Thursday, April 09, 2009

Best Practices, Part Two

A few days ago I posted the first five Best Practices. Here's the next five. Again, in no particular order.

If you're a regular reader here, you will have noticed that you've seen these topics in some format before. After all, these are the key things that I believe make our company better at what we do and help us reach our goals. In addition to money, our goals include a nice working atmosphere with good clients and good employees.

Best Practice: Have a Formal, Detailed Hiring Process

Some people will argue that small businesses should not have a formal "big business" hiring process. But that's absurd. What's the alternative?
- Hire your friends and cousins
- Put up with "anyone" and hope you get lucky

Really, what's the agrement for not having a good process?

I outlined the process we use here.

Basically, any real process is better than no process. You don't have to have a big, complicated system. But you need to have something.

Hiring the wrong employees can destroy your business. Anyone who has hired more than three people has probably made a bad hire. Any process that helps you avoid a bad hire is worth doing.

Erick Simpson has a great discussion of the hiring process in his Service Delivery book.

Best Practice: Avoid Scope Creep At All Costs

If you've attended any of my seminars in the last two years, then you know that the most important money-saving phrase ever invented is "That's outside the scope of this project."

Most consultants never learn to say this. I don't know whether they're shy or just let the client call all the shots.

The basic problem is that you estimate a job based on the work you know about. But once you show up, the client adds a little job here and a larger job there.

I really fell for this one time early in my career. I showed up to do a simple job. But the client had brought in a home computer. He'd screwed it all up, added a drive, messed up the cables, etc. It took a couple of hours to fix.

Happy client? No, of course not.

"You estimated three hours to set up our email, but it took you five. I'm not paying for this!"

We argued. We settled. And he was the first client I ever fired. I believe the letter said something like "You need to find a consultant whose approach to technology is more consistent with your own."

Which really means "You're cheap and I insist on being paid for the work I do."

Please practice the following phrases during all waking hours:
1) "That's inside the scope of the project"
2) "That's outside the scope of the project"

The truth is: I've never had a client argue when I said "That's outside the scope of the project."

I don't say I won't do the work. We simply create a NEW service request for the new project. That way, you can log time against the original service and then put all the add-on labor to the SR you added on.

This is a MAJOR sticking point with many companies.

A PSA system will help tremendously. But you have to learn it and use it.

One of the key rules for success here is that All work is done from a service request. So, no matter what the client comes up with, you simply create a service request. The original job is paid for via the original SR. The new work is paid for via the new SR.

You get the idea.

Best Practice: Create Simple Themes that Your Team Can Memorize

Awhile back I told the story of our regular staff quizzes: See Quick Quiz: What do we do and how do we do it?

How often have you heard that you need a 30-second "elevator speech?"

Make that a little bit more difficult and a LOT easier: Create a pitch that's five seconds or less.

What do you do? "We design, build, and support Microsoft networks."

That's it.

After that one-sentence statement, let your employees fumble through the discussion. The goal here is to give them a gold first sentence so the response is exactly the same every time from every employee.

. . . And you'd be amazed at how difficult it is to burn that tiny little phrase into someone's head. Monday (three days ago) we did our quiz. For the first time in TWO YEARS, everyone on the technical team got it 100% correct.

Remember that. You team does tech support and administrative support. They do billing and sales.

But 99.9% of the time, they don't think about marketing your company.

As with any other muscle of success, you need to exercise the marketing muscle. Develop a unique selling proposition. Perfect it. Practice it. Know it. And make your staff learn it.

Do not make this complicated.

Define one-sentence statements. What do we do? How do we do it?

Best Practice: Do Not Be Interrupt-Driven

There are at least 60 opportunities to be interrupted every hour. At 8 hours/day, that's at least 480 opportunities. But when you combine the telephone, email, shoulder-taps, blackberries, LinkedIn, Facebook, instant messaging, and 1,000 other things, you don't have a chance.

Unless you make it a habit to NOT be interrupt-driven.

You don't have to answer the phone just because it rings. You don't have to check your email all the time.

It is critically important that you focus on the job in front of you.

Consider the things that just pop up. Is that IM more important than the job in front of you? Probably not. Let me make that 99.9% probably not.

I love technology. But you really need to keep it in it's place.

Every minute of every day you have to choose to either FOCUS on the thing you're doing or allow yourself to be interrupted.

It's really that simple.

But that's really difficult for most of us.

The most important moment for your success is the present moment. Every moment of every day you have to choose to either stay on point or do whatever comes up. "Whatever" is not the answer.

It takes policies and procedures to avoid allowing yourself to be interrupted. You have to work at it.

Here are a few things to try:
- Disable the Outlook pop-up every time you have a message
- Only check your email once an hour. Yes. Really.
- Don't answer your phone unless you're expecting the call or it's related to what you're doing
- If you can, remove yourself from the phone tree
- Put everything you need to do into your PSA system. Use it.
- Finish every job to the extent possible before you go on to the next
- Prioritize every task. Do NOT do something "next" because it's the next piece of paper on the stack.

Best Practice: Weed The Client Garden

Back in 2007 I wrote about Weeding Our Client Garden.

I also discussed this very thoroughly in the Managed Services in a Month postings.

This is a good practice about once a year.

The world keeps changing. Clients change. Your business changes. Your products and services change. As all of these evolve, you may find yourself with the wrong mix.

As you evolve, your new clientele will evolve. What what about your old clients? Are they still a good fit?

Nothing personal, but we're all a bit lazy and complacent. If you have a client who is no longer a good fit, you'll keep them around just because they pay their bills. But if you and your business have evolved, an old client who is a poor fit can be a distraction from your current model.

Consider this: We got a call last week from someone who used to buy hours from us. But they didn't meet our revenue threshold. So we gently passed them on to another consultant in our user group.

But now they're back. Of course they only want to buy 1-2 hours.

So we had to say no. We have a business model and it's NOT built around scurrying all over town to pick up nickels.

We're not going to take a consultant away from a client on managed service who has made a long term commitment to us in exchange for one hour of labor at $225.

Now, with that in mind: If I have "clients" who fit the model of buying a few hundred dollars worth of labor a year, they fit this same pattern. They distract us from what we're doing.

You may have heard this advice about the stock market: If you wouldn't buy that stock today, don't keep that stock today.

Well, if you wouldn't hire that client today, don't keep that client today.

And this is NOT just about money. In 2008 we fired two clients because they were intolerable to work with. Arrogant, unfocused, unable to plan ahead, and unwilling to work inside the system we developed. In total, these two clients were worth more than $200,000.

As a small business, that's a serious hit for us.

But there's a lot less stress and anxiety in the service department.

Our office is a better place to work without those two clients. Yes, it hurts to give up the money. But, no, I wouldn't do it differently if I had known that the bottom would fall out of the economy. Money is easy to replace.

So, when you consider weeding your client garden, consider . . .

- Are they profitable?
- Are they profitable enough?
- Are they easy to work with?
- Are they interesting or fun to work with?
- Do they pay their bills on time?
- Do they take your advice?

You might create an evaluation form and have your technicians and key people rate each client. But I'll give you a hint: No one will be surprised at the clients who stand out as needing to be dropped.

You know who they are; you just need to draft the letter.

And don't feel bad sending these clients to other consultants. There are plenty of people who are willing to work with whoever you're giving up. Be honest about the reasons. Then let them go.

Warning: Sometimes client are VERY reluctant to go to another consultant. That's flattering, but you need to stick to your guns.

- - - - -

Comments welcome.


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