness to do anything are gold. You might find that it takes two or three people to replace them.

Be very intentional about avoiding this kind of loss. Don’t guess at what they want. Ask. Make sure they understand how important you think they are to the company. Don’t make them guess about that either. Find out what’s important to them and their family.

What are these people doing?

When you take a loss like the ones we’ve been discussing, you learn what they were doing. No, not what you thought they were doing. I mean the work that was actually getting done.

The work these folks do can fall into cracks. Important, but not noticed. Ever drive past a garage sale that’s unreadable? Sure, the print is always too small, but the key is that you’re moving to fast to read it. You miss it, if you saw it at all. Your eyes were on something further down the road.

Their work is often like that. There’s no spotlight. No glitter.

It takes work to find out what they do. One way is to promote one of these folks or migrate them into a more important or better role. That’s when their team figures out that this person did more than anyone knew.

Watch what happens when they take vacation – and make sure they’re left alone while they’re out.

Asking them to write job descriptions doesn’t usually cut it. The advice they leave for their peers when they take vacation, have surgery, take care of a parent or sick kid. That’s often what you learn from.

Take care of these people. Look harder for them.

They’re everywhere.

Photo by Alev Takil on Unsplash

Categories
Management Software business

Follow the paper trail

Everyone has heard the phrase “follow the money”. There’s a reason for this – it leaves a trail to the truth. Similarly, business processes reveal themselves and who is involved when you follow the paper.

Yep, I’m referring to software estimates. Software people are generally terrible at creating estimates. Or at least, creating accurate estimates.
Software people know this, of course. You’ll hear “double or triple it and add four” as a joke. Except it’s not a joke when you’re paying the bill.

Do you have a process?

Software people need a process for creating estimates – but most don’t have one. Typical result: Estimates that are often inaccurate.

“Do you have a consistent process for creating estimates?” is a good question to ask someone you’re considering for such work.

Estimates created using a consistent process may still be wrong. A process lends a consistency to them. Over time, an attentive team will notice the consistent inaccuracy and work to fix it.

When we don’t have a process for coming up with an estimate, our estimates will lack consistency. A consistent process should create consistent estimates, even if they’re inaccurate. That consistency allows us to learn over time how to adjust them to make them more realistic.

Customers “lie”

Bad estimates have other roots.

I say “lie” because you hear this from software people, but that isn’t what they mean. They mean that what customers tell them isn’t what they need, but the customer doesn’t know that.

Customers unwilling to provide a detailed description of the problem cause bad estimates. Being unable to describe what you need produces the same result.

The right software people can make this process easy. Those who do this make it clear they understand the importance of this part of the process.

Signs of trouble

A bad process sends signals. Someone makes assumptions. Things get glossed over or ignored with comments like “Oh, don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of it later.” There’s a resistance to digging into the details.

Would you hire a drill press operator who says “Oh, I know where the holes belong”?

Would you hire a loan officer who says “I can tell who pays their bills by looking at them”?

I doubt it.

If they won’t take the time to immerse themselves, they won’t understand the work you do. They won’t know what questions to ask. They won’t “find out where the bodies are buried.” (ie: essential knowledge)

A bad process results in more work after project completion.

We’re not talking about good ideas discovered. I mean the original work isn’t what you needed.

If I’m McDonald’s software guy and all I know is that they sell burgers, what I create will have gaps.

What’s a good process look like?

I like to follow the paper, or in today’s world, the paper’s surrogate.

When the phone rings, a piece of paper appears.

When a customer walks in the door, a piece of paper appears.

When you get a lead or a sale online, more paper appears.

Of course, there might not be an actual piece of paper, but there will be something. It might be a new record in your CRM. An email. A text message. An order on your system that needs pick and pack. A PO appears.

Something provokes the next action you and your staff take – and it leaves a trail.

Do they follow the paper trail?

Your software people should be asking about these things. They should be following the paper trail – at least those pertinent to the project. They should be asking about things tangential to the assets and processes involved.

Everything touches something else – including things we may not consider important.

Describing the reality of your business workflow requires following the trail. In businesses with no paper, something leaves a trail.

