Categories
Entrepreneurs Leadership Management

React, respond or rebuild

What’s on your agenda these days? Whether your business is scraping by or flush with cash, you’re probably spending a little bit of time thinking about the future. Which future would that be? Next month, post-tourist season, post-COVID, or some other future? You might be thinking about how to react to this or that, or how you’ll do business until COVID is over, or something else more specific to your business and how things may have changed since mid-March.

React vs respond

The difference between react and respond has been on my mind a lot lately. The challenges businesses face don’t change all that much, until they do.

Remote work is a great example of this. For decades, “managers” insisted remote work couldn’t be done at their business. Suddenly, in the space of weeks, remote work somehow became possible. To be sure, it’s a challenge when you have a house full of kids, but a lot of people have made their way through that maze to a productive place.

When someone who manages people working (most) desk jobs says “We can’t do remote work”, it’s usually a reflex reaction to a perceived threat – the loss of control (as if they have ‘control’). Control is rarely what anyone thinks it is, if it exists at all. “How will I know if they’re working?” is another decades-old symptom of this.

Getting back on track, when you react, it’s typically a reflex. A reflex action logically gives control to whatever stimulated that reaction. While there can be a measured reaction, for the purposes of this discussion, I’m calling a reaction something you do that’s driven by instinct or reflex. In other words, the fight or flight amygdala is driving based on a perceived fear, even if you aren’t escaping physical danger.

When you respond, it’s something planned, measured, and (hopefully) well considered – again, defined for purposes of this discussion.

The future’s on our minds

The future might be on your mind. Is your business facing challenges that could kill it in the next quarter? The next five years? The next 20 years? Your company’s ability to deal with the speed of change might be involved, or it might be something simple like a technology you depend on that’s likely to be displaced over the next decade.

You might not care about that when it comes to forecasting next quarter’s revenue, but it could definitely impact the valuation of your business for sale in a decade. It’s easy to wave that off today when you’re worried about making your nut this month. Trouble is, these things can’t be planned for or implemented overnight. They require consideration well in advance, particular for the large number of business owners who view the sale of their business as the source of funds for their retirement.

Assumptions vary in quality

The quality of your consideration before a response occurs is everything. A lot of our consideration during this process is based on assumptions. Your assumptions might be good, true, dated, false, dogma-driven, ego-driven, and so on.

Question every single assumption that drives your plan / direction for the future. It’s painful when you find one is no longer true, but it’s better to learn that today than five years from now.

Is something still profitable? Prove it to yourself. Is something not profitable? Prove it. What should you stop doing? Does the data back up these assumptions?

Take everything down to bare metal. Make it prove itself true or false, valuable or not.

Once you arrive at what you think are your truths about the business / market going forward, it’s time to assess your current solutions and decide if they get to come along as you move toward the future.

What about rebuild?

One thing we haven’t discussed is rebuild. Going back to the assumption discussion, what if all your assumptions, experience, and knowledge are signaling a future much different from today? What’s your next step? It might be rebuild.

A rebuild is a form of response, and it’s also a longer term effort requiring even more consideration about what is, what no longer is, what never was, and what your forecast as what will be.

This thought process can be useful when things get tough, really bad, or perhaps a little weird and you’re trying to figure out how to move ahead given your forecast of whatever you think life looks like around the next curve.

Photo by sangam sharma on Unsplash

Categories
Entrepreneurs Management

Sick & tired? Might be time for a turning point.

I was listening to a podcast a few weeks ago where a guy was talking about looking back at the turning points in his life (and no, he wasn’t 22). He also discussed this with some peers, discussing the high and low points in their lives and the turning points they had experienced during those periods. When you have discussions on a single subject with multiple people, patterns tend to appear. One of the things he noticed was that all of the positive or high-impact turning points occurred as he reached a point where he was fed up with an uncomfortable or unpleasant situation.

When we’re dealing with these uncomfortable, unpleasant situations, we often end up taking steps and making efforts that cause us to operate outside of our comfort zone. At the time, it can feel awful. Later, we usually wonder why we thought it was such a big deal. This stuff happens when we get sick and tired of a situation, whatever that situation might be.

