Categories
Leadership

Your other important job

A friend commented this week that the tone of my writing has changed. They’re right. I’ve been challenging your leadership and decision making skills more than usual recently. I don’t mean you specifically… or maybe I do. These two responsibilities are the differentiators between “ok companies” and the good/great ones. Along with thinking, they are your other important job.

When I write on these two topics, I’m not only challenging you, but myself as well. They’re the topics I regularly consider during my nightly 90 minute dog walk. More often than not, that’s when these words begin to take shape. It’s definitely when much of my critical thinking gets done.

These walks are when I decide to discuss difficult topics you need to hear. They’re when I decide to suggest paying attention to something that might be off your radar. These are rarely topics a staff member will mention to you. Sometimes, it’s because they aren’t on your team’s radar. Frequently, it’s because you’re the owner.

I decided it was time to call more attention to them.

Should be obvious

The importance of these two responsibilities should be obvious. Yet they often get set aside for urgent but not important matters. I suspect you’ve read about what Eisenhower, Covey, et al said re: “urgent but not important” work.

I remind you about these responsibilities because I know how easy it is to get tangled up in the day to day. The urgent but not important is always lurking outside your office door with a “Hey, got a minute?”

When that happens, whatever you were doing falls off your radar.

Hopefully when it’s complete, you get back at it, but sometimes it can be hours. What were you working on six hours ago when your coffee was still hot?

I had to build systems around me to bring me back where I belong work-wise after the “interruption” ends. My observation over many years is that I’m not the only one who needs this.

I don’t mean your time as salesperson, bookkeeper, and/or payroll clerk isn’t important. Many of us spend time wearing other hats. When the work appears, professionals get it done (or delegate it). And yet, we need to circle back to the most important job and get it done. Whether you have zero or 500 team members, your most important job is leading your company.

Discovering the important job

It’s the most important work because everything else depends on it.
I don’t mean that other work isn’t important. It is. Product quality is important. Quality service and support are important. Having your numbers under control is important. It’s easy to get sidetracked by all these demands.

We can’t forget what’s most important: the business as a whole. Jack Stack, CEO of SRC Holdings nails this thought.

Asked what he’d teach his younger self, Stack said: “There was so much emphasis on products and services that there was no emphasis on the company. When you teach people how to build a successful company, you get better products and services.

His former employer built quality products, yet still went under. His takeaway? The CEO’s most important responsibility is to build a successful business.

Start and end your day there

When operating a business, it’s hard to stay focused at that level.

On any given day, you might be working on a product or service problem. You might be juggling cash so you can make next month’s payroll. In the crisis of the moment, that feels like the most important work. Maybe it is – until it’s completed.

If your company is small enough, you wear a lot of hats. Many of us are in that mode from time to time, sometimes a lot. I have those days too.

I find one of the most useful tactics to stay focused on this role is, at the very least, to start and end my day in that role. When I start the day in this role, I make progress on my most important work every day. Ending the workday in my leadership role re-aligns me, no matter what else happened that day.

The company, our customers, and the team have an implicit expectation of us. That is, we’ll show up in that role and take care of the business that takes care of them. Isn’t that what we promised?

“A professional keeps a promise whether or not they feel like it.”
– Seth Godin

Photo by Robert Gramner on Unsplash

Categories
Entrepreneurs Leadership

Time for thinking

How much time each week do you spend thinking about important things? I don’t mean baseball or fishing or camping or whatever (they’re important too). I mean thinking about the most important aspects of your business – whatever they are.

If it could talk, your calendar might argue with you about your answer. Take a look at it.

Does your calendar include time dedicated to considering your most important upcoming decisions?

Are there any slots set aside for thinking about other important items?

Is there time for discussing these items with your leader(s)? That’s important too – but that’s not the time for you to assemble your thoughts. That’s the time for you and your team to go over what came out of everyone’s advance thinking on the subject.

Do you think about these things on your drive home? Or while heading to the store or dinner with your family?

If that’s when your thinking happens, how distraction-free is it?

Do you remember any ideas or conclusions you arrived at during those times?