Following it will help you explain the roles your new software must fill. It will show the gaps that software must bridge. It will tell the software people things you don’t know to tell them.

Whose responsibility is this?

It’s yours. And sure, to some extent, it’s theirs.

If their actions don’t make it clear they’re the right team, you have to be strong enough to look elsewhere. The last thing you want is the wrong people on the bus.

Photo by Richard Burlton on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Leadership

Think like an owner

Jack Stack, of “The Great Game of Business” (GGOB) fame has a saying: “Share the insomnia”. In other words, if something is keeping you up at night, why not share that concern with your team?

To be clear, Stack does not mean that you should share something simply to scare or worry your team and provide them with no other information. He also isn’t suggestion you share the cause of your insomnia only when things are bad.

Instead, he advises that you not only share the concern you have, but also educate your staff (leaders and -all- front line employees) on why something is a concern, what drives that concern, which activities in the business drive the outcome you’re concerned about, what market activities impact this outcome, and so on.

This is the primary strategy that drives the GGOB. Imagine how it could change your business if everyone on the team truly understood how their work affected the company’s balance sheet and income statement – regardless of their role.

This isn’t as simple as handing someone a balance sheet and an income statement and expecting them to simply figure it out. Remember, I said “truly understood how their work affected” those documents.

GGOB isn’t a free lunch. Using it involves taking the time to educate your people regardless of their role about why these reports are important and how their department and their job directly impacts one or more lines on those reports.

I’ll bet a lot of owners don’t have that level of understanding about each individual role within their departments. Some may get it at a higher (departmental) level, but most don’t if you asked role-by-role.

As owners, we understand a team member’s role and why their work is important, but understanding specifically how each person’s work drops to the bottom line is another thing entirely.

Time and time again, I hear owners talk about how they want their people to think like an owner, despite their people having no skin in the game other than keeping their job. Sure, they may not be risking what you are, but they also have no shot at a piece of the reward. What should spur them to do anything other than what you told them?

Remember what you told them? “Just do your job.”

Some of us expect our team members to be internally driven like we are. While some are, many owners seem to expect it from everyone. If that’s you, you may wonder what motivates the rest of your team. A better question is “What motivates me?” Is it the possible return combined with the fear of the risk we’re aware of? Maybe it’s the sleepless nights (there’s that insomnia thing again).

If a team member is unaware (or not participating in) the risk, and they aren’t participating in the possible rewards, and they’re unaware of the reason why you have business-related insomnia, how can you expect them to act like an owner?

How can you expect them to think like owners if you haven’t told them how you think and how you make decisions? They aren’t mind readers.

Your people don’t know what you know (mostly) & they haven’t been asked to think about those things – and this often includes things that relate to their role.

When you grumble “Just do your job”, how can you wonder why you can’t get them to understand why the company’s scrap rate matters? Have you bothered to explain in detail how scrap rate affects your COGS, profit margin, etc.?

They can’t unless you explain it.

When you say “just do your job”, are you surprised that’s what you get? You didn’t tell them to “act like an owner” and explain what you think that means. Unspoken expectations are poisonous.

Explain how their work falls directly to the balance sheet and how that impacts the company’s ability to keep them employed, improve their pay and benefits, regardless of role.

Once a part timer sweeping the shop understands that the 39 bolts they tossed in the trash each day cost $1000 a month (at $0.86 each), they understand why it’s important to the company to pick the bolts out of the dust pan. $12000 a year important.

With that education, no job feels meaningless, regardless of role. That’s when people start to think like an owner.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

Categories
Improvement

Strength vs weakness

There are two trains of thought on what you should work to improve about yourself and your business: strength vs weakness. Some say you should work on your strengths. Others recommend working on your weaknesses. As you might expect, this isn’t a binary choice – and there’s something missing.

Work on your strengths

The work on your strengths folks, which I am mostly on the side of, describe the tendency for each of us to have a specific skill or competency that is notably better than everything else we do.

This isn’t to imply that we’re bad at every other thing we do. Instead, the idea is that we’re much better at a specific type of work than most people. Because of our skill in this area, we should focus exclusively (or as much as possible) on those tasks.

