Systems are wonderful. You can sit down after the Christmas and New Year break, confident that you’ll be able to pick up exactly where you left off. With no problems.
Or can you?
Perhaps that’s not your experience. Perhaps – when you get back to your desk – there’s a moment of dread. A moment where you’re thinking ‘Oh no – not again…!’
Don’t worry. You’re not alone. The world is full of systems that were started for a perfectly good reason. And which have long since outlived their usefulness.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about ‘old-fashioned’ systems. It’s very tempting to change a system simply because it seems a bit passé, but that, on its own, isn’t enough of a reason. Consider, for example, the fuss that was made about fax machines being used by the NHS. If you want a good example of 1980s tech, look no further. Fax machines were wonderful when they first appeared, but that was long before we had something called email. So surely it makes sense to use email instead?
Or does it?
When older is better…
In conversation with a friend who’s worked in the NHS I asked exactly that question. She grinned. ‘Of course email’s better. But not for everything.’
Surprised, I asked what she had in mind.
‘Simple,’ she said. ‘A nurse is writing a note – by hand – because it’s the quickest way to communicate an urgent request. She sticks it in a fax machine, presses a preset number to send it to a colleague, and the job’s done. It would take her twice or three times as long to send an email. And she doesn’t have the time. Even if she were allowed to use a smartphone in the operating theatre…’
So it may be old. But if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. If it is broke, on the other hand…
Why systems go worng…
There seems to be a rule that the bigger the project, the more likely it is to go wrong. Without casting stones at any particular administration, that seems to go double for major government IT projects.
So why do they fail so often?
I like to think it’s a collision of good intentions. A consultant friend recently told me about his experience with HMRC’s very first self-assessment form, long before the days when there was handy software around to help him fill it out. It took him two weeks, during which he, as a full-time freelancer, earned nothing at all. ‘They should have been paying me to do my tax!’ he laughed. So what did he think was the problem with it?
‘When I looked at it, I could see that someone – perhaps a consultant like me – had tried very hard to make it clear, straightforward, and easy to complete. All the signs were there. My guess? I think that after that it went through about half a dozen different civil service desks. And every single one of them added their own feedback. They’d have pointed out all the little exceptions. All the tricky details. In fact, all those things that make our tax system totally unsuitable for self-assessment – unless you’re a tax accountant. And that form was the result.
‘So yes – that particular road to hell was paved with good intentions. And millions of people had to travel it. All I can say is “thank God for software.”‘
…what can you do if you’re faced with a similar chimera?
A good place to start is with comments and feedback from people who have to use your systems, but had no part in creating them. People coming to it with a fresh pair of eyes. If they’re told what it’s meant to do, they may very well come up with fresh ideas and fresh approaches for delivering the results you really want.
As opposed to delivering frustration, annoyance, and bad feeling.
And if you could use a little help – and another fresh pair of eyes – why not book a free initial consultation?
If you keep just one New Year resolution this year, here’s the one to stick to: ‘You will delegate the work you don’t need to do yourself.’
In an earlier post you’ll find ideas to avoid being a ‘busy fool’ – by deciding what to do, what to delegate, and what to dump. But when you’ve made that important decision, the next step is even more important. Because you need to delegate the right work, to the right people, for the right reasons – and get it done in the right way…
The right work
Good – you’re clear about what task you want to delegate. But now you need to take a long, hard look at what, precisely you are doing, and how you are doing it. How would you describe it to someone else? What, exactly, would you ask them to do?
It may sound like a silly question: after all, you probably think that the answer is obvious.
But is it?
If it’s obvious, you should be able to write down what’s needed in a sentence or two. If you can’t, it may not be as obvious as you thought…!
Puzzled? Don’t be. In all likelihood you’ve been doing that job for months or even years. You know precisely what to do and how to do it. But all that information only exists in your head. And until it exists somewhere else, in an accessible form, you can’t really expect anyone else to do it for you.
So – write it down. And, perhaps, discuss it with the person you’d like to do the job. They may well have questions. They may also have suggestions: other ways of doing the work that are simpler, or more cost-effective. That’s the benefit of bringing in someone to help you, after all!
But only, of course, if they’re the right someone.
The right people
If you value your business, you don’t want just anyone to work in it. You’ll want people with genuine, proven ability who can make a real contribution. In fairness, that could include members of your family, but they may well have other things to do which they would regard as more important. (Like doing their own job. Or feeding the cat. After all, they may not want to work for you…)
If they’re an employee, be sure they are a good ‘fit’ for the job you’re asking them to do – and that they feel willing and able to do it. If they’re the right person in principle, but lack the necessary experience, you’ll need to invest in training them. That may well be a good investment, but you need to be confident that it’s worth making.
