Back to the Basics by Michael Giardina

April 19, 2010

Review what works and reinforce it. If you have been in business for any length of time, you may already know many of these things. However, I am a firm believer in refresher courses. I always come away with a renewed vision for improving the way I do things. This is an opportunity where we can pick ourselves up even after failing and get up and try again. Heck, who ever succeeded at something the first time they tried? Most of us had to put in a lot of hard work and even attempt many times before succeeding. The first time up to bat did you hit a home run? For many of us, a home run wasn’t even in reach, but that didn’t mean we stopped playing baseball. So, it never hurts to refresh ourselves by getting back to the basics.

Sometimes we need to go back and reinforce time tested policies and procedures. You know, remembering the things we learned early in our careers or in college. Some of the best things I have learned were handed down by mentors and colleagues. Handed down by people that got my attention early in life, before I thought I knew it all. This was at a time when my mind was still a sponge. Here are a few of those things that I am reintroducing into my firm.

The two minute rule: You know, if it can be done in two minutes or less, do it now. Don’t wait, don’t procrastinate, get it done. Otherwise, put it on a list for future reference. This holds true when I delegate tasks. If I have asked a staff member to pitch in on something, then I expect the same approach. I do have to be careful not to assume they have nothing to do! Just the same, they have the autonomy to do it now or place it on a list, but it better follow the two minute rule.

Another rule is to set aside time on the calendar for concentrated work time on specific tasks and responsibilities. Nothing is worse than putting off important things for the urgent and not calendaring time for important work. If we think its going to get done on its own, we are greatly mistaken. Ultimately, we will be the one working late at night finishing something for a deadline, if we don’t schedule it. Some software will let you schedule reminders so you don’t miss these scheduled work times.

Scheduling periodic employee reviews is very important. Nothing is worse than employees not knowing where they stand or left without personal and company goals. Reviews are a great way to put into action new responsibilities, correct behaviors and even set new goals. Giving staff something to reach for is instrumental in how well your firm serves its clients and how we feel about ourselves. If staff isn’t at their best, customer service will suffer. Look into organizing your reviews so you can look back periodically at performance and goal attainment. You may also want to look into software that can help you with stay on track and remind you when they are due and what they are about.

Have brief staff meetings: Be sure to schedule, at minimum, monthly staff meetings to encourage a team attitude. Keep these short and well focused. No one likes long office meetings. Add to that, a yearly staff meeting or outing to introduce new policy and procedures and bring cohesiveness to the group. We are all different but we need to learn about each other so we can better work together.

Don’t get involved in every part of your business. The biggest mistake I have made as a business owner is to be too involved in every aspect of the business. Actually, that’s’ probably too nicely put. Too “controlling” is more like it.

The problem lies in that, those who are willing to take the risk of business ownership end up too close and personally invested. It comes with the territory though, since we as owners have spent so much time developing the skills of running a business. We then coddle it, nurture it and then end up slaving over it. It’s kind of like parenting a young child. You do every thing for that child and therefore it’s hard to let it go when it grows up. Well, if you struggle with this then I encourage you to work on loosening the reigns because this is the number one killer to business growth.

You can avoid this pitfall by empowering employees through responsibility, authority and autonomy. Be sure to assign responsibility and build a process to accurately review progress. Through delegation you will find freedom, but without process and review, you will find problems like inaccurate or overdue work. Give staff the right kind of authority to make day to day decisions. Be clear on what areas are theirs and what is not. This must reflect delegation and not control from the staffs point of view. Ask, they will tell you what they think. Make sure you don’t look over their shoulder too often. If they don’t feel the autonomy it will affect office efficiency and productivity and then you will end up taking control of everything again.

Probably the most successful way to overcome the pitfalls of taking too much control is reinventing ourselves in our staff. Be sure to spend one on one time at the office sharing your business knowledge, vision and pitfalls. If your firm is small enough spend time with all staff. Remember… let go of control.

