Late last week I attended a pre-sales webinar for a major SAAS vendor. As a prospect, I’m somewhere in the “lead curation” stage. I need to learn more about the tool and the company. The presenter is reading the slides. They’re clearly unfamiliar with the presentation notes. You can tell when someone is reading text they haven’t read before, much as you can tell when they aren’t familiar with the material. They sound exasperated about it all – and I suspect they’re right to feel that way. I wondered if the presenter had been “pushed out on stage”.
Sales preparation matters
I felt sorry for the presenter because it seemed as if they’d been allowed (or forced) to present without sufficient preparation. Everyone involved was affected by this. The company lost out because the quality of the presentation distracted from the product’s content. The value of the webinar to the attendees was reduced because the presenter was stumbling over their words and speaking in a manner that didn’t convey their (presumed) expertise. Hopefully there was a post-presentation review with the presenter so they could practice, get more familiar with the notes / slides, and take the bumps out of their next effort.
While I’m not certain this was the presenter’s first time giving this presentation, we all have to have a first time. The importance of practice and presenting with others who can provide feedback is critical. As a manager / leader, you should be making sure that these practices happen, that constructive feedback loops exist, and that they are done in a way that helps everyone get better. These efforts benefit everyone involved, including the prospective customer.
We’ve all been injected into a situation on short notice. Thing is, we have to take it upon ourselves to make sure we’re well prepared. Perhaps the presenter was asked to do this at the last minute to replace someone who couldn’t be there, but that’s no excuse. It’s on management to make sure replacements are prepared to step in and keep things moving. Maybe your best presenter won’t be there, but you should be able to assure that a well-prepared presenter is available to represent the company. Likewise, it’s on professionals to be prepared for their time in the spotlight, particularly if they know that their responsibilities include taking on someone else’s role on short notice.
It’s just a neighbor calling.
A well-prepared salesperson from the webinar vendor called me a couple of weeks ago. They’re a Silicon Valley company, yet they chose to pretend they were from Somers. (For those reading this outside of Montana, Somers is a small lakeside town in NW Montana.)
The same thing happened a few weeks ago when I received a return call from an insurance guy in Nashville. Caller ID said he was calling from Billings (MT). Yes, this has been going on forever, but it puts your sales team at a terrible disadvantage. When I see a call coming from the Nashville area and I am expecting a return call from there (as I was this time), I’d pick up. If I’m not expecting a call from there, I’ll always let it go to voicemail because I handle almost all calls by appointment. When the insurance company called back, I ignored it because I wasn’t expecting a call from Billings.
When I finally ended up speaking with the salesperson from Silicon Valley, I asked them point blank if they were from Somers. “No, I’m at the main office in San Jose.” Which of course prompted me to ask them why they fake their numbers and make it look like they’re from a place they’re unlikely to be from. He handwaved it off (nicely) by saying it’s just what the company does to try to get folks to pick up. What they don’t realize is that the reverse reaction is what they’re getting. In addition, the conversation starts with a topic like “Why are you faking who/where you are” rather than their product.
Don’t set the tone for your interaction with a prospect with a lie. Prospects don’t need to be comforted by a local caller ID number, if that’s what you’re trying to do. It’s simply unbelievable that anyone thinks this is a good idea at time when robocalls are doing exactly the same thing. Is that the crowd you want to be associated with?
So, this past weekend my alma mater’s football team visited Tuscaloosa. As with most guests of the University of Alabama football team, they came away with a loss. Despite losing by 41, it could have been worse. Really it could. The score didn’t really bother me – I mean, seriously – we’re talking about an unranked team vs the top ranked team in the country. We knew it was going to be ugly.
Even when you “know” your team is going to be clobbered, there are two things you don’t want to see. In fact, I spoke with a sportscaster friend from college about it shortly before kickoff. I mentioned that I’d like to see four quarters of motivated play, ie: no appearance of quitting or giving up, and four quarters without a bunch of stupid mistakes – ie: mental errors. Fortunately, we didn’t see the team giving up late in the game, despite a 40+ point deficit. Mental errors, however, were a problem.
We don’t generally expect major college athletes to commit mental errors week-in and week-out. If they’re a problem in a game, it happens, and you expect the coaching staff to spend some of the ensuing week’s training time to address them. It speaks to a coaching problem when these things happen repeatedly, particularly in consecutive games.
On two consecutive kickoff returns, two different kickoff returners made back to back junior high school football level errors – stepping out of bounds at the two yard line pursuing a ball they’d deflected, and catching a ball heading out of bounds inside the 10 yard line (rather than simply letting it go and getting it at the 20 yard line). Neither player appeared to be aware of their location on the field. I can’t recall the last time I saw this egregious an error of that type at the major college level, much less on consecutive kickoffs. It may not have affected the outcome this time, but it would against a different opponent. Unfortunately, these were not the only two mental errors – they’re simply the easiest ones to describe.
In a football game, you expect mental errors due to nervousness, fear, a pressure-filled situation, fatigue, and/or a lack of preparation. When you are down by 24 in the early first half, about all that’s left is the lack of preparation option. To me, that speaks directly to coaching. At this point in his tenure, there’s already the drumbeat of replacement – so fixing the preparation is essential. You can’t replace your team with better players (or players who fit better into your system) in the middle of the college season, but you can significantly impact their preparation. If you don’t, a lot of other things will likely go badly.
A tie to business?
Of course, there’s a connection to business. The situation speaks directly to hiring well, on-boarding, continuing education, mentoring, management, and leadership. Those things aren’t enough to eliminate mental mistakes, but they certainly help. The preparation that we didn’t see evidence of in last weekend’s game We all make mental mistakes in business situations.
The strategies that reduce or eliminate mental mistakes during the business day are the same ones as in football. Coaching, training, mentoring, and practice are all a part of preparation. Any one of them will not do the job. For example, you can stand at the front of the room and teach people, but until they get out in the field and do what they were trained to do, it’s extremely unlikely they will perform at a high level. Even when they do, practice and mentorship is essential.
An easy example? Your sales team. Some members of your team may not enjoy practicing sales calls with other staffers, or going over recordings of sales calls with a manager or an experienced, successful salesperson – but both practices have proven useful to developing expert salespeople.
It’s on the leader
While the team members are the ones making the mistakes, the responsibility rests largely with the leader. They set the tone and performance expectations, while deciding how much preparation of their team (or their staff) is enough.
Business leaders are all under some sort of deadline. Coaches can’t put off next Saturday’s game. Both have to field the team they have each day or each week. Both are responsible for making sure their teams are well-prepared. What can you do with your team to make sure they are better prepared for their next effort?
Every time Alabama loses a starting skill position player (usually the QB), the world asks Saban the same question. Paraphrased, it’s always something along the lines of “Oh my, what a disaster. What can you do to avoid ruining your season?” Mind you, Alabama isn’t the only team that has this figured out, and they certainly aren’t the only team asked this question. As different as teams are, the ones who consistently succeed over long periods of time appear to have a similar solution. They recruit players that fit their system and they make sure every team member knows their system to the point that it’s second nature – regardless of the player’s skill and ability level. Every day, they choose process over results.
What that means is that these teams set the expectation that if you go into the game, you do the job you were trained to do. You’re trained. You know the system as well as anyone. As such, you aren’t surprised. You know the game plan. You don’t freak out when something goes wrong, probably because no one else is. You don’t panic. You simply use your talent and ability within the system you’ve learned. Like a successful business, these teams have built a system that isn’t going to fall apart due to a single point of failure.
Teams aren’t like businesses?
How different is that from hiring carefully and having good process management at your business? Of course, that’s a trick question. It isn’t different at all. The products and outcomes are different, but the work of coaching (training), process management, recruiting (hiring) and so on are roughly the same. One of the things that Saban always mentions is their process. Google “Saban process not results” to see what I mean. A lot has been written about their process and Saban’s often vague answers about what many perceive as a “secret”. Hint: Hard work isn’t a secret.
Some people think that these teams are like a machine, and that businesses that operate this way are as well. In some cases, you might hear comments as if the machine-like behavior is a negative – like all the team members are like robots and can’t think for themselves. That’s fear talking.
If your best salesperson gets the flu the day they’re supposed to fly out to your most important trade show or customer meeting of the year, is it a good thing that the rest of your salespeople know the product and the pitch as well as anyone? Or does that mean your people are bots? Does it mean your company is well-trained, consistent, resilient, or “a machine”? Maybe it means all four – none of which are bad in the right context.
The benefit of everyone knowing the process (processes, really) is that you’re rarely shorthanded. You might not have your best player on the field (or on the trade show floor, or on the phone), but you still have someone who works the same way and knows all the steps. That consistency is critical to improving quality from one end of your company to the other.