If you’re looking outside the business, at someone you don’t know well – such as a Virtual Assistant – you’ll need to check out their credentials. (And, ideally, what other clients think of them – perhaps via social media). Anyone can talk the talk, but you need the substance. And you need to get on with them on a personal level, as well – after all, they’re effectively going to be a part of your team.
The right way
Of course, trust is an issue, too. Depending on the nature of your business you may need your outsourcing supplier to sign a confidentiality agreement – especially given the more stringent rules around data protection from May 2018. And consider any terms and conditions you may need to apply – including, for example, permission for them to outsource work which, for any reason, they cannot do themselves.
Think of ‘trust’, and inevitably the next word you are likely to think of is ‘risk’. So what are the risks of outsourcing the work you have in mind? If something went wrong, what effect might that have on your business? Your answer is likely to shape your initial agreement with your new partner.
If the risk is relatively low, the best approach is probably to arrange an agreed trial period so you can see how the arrangement will work. If the risk is greater you will certainly want to set specific terms and conditions around the trial, and arrange for regular performance reviews. You will also want to have a Plan B available in case it doesn’t work out!
Inevitably things you haven’t thought of will come up (they always do) but a good, responsive outsourcing supplier will be aware of that and respond to feedback. If they don’t – or if their response is less than helpful – then it’s time to move on and find someone else! Every good business welcomes feedback. (You do – don’t you?)
Need a little help? Then please get in touch for a free fact-finding consultation.
Let’s face it, if you’re looking for the ultimate process then look no further than the North Pole. (Or Greenland. Or Lapland. Mr Claus seems a little cagey about revealing the location of his head office…)
Think about it. Billions of presents, all with a need to be supplied – and delivered – just in time. (Urgent: Little Johnny (Ref UK263-MR-CO2348978230) no longer wants the Iron Man Mk III rocket suit – he’s just seen Thor: Ragnarok and now he wants a scale model of Asgard and a throwable Hammer. NB that Little Johnny’s Mummy would like this item mislaid in transit…) A worldwide communication network that needs to be up and running every second of every day in the run up to the Main Event. And a distribution nightmare. (The right present, to exactly the right address, within a 24-hour window sliced into immutable 6-hour segments…) Well, it would certainly keep me awake at night just thinking about it.
So how could he possibly do it?
Theories abound, of course. Including several that involve messing with the fabric of reality and some ridiculously esoteric physics. But I’d go for something more earthbound.
He has help. Lots of it. Obviously.
Turning a challenge into a process
Want to do something that seems impossible? Then you divide it up into smaller tasks. And then divide those again. And keep going until the whole thing is a connected series of small, bite-sized pieces. (But note that key word ‘connected’…)
That, after all, is how humans reached the Moon. And how they’re already planning to build a colony on Mars. (Maybe they should have a word with Santa about sleigh-tech…)
And the lesson from all this?
If you want to grow your business in the coming year, and that seems impossible, think again. Work out what needs doing. Divide it up into bite-sized pieces. And then consider who – other than you – could do that job excellently as part of a planned and connected system.
And should you need a little help to design that system – well, you know who to call…
So here’s wishing you a very happy Christmas – and an exceedingly prosperous and successful New Year.
E-commerce? What a great idea! Just get a website out there, automate everything in sight, then sit back and let the cash roll in…
Well, that’s the dream. (And that’s precisely what it is – a dream!)
The nightmare comes when you’ve done that, and suddenly realise that ‘sitting back’ is no longer an option. For (at least) one of three possible reasons:
- Your website is indeed out there, and everything in sight is indeed automated – but you don’t have any customers.
- The website is working well and generating loads of business – but you haven’t actually worked out how to deal with the orders.
- You’re dealing with the orders – but you’re struggling to cope with the (inevitable) barrage of calls from customers who have a query, a problem, or a chronic inability to understand the internet…
And that’s the nightmare. (At any time. But especially just before Christmas.)
So – how do you get closer to the dream? And further away from the nightmare?
E-commerce – it’s all about process…
Like many things in life, e-commerce works best if you do some planning ahead. And in this case the planning you need to do starts with that all-singing, all-dancing website.
If you’ve designed the order process yourself, then you understand exactly how it works. (Hopefully.) But how does it look to a new customer? The time to ask that question is before you launch. And certainly before you do any marketing. Because you don’t want to spend the next six months dealing with abusive phone calls from people who couldn’t complete their orders.
Or, more likely, listening to the silence – because they all gave up and went somewhere else…
Success comes from planning. Thinking ahead. Anticipating problems. And then beta-testing, again and again, until even the most obtuse internet user can order your goods and complete the payment without picking up the phone.
And that’s just the order process. After that comes fulfilment. (At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen…)
What’s your process for managing stock levels – and reordering enough (but not too much) when you’re starting to run out?
How are you managing postage and delivery? Have you priced them properly on the website – and have you got a simple way to update them when (inevitably) the prices go up? What delivery options have you got in place – and how are you fulfilling them? And what’s the process for missed or failed deliveries?