I’m guessing the answer is “No.”

Thinking is a duty

Thinking doesn’t demand “in my office, staring at wall” time – unless that’s what works best for you. The key is being distraction-free. Whether you’re fishing, walking the dog, paddling a kayak, or sitting in your office – the key is solace. Be alone with your thoughts. They need your full attention.

This time can be hard to come by unless you schedule it into your day or week. Intent is critical. “Got a minute?” has a way of destroying intent, or delaying it until tomorrow. One thing leads to another, and another – soon it’s six p.m.

If you’re a leader in the middle of an organization, these situations can be hard to avoid.

If you’re the owner, not doing this work for days, weeks, or months at a time is all but dereliction of duty. As owner, that’s your right – but is it right? Is that what you want?

Slow, turn ahead

One of the most important jobs an owner has is to be ahead of the curve. Considering and making decisions before they’re necessary. Waiting until the next challenge is in your face is not the ideal time to make complex decisions. Are there any other kind? Rarely, it seems.

These things sometimes take research. They take time to consider.

One of the worst parts is that they’re easy to forget. I suspect you’ve found a way to take some notes. At times, I’ve pulled over to make some notes while on a long, solo drive. At other times, I’ve called myself and left a voicemail.

We seem to learn the hard way how easy it is to forget that brilliant thought. Oh sure, we remember we were a little bit outside of Big Timber. But the thought itself? Gone. Poof.

The conversations we have with ourselves about important topics are often valuable. The results of our deep, focused thinking are too important to trust to our memory.

Too busy for thinking?

One of the things we get hung up on is the “busy” trap. We’re so busy attending to urgent but not important things that we forget about critical work. It’s on our todo lists, but it’s not scheduled.

Neither are “emergencies”, of course – but they get the attention they demand.

Sometimes we get sucked into emergencies even when there’s no need for us. Others are capable of handling them – yet we allow ourselves to get pulled in.

While this can make us feel like we’re important, needed, and critical to our businesses – we already are. Yet because we’re the owner, we get away with it. There’s seldom anyone with the gumption to say “Boss, we got this” – but if you look, you’ll see it on their faces.

It sends the wrong messages. Most of the time, you don’t need to be there. If they needed you, they’d ask. Being involved despite that tells them you don’t trust them.

That’s not the worst part.

If your senior staff did this, how would you react? You’d tell them to let the team do their job. Follow that advice.

Our most important job is to do the work no one else can do. Quality time thinking about the company’s biggest challenges is part of that work.

Photo by Anthony Tori on Unsplash

Categories
attitude Employees Leadership Management

Nothing is impossible

Back in ’95, I talked to my employer at the time about working for them from another location. Not from home, but from a different state. At first their response was a muted “Yes”. In retrospect, I should have drilled down a bit more into that reply. I didn’t because sometimes we hear what we want to hear. A few months later, I was ready to make that move, so I asked about firming up the details. As you might imagine, the “Yes” soon became a “Sorry no, that’s impossible for us.” Us meaning them, of course.

That “no” began my business journey. Sure, I’d cooked up a few small side hustles in years prior, but this was different. This had to be full-time. I needed the patience to build something real. I needed a plan. A random side hustle wasn’t going to feed the bulldog.

It seemed impossible.

Life advice

A few weeks before the “No”, I received one of my favorite nuggets of life advice from an older guy in Jackson Hole. He said “If you want to live here, you’d better bring your own job and your own woman because we don’t have enough of either.

When you get advice like this, it’s easy to wave off. We tell ourselves “Oh, it’ll be different for me.”

I was fortunate because he took the time to tell me his story. The short version: He’d moved his wife and kids to Jackson in the early ’60s. When their station wagon pulled into town, they had $200.

35 years later, he was doing pretty well, so I took him at his word.

We have trust issues

Distributed work has changed a bit since 1995. In early 2020, it was still “Sorry no, that’s impossible” in the view of many. Not because the technology wasn’t ready, but because we still have a lot of trust issues.

“It’s impossible to know if our employees are doing their jobs if they aren’t right in front of us.”, they said. We’ll circle back to that.