There is speculation that the work we’re really good at happens to be the work we really enjoy. Naturally, there are exceptions, ie: some of us are good at work we really don’t enjoy.

You might be tempted to think that you don’t need to work on your strengths because you’re the best in your industry, or at your company. Sometimes you can get away with that. Other times, you’re asking for it.

If you’re the best quarterback on Tampa Bay Bucs team, and decide not to work on your strengths, what happens to you when the Bucs sign Tom Brady? If you’re so good, why did the team sign him?

Work on your weaknesses

In contrast to the “work on your strengths” proponents, there are some who advise that you should work to improve your weaknesses – the things that you / your company do poorly, if at all. The idea is that these things become your Achilles’ heel, so you should work to improve them so that they don’t become your downfall.

If customer service is your / your company’s weakness, you should certainly work on it – unless you’ve calculated weak customer service into your entire business model.

While that’s not my recommendation, I make note of it because some businesses are built around letting certain things go in favor of others the business finds more important. Low-price-centric businesses are often an example of this. You probably don’t expect good customer service at a store called “Cheapest Stuff Town” and your expectations will likely be confirmed.

In many cases, your weaknesses don’t matter so much. Until they do. We’ll get back to that.

Decide using work value

Some in the “work on your strengths” camp are all about the value of the work. They will coach you to never mow your yard, for example. The idea is that it’s “$10 an hour” work & your time is worth more, so outsource that work so that you can use that time to attend to $50, $100, or even $1000 an hour work. Yes, $1000 an hour work does exist and it doesn’t necessarily mean you bill someone that much.

As you might imagine, there’s a spectrum here, not a binary decision. For some, that hour following the mower around the yard gives you quiet time. By quiet time, I mean mentally quiet time to ponder decisions and things that merit deep thought, not that you have a silent mower.

Extreme proponents speak almost as if they’d outsource lovemaking if it took time away from work. Be careful about extremes.

Sure, pay $35 for someone to mow your yard if you despise mowing, particularly if you’ll actually make good use of that newly-freed hour.

Some weaknesses are best delegated. Work you despise. Tasks that don’t require your expertise. Things you’re seriously bad and/or slow at. Work that, once delegated, opens time for work that no one else can do except you. And yes, work that you might do because it has to be done, which takes time away from high value work you could be doing.

The ability to delegate the right tasks to the right people is a superpower worth improving upon.

And yet, there’s nuance

What tends to go unmentioned in strength vs weakness discussions is fundamentals. Whether they’re your strength or weakness – they’re an undeniable requirement. Houses have foundations or they crumble. Business people need foundational skills & knowledge, or they likely fail. For example, the need to understand a balance sheet & income statement is important, but it doesn’t mean you need to gain CPA skills.

Photo by Karim MANJRA on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Hiring

Do you filter applicants?

Earlier today I was speaking with a friend who is looking for work. He mentioned something about interviewers asking for salary requirements. Personally, I always found that question lazy and a little aggravating. Not because of the question itself, but because there are better ways to ask that that yield a more complete answer. The salary requirements question rarely needs to be asked.

Most of the time, the person asking the question is filling out a form someone had asked them to complete about an applicant. The person asking the question often has no say in the decision. They’re simply filling out a form someone asked them to complete – and the answer is sometimes used later to either filter applicants or lowball them.

What’s your budget?

Some candidates will have been coached to respond that they’re confident they can arrive at a fair compensation that works for both parties if the discussion gets to that point. Others have learned to reply with “What’s your budget?” – which the questioner doesn’t always know because they are simply processing a form.

The question is also used to weed people out of the interviewing process early on – applicant filtering that the ad should already have done. In most cases, the candidate and the potential employer are not terribly far apart since both of them know the role’s compensation range in their local market – unless neither of them have been paying attention. In remote employment situations, these things can get a little more complex.

Good applicants don’t typically come sauntering into an interview expecting 40% more than your position is budgeted for unless your ad misrepresented the position, or the applicant is clueless.

Anybody who has a few minutes to search around can find out exactly what the pay range is for that role is based on location. This information is easy to find and everyone on both sides knows it. Result: This tap dance between what’s your budget and what are your salary requirements is mostly a waste of time.

