Running your business without financial feedback is like driving on the freeway wearing a blindfold. This comparison may be a little extreme, but one of the most common problems I encounter in small businesses is not using financial tools. By this I mean that the business owner either does not have current accurate financial statements or, if they do, they are not using the information to run their business.
In fact, most of clients who come to me with a business that is losing money are also not keeping or using their financial feedback. Considering most small businesses are not started or run by financial managers, but by roofers, physical therapists, chefs and artists, this problem is understandable. That does not make it OK. I can not tell you how many times I ask a new client for their profit and loss statement and get a rather sheepish look. It is the same look I give my dental hygienist when she brings up flossing.
So here is the upside of learning to use financial statements: Many of the clients I see who learn to read and use current accurate financial statements become profitable very quickly. Why? It is just like the last time you took your eyes of the road and wound up driving on the shoulder. Then looking back to the road, you correct without even thinking about it. If you are a builder or a restaurant owner, I can understand why you pay more attention to blueprints or menus, but if you want to have enough to pay yourself at the end of the month, learn to use your financial statements.
I’ll give you my easy method in next week’s blog.
We are all motivated by “free.” But free is more than just a low price. In a new book Predictably Irrational , behavioral economist Dan Ariely of MIT tests how humans respond to free. In discussing free, he uses the example of how Amazon’s sales really took off when they began offering free shipping for orders over a certain level. Everywhere but France. On investigation, Amazon management found that in France, the country manager decided to do the promotion a little differently by offering shipping for one franc (in the US, it might be the same as offering shipping for 50 cents. ) But one franc did not elicit the same irrational response as free. When they changed the offer to free, they had the same response as everywhere else – spectacular sales growth. The bulk of the book is actual experiments that he performs with different age groups to understand how we all behave.
Responding to free is only one of several irrational behaviors he investigates. He looks at how honest we all are, how we react to irrelevant environmental clues, even how adolescent boys change their behavior when they are excited and many others.
This is my new favorite book. It defies categorization. The bookstore where I found it had it categorized in Self Help. For me, it belongs in the Business, except that many books in this section are (forgive me) boring. This book is anything but boring. It is an easy read. The author has a dry sense of humor and playfulness that makes the science of his investigations seem like fun. I think it is really a science book … the science of Behavioral Economics. I suspect most bookstores do not have a section for behavioral economics, so you might have to ask.
I believe any small business owner who reads this book will find plenty of ides for their business. This is a must read.
A dog trainer once told me that the perfectly trained dog is one that is always looking to you for permission to do the next thing, whatever that is. You want the dog’s eyes on you, waiting for your next command. The way you get a dog to act this way is to always discourage initiative on the part of the dog. If they are going to run out the door as soon as you open it, slam the door in their face. They will quickly learn to look to you for permission to go out the door.
Some managers do a similar thing when working with employees. Whenever the employee takes any initiative, the manager responds with a criticism or correction or a question, “Why did you do that…” The employee quickly learns that they need to check with the manager before they do anything. The manager may feel more in control but can’t figure out why they are so stressed and working so hard. This management style is one that is focused on control instead of employee empowerment. The manager needs to feel involved in every decision. While this may be gratifying to the manager, it makes for weak organizations. The manager’s efforts are divided by the number of employees and the growth of the organization is limited by that fact.
If the manager, instead, supports the employee by complementing the initiative and embracing ideas that are not the manager’s own, the employee will develop the confidence to act independently and think for themselves. Obviously, this only works in an environment where the employee has clear boundaries to their authority and responsibility. But the goal here is an organization made up of employees who know and do their job without needing to check in to the manager for every decision. The employee knows when they need their manager’s input. In this kind of organization, the manager’s efforts are multiplied by the number of employees instead of being divided by it.
Best of all, employees in this kind of environment enjoy their work more and have much better job satisfaction. No one likes to be treated like a dog.
Over 30 years ago, we had our first small business. Some friends recommended that we see a professional tax person, and they recommended the guy they used. I had always believed that with my engineering degree and an ability to do calculus, differential equations and analytic geometry, I did not need any help with my taxes. After all, I had the pamphlet from the IRS and tax preparation is just simple addition and subtraction. To prove them all wrong, I did my taxes myself, then we had our first appointment with Peter.
It’s an understatement to say that I learned a lot that night. Not only did Peter do our taxes competently and conservatively, but he saved us considerably more money than his fee. He educated me about how much more a tax accountant learns each year to be able to prepare taxes and understand the finer points of tax law. Let me state clearly, Peter never did anything shady or marginal; but he knew how to do his job well. And he was current with the latest regulations and tax court decisions.
After that night, I looked forward to my annual visit to Peter. He was not merely filling out forms, he was documenting my life in a way that not only fulfilled my obligations but saved me money every time. At times, it seemed more like he was painting a picture than filling out forms. He was truly an artist.
Peter’s daughter, who grew up working for him in the office, is now a CPA and took over his practice about 10 years ago when her father retired. She still does my taxes with the same artistry of her father. I still look forward to my tax appointment every year, and every year I learn more about our obscure tax code.
