Discover your free Construction Marketing Ideas Email Newsletter

Friday, May 09, 2008

Eight guidelines for business/marketing success (or eight lessons learned the hard way)

The rowing together image is from the Caswell Corporate Coaching Company home page. We learned our meeting system and policies from CCCC's Bil Caswell.

This blog's launch (you can see the early entries deep in the archives) co-incides with the inflection point in late 2006 when my business hit bottom after a painful three year decline. From 20 employees and publications in five Canadian and U.S. cities, we were briefly down to one part-time employee. The painful failure and surprising resurgence have taught me some important lessons about business. The school of hard knocks can, indeed, teach us some important lessons.

1.You need to have a staff meeting at least once weekly, no more than an hour.

I used to hate meetings and ran the business without them except in exceptional or special circumstances, considering them to be a waste of productive work time. Bad mistake. Meetings serve some important purposes including managing work flow, setting priorities, and ensuring alignment amongst everyone. Our meetings have an agenda (there is always room for 'new business' and late additions), and are co-ordinated with "Action Items" so we can track on work progress. All salaried staff are expected to attend and independent contractors closely associated with the business are invited. Notably, a sign of the meetings' success is that the independent contractors -- who don't need to come -- generally show up! (We have several out-of-town employees who attend by teleconference; local employees are encouraged to be in the office but can join in by phone if it is inconvenient to get to the office.)

There are other good meeting formats -- some businesses find the Daily Huddle to be very effective -- here everyone in the work group gets together for no more than 10 minutes for a quick update and progress report. People who use this methodology say it saves time as back and forth discussions one on one are reduced during the day and all issues are addressed quickly. We will probably go to the huddle format when we are a little larger.

We learned our meeting approach from Bill Caswell of Caswell Corporate Coaching Company (CCC).

2. You need a full scale planning meeting once a year, and probably a six month secondary evaluation/co-ordination meeting.

These are major events -- "the management retreat" -- and in our business, involve all employees and contractors. The cost is high --- I need to fly in several people from out of town locations, and hire professional facilitators, but I realize now these meetings are where the company sets its course and where people who can't see each other routinely have some important face-time with peers. For a small business (presently) we are spending a truly significant amount of money on these meetings but I realize they are a cornerstone of our growth.

3.You need to connect face-to-face with your community and market

For years, some of our salespeople insisted on doing everything by phone -- or, in the rare cases when they would meet someone, the meeting had a sales purpose in mind. Our editor would go out to some events but in the latter stages, as cutbacks intensified and demoralization set in, he started relying as well on the phone and press releases! Bad move. Face-to-face contact without worrying about or forcing the actual sale is really important in business, especially these days when so much is conducted online and by email. When you see people, you get feedback, interaction, mutual respect, and new ideas. Get out there.

4. You need to adapt and introduce the new technologies but (unless you are in the technology business), you don't want thinking about these things to overtake you.

I'm wary of "simple" systems integration and CRM (Client Relationship Management) programs, at least the formal kind that are centralized . In the prefect world, these tools should allow you to seamlessly communicate with clients adapting the product and message to them, and allowing great teamwork. The reality is that many of these things just don't work very well, and force sales people and administrative staff into straight jackets of process rather than substance. We patch our IT systems together to get the job done -- yes, we will need to refine and revise things as we evolve and grow, but I'll always as CEO keep the "efficiency+effectiveness/cost" ratio in mind when evaluating projects.

5. Your employees need a mixture of freedom and accountability (with the emphasis on freedom)

Pure unbridled freedom invites abuse and abuse by one employee can spread to others, resulting in a breakdown of order and priorities. Equally, employees are adults and should be treated that way -- I respect the people who work in our organization to be able to think for themselves, solve problems without running to the boss, and respond swiftly when something isn't right. In exchange they don't need me breathing down their backs.

6. Hire carefully, slowly, and with clear guidelines

Our hiring system is elegantly effective. We (initially) don't read resumes. Instead we send all candidates a questionnaire with a brief job description. If you don't answer the questionnaire, you don't get the job! (Duh). If you do, we then compare the questionnaire responses to the resume to check for inconsistencies -- and people who pass the initial screen (about 1/5 of the people who send us resumes in the first place) receive a phone call.

Then, depending on the job, we either use an online test or go directly to a paid freelance or working assignment for finalists. This serves as the "interview".

Our hiring system works because I realize people spend too much time faking up resumes and "dressing up" for interviews -- two things which mean very little in the real working environment. We want to know instead: "Do you really want the job? Are you capable of the work? Would you work well with us?" and we don't want to spend hours 'sifting resumes'. The system works.

7. Have systems but remember people, ideas, and clients make the business work

We obviously have systems, but are not bound in knots by policy rules and directives. Take for example our travel policy. You can stay where you like, eat what you want, and do what you like -- just use common sense and think about it as if you are spending your own money. Once, for fun, I bought a full fare business class ticket for a key employee so we could go to the airline lounge and sip on a few drinks. We then refunded the ticket, and hopped on another flight with a discount airline. We won't do that every trip, but I shudder to think about how that would fit within any 'travel policy'.

8. Have fun

When business becomes (mostly) unpleasant work, change things so that you can enjoy yourself again. I can't see anything worse than being stuck in a dead-end and demoralizing space because you need the money to survive. I realize that not everyone has this freedom, but I think we can all take at least small steps to gain control and have some satisfaction in our work. As an employer, I want to be sure that this company's employees, most of the time, really enjoy what they are doing. This is common business -- and marketing -- sense, because if the employees are happy they will interact with current and potential clients with the same level of enthusiasm and, indeed, that is the best way to find new business and grow the current one.

No comments: