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Entries in Business Tips (9)

Wednesday
Jul072010

Before You Send Your Next Meeting Request Read This

Over the holiday weekend I was privy to some friends griping about a side of professional life I have, thus far, been lucky to avoid: pointless yet mandatory meetings. They come in all sorts of flavors from "staff meetings" to "team update meetings" to "just checking in to see how you're doing meetings" and tend to take a nice bite out of ones day- not to mention productivity- as the leader aimlessly attempts to give the assembly some meaning. I listened as they each recalled their horror stories; entire days eaten up by meetings where their input nor presence was necessary, open ended (i.e. endless) review sessions without any structure that continually deviate from any semblance of a productive course, hours wasted trying to set up/understand presentation technology that is supposed to help not hinder meeting efficacy. The tales went on and on each contributing to the mounting sense of frustration over these bureaucratic inefficiencies. Before they got to riled up I changed the topic - this was a BBQ after all- but it left me wondering what would be a few easy considerations to take before planning a meeting that would help you avoid chaotic time sink territory. Here is what I came up with:

 

  1. Why are you calling the meeting? If you can't identify at least three reasons to bring people together for a conversation then you could probably scratch the meeting itch with a well worded email inviting a response. If you're calling a meeting because you always have a Monday meeting ask yourself whether they are really necessary or if you could convey the message in a group voicemail, email or simply make the meetings less frequent. 
  2. Are you looking for feedback, input or discussion? Or, are you just looking to talk. A theme appeared as I listened to my friends talk. Too often meetings were called when someone wanted to report something or share pertinent information but wasn't really interested in what the attendees had to say. I can understand wanting to make sure the message was received but sending an email with a receipt attached or "to let me know you've read this send me a reply with 'PURPLE' in the subject line" placed randomly in your message are two ways you can ensure your message has been received without taking up valuable work time. 
  3. Who really needs to be there? Unless a person's opinion, experience or work is required to achieve the goals of you're meeting then they probably don't need to be there. Giving the usual suspects the option to attend a meeting is one thing but requiring them to be there when their minds are elsewhere isn't doing anyone any favors. Put some thought into who you're asking to attend and you might find your meetings move a bit more smoothly. 
  4. Give it some structure. It is no secret I'm a fan of organization and I think every meeting could benefit from some structure. When setting up a meeting let the attendees know when you want to start and how long you're intending the meeting will go. Then STICK TO THAT. Letting people know you appreciate their time and busy schedules and dedicating yourself to a predetermined amount of time will keep the spirits high and meeting clicking along. If you're really feeling on top of your meetings go ahead and share that list of reasons you identified back up on question 1. Priming their minds for the matters you're going to touch on will mean they'll also be more prepared for the meeting. 
  5. Multitask. If you find yourself reaching for the meeting button every time something crosses your mind that you want to share I would suggest instead adding it to a meeting "to do" list. At the end of the day/week take a look at the issues you've identified and see if there is some way you can bunch things together in one meeting or, pull out a few really important issues to dedicate meeting time to then write an email to cover all the other smaller issues. The most effort you put into streamlining your meetings the more effective that time away from other tasks will be. 

These five points are by no means a cure-all for the meaningless meetings epidemic however they are a starting point for inciting change within your organization. Smarter more effective meetings will send a ripple of similar efficiency through the rest of your company's workflow so start tightening up your meeting strategy today.

 

 

Wednesday
Jun232010

Making The Customer Connection

For a small business their customer & lead database is the heart of their sales process. Without an organized system for tracking who you sell to, how you sold them and what they bought a sales team will find themselves engaged in a wild goose chase on inefficiency and low profits.

Large corporations often have entire departments dedicated to standardizing the sales process and training their sales reps on their highly customized CRM process. Small businesses, however, don’t have the luxury of cost or time to establish extensive procedures or elaborate systems. None the less, small businesses have a very real need for a streamlined system to track their customer relationships. Luckily in the past few years some excellent services have appeared that can help your small business maintain an improved system of customer engagement.

While a spread sheet and a tidy Outlook contacts file are a good start you might want to consider one of the CRM service options if you’ve found yourself suffering from any of these common sales process road blocks:

  • Remembering you talked to somebody at Acme Client but you’re not quite sure who it was or what         asked for.
  • Sent out a whole bunch of sample kits but lost track of where they went and how long ago.
  • Passed a client off to the next in the sales chain but you’re not sure if they ever followed up with them.
  • Find yourself sending out the same single email to people throughout the day/week/promotion.
  • Continually realize there are ways your current system fails or creates gaps in your efficiency. 

This post isn’t intended to endorse one service over another -we will leave you to do your own investigating- it is intended to help you recognize the need for having a CRM system in place and some factors to consider when looking in to your options. So, here is a list of things to keep in mind before you sign up for a CRM system:

A good system will allow you to easily:

 

  • Track contact w/ each customer (Phone, email, face-to-face)
  • Take notes about client interaction
  • Integrate with your other systems
  • Track the sales process with each lead and customer
  • Manage your timeline of interactions, emails, appointments, etc and alert you if a deadline is approaching.
  • Most importantly, look at your existing process and identify the weaknesses you should hopefully be able to find a solution that resolves most, if not all, of those issues.