Filter manually if you must

If you haven’t used your ad to filter applicants, there’s still a good answer to the budget question that helps everyone. Something like “Our budget is in the range of $LOW to $HIGH. People without experience ABC or qualifications XYZ typically start between $LOW and $MIDDLE. People with ABC and XYZ typically get an offer in a range of $MIDDLE and $HIGH.”

You’ve told them what your offer amount decision process involves. They now know how they fit those parameters and already know what their financial situation is. It’s a good time to ask them if they are still interested.

Sure, some will say that you’ve given them a sliver of an advantage by telling them what your range is. Horse biscuits. Again, unless they’re completely oblivious to the existence of the internet, they already know the range. At this point, it’s on the candidate to look elsewhere, and both of you to consider if there are other openings they’re qualified for – including positions with variable compensation.

Let your ad do the filtering

The process used to filter applicants should always start with the ad. Folks get worried that no one will apply (since when?) if their ad is too specific. Clearly, some companies go the other direction asking for things the position clearly doesn’t require. Software companies in particular are bad about that.

Regardless of what business you’re in, the ad’s reason for existence is to get qualified applicants to self-select – either in or out. Your ad should speak specifics to culture, your budget, workload, etc. You don’t want to interview 100 people when you know there might be 12 qualified people nearby with the right skills and experience. No one has time for that.

Where this ends if you aren’t careful: The lack of solid help wanted ad writing is one reason why corporate America ended up with all these resume scanner programs and websites that scan for keywords and throw out qualified candidates whose resume didn’t happen have the exact keywords needed to pass through the filter.

Resume scanners and websites can’t filter for culture, fit, and other “soft” qualities of an applicant, but a great help wanted ad can – and do so legally. Let the companies who must deal with thousands of resumes suffer through that while you home in on the right folks easily.

Photo by Devin Avery on Unsplash

Categories
Entrepreneurs Small Business

What’d you learn in 2020?

Was 2020 your best year ever? Was it your worst? I’ve talked with people dealing all three types of results, except that those conversations don’t really describe three types of results. It’s more like two easy to understand types of results and a wide spectrum of results between those two extremes. After an “eventful period”, I always wonder what people and companies will do next.

As you get older, you start seeing patterns during stressful, challenging periods. Younger people today seem to grasp this earlier than I did when I was their age. At least it seems that way.

One pattern is that you learn who people and companies really are. For example: there are takers, there are givers and there are those who do both. Stressful times don’t create those tendencies, but they do tend to amplify them.

There are people who seem to need pressure to perform their best. Likewise, there are people who need no pressure to perform their best. If you manage both of these people, it’s important to understand their differences.

I wonder what you’ll do differently this year vs. last year. I wonder what you’ll do the same. What did 2020 teach you about your business, your team (if you have one), your customers, and yourself.

My biggest takeaway from 2020 had nothing to do with COVID or the election.

I realized that I need to work harder than ever to spend time with smart, talented people. People smarter than me at things I find important. I’ve done this for years but in 2020, I doubled down. I’m already working even harder on this in 2021 because the payoff from last year’s effort was major.

At the least, the one thing to take from 2020 is that you made it. Hopefully your business did too. While there were a lot of human traits on display in 2020, there was at least one that stood out.

Resilience.

We can take a punch – in whatever form that might present itself. Doesn’t mean we don’t get hurt, but we get back up and try again. Even when it’s “wrong” or ill-advised.

There’s this guy in the valley I’ve been watching. Young guy. I knew him when he was a kid. He’s tried jobs. He’s tried his own business a couple of times. It never seemed to work out, at least not with enough consistency to depend on for the long haul. I could see his frustration – and so could everyone else. He wore it on his sleeve. I worried about him. Privately sent some advice. He’s a good man. He just hadn’t yet found his thing… until he did. Somehow, he managed to find it in 2020, of all places. I don’t see him angry anymore. He’s happy. He’s enjoying his work – and his customers seem to be as well.

He kept getting back up. That’s the part I’m proud of him for.

A sizable percentage of the country’s businesses are going to have to do the same, including some right here.