Redefine your business model and process. What is your brand? When ever I hear this my mind does back flips on the costs to branding and then I usually become stifled and do nothing. Yet, I know that this is important because I have visited successful businesses and felt a sense of rightness that I cannot deny. You know, walking through a really nice shopping mall, business office or restaurant. Someone spent time making this work just right. That’s called branding. Does your signage, workplace and service attitude reflect this? If it doesn’t, then its time to educate your selves and consider how you are going to get from where you are to where you ought to be.

Begin by defining what your firm’s best skills or services or area of expertise are. Make a list. A long list is ok. Weed out things that are important to you, that don’t bring in a lot of revenue. Now, everything including your firms name, sign, lobby, processes and they way you serve clients should line up with the list.

Review processes to align them with your vision. Improve by automating where possible. If you don’t have workflow and paperless software systems, start looking. Get green, add a client web portal, improve the look and feel that your staff and clients get in your work place.

Review efficiencies. Where is wasted time spent? Review your work area. Is it clean and efficient? How do we overcome this? Re-evaluate how new technologies can get you there. Take advantage of other resources and training for making changes in your office. Hire an outside source to review you business model and branding. These are all ways to infuse change and reach the goals for your firm.

Be sure your A/R policies work. We as small firm owners love to do the work, but hate to have to collect for it. Why is that? Don’t we deserve to be paid for what we do? Of course the answer is yes, but why to most owners struggle with this part of the business? I believe because it is more stressful to collect, especially on bad clients, than it is to do the work. We don’t like the personal interaction, the pressure of negotiations, the fear of offending a client or even losing them. We had better get this right because cash flow is the life blood of our business.

By keeping good enforceable policies, utilizing staff and technology and maintaining a good attitude we can alleviate most of the stress about the collection process. One policy, especially on annual projects or one time projects is; money up front or upon completion. You don’t know how many times I have seen a placard that reads “Payment is due when services are rendered”. Yet so many clients tell me “My oldest clients are used to paying net 30 or 60, they would never pay when they pick up their work.” Well, that’s just not true! Set this policy for all clients as a start point and foundation. You will have exceptions, but avoid making them the rule. Another policy I encourage is to give opportunity to keep good clients by extending a grace period to them. Your best clients are your best client’s, period. They may require a little different treatment on occasion. Be careful and fair but don’t make this the rule as it can cause a failure in the collection process. Any inconsistency will be seen as a weakness and the worst clients will find a way to exploit this. Good collection policies can actually help you rid yourself of bad clients. Enforce new stiffer policy, raise your rates and get rid of the 5% of bad clients taking up 25% of your time, usually for free.

Have your staff provide the bill and collect the money. This takes you out of the equation and makes it less personal. Choose a trustworthy staff to handle client negotiations. If necessary, find an outside collections source or use software that will send out reminders and letters when customers are overdue. Be careful not to get financially extended, even with your best clients. So many firms keep doing the work well beyond the time they should and find themselves with completed work that doesn’t get paid for. This is a big hole to avoid. Find technology that helps you manage this. Billing and workflow systems should work hand in hand on this. Make sure you have an alert in your software if a client is overdue, thus advising staff to stop working on that client to circumvent the real possibility of never collecting.

Be aware that you carry the burden, not your staff when it comes to finances. When things aren’t going well you may feel and act poorly. Don’t let these worries be displayed publicly. Nothing is worse for productivity when staff worry about company finances or where their next check is coming from. So maintain a healthy attitude about money and collections.

So, if you’ve been in business for any time at all, you know what you can do to get back to the basics. Reinforce what works, delegate, redefine yourself and watch cash flow. Doing so will nurture a great attitude in your office relationships which will have a good effect your clients and ultimately help you run your business more effectively.

If you don’t have software that manages your business, Office Tools Professional, our parent company, makes software called “Practice Management” that can help you with many of the things addressed in this article.

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