The Winning Strategy: Working On Your Business…Not In It

By Peter Shurman

Ask most people whether they work “on” or “in” their businesses and you’ll get a blank stare. “What’s the difference?” is the customary reply. Having done both (as have the majority of entrepreneurs, knowingly or not), I can honestly say that it took along time to find out. In fact, I’m not sure many small business owners ever do.

Working “in” your business is what your employees do. If you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with them answering the phones, folding and stuffing the invoices, programming new accounts, or developing vacation schedules, congratulations, you’re doing a fine job of working “in” your business. If, on the other hand, you spend the bulk of your time making sales calls, creating new marketing materials, defining new products/services, writing a business plan, or budgeting, you’re building a future and working “on” your business. “So what,” you say. “Why worry if I’m making money?” The answer lies in an old adage which tells us that the only constant is change. In terms of your business, change is an inevitable, everyday affair and working “on” your business is the only way to move it forward.

When I am asked how Universal Tele Response, acquired in late 1990 as an unprofitable and very small telephone service bureau, could grow over 1000% over what were supposed to have been declining years for the industry, I point to the “on” versus “in” element and declare that it’s the only real “secret” to our success.

If you’re reading this article, you must be somewhat interested in finding a new angle. Ask yourself if your customers will always be there, regardless of what you do. Do you really believe they’re that loyal? Technology, lower pricing, changing requirements, new ways of doing business, or changes to a customer’s client base are all legitimate reasons to drop you from their plans. Isn’t it smarter to anticipate this and seek solutions to their issues before they develop. That’s our job as owners and it’s the key to our long term prosperity.

Several years ago, my wife and I developed a life plan , a strategic plan relating to what we wanted in our lives and when. Why? Because we realized that, as entrepreneurs, we had the unique duality of intertwined business and personal lives. We define ourselves as members of a group we call the “working rich”. That simply means that the lifestyle is great only as long as we work. We defined a future that, roughly speaking, was built on maintaining our current lifestyle, even after work is no longer part of our daily lives. So, the major part of the strategic plan was about what we wanted to achieve. Someone told me recently that the best formula is “p = e” or “plenty equals enough”, so we had to determine what “plenty” was, and we did. That definition is different for everyone but, once you know what it is for you, you just have to go there and here’s how.

Get certain essential elements into place is an absolute priority before creating or implementing any strategic plan. These include having the right people to actually work “in” the business and then on-human resources required to support the business. You can’t jump into good long term planning without taking care of these essentials first.

If you don’t fin d and properly reward good people to maintain the forward motion on day-to-day details, you’ll wind up handling them yourself and you’re still working “in” your business and neglecting your future.

Other essentials include effective staff training. We use a ‘train the trainer’ approach then let the trainer go one-to-one with our agents (operators). Your business must maintain a professional approach, meaning that your frontline personnel have to be infused with a belief in their job and its inherent responsibility. Position them as white collar staff, not doing a physical job, but a mental one. Let them know that they are in the right place at the right time, occupying a service position in a service economy, and ensure that they can be proud of that. Quality control is another essential. Create an operations manager position and monitor the progress. This person should spot check constantly, reviewing completed messages for accuracy and timeliness and data records for spelling, consistency in abbreviations, etc. Separate out the good agents and clone them, then fire the bad ones. Ensure that you have the best and the latest in well-maintained technology. Technology is changing daily before our very eyes. Engage a technician (if you can afford one) or use part-time help if you can’t. We used to repair the computer workstations, but they’re ancient after 24 months. Trade up, it’s cheaper. Have a good look at all the new software and Web connectivity. Insist on regular cleaning and maintenance of your equipment.

On the sales side, don’t rely on price selling. Never short sell your business. Hire and train sales professionals. Prepare or get someone to assemble professional literature and simplified explanations of your various service options and pricing. Use email for speedy turnaround where possible.

All of these “essential elements” count, but there’s another without which your business cannot grow: Motivated Self Interest.

This is your number one driver. That strategic plan I mentioned is the map that charts a course for you and your family, but it’s the motivated self interest that makes you get up in the morning and do what’s necessary to keep your company healthy so that the personal requirement stays covered. Many people in our industry, myself included, come from corporate backgrounds. In 1991 when I made that move, our company billed $30,000 a month, spent $35,000 and was operating on four workstations, 18 hours-a-day. We had no voice mail, no fax capability, nothing more than message-taking and live read back. Eight years and 1000% revenue growth later, our 50 station environment and automated Web pops, our massive focus on the call center side of the business, and our team-building have emerged from designing a strategy and its implementation. The drive to do that was strictly a result of motivated self interest.

There are two major questions people always ask about this stance. First, can you fail? Second, how do you know you can be good enough to fulfill your objectives? The answers have a lot to do with your faith in yourself. Of course you can fail and we have; but the secret is never to allow the setbacks to color future decisions. Trying something after due consideration and carefully mitigating your risk sometimes isn’t enough to save you but you must pick yourself up and move on the next great idea. In terms of faith in yourself, never believe your own publicity, never believe in perfection, take good information and ideas from wherever they come, and focus on your best abilities while surrounding yourself with others specifically selected for their complementary skills.

Look at the world around you and be part of the grander plan. The telephone answering service has been a twilight industry for over ten years now. Some have packed it in altogether, others have sold out, and there have been many acquisitions and consolidations. But now there are new opportunities, notably as a result of the Internet. Imagine answering telephones and obtaining caller information, sales orders, registrations, or yes, even plain old messages; but, all the while, working in real time on your customer’s equipment remotely via Internet connectivity. And imagine having your workstations located anywhere you like, even many places simultaneously, at no additional cost. These are just a few examples worth exploring, and they’re happening right now.

Good luck!

[From Connection Magazine – September 1999]

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