Encourage them when you can. Send some business their way when you can. Help them get back up off the floor after taking the punches 2020 handed out.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if they were unable to help you a few months or years from now because they’re closed – perhaps because not enough people did a little bit to help them back in 2021.

If your business had an amazing year, great. Depending on the reasons for that result, don’t get all cocky on us and assume that success will continue simply because you’re brilliant (even if you are). Keep proving your brilliance.

If your business had an awful year, perhaps the worst since your first year in business, don’t look at yourself in the mirror like you’re an idiot (even if you are). If your business survived, that’s something.

Depending on the reason(s) for the trouble, hopefully 2021 will be your great comeback. Or maybe last year was the signal that you need to try something else. If you do change business paths, take your resilience with you, along with the lessons of last year. They’ll both come in handy.

Take care of the people who take care of your customers. Spend more time with people who are smarter than you about something you find important.

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

Categories
Employees

A linchpin makes it all come together

Is there someone in your company whose abrupt departure would cause unholy chaos? Seth Godin called them a linchpin.

You probably aren’t worried about staff members quitting right now. Many employees are simply hoping they’ll be kept on the team until the vaccine does its thing and life resumes to whatever the next normal looks like. Similarly, many employers are hoping business remains strong enough that they can keep paying their team until some form of normalcy returns.

And yet, there’s one type of employee to be concerned about. They’re the glue that holds everything together. I’m talking about someone whose departure could bring the house down, even though might not be apparent.

They’re the folks who “are the company”. If you have someone like that, ask yourself: Do we treat and compensate them in a manner that correlate to their value to the company & our customers?

When the economy starts growing again and it’s clear that the turnaround is going to stick, many companies will be hiring. Finding great people to do the work your company does is your second most important job. Keeping the great ones you have is the first.

Your linchpin will be the one other companies are looking for. They’re not just a member of the team, they’re an essential cog in your business.

You need a plan to keep them.

We’ll talk about four areas:

  • What happens if you don’t keep them?
  • Compensate linchpins properly
  • Treat them like you value them.
  • Make their leadership official.

What happens if you don’t keep them?

When the economy turns around, many businesses will see a glut of applications.

The linchpin will have their choice of jobs, even if they aren’t looking. If you don’t know who they are, which is entirely possible in a larger company, your first step is to identify them. Your managers should know and if they don’t, that should tell you something about the work your managers are doing. In a smaller company, you probably know who they are.

A friend recently told me about their primary contact at the CPA firm who does their taxes. They gave the firm and their clients two years notice that they were retiring. Normally, this would seem unusual. Taxes are often once-a-year transactions, so their announcement was two transactions worth of notice – reasonable.

The company where they worked did nothing to replace them. Maybe they assumed it’d be business as usual. They were “only” a middle tier employee doing tax work – they weren’t a CPA. How much impact could their departure have?

This linchpin retired this past summer. The week of December 3rd, my friend got a letter that his CPA firm was dissolving. Not in a few months or after tax season. Immediately.

It turns out the now-retired person was the glue holding the office and their business processes together. Imagine having a CPA firm for over 20 years and having to tell all of your clients in December that you won’t be able to help them with their upcoming tax filings. Not this year, not ever.

Compensate a linchpin well

I can think of two people who worked for me who were linchpins. They’ve probably been linchpins everywhere they’ve worked. 

I had control of J’s compensation, but I was young and stupid. The company was new, so every dollar had to be watched. No excuses – I was less of a leader back then.

We treated her like the valuable linchpin she was but whenever I think back to that time, I wish I had paid her better, even though she made higher than average for the position at that time and made more than at her previous job.

20 years later, I’ve yet to find a more effective peer, though I haven’t given up my search.

It doesn’t matter what they do. These people do whatever they do so well and create such an amazing experience that their customers (internal or external) would be up in arms if they left.

For the person you’re thinking of, are you paying them at a level that indicates how much the company values them? It’s easy to say “Well, they’re in a role whose market pay isn’t higher.” Do you make the decisions or does your budget? Do you know what the impact on your company would be if someone offered them $200 more a week than you pay them, so they left because they needed the money?

If you don’t currently have the funds, talk with them. They need to know they’re appreciated and how you’re thinking about them. Keep your promises. 