The conversation described made me think about the turning points I’ve had – and the situation a lot of business owners are going through right now.

Decisions are turning points

Some of my turning points also came when I was sick and tired of an uncomfortable and/or unpleasant situation, but the most significant came when our family had made a major decision and my work was essential to our ability to make it happen.

In particular, I think back to an older gentleman I met in Jackson Hole in 1995, as we were just starting to figure out the financial and work–related details that moving back to the mountains would mean. He shoved me into the deep end with a simple comment: “Bring your own job because we don’t have enough of them here.” He moved to Jackson in the early ’60s with a station wagon full of kids and $200 in his pocket and had seen a lot in the next 35 years so I took him at his word. That conversation and our goals drove the acquisition of two software companies that set the entrepreneurial angle of my software career in motion.

What situations made you uncomfortable in the past? Perhaps there are parallels to now, perhaps not. Even if you aren’t uncomfortable, does your career or business need a turning point? If you’re not uncomfortable, but perhaps are concerned, what changes could happen over the next six months that would require a turning point?

The time to think about these things and plan for them is before you need to. What could force a turning point in your business or career? How would you re-leverage what you do, what you know – and your network?

It isn’t always about you, however. Others are facing these things even if you aren’t. How can you help, advise, or provide opportunity for someone who has reached a turning point? There are a lot of folks out of work right now. Six months ago, finding good people was difficult. Today, not so much. Do you know business owners who are having a tough time of it? Perhaps a partnership makes sense with the right business.

Pivots are similar

I mention concerns because sometimes we see things coming before they arrive, but they aren’t necessarily significant turning points like a career change or a change of market. Often times, the approach of dips in the economy send familiar signals before they hit arrive, even if the reason for the dip is different than in the past.

Experienced business owners have a pretty good idea what’s coming because they’ve struggled through these and survived in the past – even if it was ugly. Sometimes, we recognize them because we didn’t seem them coming the last time. Each time, we generally get a little better at recognizing them, and see the signs a little earlier. Hopefully, we react a little differently based on what we tried last time, what worked, and what didn’t.

Sometimes the moves are smaller – like restaurants going big on takeout and breweries transforming their parking lots into dispersed seating. With cool fall weather only a few months away, they’re probably already thinking about how they’ll handle that outdoor seating in cool (and then cold) weather. These might not be big turning points, but they will be a bit of a pivot within existing businesses.

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Categories
Business culture Business model Customer relationships Management

Why their survival mindset matters

What’s your state of mind these days? Talk to a handful of business owners about how COVID and other cascading effects are impacting them and you’ll likely not get many identical answers. Seems like everyone’s fishing a different eddy in the economy right now. Some are hauling it in, while others are trying to figure out how to survive another pay cycle – and there are a pile of folks at different places between those two spots.

Are you aware of the state of mind of your prospects these days? Not February’s… today’s. What about your customers? You probably had a good grasp of this back in February, but July (like March through June) is different. Maybe their different isn’t yours, but it’s probably different from whatever normal was for them six months ago.

Do you communicate frequently (or at least regularly) with the customers and prospects in your market? Have you reviewed any of these materials? If you have automated email sequences going out, are they talking to your clients with the mindset of you in the old normal?

Even if you don’t have scheduled emails, what about ads that have to be prepped in advance? For most trade publications, you’re at or getting close to deadline for issues your market will see in four to six weeks, perhaps longer. Are those ads wash, rinse, repeat what you were submitting six months ago? Is that OK? (I don’t know – you should.)

Even if you do nothing in advance, do you have document templates, email templates, pre-printed anything, or similar that go out without a second thought?

If any of these things are in use (scheduled, ad-hoc, template based, etc)… have you reviewed them? Do they make sense this month? Do they make sense for coming months? Is it OK to have the same conversation you were having when you first wrote those things? Again, I’m not judging… I’m suggesting that you consider the state, mindset, and voice of your communications.

Be sure you have an idea what their current concerns are before launching a marketing campaign that ignores today’s reality and your market’s level of certainty. Resonating with their mindset, as usual, is critical to making your communications effective and profitable.

