Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Best Practices, Part One

Last month I blogged about "Best Practices" vs. Good Ideas (see http://smallbizthoughts.blogspot.com/2009/03/best-practice-vs-good-idea.html.

That got me thinking about all the really great best practices I've come across. I wonder, What are the BEST best practices? In other words, what are the most important best practices for my business?

Unlike some topics, you can't really narrow down two or three key activities that make a consulting business successful. In fact, one of the reasons that growing a business is difficult is that you have to work on a lot of things all the time. You don't have to be perfect at everything. In fact, just working on the right habits is 80% of the battle.

A lot of people never try to work on best practices. They allow themselves to be overwhelmed every day by the crush of emails and work that "just shows up." With no planning, no process, and work ON the business, they end up coming back to the same position every day.

Their business is like the movie "Groundhog Day." When you do nothing to break out of your current situation . . . guess what? You stay where you are.

I made a list of Fifteen Best Practices that help me to be successful. I haven't tried to put them in any particular order because they all need attention all the time. Here are the first five:

Best Practice: Documentation

Here's a shocker. Write stuff down. Every day, at every opportunity, you should record what you do. Document router configurations. Document processes. Document the work you do. Document your time.

Everyone knows you need to do this. Well . . . almost everyone.

Until a recent conversation with someone at a franchise tech support outfit, I didn't believe that people intentionally failed to write down key information. I thought it was just bad habits and a result of always being in a hurry. But now I know that there really are people out there who think they get job security by keeping technical knowledge a secret.

I would fire such a person in a minute.

Develop a culture of documentation. PSA systems make this much easier. Or just buy a book filled with forms. ;-)

Best Practice: Join a Mastermind Group

I belong to HTG. But I've belonged to other groups before. I also belong to Robin Robins' mastermind group. And to Perry Marshall's.

If nothing else, get together with clients or other technicians you know. Create a group on the Internet. Do Something!

A mastermind group doesn't have to share financial information. But what it should do is to give you a "Board of Directors" for your company. It should give you a place to lay out your plans for the future, and force you to justify your decisions.

A mastermind group should hold you responsible for creating a business plan and a marketing plan. Even if you've done these on your own, it's still good to get feedback and be reminded to follow them.

Best Practice: Treat Your Business as The Business It Will Become

You have to run your business every day. But don't simply run the business you see in front of you. Run the business as if it had become what you want it to be. For example, hold weekly staff meetings even if there are only two of you.

Build an organization chart even if your name is in most of the boxes.

Make quarterly reports to your employees and "stakeholders."

Use professional letterhead, envelopes, and business cards.

Set written goals for yourself and your employees. Do formal evaluations at least once a year. Preferably once a quarter.

Create formal job descriptions. Follow them.

The more you act like the company you want to become, the more natural it will be when you get there. Function follows form.

Best Practice: Control Billing and Cash Flow

Get invoices out in a timely manner. Pay attention to the money side of business on a regular basis. At least once a week, review how you're doing with regard to payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, invoicing, and cash flow.

You don't have to be Silas Marner and you don't have to count your gold coins every day. But you DO need to take care of the money side of business.

Finances are not "difficult." They're just different. You absolutely cannot be successful in the long-run if you don't pay attention to money. I've heard time and time again how successful people ran their business into the ground because they weren't paying attention to money.

I personally had to stop using a sub-contractor a few years ago because he never sent me a bill. He did amazing work. Very talented. But he never sent the invoice! I guesstimated his labor and billed the client. But he never got paid because he wouldn't tell me what I owed him, even after several attempts.

Let's face it: You might not like the money side of business. And you might not be very good at it. But you have to pay attention to it. Your finances are critical to your success whether you manage them or not.

Best Practice: Attend Conferences, Get Involved, be Part of the Profession

Most people attend their first conference so they can learn things. They want to attend the technical track or the business track. They want to attend "best practices" seminars. They want to learn more about the tools they use in their business.

But they always that the best conversations are at lunch, dinner, in the hallways, and at the bar.

Come for the content. Stay for the people!

In other words, they discover that this profession of ours is a lot more than bits and bytes. It's a lot more than formal practices. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone with a need for knowledge struck up a conversation with someone who is having success in that same area.

The best conferences I've ever attended are NOT the ones where I learned more about a program or tool. The best conferences are the ones where I came home eager to change my business for the better because I met the right person in the hallway!

I hope you think of yourself as a professional.

Now it's time to engage in your profession. Your profession is more than just showing up and doing your job. Conferences are filled with best practices about the norms in your profession and the expectation of excellence.

Think about it: Conferences are NOT filled with sessions on
- How to barely get by
- Memory tricks so you never have to document
- Frugal shopping for starving technicians
- Overselling and under-performing

No. Conferences are filled to the brim with professionals learning from each other and engaging in a higher level of learning.

We all work hard all the time. In many cases, we don't have time to step back and work on the higher level activities that we know will grow our businesses. Conferences provide that opportunity.

Even in a down economy, you should attend at least one conference per year. And don't just show up: Dig in! Engage people. Talk about what you do and ask them what they do.

- - - - -

Recap: Five Best Practices

- Documentation
- Join a Mastermind Group
- Treat Your Business as The Business It Will Become
- Control Billing and Cash Flow
- Attend Conferences, Get Involved, be Part of the Profession

Remember: Everything counts. But don't overwhelm yourself.

Build the right habits and the right habits will build you.


Looking for great books and other resources focused entirely on the SMB Consultant? Visit www.smbbooks.com.


  1. "No. Conferences are filled to the brim with professionals learning from each other and engaging in a higher level of learning. "

    Which conferences have you been going to? :)

    Erick's impersonation of the IT guy that does asset tag engraving will stay with me for the rest of my life.

    "6.. DING... A.. DING... 9.. DING.."

    Karl - Fish fear him.


  2. The fact that people like you nad me attend conferences does not mean that high quality people ALSO attend.



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