Teach / document to learn
The best practitioners of your process (or parts of your process) can teach it. If they can’t teach it, they don’t really know it. They might give you some chest puffery and get all “I don’t need to do that”, but that’s their ego talking. Every time you teach something, you learn it a bit more, a bit better, from a bit different angle. To move toward mastery of a subject, try teaching it. You may think you know it already, but as soon as newbies start asking foundational, basic, “topic 101” questions, you’ll likely realize that you don’t know it as well as you thought. It’s service to yourself, to your peers, and to your business.
Documentation has the same effect, but in a different way. When you document a process, you’ll find that the memorized steps are often left out in the first pass. When someone follows your documentation (think of it as “testing”), you’ll almost certainly discover little decisions or questions were omitted.
You may get some resistance to documenting your processes. Yet professional pilots who have flown for 30 years still follow a checklist. They do it for a reason. Under pressure or when we’re in stressful situations, we forget things. We’re human.
Have you ever driven something to the post office because then you’d be absolutely sure it was put in the right box and actually mailed? Seemed rational at the time, right? The biggest turning point in a business owner’s life is when they trust someone enough to let them do something the business owner used to do. Yes, bigger than deciding to start the business itself. It’s one of the most difficult achievements for owners because it’s driven by fear, an emotion as primitive as there is. This fear convinces us that no one else can do the work as well as we can, even when the task is unimportant but necessary.
We have a bias toward the illusion and value of control at least in part because we did everything when there was no one else to do it. We remember the good old days when we built it alone in our basement, kitchen table, garage, etc. We did it all, thumped our chests, and drank from the skulls of our competitors. Our fond memories tell us we were in control of everything. The reality was more likely daily firefighting in an environment where we were alone and nothing was truly in our control.
Control isn’t the secret sauce
We think control is an important and essential element to building and growing a company. We think this because it’s all we know. When we’re the only one doing the work – control of everything is the default behavior model. Over time, “control of everything” stakes its claim as one of the essential ingredients of our success comes to us simply because we were the only employee. That doesn’t mean it’s the ideal.
Delegating work is one of the hardest and most valuable skills a business owner can develop. We usually won’t admit to ourselves that being bad at delegating (or not wanting to delegate) is a product of our desire to preserve our illusion of control.
We convince ourselves to stay small with thoughts like these:
“I built this thing myself when I discovered others weren’t doing this, or weren’t doing it well.” (until I delegate to the right person with the right details, assuming this was ever true, and of course the task is so critical that I MUST be the only one to do it. Except it usually isn’t that critical, it’s simply work that must be done.)
“No one knows what we went through.” (and?)
“No one works like an owner.” (which is understandable – they aren’t owners).
“It’s faster to do it myself than to teach you how to do it.” (Except for the second through nth times, assuming you taught it properly)
“Others don’t care like I do.” (even though they might – worst case, they care enough or in their own way. Again, they aren’t owners.)
“So and so’s work isn’t perfect.” (Neither is yours)
“I can always do it better than anyone else.” (Are you sure? Is 10% better worth not getting to that truly critical work that is of a nature that you really are the only one who can do it?)
“No one but me has the twenty seven years of experience that’s necessary to do this work well.” (It isn’t usually necessary, we just think it is. If we use that experience to guide our training & delegation, someone else *can* do it as well.)
Control has limits
How many items can you carry at one time? At some point, you’ll either stop adding items, or you’ll start dropping things. Our minds have a similarly finite ability to control things. That “control” includes managing people, projects, relationships, much less doing the work our role demands of us.
Your leadership role requires your full attention. Would you prefer to lead your company well, or lead it poorly because your mental and physical energy is consumed by less important tasks other people can do?
Holding on too tight stifles growth. We had to hold tight when we were working alone, but it’s a serious liability when you have a team. The best NFL quarterbacks throw or hand the ball to someone else most of the time, despite most of then having great running skills. Your children won’t learn to walk if you never let them out of your arms.
An executive who works with famous bands and professional athletes regularly asks his clients how their work changed once they “went pro”. In both groups, the most prevalent answer was “having the time and mental space to focus solely on our music / on-field performance and the wants / needs of our clientele, without the distraction of little things that used to consume their time.”
The fear of letting go of the control that we think helped us succeed when it was just us – is exactly the thing that keeps us small.
Hiring my assistant Lorena is one of the best decisions I ever made. But, many entrepreneurs don’t know how to go about hiring one. (Myself included! I got lucky with Lorena!) Many entrepreneurs don’t know where to look. They don’t know what to pay. They don’t know WHO to trust. But most of all, they don’t know HOW to trust. They don’t how to let go of tasks they really need to let go of. They don’t know how to let go of control. I get that. We entrepreneurs have skin (and blood and hair and sweat) in the game. We can’t take our eye off the ball or things slide into chaos in a hiccup.
A recent graduation had both sets of grandparents, an aunt, and an uncle flying from the Midwest into two different airports, converging on Spokane. On the morning of my mother’s flight through Dallas, a thunderstorm with a tornado-like attitude stretched from Austin to Missouri. My mother’s flight to Dallas took a circuitous path around New Orleans, past Houston, into Austin. After an hour in Austin, her flight left for Dallas and landed there too late to allow her to catch her connecting flight to Missoula. A re-route through Seattle changed her arrival in Missoula from 11am to midnight, making a 22 hour travel day. Her baggage was a different story.
We all have baggage
After all that, Mom’s bag didn’t make it to Missoula. Given that her rerouted flight terminated on a different airline & was booked to Kalispell by the original airline (later corrected by Alaska in Seattle), it wasn’t surprising.
I called Alaska baggage in Seattle the next morning. The data said the bag was in Missoula the night before, but that didn’t seem right. Even so, it required a visit to the airport – and that’s where the magic started.
Shawna (an Alaska gate agent) in Missoula took my details & filed a claim. She said the bag was en-route to Kalispell. Shawna sent instructions to return the bag to Seattle on the next flight, then forward it to Spokane since we were heading there to meet the rest of the family. Then Shawna took the first of several unexpected steps. She gave me her direct number in Missoula, telling me she’d be off in a few hours but someone else (whose name I forget) would help me if I called after she left for the day. She also wrote them a note to make sure they checked on the bag. Then she gave me the direct number for her peer in Spokane’s Alaska baggage office and the direct number for the Seattle office, just in case.
My expectations were mixed. I’d had re-routed luggage before. Eventually, it finds me. The process is frustrating until the bag arrives. This was different. About noon, my phone rang. Trevor (Alaska baggage) said the bag was en-route to Spokane. He asked if I wanted to pick it up or have it delivered. He took my delivery address and said “Call me if it doesn’t arrive by seven” then he texted me an additional number as a fall back.
About six pm, I received a call from Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. The woman said the bag was out for delivery and would be delivered soon. About 15 minutes later, it arrived.
My bag delivery expectations were met. Despite having flown a good bit, I’ve never lost a bag. Today, a bag’s barcode is scanned so often that it would take odd circumstances to make one disappear without a trace.
My expectations of the people were a different story. I had never experienced such attention to detail and effort to make sure I always had a local phone number and a name to ask for when tracking down a bag. I was never on hold where “my call was important yet they were experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes” repeated incessantly. Instead, my calls were answered in a ring or two & always handled well.
The uncle arrived at midnight on the evening of the arrival of my mom’s bag. He came in on a different airline (not Alaska) but his bag didn’t. He spent much of the next day on hold with his airline’s central baggage office. They didn’t seem to know where his bag was or when it’d arrive. After dinner, I suggested he call Alaska’s Spokane baggage office. What could it hurt? He was skeptical, but called them anyway and, unlike my experience, had to leave a message.
Five minutes later, he received a return call from Alaska baggage. Even though his airline was unsure where his bag was, the woman said she had his bag. He could come pick it up or she would have it delivered. He’d have clean clothes for graduation in the morning.
I don’t know what Alaska does differently, but their people don’t seem to know they work for an airline. Does your team act like they work in your industry, or do they provide service to a higher standard?
PS: the Monday after all this happened, Mom received a discount code for a future flight “for her trouble”.
I recently took a short business trip to Southern California. I conveniently missed out on the single digit and sub-zero temperatures and harsh winds that chilly Montana week. As if winter was following me, my hosts found ice on their lawn furniture one morning during my visit. While there, my host served a really nice Cabernet Sauvignon. When I got home, I called my local wine specialist to see if they could get it – it was that good. When the salesperson answered, I asked if they carried the particular winery and vintage of the Cab. They replied, “We don’t have that one, but we have plenty of other cabs.” I then said, “I understand, but right now, I’m looking for this specific one…” – and before I could finish my sentence to ask if they could custom order it – they hung up.
While I appreciated the “we have plenty of other cabs” portion of the salesperson’s response, it’s a weak effort to fulfill the role of a salesperson: Help customers meet their goals / needs and if your goods / services fit those needs – sell them. If your products / services don’t fit their needs, think long term: Send them in the right direction so they still get some value from your employer. You might think that when Macy’s Santa in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street” sends customers to another store it’s simply sappy old movie scripting. Perhaps it is, yet it’s also exactly what’s customers want and appreciate.
Customers value when your experts share their expertise to help them solve a problem. It’s exactly why Ace Hardware has (and promotes) the presence of “helpful hardware” people in their stores. When we enter a wine store, we expect the employees to know more about their wine (if not most wine) than we do. If you’re a local restaurant’s sommelier that won’t be true, but most of us aren’t.
Why do we enter a particular type of business? We’re fond of the product / service. We’ve gained more expertise than most over time & enjoy sharing it. People come to experts because they don’t have the time and perhaps funds) to become one – or they need expert advice soon. We have a problem to solve or a need to fulfill. Most of us are happy to exchange payment for that expertise or purchase advice. That’s why I called the wine store.
The problem with the wine store call was the answer I didn’t receive, not the answer I received. I wasn’t asked if they could try to order it for me. They didn’t offer to check with their distributor and get back with me. They didn’t even finish the obvious part of “we have plenty of other cabs” with “such as this, this and this.” I called them because the store doesn’t have stock on their website (with or without pricing). Sidebar: At first, I thought it might be illegal to list wines on your website in MT, given our love/hate relationship with our sometimes inane alcoholic beverage laws. Nope. I eventually managed to find a Montana wine store who listed specific in-stock wines on their website.
Wanted: A well-trained salesperson.
These days, the difference between a great salesperson and a good one doesn’t really matter in most situations – including this one. It’s tough to hire great salespeople because they can work anywhere. In some environments, they’ll make more than the CEO / owner. At a retail store, a passable salesperson is one who knows the product. A good one knows the products (maybe loves the products too) and makes an effort to help the customer solve the problem that brought them to your store. This doesn’t happen simply by having people fill out a W-4.
It takes training. Not one day. Not a sheet of paper with a checklist, though that can serve as a cheat sheet in the early going. Hire people who like the game you’re playing, and like the people you’re playing it with. Make them more valuable to you by training them to be better salespeople of what you sell. They should know the goods and services better than most customers. They should know why people should choose this over that. Sure, they might move on someday. In the meantime, an untrained or under-trained salesperson reflects on you and your store, not on them. You know what breeds loyalty in your customers? Knowing that there will always be a considerate well-trained expert in your store.
We joke, perhaps uncomfortably, that some people “don’t play well with others“. Others are considered average at being team players. Finally, there are the folks who seem to mesh with any group. The best of them thrive at team dynamics and seem to improve the team, rather than simply becoming a part of the team.
While this is obvious, we often hurry to hire someone. Every time you get in a big hurry to “get that hire done”, there’s a pretty good chance that you & your team will pay for your impatience. If you’re in a hurry for a critical position, look internally for a solid team player who can grow into the open role. Showing that people with these skills get good opportunities sends a message to both the person getting the role and their peers. The upside is that you get an existing team member with known skills into a (presumably) more important position. The role they leave open is presumably a less important role, or perhaps a role that’s easier to fill.
What do team players look like?
It’s easy to say “hire team players”. Getting consistently good at finding them from a pool of candidates is another story. The real work is in identifying them during your interview process. During your interviews, everyone has their persona “all shined up”. Be sure to dig deeper and find signals that indicate what they’re really like when the shine wears off. What does a team player look like? How do you get them to reveal their true selves and reveal what they aren’t?
Much is revealed through conversation. So what do you do? Start by asking people about teams they’ve been on. What do they think makes a good team member? Why? Why are those things good indicators? How does the team benefit from those characteristics? Why do you think that’s important? Channel your inner four year old: “Why? Why? Why?”
Knowing what a candidate values in a team member is good, but it’s critical to know why they value them. Their answers reveal their maturity as a team member & team leader.
Do you know your team’s “human whisperers”. If you don’t – ask around. Your team knows who can read people well. They might not be the senior managers who normally interview people. Involve them anyway. They’re the ones who can read what others cannot. They’ll often pull stories out of a candidate that they’d never typically share – both good & bad. They might be less assertive than your “typical” interviewer, but don’t cut them out of the process. You need to know how a candidate communicates with people who aren’t hard charging extroverted managers. These “shy” or “quiet” folks are often very good at assessing what’s behind someone’s “interview face”. Let them meet the candidate off-site for lunch or coffee at a place that has table service so you can see how they treat wait staff.
What about those who aren’t team players?
Regarding the folks who “don’t play well with others”, you have two choices. Give them a chance to change, with milestones and a timeline, or help them find their next career home. Some people are convinced that they can’t work for someone else and that the only way for them to be happy & thrive is to work alone. Only a hermit lives & works alone. Even the most fiercely independent loner will eventually discover that, along with customers and vendors, they must work together as a team – even if they otherwise work alone.