Add COVID. Stir. While our trust issues remain, we did what was necessary to get the work done.

Firms and services that never imagined succumbing to distributed work’s temptation (evil?) did so. They made it work. They struggled some, then figured it out. I watched my wife have Zoom-based doctor appointments.

Such things were “impossible” months earlier.

The impossible things

“Mark, there are lots of jobs that **are** impossible to do from home.” Indeed. It’s hard to take a CNC home. You can’t smelt iron in your backyard – at least not at scale. It’s tough to harvest crops from a distance. There are many more jobs like this.

The point of all this is not yet another rant about the pros and cons of distributed work.

It’s about how easy we whip out the word “impossible”.

We’ve convinced ourselves only Steve Jobs and Elon Musk can do the impossible. By the way, Steve’s been dead since October 2011.

Are those two guys are the only ones who can do the impossible? Or is it that they’re the only two who don’t give up before they get started?

While inertia and friction are contributing factors, the biggest issue is human nature. We convince ourselves something is too hard.

Or is it that we don’t want to do the hard things?

Are distributed workers working?

“We can’t allow distributed work. It’s impossible to keep track of what our people are doing”, they say.

Said another way, “Unless they’re at their desk, I can’t be sure they’re working.”

If you can’t be sure when they’re somewhere else, you can’t be sure when they’re at your shop. This isn’t about them. It’s about you.

Is it enough for someone to be visible to you for eight hours? That’s not work. It’s control. Except it isn’t, because that control is an illusion.

If your team’s work isn’t measurable, it doesn’t matter where they are. Butts in seats don’t change that. The folks wasting half their days can do that for months before anyone figures it out – and do so right under your nose.

It’s not impossible. It’s a choice.

Are you sure?

What else did you used to think was “impossible”?

What isn’t getting done, built, invented, or conceived because it’s “impossible”?

Photo by Alex Guillaume on Unsplash

Categories
Employees Entrepreneurs Leadership

Team building? Skip the hustle & chaos

I recently met an entrepreneur who recently discovered long-term planning. I don’t say this to make fun of them. I say this because it’s great and because some of you might be in the same spot with your team.

The conversation started with “The first time I ever thought more than four weeks ahead was today.” (in the context of their business)

If you’re thinking, “That’s not me, I have plans at least 90 days out” yet your team doesn’t know the details, it IS you.

This person’s business is growing and profitable, but their past sounded a bit chaotic. They commented that projects, and internal alignment were all over the place. Why? The plans, project ideas, and thoughts driving the business are all in the owner’s head – and nowhere else.

Yours might be too. You and your team might be burning time and money at a rate that isn’t necessary. If even productive days feel like chaos to your team, it IS you. Once you discover this, frustrated team members are no longer a surprise.

Old mindset, new mindset

They’ve left their “hustle” phase and now lead their business. Their discovery, not my assertion. They understand they were making execution as a team difficult and frustrating. It wasn’t intentional. They hadn’t learned what the team needed.

Most of us must learn this ourselves.

Until we do, we have false beliefs like:

  • Only I can do this work.
  • If only I work more and harder, things will change.
  • I must keep plans and ideas to myself until it’s time to do the work because no one will understand.
  • I don’t trust anyone else with my business / work / todo list
  • Unless I’m out in front leading the charge, nothing happens.

That last one… ever notice that the best leaders are at the rear?

They aren’t at the rear because they shy away from the action. It’s not easy for most to step back. Most entrepreneurs love to be right out there “at the front, in the teeth of the battle”.

The best leaders know that the well-prepared team takes the lead. Well-prepared teams know the mission, their purpose, the plan, and the expected outcome. Well-prepared teams don’t need you to get their work done.

Like a bottle rocket

We see the “hustle vibe” that some project. “Work longer and harder than the rest and you’ll get there.” Sometimes that’s true. Usually it isn’t.

Some project it to get “want-to-preneurs” off the couch. They enjoy guiding others to find their own independence. Many have something to sell. A few are charlatans.

“Hustle” too long and you end up like a bottle rocket. Burn all your fuel to get to apogee in seconds. Then what? An uncontrolled free-fall to Earth. Great for the Fourth of July. Not so great for your mortgage payment.

Many survive their hustle phase and figure out a better approach. Despite burning a lot of fuel (time and money) to get off the ground early on, they create a sustainable business.

None of the successful people projecting the hustle vibe work 18 hour days seven days a week. None of them work with no staff, no contractors, no leadership, and no shared mission / plan.

NOT ONE.

They still work hard… as a team. A group of people capable of functioning as a team does so when it has a leader rather than a VP of Team Chaos.

The VP of Team Chaos

Wondering why your team doesn’t seem to know what to do from one day to the next? Are they frustrated despite getting the work done? Do they hesitate until they get direction from you?

If you ask them “Are productive work days often chaotic and frustrating to you and the team?” is their answer “Yes”? You might be the VP of Team Chaos.

Want a recipe for chaos and frustration?

Mix the following ingredients:

  • 1 business owner
  • 1 team
  • “The plans, project ideas, and thoughts driving the business are all in my head” or similar

The entrepreneur is often the primary source of chaos. This doesn’t mean we’re bad business people. We tend to feed off the “chaos of battle”. Thing is, teams don’t. Chaos makes teams miserable even when they believe in the company and their work.

We have to lead. If that’s not us, we must find a leader and make it clear they have the authority to do so.

Work is a lot easier, fun, and more productive on a well-prepared team.

Photo by Mahir Uysal on Unsplash

Categories
Customer relationships customer retention Employees

Getting what you want?

You may have heard a Gandhi quote about change. The odds are good that you know the quote most frequently attributed to him: “Be the change you want to see in the world“…

Did you know there’s no proof he said that? This, despite the slew of motivational posters, books, and keynote addresses referencing it.

What he did say was this: “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.

To me, it’s a much different statement. Rather than a woo-woo “Let’s make the world” better thing, it’s about how we show up in our own world.

How we can apply this idea to how we deal with our teams, customers, suppliers, and even ourselves? Let’s give it a shot.

The nature of your team

I talk to a lot of business owners about their people. The things owners want are pretty common. We want our teams to act like owners, trust us, believe what we say, stay longer, and communicate better.

As we reduce unstated expectations, our team delivers what we expect.
To get your team to communicate better, improve your communication with them.

As we teach the economics of our business model to the team, our team’s performance improves.

Our team behaves more like owners as we increase the ways we treat them like owners.

When we treat our team like a family, our team performs like a family.

To get your direct reports to believe you, show your direct reports that you believe them.

As leadership shows more trust in the team, the team’s trust in leadership will increase.

As we become the kind of employer people want to work for, we find better employees who stay longer.

… and your customers

I talk to a lot of business owners about their customers. Again, common themes dominate. Owners want more customers who pay their bills on time. We want smarter customers who don’t become customer service burdens. We’d like less negotiation over pricing.

As we improve our value proposition, customer negotiations are less aggressive.

When we’re crystal clear how we help others achieve their goals, pricing is less important.

As our onboarding process improves, smarter customers choose us.

To shrink our customer service burden, we must make our products easier to use.

As we improve our self-service resources, customer service loads shrink.

When we make it easier to pay, our accounts receivable improves.

As we reduce the friction of dealing with us, the burden of servicing customers gets smaller.

When we treat our customers like peers, our customers act more like peers.

If we communicate with our customers in a specific way, they will communicate with us that way.

… and your suppliers

Supplier comments from the owners I talk to are rather consistent. Companies want better terms, more accurate delivery information, and better service. The irony (?) is that these are the same things our customers want from us.

As our payments become more timely, our supplier’s service and delivery improves.

Our suppliers’ terms improve as our payment timeliness improves.

As our vendor communication improves, vendors get better at communicating with us.

Leaving no expectations unstated with our vendors results in improved delivery and service.

When we receive exactly what we want and need, it reduces our desire to haggle over pricing and terms.

And finally, you.

Given those examples, consider the “…so does the attitude of the world change towards him” of the quote.

