Whether it’s creating an employee work schedule, maintaining the books or making strategic tweaks to a product or service, every business does things a little bit differently. Perhaps, though, some planning techniques can be more productive and cost-efficient than others.
Is better technology the answer? According to SCORE’s 2014 annual small-business survey, a top priority for 49 percent of small-business owners are technology-tool related investments. Seventy-two percent of respondents believe that new technologies will offer them a bigger return on their business.
I asked three small-business owners to tell me how they run their businesses on an everyday basis, including the systems and technologies that have worked best and the systems they were forced to change. Here are insights from Rahim Charania, CEO of alternative fuel manufacturer American Fueling Systems (AFS) in Atlanta; Jodi Glickman, founder of leadership development and communication firm Great on the Job in Chicago; and Lisa Sutton, co-founder of Sin City Cupcakes in Las Vegas.
What two to three systems or technologies are critical to the seamless operation of your business? How did you choose these systems?
Jodi Glickman: Dropbox and Free Conference Call are the tools we use most and couldn’t live without. Dropbox was recommended by a colleague. We were emailing files to each other and had issues. When we finally got to Dropbox, it was as if the seas parted and there was a ray of light. I couldn’t run a business without Dropbox. My team has people in three different cities, and we can access our files all the time. I don’t worry about security issues. I don’t worry about losing files or not being able to access them. As for Free Conference Call, we’re on the phone with clients constantly, and it always works!
Rahim Charania: There are two key technologies that we use every day in order to properly manage our CNG fueling stations. The first is the panel that controls the functionality of our J-W Power compressors. The second is the FuelMaster payment processing system that tracks all transactional data at our retail CNG stations. AFS undergoes a lengthy vetting process when choosing our vendors. We, of course, compare price and functionality. However, we also pay close attention to the customer service reputation of potential vendors, and require that we visit other alternative fueling stations in which this equipment is already in use.
Lisa Sutton: Our most crucial everyday tools are systematic training, as our employees do not work in the same capacity for more than three days in a row; data capture, through online order forms; and apps that allow group messaging between owners and managers. We selected these systems first out of necessity and then honed them through trial and error.
How is everyday planning a work in progress? How often do you revisit your systems?
Sutton: Our workday is structured in response to client needs. It must be fluid depending on circumstances that arise—convention client load-in is pushed back, wedding is running late, etc. We revisit our processes frequently in order to maximize efficiency and avoid droll repetition.
Glickman: We tend to only revisit systems when there’s a problem—if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I am intrigued by Slack and I’m thinking of trying it. I learned about it on Twitter, but I’m pretty old school. I mostly stick with what I like and know works.
Charania: As a lean organization that requires each team member to be operating at 110 percent all the time, planning is of constant concern. We are always looking for ways to operate more efficiently and effectively, and will revisit systems every few weeks if there are reoccurring issues that result in performance deficits.
Which systems have you had to abandon? What did you learn from those experiences?
Glickman: We tried to use 37 Signals’ Basecamp and dropped it, but in retrospect it was probably just too complex for what we needed at the time. It may be worth revisiting now.
Charania: We are exploring ways to overhaul our phone and email systems. The lesson is that while technological hiccups are certainly frustrating in the moment, it is critical to stay positive and quickly remedy the problem so that company performance is not sacrificed any longer than necessary.
Sutton: We abandoned generically timed performance reviews. We learned that a six-month or 12-month time frame sometimes is not an accurate span. We now tend to base performance reviews on customer feedback and execution of major events and how our employees performed under pressure.
Do you solicit and incorporate employee input on your everyday planning processes?
Sutton: My partner Dannielle and I have an open door policy and all our staff can come directly to us. Happy employees equals happy customers—especially in the food and beverage industry—so we make that a priority.
Charania: Employee input is absolutely solicited regarding everyday planning. We are a flat organization that does not focus too much on rank or tenure—the best ideas win out no matter who you are. In fact, it is often new employees with a fresh set of eyes who can bring the best solutions to the table.
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