Thursday, September 01, 2011

Four Resolutions for the New Business Year

With summer fading and Labour Day roaring 'round the bend, I want to wish you a safe and fun long weekend. Next week, there will be a new renewed sizzle in the air as everyone's minds turn back to business, mastering that all-important fourth quarter, and planning for 2012.

I've always thought that Labour Day marks the true start of the new business year. To mark the occasion, reprinted below is a slightly condensed version of my Financial Post column on four new years' resolutions for your business, originally published on Sept. 1, 2009. Happy New Year!

Forget New Year’s Eve and the ball dropping in Times Square. With Labour Day coming and pucks dropping in towns and cities across Canada, this week marks the start of the real New Year, especially in business, where entrepreneurs and executives are now shifting their mindset from managing vacation schedules to executing freshly minted budgets.

Here are four New Year’s resolutions to help you get your business in better shape.

• Take a fresh look at your business, through the eyes of a customer. Hire a mystery shopper to walk through the customer experience at your business and report back, or just think through all your processes and systems that touch clients. Either way, you must identify and root out any discordant element that prevents prospects and customers from experiencing your company the way you would like them to.

Here are just a few things drive customers crazy: old brochures, out-of-date (or tired) websites, or client-facing employees who don't share your passion for your products and customers. You also have to blow up the roadblocks that prevent people from doing business with you, whether they’re stringent credit policies, delivery delays, or tedious online registration systems.

Forward-looking companies track and measure the customer experience, then set standards to ensure that everyone receives consistent quality service throughout the journey from curious stranger to valued client. Even the smallest business can set customer-response standards (e.g., phones answered within three rings; messages returned within one business day), or track conversion rates to see how many inquiries become genuine leads, and how long it takes to complete the sales cycle.

• Invest more in training your people for this tougher new economy. All your staff must be miracle workers (and not in the sense that if they're working, it’s a miracle). It’s their job to turn raw resources (time, money, or metal and plastic) into value-creating products and services, or to transform ordinary customers into raving fans.

If some staffers aren't big on miracles, reorient them or invite them to seek fulfillment elsewhere. Most people can be salvaged with a consistent application of entrepreneurial zest: help them understand how dependent your company is on their actions, and give them the training they need to perform their jobs right.

If your training budget is tight, pair up underperforming employees with mentors or “change buddies” within the company. This gives troubled employees a chance to recharge their batteries, learn new skills, and ask questions they might feel embarrassed to ask their boss. It may also revitalize older or superior performers, who will benefit from learning to put into words the skills and attitudes that have made them successful.

• Cull the herd. If training and retraining don't work, get rid of underperformers. This is a great time to find motivated new staff: there are many unemployed and underemployed people eager to work for a leading-edge company such as yours. (No idle flattery: if you weren’t a sophisticated, results-oriented leader, you wouldn’t have read this far.) Plus, with the gradual return of economic confidence, good performers who are already employed will be less wary about leaving secure jobs for new opportunities.

Be a wolf. At the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, I learned that the recent reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park has helped other species, including prey, in the region. With wolves back in the picture, sick and diseased deer are now culled early, before they can infect the herd. Result: the remaining animals are healthier and breeding more successfully. (In business, we call that productivity.)

• Say “thank you” every day. This simple resolution won't require trips to the gym or costly consultants. It simply reflects your dependence on other people’s good will for your success – and the karmic benefits that result when you thank others for the differences they make in your life.

You may still have the first thank-you note you ever got from your boss. All your staff want to hear from you more often, to know that they're on the right track, that they're recognized, and that their efforts are appreciated.

Written notes, especially in this email era, can have a lasting effect. But they're not just for employees. Make sure your industry partners – customers, suppliers, bankers – know how much they mean to you. Post them a thank-you note, invite them to lunch, send them a little gift. No strings attached.

You’ll not only bolster a relationship. You’ll restart dialogues that could result in valuable business tips, new opportunities, repeat business and referrals. Your colleagues and staff already know how important they are to your business. They're just waiting to see if you do.