The lesson for any small business is that unless you are a tax accountant, get professional help with your taxes. This is a very specialized profession and a good tax accountant will save you more than their fee.
I have found that most managers from small businesses need coaching on how to become more effective, and that often the basics of the “craft” of management seem to be lacking. Many small business persons get into business not to be a professional manager, but they become managers by default because they build houses, or have a professional practice, or want to make money from their cooking skills. Nothing in any of those professions prepares small business owners to be effective managers. Many believe that effective leadership and management means “I am the boss and I tell you what to do.” End of discussion.
I always start with the basics of employee feedback, clear job descriptions, reviews, etc. These are foundations of the relationship with any employee and not just something that big companies do. How can an employee do their job if you have not told them what their job is and suggested to them on how to do their job better?
A couple of years ago, I discovered a fabulous resource for any manager in any size company. It is called Manager Tools and is a comprehensive body of recorded discussions on everything from how to give employee feedback to how to shake hands. It is distributed in the form of a weekly podcast and can be found for free either through their web site at Manager-Tools.com or through the Business section of the podcast directory of iTunes. (For those who have not yet discovered “podcasts”, or are technically phobic, do not be intimidated. A podcast is just like a radio broadcast that you can access through your computer. Just load iTunes for free over the internet, go to the Podcast Directory, search for Manager Tools and subscribe.) The basic subscription is free and like much of the internet today, there are enhanced services for a nominal fee, but the free weekly podcast is fantastic by itself.
The two business consultants who produce this information work mostly with large corporations and so for small businesses, some of the podcasts are not relevant. But for the most part, the information is useful to anyone in business. I am a giant supporter of this resource, have suggested it to most of my clients and would recommend it to any small business person.
Imagine someone trying to teach a non-swimmer to swim by throwing them in the deep end of a pool and walking away. Then upon returning sometime later, finding that struggling student is not doing a perfect crawl across the pool, yelling at the student.
While this seems ludicrous, it is a pretty good parallel to how many otherwise smart business people treat employees. When a client tells me that they have a problem employee and I start to explore the situation, I usually find that there is no job description, no training, no consistent feedback on good or bad performance.
Most successful small businesses start with a core of people who learn quickly, adapt to new situations and are willing and able to take on new undefined responsibilities. But these people are relatively rare. It is a mistake to assume that a business can continue to grow by continuing to find this kind of employee. Later employees need a more structured situation with a better defined set of responsibilities. It is the manager’s job to make sure the employees knows what their jobs are and how to do them, and to give them regular feedback along the way.
It is possible to build a small business using sink or swim management, but the owner will be frustrated with a high turnover looking for the rare employees who learn to swim before they drown.
The true test of great customer service is not how nice your staff is. The true test of great customer service is what you and your staff do when things go wrong.
When Margaret Fox owned Cafe Beaujolais in Mendocino, she trained her staff to solve the customer’s problem at the table. It was more than just training. It was empowering. To correct a less-than-ideal experience, or even because the customer took so much delight in the dish, the staff could comp a dish or a bottle of wine, or the whole meal if they thought it was appropriate. Word-of-mouth reputation works both ways. It is much less expensive to prevent a bad reputation than to correct it once it has spread.
Many small business owners fear giving employees this authority. They feel the need to be in control of any financial commitments made for the business. This is a good instinct in general, but misplaced in the case of creating great customer service. You want to leave the customer feeling like they had a great experience regardless of any problems that occurred. The cost of a bottle of wine or a free dish is trivial; the effects of a bad experience can be enormous.
Danny Myers, in his recent book Setting the Table, has a whole chapter titled “The Road to Success is Paved with Mistakes Well Handled.” He looks at problems and mistakes not just as something to be fixed, but as opportunities to turn the problem into a truly exceptional experience for the customer. He calls it “writing a great last chapter.”Clearly there is a lot more to great customer service than just creatively solving customer problems, but I believe that there is a very high correlation between organizations that do so well and those that succeed.
By the way, the book Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business by Danny Myers is a book about his experiences in the restaurant business. But it is also a fabulous management book for anyone in any business that deals with the public. It is a must-read for anyone concerned with great customer service.
This is about breaking through blocks that prevent us from getting things done.
I love to ride my bicycle. Road, trail. It does not matter. But I often have trouble getting started. The critical time is the first 12 minutes of the ride. As I get closer to the time for the ride, I find that maybe my knee hurts, or that I am tired, or that it is cold outside or that it looks like it might rain. You get the idea. I would like to tell you that I always overcome those rationalizations, but often I do not. But what I have found is that if I can just get on the bike and ride 12 minutes, all of that goes away. I get into the ride, I forget my knee and my discomfort with heat, cold, wind, and all of the other excuses. What was all the fuss about? This is great!
To me there is a lesson for my business life and maybe for my coaching clients. What ever it is that we are avoiding or putting off with excuses, rationalizations and resistance, we just need to make a deal with yourself to do it for 12 minutes. Sometimes that gets you past the block and into the project.
There is a great book on the subject of breaking down the resistance to getting things done It is called The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. He addresses this problem from the point of view of a professional writer, but what he says can be applied to any of us who struggle with getting things done.
For other books I have found helpful, see my book list.