It’s not the attitude of the world.

It’s our attitude.

We express our attitude in many ways:

  • How we convey our view of the world to our team.
  • How we show up for our team.
  • How we show up for ourselves.
  • What we assign importance to through our actions.
  • The examples we set.
  • What we do when employees start acting like owners.
  • How we treat our customers.
  • How we talk about our customers.
  • What we say about our people behind their backs to other employees.
  • How we respond to employees who have wronged other members of the team.

Everyone sees these aspects of our attitude. Our leaders, team members, suppliers, partners, vendors, and others. They all do.

These things tell people who we are, regardless of what we say.

As a whole, these things and others tell people exactly how to show up when they’re around us. That’s what we get from them.

Are you getting what you want? If not, consider whether you’re giving what you want.

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees

Do you scare off applicants?

I’ve talked to several young people in the last month or so who are looking for new gigs. Some were college grads, some not. Each of them had some level of imposter syndrome. And yet, they all had skills, experience, and training in their chosen field.

Ever feel you’re not qualified to be in the role you’re in, or that you’re applying for? Wondered, waited, and expected someone to figure out that you have no idea what you’re doing? Thinking you’re a fraud, a poser, or a fake?

That’s imposter syndrome. It affects both newbies and experienced, highly-accomplished people. The shade tree psychologist in me suspects it’s something our minds cook up to “protect” us. If you’ve ever felt like you were out of your league (even if you weren’t), it might have been imposter syndrome.

Don’t scare them off

Now imagine that your company is looking for entry-level or inexperienced help. Do your ads actually make that clear? Does the ad scare off these applicants?

Sometimes we add extra qualifications to ads, hoping we’ll find someone extra qualified. Some see those qualifications not realizing what they are: “nice to have but not required”. Result: They don’t apply, or they come into an interview “knowing” they aren’t qualified. It seeps out of them – but isn’t always obvious.

When you’re looking for less-experienced help – say so. Be crystal clear about what you want. I know, you’ll get applicants who don’t have the qualifications you’re asking for – even of entry-level people. As you know, that happens anyway. There might be a gem in the group.

You may have experienced people who can do your company’s work in their sleep. These applicants know that. It feeds the syndrome. They’re trying to figure out how they could fit in given that you have those people.

They may not realize your experts started out in entry level roles. They’re wondering why you’d consider them. Be clear you’re looking for someone ready to grow into their career at your place.

They assume you’re looking for someone who can step in and part the Red Sea. Meanwhile, you’re looking for people interested in learning how to swim. Be clear that you’re looking for good people to join the team who are ready grow into the open roles.

If you’re hiring people who have less than a couple years of experience, you’re going to retrain them. Mention that you know few of them will walk in the door and immediately become productive. Discuss that the necessity of training. Even if they could step in and be productive, let them know you want them to do what you do the way your company does it.

The what doesn’t matter, whether it’s sales, building and servicing products, deliver services, whatever.

Engaged and interested

When you meet them, are they engaged or asleep at the wheel? Are they interested and curious? If they never apply, you’ll never know.

I don’t mean you’ll take anyone. You’re looking for motivated, engaged people with the right attitude. People interested in what you do who don’t have a five to ten years of experience.

The last thing you want is to hire somebody who can’t get along with your team. You don’t want someone who isn’t a good person, or however you’d describe the right ones.

There are usually signs they’re hard workers and/or team players. I remember one resume came in where the applicant had worked on an Alaskan fishing boat. That alone left no doubt they were a team player and a hard worker.

I saw a similar resume recently where the person had worked backcountry trail crew before getting technical training. The kind of person who can do that work not only has to work hard, but they have get along with the same small group for weeks at a time. They don’t get to take off for home every night. They’re living and working with their crew. Someone who isn’t a team player won’t be there long.

In your ad for these less-experienced people, focus on the personal qualities you want to see in the right kind of applicant. Ask questions that enable them to reveal those qualities – or that they don’t have them. Good team members are what you need. You can teach them, train them, get them where you need them to be – if they apply.

Photo by Intricate Explorer on Unsplash

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 (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