 

Before you approve the payment ask:

 

  • Do they have a service level that fits your budget? CRM services can help make you more profitable but don’t put all your money into the system and not the clients.
  • Can you easily navigate the user interface? Most services will allow you a trial period, if you find actually using the service to be cumbersome or confusing from the start you’ll most likely end up abandoning it eventually.
  • Is there room to customize? Your sales process is distinct to your business you should be able to tailor the service you use to maintain that process.
  • What kind of customer support do they provide? Do they offer webinars or training so ensure you understand how to properly use all the service’s bells and whistles? If something goes wrong will you be able to rely on them to help you find a solution? 

 

Now that you have a starting point go forth and find the solution that best suits your company’s needs. With a standardized CRM process in place you’ll be able to focus more efficiently –and hopefully, profitably- on your customers.

Some Options To Consider:

SalesForce

HighRise

Zoho

SalesBoom

NetSuite

Tuesday
Jun152010

Write It Out

When was the last time you wrote? I don’t mean a quick email reply to your officemate or 140 character tweet. I mean really took some time to sit down and write out your thoughts. It is a practice I often find myself doing when I am trying to develop an idea or clarify my opinion on a matter. It helps to solidify my positions and makes me much more articulate when I need to talk about the topic or my position later.

Of course, the fact the I have to write a lot for work, gives me motive to write regularly but, now that I have realized the benefits of putting my thoughts on paper I find myself doing it a lot more for reasons other than blogging or proposal writing. Usually while in the middle of putting my thoughts into words I will see my thoughts take a natural order, one I might not have come up with if I had tried to find key point before fleshing out the full argument. I even sometimes find myself questions my initial opinion or finding a whole new side of the argument. I vary my approach depending on my mood or topic and I always feel better –not to mention, more prepared - after I’ve put my mind through a bit of a workout.

If you think starting your own writing workout would help you make better at forming arguments and sort through your thoughts here are the two main approached I use. 

Free Styling

When I have a nugget of an idea or even something as vague as a general direction I will often let my natural synapses take control. To keep the thoughts flowing freely I’ll pick up a pen and go at it; sometimes when I type I find the process can interrupt the stream of ideas. So, with nothing between my mind and the paper in front of me I begin writing everything that comes to mind, doing my best to make the thoughts string together somehow but ultimately not fussing with semantics. I’ll do this until I hit a block or until I feel the ideas have really played themselves out. Then, I step away and let it sit for a while.

After at least an hour but sometimes as much as a week I will return to the work and start to give the piece shape. I’m not looking to necessarily make it publishable, just to extract the strong points and find the most concise relationship between them. I work with the brain dump until I feel like I’ve absorbed enough to either help me in future articles and/or presentations or in conveying opinions.

Much like a brainstorming session this no rules approach often shakes loose some ideas that wouldn’t have been revealed by a more formal process. It also helps improve my understanding of the way I write. Becoming familiar with my patterns and voice makes writing on assignment easier and more efficient.

Homework

On the occasion when I’ve been gnawing on some ideas but can really wrap my head around how to connect them or what angle to use to dig a little deeper I give myself an assignment. I take a basic editorial approach. First, by making an outline. In fact, I often push the outline step to it’s fullest trying to organize the various thoughts I’ve already come up with. Then, I begin to build prose around that outline. Challenging myself to make my writing as concise and relatable as possible.

This approach requires me to be more structured but it usually provides the connections I need to make the best argument succinctly. I generally us this when I need to understand my thoughts but, more importantly, I want to be able to share them with others. I will edit the prose until I‘ve reached a point that I feel it stands on its own then I put it aside. The mere exercise of working through my thoughts and refining them primes my mind for future conversations. Instead of worrying I may not be explaining myself effectively or trying to justify a position I haven’t fully thought through I am more confident in presenting my thoughts and opinions.

While this may seem like a lot of work it saves me a ton of time because my head is clear and my positions solidified. At least try it once and see if it doesn’t help you with your formal work.

Wednesday
Jun092010

Innovation Comes From Within: Progressive employee policies

A lot of changes in workforce management have occurred in the past decade as the economy, communication methods and technology have all done a fair amount of shifting. People no longer feel obligated to stay at the same company for decades; in fact, many workers change entire careers as their interests dictate. Yet the need for dedicated and skilled workers is as great as ever. So what are employers doing to build effective workforces? They're thinking out of the box and embracing progressive employee policies. If you're looking for new ways to improve the results you're getting from your employees consider some of the following ways other companies are shaking things up in their work places.

 

  • Give them room to roam; it is a well recognized fact that everyone learns in their own way. Some are visual learners, others do better if they hear a lesson and there are also those who thrive in a tactile learning environment where they can work through problems with their own two hands. The same can be said for the way people work; everyone has a particular method to be most productive. If you're interested in getting the best results from your workforce's individual skill sets then give them some freedom to find their comfort zone. If they are morning people then encourage them to come in as early as they'd like, if they work better standing up then allow them to change their desk situation. Working within the parameters of your expectations of them do your best to enable them to achieve those expectations in their own way.
  • Encourage creative thinking and allow employees to pursue their own ideas. Companies like Google and Azavea are getting a lot of recognition for allowing their employees to use 10% of their "work hours" to pursue individual projects. Their theory is that the more their employees work to build their own skill sets and interests the more they will benefit from the diversity of perspective and a staff capable of demonstrating initiative. Allowing workers to broaden their horizons can bring new ideas and opportunities to your company simply by extension of your employee's interests. This is particularly effective if you've hired people who are passionate about the work they do for your company as well as the company's overall ethos, then it is even more likely that their outside interests will dovetail with their internal projects.
  • Embrace the untraditional; identify elements of your business that are unique and build them into your employee policy. If you're an eco-friendly company encourage and enable a green work environment (provide a bike helmet for everyone who bikes to work, allow composting in the cafeteria) if you're an arts centric company set aside three or four days for cultural events like going to a concert or festival. Incorporating the company's brand identity in your employee policy is a way to not only practice what you preach but also encourage your workforce to partake of the ethos themselves.
  • Ask what you can do to make your employees' day easier. Offering small fringe benefits like dry cleaning pick up from the office, a monthly visit from a masseuse, arranging for a grocery shopping service to take orders and make a single delivery at the office are all small ways you can help reduce non-work related stress. The less they have to worry about all the things they have to get done after work the more they will focus on the tasks at hand while they're still at work.
  • Make learning accessible. The practice of reimbursing employees for going back to school while working for you has been around for a while but usually relegated to larger companies. More recently small businesses have been taking their own approach to providing educational opportunities to their workers by hiring consultants to teach their workforce about the strategy and lager business theories that drive businesses. These courses go beyond specific job training and reenforcing company policies to encompass more general business theories. Providing the opportunity for employees to learn more about their industry or business in general -trends, strategies and best practices - can improve their ability to work within your company and to understand the larger context within which that company operates. If you can't afford to hire an outside firm to provide courses (webinars, lunch and learns and face to face training are all common approaches) consider giving each employee some money to purchase business books or building an in office library.
  • Put yourself in their shoes. PortionPac, a cleaning chemical manufacturer in Chicago, sets aside one day every year to play a little musical chairs with the employees. The administrative workers go into the production center and spend the day in the shoes of the employees who actually produce their cleaning products. Shifting everyone's perspective of the company's workflow provides the opportunity to reconsider their methods. Doing someone else's work always changes the way you do your own, making this practice part of your company policy can help everyone get a better sense of their place in full workflow.

If your company is already using some innovative employee policies let us know. We're always interested in how businesses are evolving.

 

Wednesday
May122010

Be A Better Student

When I was in college I was the student who took color coded class notes, always had questions and made good use of professor’s office hours. What can I say, I have always loved learning (i.e. been a geek) and because of a childhood ADD diagnosis I had a well structured set of coping mechanisms to ensure I was absorbing everything I could from my education. In the years since leaving the world of formal education and entering the professional training & education industry I have slowly adjusted my set of learning tricks to adapt to the less formal learning opportunities I encounter. I have recently been observing people who attend conferences, webinars, training and presentations and thought perhaps sharing a few of my basic rules of thumb for making the most of an educational opportunity. 

  • Before the event (conference, keynote address, webinar) identify three things you’d like to take away from the experience. Whether you have a particular question about the event’s focus or simply want to expand your horizons putting some forethought into the topics at hand will prime your brain for learning. You don’t need to be too specific; unless you have so many goals you want to make sure you hit them all, in which plan away! Some examples of pre-event goals I’ve had recently:
    • Listen for/ask about social media case studies
    • Try to meet session leader, at the very least introduce myself
    • Gather trend information
    • Find this new product and get the “pitch” (trade show goal)
  • Take notes. You don’t need to go the color coded route but you should jot down a few observances or ideas that are inspired by the content being presented. Being an active note taker will make you a much more engaged listener and therefore more likely to acquire new knowledge. If a handout is provided then highlight facts/ideas that resonated with you in the moment but, it’s a good idea to always bring a pen and paper just in case.
  • During the event ask questions and provide input, if it is solicited. Speakers put a lot of time and thought into the content and structure of their presentations. When they ask for questions or input it is because they sincerely want to integrate your thoughts into their message. Plus, it is a chance to make sure the goals you set going into the event are satisfied.
  • While the issues, ideas and news is still fresh in your head try to find at least two ways it relates to your current work. Sometimes these opportunities are informational oasis in an otherwise static routine. If you’re able to tie the information acquired during these events to your everyday work you’ll be more likely to retain the new perspective. 
  • Once the event is over follow up; either by filling out a comment card or sending a note to the organizer/presenter. Be sure to identify what you took away from the event and, if necessary what additional information would have been useful. This gives you the opportunity to summarize the event succinctly and help the organizer/speaker continue to improve their content.

A lot of money and planning go into creating events and learning opportunities; using these tips will make sure you make the most of that investment.