While money is important, it’s not all about compensation. There are at least two other things you can and should do to recognize your linchpins. 

Treat them like you value them

T reminds me of the person who retired from the CPA firm, ie: they are the glue that holds everything together. Her magic manifested itself during new customer onboarding, customer training and similar duties.

That company’s onboarding process was complex and technical – and was made more challenging by the variety of customer environments we encountered.

During the onboarding process, she’d discover things the customer never told sales – things no one knew about the organization or their business process. Things the customer didn’t often realize they needed or needed to stop.

These are the things you discover when you get down to bare metal in order to add a new capability for a customer. And yet, I watched the company treat her indifferently at times, as a hassle at others, with reverence at other times, and ultimately as a difficult person who was essential, so the company tolerated her… until it didn’t.

I say tolerated because no one seemed to like managing her. We got along well perhaps because I was fortunate enough to figure out her motivation. She loved the work and her customers. Anything that got in the way of that didn’t sit well with her, but the secret was that her occasional grumpiness was sourced entirely in her concern about a customer’s poor experience. The customer always came first. She’d schedule an onboarding at two am if necessary.

I put myself between the aforementioned treatment and her as much as I could because her value was evident. I saw first hand what she was getting done. She had above-average patience with customers, as well as a load of industry knowledge, technical skill, and the ability to navigate the crazy things we sometimes find at a customer site – without losing it.

There was literally no one else at the company who could do her job. While I had the technical abilities, I didn’t have the industry knowledge. She had both, as well as the ability to work with customers.

The value of people like this is immense. Maybe you can’t pay them like a VP, but you’d better treat them with the same consideration. They’re worth it. Finding out their value by virtue of their departure will be expensive and painful. It’s not all about compensation.

Make their leadership official

The people we’re talking are often asked to train new team members, even those in more senior roles. There’s a reason linchpins are often asked to train others – and it isn’t necessarily their skill.

It’s the example they set and the attitude they bring to the work. 

The thing about spreading what this person does is that how they do their work is what makes them a leader. Sure, they may have more experience and maybe more advanced skills than others, but usually, it’s their attitude and the care they take doing the actual work.

Instead of thinking “I’m just a worker bee, this isn’t important work”, they work as if they realize that every step in the process is an important part of the whole, even their part, because it is.

That mindset and the thought processes they convey can be transferred to other people by using them as mentors or trainers. While this may not be a true management role, having someone act as a mentor or trainer is still recognizing them as a leader. Having a fancy title or management responsibility doesn’t make you a leader. Your actions do that. Most of them are leaders long before that – and often remain leaders even if the title and responsibility is never conveyed.

The people around them already know they’re a leader. Having them mentor or train others tells the linchpin that YOU know. That’s important. It sends a company-wide message that recognize their leadership, even though they aren’t “management”.

You probably have a linchpin on your team – maybe more than one if you’re lucky. Question is, can you keep them?

Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Categories
Communication Project Management

The Expectations Gap

I read with some interest a NY Times piece about the parallel stories of two companies working on a COVID vaccine – Pfizer and Moderna. It caught my eye because I knew a little bit about Moderna – they’re a very small company playing in a very big game. I figured they were hoping to use a vaccine success as their launchpad to the big time. The parallels between vaccine development and testing and the nature of most custom work, whether it’s programming, building a custom home, etc are fascinating.

There’s a quote in the story about Moderna’s technology that identified the key to going after the virus (the spike protein, apparently) within two days of receiving the genetic sequence of the virus, which follows:

That’s from January. The comments about this process reminded me so much of custom work. Specifically, of showing a customer the mockup of an application or website that maybe took a day or so to develop. Mockups don’t take long because they don’t do much. They’re just a visual example that proposes a look for the real software / webpage. The idea is to get feedback from your customer *before* doing a ton of work.

Mockups are everywhere

It’s not terribly different from the 3D mock ups that you can create if you remodel or build homes. There’s architectural design software that’s simply amazing in that respect. The realism is impressive. I remember seeing it a few years ago. You could design a house in 3D including landscaping. Once done, you could visually “walk” through the design and get a feel how it would look – all in very realistic 3D. While impressive, it was still nothing more than a mockup. Like mockups in other industries, it looked real, but it didn’t do anything.

The parallel isn’t exactly like Moderna situation but it’s similar. Here’s how: once you identify what you have to build – in detail – and you get agreement on it, the hard part is done.

I don’t mean that building whatever you mocked up doesn’t require a lot of work, technology, raw materials, time, communication, know-how, etc. It does. Even so, the work to figure out what you needed to build in the first place, can be most difficult. Getting consensus on an on-budget design that everyone agrees on – and it’s actually what’s needed – can be rather difficult.

Many times a project is doomed from the outset because there wasn’t enough communication to describe what was wanted and why, what the possible solutions look like, and what solution makes the most sense for the situation. What ends up getting built is what we thought someone wanted, only to find out both sides made too many assumptions and failed to ask enough questions. Mockups are great for reducing these problems.

New school design

What Moderna did in two days is flat out amazing, particularly when you compare it to how it was done in the past. Old school methods of building vaccines were in some cases done by getting people sick and studying the reactions in the sick peoples’ bodies. From those reactions, scientists, doctors, chemists and others eventually came up with a vaccine. Today, much of that work happens in a computer. That’s an oversimplification medically, biochemically, and probably in other ways – but you get the idea.

Some of you may remember the SETI project from years ago. After you installed their software, it would download and process a small amount of the radio telescope data collected by the Arecibo observatory – yes, the one in Puerto Rico that suffered damage resulting in it being permanently taken offline. SETI’s software would process the data and send it back to the SETI system, which would use whatever processing your computer had done to figure out if that data was valuable.

Early this year, I stumbled across similar project for medical study called Folding@HomeFolding@Home is working on protein folding analysis for COVID and other diseases. I read somewhere that some of the data processed by this project helped produce some portion of the vaccine solution – but I don’t know the details. This happened thanks to a large number of people all over the globe letting their computer do these computations and analysis in the background. As a group, these computers served someone as an equivalent to a medical supercomputer. That’s important to this work because supercomputers are rare, in demand, and really expensive.

Before I digress further, let’s explore how expectation gaps appear.

Expectations gap?

So if Moderna’s software figured out the spike protein after two days of work in January 2020, you might be thinking “Gee, it’s November, why don’t we have a vaccine yet?”

It’s a reasonable question and it brings the discussion back to our mockup discussion.

By identifying the shape that a vaccine has to match, they’ve done a very important piece of work. It’s a mockup of part of the work of producing a vaccine (yes, a sizable oversimplification).

Once you have a vaccine, it has to be tested, including time-consuming human trials. That process is often where the work doesn’t pass muster. Once it’s been tested, accepted by the FDA, and probably other work I haven’t mentioned, then you have to manufacture millions of doses. That requires sourcing raw materials – some of which may be expensive, time-consuming to make, etc.

You have to figure out the logistics of delivering it and administering it to millions. That takes money, people, logistics, systems, and time, but that’s not the point.

Communication is essential

What fascinated me about it was the gap in expectations between the reality of the work and what we (the general public) expect.

Anyone who has done custom work learns very early on that if you don’t manage the expectations gap, you’re in trouble. I suppose it’s a good thing that Moderna’s successful protein work didn’t make it into the news in early January since they didn’t yet have a vaccine. They simply had the protein match. Some who knew of this success had expectations for a quick solution, not realizing that the process had just begun – thus creating an expectations gap.

Despite the fact that the typical multiple year process of figuring out what to build had been reduced to two days thanks to years of effort, testing, and trials on other diseases, plenty of work remained.

First US Polio case: 1894. Polio vaccine approved: 1960.

They felt they’d have a vaccine in 18 months vs. four years, the recent best case for vaccine development. A reminder: It took 76 years to get a polio vaccine. Science has improved and our expectations have kept pace.

That’s the lesson those who do custom work must learn from this. We have to be careful to manage expectations because it’s so easy for the customer to see very early on what looks like a finished product but isn’t – because we want to get feedback from them.

Whether it’s a house design, software, a website, or whatever – there’s a lot of work required to get from that mockup, to something that only works on the programmer’s machine and nowhere else (aka “WOMM” – works on my machine), to a point where it works on every computer, browser, mobile device or whatever.