The person who refuses to learn how to become a team player simply has to go. You aren’t doing someone a favor by keeping them around when they are unhappy and/or don’t fit well with your team. These changes feel difficult, if not horrible, but not as bad as things will be if you do nothing. Making these changes through training and/or departures is what your team needs and deserves. It’s also better for the person who isn’t a team player and doesn’t show interest in becoming one. They deserve a chance to get it together, or find a place where they do fit. Some take to training / mentoring and transform themselves. Some don’t. Sometimes a change helps them figure out the sort of team they need, or that they need to make some changes to become the sort of person a team benefits from.
A good bit of what we discuss here relates to day-to-day operations. While a lot of operations probably seems simple and obvious, it’s the number one issue I see in companies. I suspect you’ve experienced, owned or worked at a company whose operations are a disorganized mess. Common problems shouldn’t be common at all, right? Let’s see if we can chip away at a few of these and get your operations polished up.
Somewhere in your company, there’s someone who is “under performing”. Not doing their job, not doing it well, It might be that they’re not doing the work in what their peers would consider a normal amount of time. IE: They’re slow. Slow can be OK for some work, but sometimes it isn’t.
As managers / leaders, this is your responsibility. The cause doesn’t matter. If they aren’t doing their job, it’s because their direct manager isn’t finding out why, attempting to fix it and circling back to hold them accountable. Is their direct manager isn’t doing those things? Ultimately, that manager’s performance is your responsibility. Does the under performer work directly for you? If you aren’t finding out why this is happening and you aren’t holding them accountable, it’s your responsibility. While this may seem like a difficult source of hand-wringing and drama, it doesn’t have to be.
Sometimes, an employee doesn’t know what is expected of them. Not kidding. You might find this surprising, but a list of duties, deliverables and responsibilities is useful to an employee. Nothing says “This is what you are responsible for. I will be looking these things when I assess the quality of your work.” better than a list.
Maybe they need training. When you discuss that list of responsibilities with the employee, make sure they are confident that they can achieve those things and have the right skills to make them happen. If they can’t, find training for them.
Training didn’t help. Nothing did.
If training doesn’t improve their performance, a new role might. They might hate some aspect of their work – work that someone else might love to do. Guess who’ll do it better?
Find them a new role that fits who they are, what they can do, what you need, etc. If you can’t do any of that, help them find a role somewhere else. Few “bad hires” are bad people that you’d never recommend to someone else, but they do exist. It takes too long to find and hire a good candidate to simply discard them because you put them in the wrong role, or didn’t train them well.
EVERYONE else in the department (probably in the company), already knows this person needs a new role, more training, or a different job at a different place. They know you aren’t doing anything about it and they’re not happy about that. They know it affects the security of their job, among other things. They’re right to be disappointed.
Disasters in advance
We’ve all seen these. A big project is coming. There are obvious bumps in the road. No one says a word because predicting disaster is “not being a team player” or similar. To a point, that’s correct. Predicting disaster is of no value, but preventing them is huge.
There’s a better way. Ask everyone: “What could go wrong? What could cause this project to fail?” Make it clear that it’s a positive thing to produce this list, as you want to avoid the “team player” baggage. Discuss this for each step of the planning, creation, deployment, and ongoing (if any) operational stages.
Once you have that list, discuss each one. Not only will you be better prepared (and perhaps plug a hole), but you may end up figuring out an issue no one saw when the conversation started. You’ll also help everyone think about hardening their part of the project, no matter what that means. You may find that items on the “What could go wrong?” list end up as a standard task in that kind of project. Would your company benefit if everyone was thinking about these things earlier in the project timeline?
You may get some responses that make no sense, or that seem silly. Don’t let the crowd shout them down. Imagine that delivering a product is critical to your process and someone suggests that a possible fail point is “MegaSuperBigCo can’t deliver our packages“. Something like this might seem a waste of time, but give them their due. Look back far enough and you’ll find instances where shippers or customs people went on strike. When that happens, packages sit in limbo for weeks or months. If your shipping is international, it can get complex in a hurry.
Don’t ignore the smallest items on the “What could go wrong?” list. History has proven that the tiniest thing can create a small failure that cascades to a massive one. We don’t always know which tiny thing will disrupt operations, but we can review each one, make note of what prevents that item from causing problems and move on. If it isn’t handled, the affected team should be expected to take care of it and report back when it’s been handled.
