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Eliminating your top frustrations

What causes your business the most pain? What really irks you in terms of waste or annoyance?

When we asked small business owners about their top frustrations, there were 2 topics that kept recurring: finding, training and keeping good staff, and getting some time out for themselves. Of course, these 2 topics are related. If you have good employees who know their job well and whom you can trust, you can take time off and let the business run itself for a while. But how do you get to that point, and why do so many business owners find it so hard?

Probably you started your business because you were great at what you do. Even now, you probably can do a better job than any of your employees. You’re worried that if you go away, things will slip. Maybe you’re right, but maybe it’s worth it for the break. Then again, if you lose too much business, maybe it isn’t. So how do we sort these problems?

To be able to take time off and be confident that you will not take unacceptable losses by doing so, you need to be sure that your personnel know what to do and are capable of making good decisions. For now, let’s concentrate on how to free yourself from having to be available all the time and assume your employees are essentially capable and trustworthy.

Employees are forced to depend on you if:

• There are some tasks that only you know how to do
• Their roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined
• Processes are not clearly defined and documented
• You are the expert and your employees have limited technical or product knowledge
• Customers keep asking for you
• There is no one who can fill in if someone is away

Before you can safely take time off, you need to fix these situations.

The tasks only you know how to do

The solution to this is pretty obvious. You need to identify those tasks that only you know how to do and train someone else to do them.

As the business owner, it is likely that you are the first one there in the morning and you open up the place, check stock levels and turn equipment on. At the end of the day you probably close off the till, run reports and do the banking and backups. When things are busy, you usually hop in and get your hands dirty doing whatever your business does. If there is a difficult technical problem, you will probably be the final support person. Whatever it is that you know how to do that no one else does, document and train someone else to do. Write a procedure for start-of-day and end-of-day. If you know you get a rush-hour of customers at a particular time, train your office or accounts people in the rudiments of serving customers. They will probably welcome the break from staring into a computer screen. And as you tackle difficult technical problems, document them and pass on your experience at your next staff meeting so that next time they won’t need you to solve it.

Roles and responsibilities

Do your employees know what tasks they are each responsible for, or do you need to regularly point out things for them to do? Will they sit on their arses if you are not around to point out to them the things that need doing? Do they know which issues they have the authority to make decisions on and which they should defer to you?

One person should have primary responsibility for each regular or intermittent task. That doesn’t mean only one person ever does it, or knows how to do it. It just means one person is responsible for ensuring it gets done.

To define roles and responsibilities, you need 2 lists: a list of people who work in your business and a list of tasks that need to be done. You may like to divide these tasks into daily, weekly, monthly and annual. You may also like to divide them up into categories such as acquiring stock, stock management, marketing, sales, asset maintenance, accounts, personnel services and operations. Some of these categories, such as operations, may need to be subdivided. In an established business, the easiest way to come up with the list is often to simply ask each of your people what they do each day, each week, each month, each year or one-off jobs that they have needed to do.

Once you have your lists, split tasks up amongst your people in a way that makes best use of their talents and their time. Next, give them a bit of freedom to improve the way things are done. Allow the key person for each process to define or modify the procedure, in consultation with others if appropriate, to come up with the best way of doing it. For some responsibilities you might give them a budget to spend how they feel most fit. For example, one of your employees may be made responsible for maintaining the building. This may include keeping the premises (including the kitchen and toilet) clean, reorganising shelving and stock and ensuring equipment is well-maintained. Sit down with them and work out a realistic budget, listing all of the things that you’d expect the budgeted amount to cover. Ensure you break the budget up into, say, expected monthly spend, so that it doesn’t all disappear at the beginning of the year. From then on, the only time your staff need to consult you is if they foresee it going over budget. To reassure yourself, you can ask them to report monthly to you so that things don’t get out of hand without you realising.

Documenting processes

Once again, it is pretty obvious how to solve this one. Often the hard part is knowing where to start. Most businesses write a procedure either when someone goes on leave (or leaves the business) and they realise no one else knows how to do it, or when there is an incident. This is not the ideal way, because you will end up with gaps and overlaps. The best approach is, as already mentioned, to take a structured approach when you define roles and responsibilities. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. If a piece of equipment comes with good, clear instructions and there is an external training course available at reasonable cost, you probably don’t need to write an internal procedure on it. Or if you do your accounts using a well-known software package, you may need only a checklist to ensure all tasks are completed. However, if there is a complex process that only one person in your business (such as you) does on a regular basis, then you definitely need a clear, detailed procedure and you should train at least one other person to be able to do it in their (or your) absence. When working out what procedures you need, in addition to tasks, you need to consider what can go wrong and how you want people to handle those things. For example, you will need emergency procedures, even though, with good procedures you plan not to have emergencies. You should also consider things that can go wrong that are outside of your control, such as power outages.

Set up a folder for procedures, organised in a logical way, and ensure people know they are available and where to find them. Also, review them regularly. They are no good to you if no one can find them when they are needed, or they are not up-to-date.

You are the expert

If you are the expert and you do not pass on your knowledge, you can forget having time off. Somehow, you need to pass your knowledge on. You will probably do this randomly through the course of your work. Your employees watch you and listen to you and learn your product knowledge, if they happen to see or hear you. But there will always be gaps, and in any case, if you’re a smart cookie, you’ll be continuing to learn.

To overcome this, you need to define what a person needs to know to do the job. If they are selling products, they will need to know the products and be familiar with their uses. Once again, we can do this in a structured manner. Categorise your products. Perhaps you deal in pumps, pipes and fittings. What are the different types of pumps you sell? How are each of the different pumps used? What are the pros and cons of each type? What sizes do the pipes come in, and what materials are they made of? What are their typical uses? What fittings are available? Look at each category and work out what your employees need to know about each of the categories.

Then start training your people, and when you think they are trained, check their knowledge. Send them to supplier training courses then ask them to present what they learnt to the rest of the staff. Run regular training sessions yourself, then listen to them talk to customers, or get them to train other staff. Run regular toolbox meetings and pass on what you’ve learnt this week. Ask each of your staff to come up with one new thing they’ve learnt since the last meeting. Make all of your people experts.

Customers keep asking for you

Naturally you are passionate about your business and about customer service and you have developed fantastic rapport with your customers. But if you are the only one your customers will deal with, you might as well remain a sole trader. How do you wean your customers off you and get your staff to take care of them? First, make sure you introduce your staff to your customers. After a friendly chat, ask your staff to look after them and head for the office, looking busy. Make some phone calls if necessary. You can even hide when you see them coming, or get your staff to tell them you are tied up with another customer and can they help them? Continually tell your customers about your wonderful staff, so that your customers feel confident with them. And if you’re away for the week and truly unavailable, and they are well looked-after while you are away, chances are they won’t ask for you next time.

There is no one to fill in

It doesn’t make sense to be away during the busiest times of the year, so you may have to plan your holidays around the quieter times. You need to plan ahead and train up your regular staff to be able to do your jobs, and organise some casual staff to cover the simpler jobs. In a small business, think about relatives or friends who may like a bit of extra pocket money. In some cases you may need to use the services of a labour hire company, but if you do, ensure you have adequate procedures and training for them to get to know your processes. Allocate them the simpler tasks, so that you don’t need to do too much training, plus a regular “buddy” to train them and keep an eye on them.

Overall, the key to getting time off is having a structured, well-documented business with reliable, well-trained employees. Then, even if you don’t take a holiday, you can free up time to work on strategies to grow and improve your business.