Understand that this isn’t solely about marketing but extends to onboarding, customer service, finance, and ultimately – every interaction you have with your customers and prospects.

What’s the big deal?

One consideration is that many businesses have staffed down. What could be impacted by customers with fewer staff?

Onboarding, if you have any. It will affect training, implementation and related processes. If these don’t progress smoothly, it will be easier than ever to ask for a refund / return.

Finance – What if the normal accounts payable person is gone and someone else is doing double duty? They may be new to everything in that department. They may have no idea what’s necessary to keep their company humming along as it relates to what you supply. The last AP staffer learned that over time. This one may not be there yet. The same goes for your suppliers.

You need to have more patience, communicate more often, simplify anything you can simplify (from their perspective), and make it easier than ever to work with you. Companies with downsized staffs or those doing everything from a survival mindset don’t have the time and energy for complex hassles. Anything you do to make it easy to do business with you will pay dividends.

In fact, every touchpoint with your customers at every stage of their life cycle could use a review. You may find that in some departments of your company every single customer interaction needs to be simpler than ever, easier than ever, and as frictionless as possible.

Even those who aren’t struggling will benefit. Some departments may not need changes. Thing is, you won’t know until you take a look, discuss with your team, and perhaps make that part of your next conversation with customers.

The more you know about how they’re impacted, how they’re adapting, how their “now” looks – the better you’ll be able to serve them and the more likely they’ll be able to keep you around as a vendor.

If your prospects & customers are focused on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (or similar needs from a business perspective), then products, processes, services and vendors that feel like luxuries, hassles, or complications will be easy to discard. Take steps to avoid being one of them.

Photo by Jeremy Lapak on Unsplash

Categories
Compass needed Employees Entrepreneurs planning

Sick & tired of worrying? Solve problems.

If you’re sick and tired of worrying about how long you keep your job, this is for you. If you’re unemployed or underemployed right now, this is for you.

The last three months have been pretty tough on employees. Some have had hours cut. Some have been furloughed, laid off, let go, or whatever someone called it. Some might know when you’re coming back. Many people don’t. COVID didn’t start the worrying for some. It just made it worse.

It’s not only the employees. Some of you have lost your business.

Then there are the “lucky” ones. You’ve kept your job or your business, even if you’re not as busy, the tips aren’t as good and/or the hours are no longer full-time. On top of all that, some of you have been screamed at, spat on, or worse.

Many of you are trying to figure out what happens next. You have questions like these:

  • What happens when unemployment changes in a few weeks?
  • What happens when other COVID response benefits go away?
  • What happens when the tourists go home?

It’s time to think

When I say it’s time to think, I mean that it’s time to think about what your next step is.

  • What are you gonna do next month?
  • What are you going to do next week?
  • What are you going to do tomorrow?

Most importantly, I mean “What are you going to do for the rest of today?

First, go for a walk or a hike or paddle, or something. Get outside. Turn your phone off. Go for a walk. Take a hike, a bike or a paddle and think really hard about a few things…

What could I be doing would provide the biggest bang for the buck.. that will deliver the most important solution, the best value for other people?

What’s the biggest problem that I know how to solve?

And last but certainly not least… these three:

What work, what product, creation, service, labor, effort, etc am I willing to do on my worst days, and on the days when I’m not sure where the next bag of groceries is coming from?

What work will I stick to on the days when everybody around me who usually believes in me is starting to wonder?

What would you do under those conditions that’s worth something to someone else?

What does “biggest” mean?

What does biggest even mean? Biggest seems kind of vague. What’s biggest in context with your current skills? What allows you to produce the most value by solving an important problem in TODAY’S world?

Think about the people you’ve worked with/for. If they came to you for something you’re really skilled at – what would it be? What else would they have you do?

It doesn’t matter if the problems you solve are ugly, dirty, or difficult. The dirty and/or difficult ones might be easier to find a market for – as many people will gladly pay to solve them. Choose what you’re good at. You can ponder whether you want to do this for the rest of your life at some other time. Right now, it’s time to choose something, find people who need it & get paid.