Follow through. Few do.
Have you ever noticed that you get a bunch of work done just before leaving on vacation? Obvious hint: Deadline. Or that your “do this before leaving on vacation” list is essential to making sure that you pack your swimsuit, turn off the stove, and take the dog to the kennel? Obvious hint: Checklist.
Follow through works the same way. You have to be careful that it doesn’t become micro-management, which no one appreciates.
If someone knows they’re expected to provide a status report every Thursday afternoon, they’re more likely to make better progress on the work involved. Work is a funny thing, it expands to fill the container provided. As Stephen Covey made famous with his four quadrants, it’s easy for urgent and unimportant work to fill the day and displace important work.
It isn’t that this work shouldn’t be done, it’s simply that it isn’t as important as a team has agreed to previously. Otherwise, why would you be expected to provide a project status report next Thursday?
What’s even better than a status report that you ask someone to provide? The status report they provide without being asked.
When you provide a project update to your manager / leader / owner without being asked, you make it clear that you know that work is important AND that you know it’s important that the manager / leader / owner knows how things are progressing. Most managers / leaders / owners don’t want to nag – they simply have to because no one is volunteering the information. Result: They don’t know the status of the operations they’re trying to manage.
Unknowns make people nervous, especially as deadlines approach. Make sure your team understands that and that you appreciate follow ups so that you can do the work they expect of you.
Post-mortem your disasters
One of the best times to prevent something from happening again is by taking some notes while it’s happening. An in-disaster post-mortem, for lack of a better term.
Oh, I know. You’re too busy wrestling the fire hoses to stop and take a note for 30 seconds. Really though, you’re not.
If this bad thing happens regularly, put a recurring reminder in your calendar for a few days / weeks / months before the event. A simple reminder to deal with that one little thing that defuses a minor disaster is pretty valuable. Example: Before a trade show or big marketing push, contact your credit card company (merchant card processor) and alert them that you might be processing (much?) higher volume than usual. A five minute call is much less hassle than having your merchant account temporarily disabled in the middle of the business day.
Perry Marshall once mentioned a question his company uses – and I love it: “What system, if fixed or implemented, would have prevented this problem in the first place?” Important for leaders: Don’t ask this question after stating your answer to the question. If you do, you’ll likely miss out on some good ideas that you probably didn’t have. Let someone else get this win – one of them is likely to have the same idea. Listening to the discussion will be far more valuable than showing how smart you are.
What a post-mortem isn’t: A process for assigning blame. Blame has zero ROI, at best. Improvement has a massive ROI, particularly when it prevents future disasters, even minor ones. We can’t always see the future well enough to avoid disaster, but we can convert them into a positive by learning from them. Make disaster avoidance part of your creation, operations, deployment process.
Watching my wife shop / interact with salespeople is always a refresher course. Gaps in customer service & sales training / tactics always reveal themselves. This is the missing piece of “Secret Shopper” type services – no audio / video. The report is fine, but you don’t get to see and hear what happened – that’s where the gold lies. We’re going to go over an experience we had while shopping in a local retail business that has a subscription model. Yes, a local retail business (a wine store) with subscribers. All too rare, but I see more of them than I used to. Bear in mind that there have been wine subscriptions by mail / via internet for decades.
My wife is an intermittent repeat shopper at this store. They have a good selection. The sales people know their wines – and at least one of them is a standout in that department. She’s the one who really knows their point of sale / CRM (customer relationship manager) system. Isn’t it interesting that the product expert also happens to be the CRM expert – and she isn’t the owner. She’s “just an employee”, right?
Working with the expert
A couple of weeks ago, the Mrs. sent me to pick up a white wine to go with some smoked fish sent to us by a friend in Michigan. She didn’t remember the brand name, but she did say that it was the white she thought she’d bought most often. So, being the CRM nerd that I am, I asked the salesperson “My wife wants a white wine but I don’t know the name. Can you tell me which one she’s bought most often?”
In some stores, I might get a shrug or a “We don’t collect that info.” In this store, I got exactly what I came for.
Turns out that I was fortunate to be working with the standout salesperson there. She knew their CRM like a pro. She quickly found my wife’s purchase history, identified the most frequently purchased item, grabbed a bottle, and I was out the door in less than five minutes. That’s my kind of shopping.
Not working with the expert
Yesterday, we went back to this store. The expert had moved out of state, apparently for a new opportunity. My wife asked basically the same question I had asked two weeks earlier. Our salesperson, who was in the store when I was there two weeks ago, didn’t know how to find purchase history.