There’s a lot to think about, and a lot to go wrong – but only if you haven’t made the right plans in the first place.
So if you need a little help – please get in touch for a free fact-finding consultation.
Our thanks to Tracey Hayes of Purple Haze for a Virtual Assistant’s take on how you can help them best:
We don’t like making excuses.
Seriously. We don’t. But if a client doesn’t trust us to be a competent and efficient Virtual Assistant, we don’t have much choice.
‘I’m very sorry, madam. Of course we’ll tell him you called. But I’m afraid I don’t know if the scintillator valve on your SP193 has a bifurcating dongle…’
So it’s great when clients trust us – and give us full access to their systems.
Recently we covered for the owner of an executive courier company who was going on holiday.
He gave us the details of his four drivers. Forwarded his phone calls to our office. Even handed over his business mobile – and gave us access to his email accounts.
And he also gave us every piece of information we could conceivably need.
We’d regard that as Trust with a capital T.
So while he was away we answered all his phone calls. We responded to emails on his behalf. Raised quotes for him. Took bookings for him. Dealt with his drivers and gave them their instructions. Even made courtesy follow-up calls to his clients.
As a result the only people who knew the boss was away were his own drivers. So he could enjoy his holiday in peace.
(And we had his business mobile. So there was no risk it’d get thrown in the pool by a frustrated partner…)
It’s all about process
If we took you on as new client we’d want find out as much about you as you’re willing to tell.
Your contact details (all of them). Your client details (including which are the most demanding and which need to be handled with – shall we say – particular care…): ‘Please be aware that if you use the word ‘cheese’ in a conversation with Tom H**** he will immediately scream, jump up onto his desk, and sing the Marseillaise.’
We also like to know what software you use. What services you provide, and what they cost. Who your ‘go-to’ people are: ‘Please pass any calls about the SP193 to Mrs Slocombe. She’s the only one who has the first idea what it does. Or how it does it…’
And we’ll take the time to understand how your business processes work. Plus making a note of any password or login details we need to make sure they do work.
Then we write up everything we’ve learned in a document. We call it your Standard Operating Procedure. And (if you want us to) we’ll hand a copy to you.
It’s a valuable document. And yes, it’s yours.
Because real trust works both ways.
So if you’d like to know more about the way a ‘proper’ Virtual Assistant works, feel free to give us a call on 01638 741079. Or take a peek at our website…
And no, we don’t supply scintillator valves. Or bifurcating dongles. Sorry.
So. When you’re ‘working’, what do you actually do?
Let’s face it, ‘working’ means different things to different people. But if you’re running your own business, then ‘look busy, the boss is coming’ will certainly not apply.
Even so, there may be things you’re doing – even necessary things – that aren’t making the best use of your time. So your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to decide which is which.
And in this case you might want to involve your Secretary (if you have one) very closely, so they can’t disavow all knowledge of your actions later on.
Do, Delegate or Dump?
When it comes to deciding what you should (or should not) be doing there’s a simple but effective litmus test you can use.
- Do the things that only you can do.
- Delegate the things that someone else can do as well as (or better than) you.
- And Dump the things that really don’t need doing at all.
The first and last seem pretty obvious. It’s the delegation that usually causes a problem. Especially if you don’t actually have a person to whom you can delegate things.
Now it is, of course, just possible that your life partner absolutely loves – and is good at – all the jobs you hate. You also have a perfect relationship where he or she has enough time on their hands to dive in and help when SS Your Business seems to be heading for the rocks.
But back in the real world it’s more likely that your better half (even assuming you have one) will have other things to do. Usually at precisely the time you need their help. And – again in the real world – their idea of heaven will not necessarily include filing the Tower of Babel that used to be your paperwork. Or, for that matter, chasing six-month-old invoices you’ve inconveniently forgotten about.
Worse yet, even if they do these things – perhaps out of loyalty to you – they may not be very good at doing them…
However, there is an answer. You can outsource the problem to a specialist. Because – believe it or not – there really are people out there who enjoy those things. (And enjoy them even more if they can prevent them happening in the first place…)
But you can’t just throw them a bag full of paper. (Well – you can, but you might get it thrown right back.) You have to do your outsourcing properly…
So what does that actually mean?
Well, put yourself in the other person’s shoes for a moment. If you were taking on that kind of work for someone else, there are a few questions you might want to ask them:
- What are you delegating – what’s included, and what isn’t?
- Why are you delegating this work? Is it to free up your time? To reduce costs? Or some other reason? (There could be many more.)
- To whom are you delegating? If it’s ‘someone you know’ have you checked their qualifications and their CV? As carefully as you’d check those of a future employee…?
- When do you want the work completed?
Successful outsourcing depends on asking – and answering – those questions, and ensuring that the person doing the work understands precisely what you are asking them to do.