These problems might be financial, involve physical danger (or reduce it), or take the friction / hassle / waste out of a process.

What makes you say “Gimme that” when someone else is doing it? Doesn’t matter if “that” is a nail gun, trowel, chainsaw, laptop, a spreadsheet or the wheel of a truck. All that matters is that you’re the expert when that tool is in your hands. One warning: Don’t start with something that requires a licensing process unless you already have one. Choose something you can do now.

Start with that.

Next year, you might have to adjust. It’ll be more than clear how your newfound business should change as the COVID-influenced world changes to whatever’s next.

Who has that problem?

Now that you’ve settled on a problem, drill down.

Who has those problems? What are the different ways that you can help them?

Next question: “Is this problem important enough that they’ll pay someone to fix it AND can they pay the bill?”

If no one (or very few) can afford for you to fix the problem or the problem isn’t terribly important, find another problem.

It’s time to get started.

Photo by Anna Claire Schellenberg on Unsplash

Categories
Community

Chamber of Commerce

When you were a kid, at some point you probably received some advice from a family member who advised you not to do something that would embarrass your family – and especially not your grandma.

Back when I was a Scoutmaster, there was a similar thought process in place. One of the things we’d do during a troop outing was make sure we left a place better than we found it. Normally, that meant picking up trash we found (as well as our own) and hauling it back to the green boxes in town. In some places, we might cut up some downed snags or large branches to replenish firewood someone had left for the next camper.

For the same reason that we didn’t want to do anything to embarrass grandma, we knew it wasn’t a good idea to embarrass our community.

We might be halfway across the country at some other town’s store or restaurant, but our actions still reflect on folks at home, on our town, and yes, on grandma. Every town experiences a few episodes here and there where people’s actions don’t exactly improve people’s impression of their hometown – no matter where they’re from. The fewer of those instances we have is generally better for us all.

I don’t mean to say that we should live at the pleasure of folks who live in other places – nothing of the kind. I simply mean that our actions have consequences, and they can reach beyond our town or county. Sometimes the impact can be significant.

Likewise, we might be downtown on the square doing something that will ultimately reflect on our town. Perhaps you’ve seen a video or read a news story where someone’s behavior was a bit (or very) cringe worthy and not necessarily representative of the people of their hometown.

Every time someone sees it, it reflects on their town, their state, and their people. When they’re from here, it reflects on you and I. Your business, mine, and that of our neighbors. Whether it’s a legitimate reflection or not, we’re stuck with it until other actions alter that reflection. Our actions at that moment are often the only thing others have to consider. The person who created this situation gets to reflect on it every time they do business in their town. Someone is sure to realize who they’re dealing with, and perhaps comment on it, leave and/or ask them to leave.

You might not care what people think of your actions. Understand that a fair number of your neighbors care about what makes people decide to visit somewhere else instead of here. Most of us know at least a few people whose mortgage depends on tourism dollars, though this isn’t solely about tourism.

These actions can impact how a potential employer feels when they look at our area and evaluate how good a match we are for them. Perhaps they have the intention of building a facility and hiring some local folks for good jobs that don’t necessarily depend on tourism.

How such things set with people from elsewhere is important at some level, but how they set with us – that’s what matters most. It sets the tone for who we are and what we accept.

Our reputation among ourselves is much like the roadside / campsite trash that doesn’t find its way into the dumpsters by itself. Someone has to pick it up. Our actions work the same way. The actions we take as part of our community make us either better or worse as a whole. Very few are meaningless enough to leave things as they are.

When we embarrass ourselves in front of our town (and in some cases, our nation or maybe even the world), we’re telling everyone in town what we’re like and what’s OK by us. All of us – whether we like it or not. Sure, we can fix it later… but we can’t erase it. You can’t unsee the roadside trash that doesn’t get picked up.

This applies not only to our behavior around town and elsewhere, but to our school sports teams, our businesses, our employees, our government entities, and many others, including newspaper columnists. Each of us sets the tone that forms the impression the rest of us have as we live our lives here.

All of us are the Chamber of Commerce.

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Categories
Employees

The young will inherit the earth

I came across a two related stories this weekend. One about a middle school whose administration is considering blocking the mobile stock trading app, RobinHood from the school WiFi network. Another talking about how daytime player volume of Fortnite (a popular game) has dropped because a significant number of middle schoolers are day trading stocks instead of gaming. Apparently, these kids are only interested in gaming at night when the markets are closed.

You might wonder why I mention this. Middle schoolers, stock trading and video games are not usually “my topics”. The reason I mention this is that expertise is everywhere. It’s not just in the remote employee you hired who lives 3000 or 9000 miles away, or the person from the next town over, or just down the street. Most of us know a young person who got a spark from something or someone and now they’re super engaged with woodworking, stocks, fly fishing, etc.

Expertise: Where you find it

Expertise could be the seventh grader down the street who got that spark and for whatever reason, it relates to something your business does or should be doing. It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean they don’t care about the things typical seventh graders care about.

Even so, when someone this age gets a spark like this – it could drive their life direction for decades. One of these middle schoolers might be so fired up about stocks that her goal, even as a seventh grader, is to be the CEO of Goldman Sachs someday. Don’t sell them short (a pun?). In 20 years, you might crack open your iPad 27, open the Forbes app and find a picture of her at 29 as the new CEO of Goldman Sachs.

This might seem ridiculous, but things like this happen every day. Kids start sports at three years old and become Olympic champions. I know a young man who started programming at a very young age. He now has a scholarship to a Montana college to pursue computer related engineering. It happens all around us. If you consider the increased screen time, the increased focus on STEM, the access to information and software that many of us never had when we were in middle school – it makes sense. They have opportunities to learn about things that interest them, at their own speed, from almost anyone.

While we think it’s somewhat normal to find an 18 year old prodigy pitching and winning their first major league baseball game three weeks out of high school. There’s no reason to think that the same can’t happen in your business. There are lots of enterprising young people these days doing things many of us never even dreamed of.

But, they’re only 14!

You shouldn’t be surprised to find a 14 year old that knows more about put options or some other “esoteric” topic than you do. The thing to figure out is “Where could that go next?”

Our first reaction might be to offer them a job. A 14 year old or even some 18 to 21 year olds may not see that as a positive thing. Their response might be to look at you like you’re insane. Perhaps that isn’t what their life is focused on, or even what their near term goal is.

This might not make any sense to you. But to a 14 year old who has mastered a highly technical skill, offering the chance to be stuffed into a cubicle farm isn’t exactly a reward for all the hard work they did to get to where they are now. Their skill may mean freedom and flexibility to them.

Transform passion and expertise to experience

Many of these folks learn something like this because they have a passion for it. They’re interested in solving problems & making a difference in their area of expertise. Fitting into some randomly rigid work schedule that was popularized over 100 years ago isn’t even on their radar. Jobs for 14 year olds… doesn’t really make sense anyhow.

I don’t know how this works out for you and some young person with a valuable skill, but I do know that someone is out there who could be amazing resource for you even on an intermittent basis. Maybe they need a faster computer. Maybe their 529 needs a bump. Maybe they spend Saturday morning with you *in a public place* once a month or so. There’s value for them to see the real world application of their expertise. Figure out what works for both of you.

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

Categories
customer retention Customer service Getting new customers Management

Eliminate customer service

What would happen if 80% or even 90% of your customer service calls went away?

Wait, what?

Oh, I know. You’re proud of the quality of your customer service. I suspect that if I asked your customers, they’d tell me all sorts of great things about how you took care of them, fixed a problem, have a wonderful service team, wear Tyvek shoe covers into their home, etc.

That’s good. Great service is important – right down to the shoe covers. So important that we’ve discussed it repeatedly. Thing is, there’s something better than great service: Service you never have to give because your customers never needed it.

I’m not talking about providing no service at all. I’m talking about taking steps to ensure that the amount of service you have to provide to resolve problems is tiny. Not just any problems – simply the preventable ones.

Damaged during shipping

Outside of very serious package damage that sometimes happens in transit, imagine if you no longer had to provide customer service related to a shipped item showing up broken. You can’t prevent incidental breakage, right?

