My friend Phil used to work for a very successful consulting firm. He worked on a team that thrived, which made for a relatively low-stress work environment and happy clients. Whenever issues came up, everyone on the team came together to determine a resolution, and everyone pulled their weight to get the job done.
While everything seemed to be running smoothly and efficiently, the performance of the team dropped considerably when one of the team member’s decided to pursue a job offer from another firm.
Phil immediately crafted a job description, posted it online, and was interviewing numerous candidates in short order. A qualified candidate was soon brought on to the team.
The team’s performance continued to suffer, despite the credentials and work ethic of the new hire. She worked long hours learning the business inside and out, the idiosyncrasies of her new team and her clients, and the details of her new role. Yet progress seemed to come at a snail’s pace.
Phil was explaining all of this to me while it was going on. “She’s a quick learner and her personality matches the team well, but something isn’t clicking,” he said.
So I asked Phil a simple question.
“Is she working from your company’s systems?”
“What do you mean ‘our systems’?” Phil said.
“Your systems.” I said. “Doesn’t your company have systems in place that detail tasks and roles?”
“No, we don’t.”
I was flabbergasted. This multi-million dollar successful company did not have systems in place, yet was still afloat. They managed to stay successful because they had low turnover due to a welcoming and positive company culture (a whole different topic). But whenever someone did leave, it created serious disruptions to overall performance.
I tell you this story for one reason, and if you get nothing else from this article, then at least remember this.
Business is a system of systems. The systems run the business and the people run the systems.
The necessity of systems can be seen in the story I just described. Put simply, systems make people replaceable, including yourself!
This is not to say you should develop systems then fire good employees and hire someone on the cheap in hopes they’ll internalize the system. Rather, systems provide organizational resiliency. Because if there’s one truism in business – as in life – it’s this:
the only predictable thing is that things will be unpredictable
And if good employees leave your organization – for whatever reason – you don’t want their good work to leave with them. If they’re working from a system that has been in place and refined over time, the time required for new hires to hit the ground running is reduced dramatically.
Phil’s situation may not be your own. If you run your own business and are feeling overworked, the last thing you want is more customers. You may be maxed out with your current level of resources.
What’s missing is systemization and the right people to manage those systems.
Even if you’re happy with your current financial situation, putting systems in place will reduce your workload, allowing you more free time to spend with your family, go on vacation, or anything else you want to do.
Systems ensure that your business can thrive without you having to run day-to-day operations.
How They Survived
My friend’s former company was one of the few that managed to stay successful without systemizing their processes due to a rare but very important company culture that encouraged collaboration, risk-taking, and rewarded high-performance teams – all of which create organizational resiliency.
If they had systems in place at the time, their resiliency would’ve increased by an order of magnitude and they’d be able to weather just about any storm that came their way.
What Systems Are – And What They Are Not
When I relay this story to clients and emphasize the importance of systems, it’s about at this point that an objection is raised. “I don’t want to be a robot, and I don’t want my employees to be robots. If we develop systems for everything we do, it will stifle creativity.”
This is undoubtedly a valid concern. However, we need to make a subtle but very important distinction.
Systems are malleable. Some are more rigid than others, and none are simply checklists
Checklists are great for your business, but that is not what systems are about.
Additionally, the structure of systems will vary greatly for different aspects of your business.
Billing and Collecting Payments
The way you bill clients/customers should follow a specific system with the following elements:
- How the bill/invoice is issued and by whom.
- Where this information is recorded.
- What to do when an account is paid.
- What to do if a payment is late or delinquent.
- What to do if they pay the incorrect amount
- How to follow up after receiving payment.
- Who is responsible for these tasks, and who takes over when that person is not working.
- And more
Each of these elements themselves may require a detailed system in order to function properly.
Lead Follow Up
Now consider the elements of this system for following up with prospects that visit your website and sign-up for a newsletter:
- Where the contact info is stored
- How email is checked against existing list for duplicates
- When newsletters are sent
- Which list to place this prospect on (segmentation)
- When other, one-time emails are sent
- Recording open-rate
- Recording click-through rate
- Recording bounce rate
- And more
What makes the structure of these 2 systems different? The first relates to finance and accounting, which by it’s very nature is more rigid than marketing and sales. And thus the first list may not change too much over time.
Even so, it’s still a good idea to regularly revisit this system to see if there are better merchant service options, if any elements can be combined or further automated, or how it might change if you’re offering a new product or service that has a different pricing structure than your existing offers (a continuity service vs. one-time payments for example).
When should you examine your systems for improvement?
Develop a system for that 🙂
Perhaps financial systems should be re-examined every year or so unless there’s a specific reason to do so sooner. It will vary depending on the nature of your business.
For marketing systems such as the one mentioned above, you’ll want to re-evaluate every few months at the most, even for those that are working well. You should be continually split testing headlines, email subjects, your call to action, etc. Smart marketing is all about metrics.
Individual elements of each of your marketing funnels should change rather frequently in order to optimize the outcome of the system.
Your salesperson’s creativity will not be stifled working within a system like this. They will have the ability to test new ideas within a system like this. They should have an active role in crafting the system itself.
There are a variety of ways to go about creating your systems. The simplest way looks like this:
- Create – You and any trusted advisers develop the initial system.
- Teach – Train your top-performers in the department that the system pertains to. Have them try it out to determine any glaring omissions or corrections to be made.
- Apply – Have them train the rest of the staff to use the system.
This top-down approach ensures that executives have transparency into system development so they can ensure it fits with the company’s goals.
It is then placed in the hands of the most knowledgeable people to examine, implement, and suggest corrections. Once it’s ready to go, conduct a training session to teach the rest of the staff to use the system.
The Problem With Perfection
Don’t try to make a perfect system. Your goal is to get the system working, not develop a framework that functions perfectly in a theoretical business.
You’re in a real business. When you’re 80% of the way there, implement! Refine the system over time and your results will continue to improve.
Housing Your Systems
Systems can become quite detailed, and we don’t want to have the specifics jotted down on the back of a cocktail napkin.
One simple way to house your systems is to use a Wiki on your intranet or in a password-protected sub-directory of your website. You can get a WordPress theme for free that will act as a Wiki.
It’s Worth It
Developing business systems requires a lot of upfront time commitment. But in the long run, you will gain efficiencies and resiliency that will more than makeup for the time spent developing and refining the systems.
Don’t let the work intimidate you.
It is worth it and will save you a lot of headaches and sleepless nights.
And if you’re a 1-5 person shop, don’t think you’re exempt from building business systems. If you ever want to hire a manager to take on the day-to-day activities of the business, you’d be wise to start building your system today. And if you need help, I’d be happy to get you on the right path.