This gap is “significant”, kind of like the gap that can be created when a home builder gets the foundation poured, framing done and the roof on. All of a sudden it looks like a house. Get windows and the front door on and it starts to look like a real house – but it’s only been a couple of months. Why does the rest take so long? If your expectations aren’t set properly, conflict is coming.

Avoiding the expectations gap

Why? Because the first 80% looks like everything and the second 80% is hard to see from the curb. A house may not be wired, plumbed, sheet rocked, painted, etc. The builder may be waiting on various tags / permits. It may lack cabinets, appliances, flooring, fixtures, etc. It may not be cleaned up or landscaped.

Some of these things are hard to see from the street, where it doesn’t look much different from the day the roof was finished. It’s similar to me showing you an app on my machine, where it works in the environment I work in every day – where it’s easy to make it work.

It’s critical when doing custom work to make sure that you explain what people are seeing and what’s left. Part of doing that (and not catching a lot of grief) involves your expertise in knowing what it takes to get from point A to point B because until you know the expectation gap may also be in your head. This gap is a good way to assess the expertise of someone that you’re planning to hire.

The house in the hills

Back in the 90s, we built a custom home – architect and all. When we interviewed the builder, who came with good references, he set expectations for us from the outset. He said “All the references had projects that went pretty well. But I should tell you, every 10 or 20 projects we have one that seems to the homeowner like a complete disaster. It will feel like everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. It turns out fine in the end. Most times we can control those things, but sometimes we can’t. Between the weather, people, suppliers, subcontractors, and everyone else that’s involved – there’s a lot of moving parts and opportunity for things to go wrong. What you need to know is that I will take care of these things if that happens.”

At the time, I appreciated the warning, but didn’t think much about it. We never think the gap is going to get us.

Unfortunately, that’s what happened. We had maybe eight or ten things go wrong that seemed like a disaster at the time. Halfway through framing, the builder said “The way the architect designed this staircase… it didn’t go anywhere. The only way to build it so you could walk upstairs was to make some adjustments.” He simply took care of it.

A concrete truck got stuck in the backyard, slid down the slope of our lot and jammed itself against a tree on the neighbor’s lot (which fortunately didn’t have a house on it yet). They had to call another concrete truck to pull first one out. Meanwhile, the concrete was getting hotter and hotter, meaning it was going difficult to spread once it was poured.

Filling the expectations gap

That night I stop by the house after work and find guys in the dark working hard trying to spread the concrete before it sets. I can tell by how hard they’re working that it’s already decided to set and they’re doing their best to make it work. They ended up having to pour another small layer to smooth everything out. Other things happened, but it didn’t matter because a) he set the expectation and b) he took care of it. While the problems were annoying, the builder did what he said he’d do. He filled the expectations gap.

Years later I ran into a real estate agent who had a similar expectation gap filler. She had a checklist for the refrigerator when she listed your house. She said “Here’s a list of things that may go wrong between now and the time your home sale closes. Some are normal, some are crazy. If they happen, I will let you know and I will take care of it.”

She set the expectation and filled the gap appropriately. That’s really all customers want. When they hire you to do a custom job, they want it taken care of. Whether the work is selling your house, building software, or a tax return, customers simply want a professional to finish the job and handle whatever problems arise.

Your turn

The good news is that this is a fairly easy situation to improve. You already know all the things that can go wrong. You’ve dealt with 99% of them. Why not document them? Present them to your customers in a way that turns them into a way to show you’ve got experience and expertise on your side. Make sure they know what your response will be.

Don’t fear putting them in writing – not so much as a guarantee, but as a “We’ve got your back.” Remember, they’re coming to you for a result, not for the mess between point a and point b.

You might be worried that your competitors will copy what you do in this area. The rare one might, but most won’t. It’s surprising how many things you can do for your customers right out in the open where your competitors can see them – and they’ll simply watch. Some will attempt them and find them too much work. Don’t worry about your competitors. Worry about your customers.

So… how are you filling the expectations gap for your customers? How can you bridge that gap and give your customers more confidence that they’ll be well cared for?

Photo by Denny Luan on Unsplash