Let’s try. Have your team back a box like they usually would. Go upstairs in your shop. Ask your shipping team to watch from outside as you toss that box out the window. Did anything break? Pack it better. Did the box crush? Try a better box. Wash, rinse, repeat. If your team is watching, they’ll have ideas to get it fixed. You won’t have to test anymore – they’ll get it and take over.

Obviously, if you ship heavy items that will always break the box during a fall like that, a different test makes sense. Your service and shipping departments probably know what kind of damage is in that 80-90% of damage claims.

If you can eliminate 80-90% of the “my stuff arrived and it’s broken” customer service, how much labor, time, re-work, COGS, repacking expense, reshipping expense, employee frustration, and customer first impression damage can you save?

Some of that will fall to the bottom line. Increased margin. More profit without making a single additional sale. No one wants that, right?

It’s a simple example, and perhaps one that you’ve explored because there are hard costs and well, it’s pretty obvious. But did you take the idea further?

Eliminating service

Eliminating service may not seem obvious – even if you’re service improvement oriented. Many of us focus on optimizing support responses and minimizing support ticket turnaround times, only to completely forget to see what could be eliminated, rather than simply working toward making our responses better and faster.

So, back to the original question. What would it take to eliminate 80 to 90 percent of your service “events” in a few departments? What if you only manage to eliminate 50% or even 20% of these events across a few departments? It adds up fast – it’s all overhead.

What could the staff who currently handles these service calls get done that would help the customer (and your company) even more?

Ever have to go back to a customer site to fix something that didn’t get done right the first time? Ever have to go to a customer site to fix something some other company messed up? How does this impact your customer retention? Referrals?

Getting it right the first time is a competitive advantage. Every visit to a customer’s business or home wastes their time and increases the cost of whatever you do – both to you and them. It increases the likelihood that they’ll call you again, much less refer you to a friend who needs the same sort of work done. This isn’t about their desire to help you. If they refer you, it’s because they want to recommend someone who is going to help their friend have a good experience. Otherwise, no referral will come.

Eliminate friction

Preventable problems are the kind that create friction. Friction that slows down adoption of the product or service you sold them. Friction that increases their frustration with something they just purchased. Friction that creates negative first impressions. Friction that creates second thoughts and buyer remorse. Friction that slows down payments.

These problems may seem out of your control, but they aren’t. They may seem may seem expensive to fix, but their prevention saves money in the long run. What service can you drastically reduce or eliminate and in doing so, create a better client experience?

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Categories
Management

The lure of binary decisions

More people had died in the first month of World War I than in the entire US Civil War (~750K). The Belgian / German / French battles took off like a forest fire, leaving more than a hundred thousand dead each week of that first month.

At the time, John Maynard Keynes said World War I wouldn’t last a year. He’s quoted as saying something along the lines of “As soon as financial liquidity dries up, the combatants will be forced to come to terms.

World War I lasted four years and four months. 20 million people died.

It’s a good illustration about making decisions (or coming to a conclusion) based on normal decision making parameters and processes for normal times. World War I was far from normal.

For that reason, when you hear “This can’t last…the economy”, consider the mindsets, data, & thought processes that yielded such comments.

The limits of binary decisions

We’ve limited ourselves to binary decisions for decades. This party or that party. My ego vs. your ego. This skin color, that skin color. Your school vs. my school. My needs vs. yours. This county vs. that county. This state or region vs. that state or region. Their rage vs ours. Often, the result is that we demand that something (or someone) must lose in order for our thing (or us) to win.

We’ve observed others making decisions this way as we grew up, or as our careers advanced. We learned to make decisions by watching others do so, right or wrong.

What I’m getting to is the idea that there’s “normal” and “whatever this is”, as if there can only be two possibilities. It’s the same thing Keynes appeared to be looking at. None of us are immune to it. Keynes was a pretty smart guy – and still, it appears he fell under the spell of either / or. The businesses that don’t adjust, that don’t consider what’s going on in the minds of their clientele.. what have they missed?

We have to get better at making decisions. While some decisions are either / or, quite a few aren’t. Be careful not to assume that your only choice is this or that.