A promo sheet at the checkout counter mentions their monthly subscription program. Two bottles, four bottles, etc. My wife was in the four a month program a year or so ago. She quit because bottles were piling up. Four a month is too many for her.
The selection in the four month program fits her tastes better than the two month program, so backing off to two per month didn’t work. The promo sheet prompted her to ask if she could get the four bottle program every other month.
The response: “No.”
There are plenty of possible answers to that – and most of them are questions. “No” ends the sales conversation.
The owner questions
The owner overheard the conversation from the backroom. He steps out asks why the four per month every other month works better than the two per month. The point of curiosity is obvious – it’s the same number of bottles. She explained that high tannin wines make her feel bad, so she likes the four-per-month subscription’s selections.
The owner says “We can handle that. Let us know when you pick up your monthly selection. We’ll be happy to swap out wines that’ll bother you.” He continues, saying that they can do an every other month plan, but will need to look into the details to make sure she isn’t charged every month.
This flexibility matters because it gets them a subscriber. She liked the previous plan she was on, but it wasn’t clear there were substitution options. Result: She cancelled. There was no follow up to ask why. Knowing why helps you keep more subscribers longer and learn about gaps in your plans.
Obvious reminder: Subscribers are sales you make every month, often with little sales / marketing effort. You have to fulfill well, regardless of tannin, to keep them. More next week.
We have attorneys, insurance, OSHA, safety regulations, procedures, safety gear, training, etc to help us protect our business, while keeping our staff members & customers safe. We know that in some markets, someone still might get hurt despite all our preparation, training, safety equipment, etc.
If you run a hotel with a pool, offer zip line rides, take people on boat rides / float trips, lead hikes or offer horseback rides into the backcountry, there are obvious risks, but almost every business has some level of risk like this. Have you wondered how you’d respond if something horrific happen to your customers while they were at your place of business? It’s one of a few worst possible nightmares for a business owner. Could you, much less your business, recover from something like that? Could your staff?
There are (and will continue to be) a lot of what ifs related to the recent duck boatdisaster in Branson. It’s difficult to comprehend, much less try to relate to what the victims’ families, the employees and the business owner are going through. While it’s the worst possible time for all involved, the rest of us owe it to ourselves, our team, and our customers to learn from it.
If your business involves activities that could put your employees and/or customers in a scenario where they could get hurt, you should watch the process closely as they talk to the media, address safety issues that are discovered, and change processes while customers are in their care.
Review. Look for clues. Ask for help.
What you’re able to see from the public perspective of this accident will help, but the opportunity to learn won’t stop there. There will likely be additional considerations discussed by your advisors that they will want to share with you. As an example, you’ll want to talk to your attorney, insurance agents, licensing and related safety enforcement agencies, as well as industry groups.
As details come out about what went wrong in Branson, you may find subtle gaps in your tools, gear, processes, inspections, or training. Even if you have 40 years of experience in your business, as the boat tour business does, you can still learn from the lessons and discoveries that come out of this.
Your customers know they’re putting themselves at risk to take part in adventures. They expect your team to be experts. Reviewing your current procedures, training and equipment use is at least as important as making sure that you’ve developed enough of a sales pipeline to have the necessary cash flow to make payroll three months from now.
One more critical tool
There’s more to this than safety equipment and training.
When bad things happen, time has a way of changing. For some people, time stands still, or more commonly, slows down a good bit. For others, it accelerates.
It’s easy to find stories about highly accomplished people (athletes and others) who describe what happens when they get really good. They’ll say the game or activity “slows down”. It means that they are so ready, so fit, so well-trained, and so mentally prepared that the activity feels as if they have plenty of time to do whatever they’re good at. It looks easy when they do it because to them, it is. For the rest of us, the game or activity feels like it keeps getting faster and faster. When we try to keep up at a pace we aren’t used to, we start making mistakes.
Leadership works this way too.
When bad things happen, preparation slows things down. When you’re the owner and 20 people are asking questions at once, preparation, experience, and practice help you keep your bearings, calm everyone, and handle the questions.
You aren’t the only one who needs this preparation. Your ENTIRE team needs leadership training. When everyone else panics (and perhaps rightfully so), they will need leaders to help them find a safe way out. Leave no one out. That kid in produce might be the one who takes charge and guides your customers to safety when the worst happens.
Train your entire team. All of them will need one another to get through it, both during the event, and afterward. You’ll need their leadership most of all. If the worst never happens, you still have a team of leaders. Your customers will notice.