Are there any other options?

The next time you need to make a decision, consider every other choice you have – even the ones that might seem stupid under “normal” conditions. That includes considering the choice of doing nothing at all. While doing nothing isn’t always a good choice, it’s a possibility. Ruling it out without any consideration avoids the thought processes involved. The ideas you ponder when considering doing nothing can absolutely impact the option you eventually choose.

Your fallback position is that “old normal”. Maybe in your business, the current normal, the new normal(s) and the old normal are more or less the same. For many businesses & customers, they aren’t.

The current normal

Current normal? Yes. While recent events tend to make us think of new normal vs. old normal (there’s that binary choice again), you don’t have to think too hard to realize that for some businesses, there have been a series of “normals” this year. Each week or two has been a bit of a moving target, each one its own normal, depending on what your business does.

That series of normals offer lessons and things to think about, whether you experience them first hand in your business, or externally as a customer or interested observer.

Each “normal” has provided conditions to deal with internally under your roof as well as with suppliers and service vendors you use. It certainly supports the theorem that “One is the worst number in business” that we’ve discussed over the years (ie: one customer / supplier / key employee, etc).

Don’t get comfortable

If future “normals” last longer, we’ll be tempted to assume the newest, longest lasting normal is going to stick. Assuming that could lure you back into either / or binary decision making.

I suggest adopting a flexible, open minded, inquisitive, research, and data-driven decision making process that has you and your people repeatedly on the lookout for tiny movements that signal bigger changes.

Maybe you’ve always done this. If not, there’s no time like the present to start. There may be a new normal at some point, but it isn’t likely to announce itself upon arrival. Use the current state of change to hone your decision making skills. Keep getting better at it.

Photo by Robert Anasch on Unsplash

Categories
Employee Training Employees Leadership Management

On being essential

Is your business “essential”? I don’t mean the Federal distinction. I mean in view of those who you serve, because those are the only ones who matter. No matter how bad the economy or anything else in the future might get, is your business serving essential needs for your clients?

Essential people

The people you’ve hired are a big part of what makes your business essential to your customers. Finding, keeping, and training people who love to take care of your customers is real work. Taking “good care” of them includes training, coherent management, “real wages” and benefits.

A business doesn’t pay “real wages” and benefits because someone else wants them to. They do it because it puts their team at ease, allowing them to focus on the quality, speed, and value of their work. A team that’s not worried about their job has more headspace to attend to their work. It puts a fence around them, making it hard for others to poach them.

Essential customers

Reach out to your very best customers. Call them or write an email that’s very clearly personal and not mail merged. Find out what their concerns are. Do they assume you’re going to be around? Remove any doubt. If you’re having problems, be square with them. You should be asking them if there’s anything causing critical problems right now. Are they things you can help with? Tell them specifically how. If you can’t, can you suggest someone who can? Be the one helping, not the one just trying to make a transaction happen.

You probably know the customers who are most on the edge. What can you manage to do for them? Even a small gesture that buys them a little more breathing room is worthwhile and will certainly be remembered.

Made in your image

When I see a company doing things that make them less essential than they could be, I tend to break down what they do well and what can they do better. In many small businesses, the capabilities and behavior of the businesses mimic the capabilities and behavior of the owner. Most owners are essential to our business – at least until our business matures. Some of this “made in your image” thing is good. Some isn’t. I battled it for years, as many of us do. One of the battles was over bookkeeping.

I’m not a fan of accounting. Accountants are fine. The actual work of accounting and bookkeeping always made me crazy. I know, I know. Seems silly given what I do. It is. Ever have one of those things you know you need to get better at even though you really don’t like it? That was accounting for me.

The thing is, accounting isn’t there solely to keep the tax man happy. The quality of your business decisions will improve substantially as your understanding of your numbers improves. No, I don’t mean the tax code and all of that. I mean the numbers that fall out of day to day operations. They all fall to your books. They’re metrics, but not the normal kind I talk about. Lots of metrics tell a story – and accounting does too. If you don’t listen to the numbers (including the accounting ones), the story won’t go how you want it to.

Mirrors reflect everything

I tell this story to reinforce that my company was a direct reflection of me during my “bleah, accounting” phase and that was not a good thing. It was important to work on (or delegate) the things that I don’t want to be reflected from me. Becoming essential means doing those things for your business.

Unless you’ve worked at it, your business reflects the things you’re good at, as well as those things you need to work on. The mirror reflects everything in front of it. Your business doesn’t have to, but you have to make a conscious decision that this is going to happen.

You have to choose which of your behavior your business reflects and which ones it does better than you. This will, of course, require some delegation or some training, or perhaps both. For me, it was both.

Customers decide

Your customers decide whether or not your business is essential to them. The behavior of your company and the value it provides to your customers is how they decide.

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

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Management strategic planning

Grandma’s Rainy Day

Almost every Saturday, my grandmother and grandfather would load up the LTD and my grandmother would head to the farmer’s market. In their area, it was a massive open air building under a roof. Every booth had a waist high table with edges and a hanging scale. We’d spend the day there, selling vegetables, butter and a few other food items.

After we got home, the first thing we’d do after I helped her unload the car is head to her dresser. She’d pull part of the day’s take from the farmer’s market and stuff it into a bank bag she kept in the back of her dresser drawer. The rest would stay in her purse. One day, I finally got curious enough to ask her about it. She called it “her rainy day money” and explained the idea to me. As a farm family, you never know what unexpected weather is going to bring. Even as a young boy, the possible impacts were obvious, even though I had no understanding of how devastating a major storm at the wrong time would be to their cash crop.

Prediction isn’t protection

That’s the problem with storms. Several decades later, our weather detection and prediction capabilities are much better, but it doesn’t matter all that much. Even with days of notice before the arrival of a massive thunderstorm, hurricane or untimely freeze, there’s still not all that much you can do about it unless you can harvest your crop before it arrives.

Sure, grandma can cover a reasonable amount of garden plants with a sheet to prevent freeze damage. You can’t easily cover dozens of acres to protect against a hailstorm or similarly damaging event. If you’re my grandparents and your only income is from that farm, then the rainy day fund could literally be a life-saver. 

Hurricanes and other threats

Hurricane Camille (1969) and Agnes (1972) both hammered their isolated farm with very high rainfall, yet I don’t recall my grandparents ever being in dire straits as a kid. Sure, grandparents don’t always share the extent of their financial situation with young kids, but kids notice things in adult behavior, particularly if it changes. I never saw anything that made me wonder – or they were good at hiding it.

My grandparents’ primary cash crop was tobacco. Extremely heavy rain early or late in the growing season can devastate a crop. Their crops were on sloping land, which I suspect was by design. Hail could destroy a crop. 

Farmers face many challenges, including market fluctuations, global relationships, and “Big Ag”. Grandma’s rainy day fund protected my grandparents personal economy on a scale that was workable for their small farm.

Another term for rainy day fund is business reserves. 

Hindsight is 20/20

Today, a lot of businesses are in a bad spot. Some have closed. I don’t know their situations, but I suspect some portion of them could have benefited from having a rainy day fund, or perhaps a larger one. I’m pretty sure that every business that’s been hit hard would look back and be grateful if their former self made sure they had 60 days of reserves. 

I don’t mean to make light of this or bust on you when you’re down. I’ve been there. I know how it feels. Building business reserves is hard, particularly when starting up or starting over. You’ve got demands at home. You want to take better care of your staff. Growth and other projects want their share. Every single dollar of revenue has multiple demands on it. Old news, but still true.

Work on your rainy day fund

I hope businesses that have taken a hit can restart and get back to business. It’s hard. You think back to all the challenges you faced over the last five years or so – knowing that restarting means you’ll probably have to face some of them again. 

Whether you’re starting over or not, knowing what you know now, consider budgeting a rainy day fund into your monthly business budget. Not “I should do this someday”, but a specific amount or percentage. Decide how much you want to have in reserve for some future rainy day. Carve it out every day, week or month. Maybe you already do this. If so, double down on your business’ ability to take a punch. It’s something you’ll never regret, plus Grandma will be even more proud of you. 

Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash