Apologies, Systems, and Mantras
Running a small business there are times when it seems like everything is going wrong. Something broke, you under-delivered, you sent ads with errors, you made someone mad and they left a poor review. The list goes on!
When we started Connection Publishing, we signed a contract with North Ogden City to create their magazine. I knew we needed advertising support to launch the publication, so I worked every day selling ads. John Watson Chevrolet was our first advertiser followed by Big-O in North Ogden.
We continued to add many great advertisers. I worked morning until night to secure these advertisers. I would get home tired, and worn out. As we approached our first deadline, my wife expressed her concern about how the content was going to come together. I told her I wasn’t sure, but I knew I needed to sell $10,000 in advertising before we could launch, so I focused there.
We crept closer and closer to our deadline, and I was still feverishly selling ads. I am so grateful for those initial advertisers who had to take a leap of faith that we would deliver something entirely new. I didn’t even have a sample I could show them. At one point, my beautiful wife realized if she didn’t step in to help, we wouldn’t have anything to put in the magazine I was selling ads for.
She assumed when we dreamed up this idea together, that she would be a passive observer supporting me from the background. Well, she stepped into the role of content gathering, writing, and helping, and hasn’t been able to quit yet. (Maybe someday, babe! 🙂)
Once we got going, we worked really hard to grow the business. More advertisers came, then more cities, and of course, more people started working for us. As each of those “mores” happened, things got crazy from time to time. Things fell through the cracks. We made errors.
The bottlenecks would often be me. Too much of our company relied on me to answer all the questions. Because the decisions became too many, we would inevitably fail, and I would find myself apologizing to my customers about what happened. This is not a fun activity. But with the number of times I’ve had to do it, you would think it was one of my favorite hobbies. It is not! However, owning up to your mistakes actually helps people like you more and trust that you will take care of them when things happen.
The first thing that had to change was our systems.
Two things happened as we grew. First, I knew each time there was a bottleneck or a recurring problem, I would have to create a system to smooth things out. Those systems included adding software to help us manage content and ads.
We started with Trello, which was awesome, but eventually, we needed a more robust system. We knew this after we published an article in the wrong city for the third time. —for the third time. BIG MISTAKE! Not only did I need to apologize, I also had to find a solution. This is how we found our current system, called Podio, and it’s been amazing.
Another problem: Our proofing process was painful. So many errors were found after the magazines were designed. It took our graphic designer hours and hours to fix the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of errors found after she had laid out the pages. Those errors resulted in needing to redesign stuff. Again, not fun, and a waste of time. We often missed stuff because our proofing process was ineffective and clunky.
We found out our new software had automation workflow features we could use to set up workflows to make some things happen automatically. We also decided to proofread everything in Word documents before they went to the designer. Then, when we proof copy a second time before going to print, we’d be left with only minor corrections to make.
Now, when an article gets put into our system, we mark it “Ready to Proof”. That automatically gets sent to our proofreader who fixes what needs to be fixed. Once the proofreader is done, they mark it “Ready to Design”, which automatically notifies its designer that the article is ready.
This one change saved hours of work and made our magazines much better. Look at your processes, and ask if there is anything you might do to make it smoother. If there is a technology that might make things easier, use it.
At some point, you will not be able to determine all of the systems yourself. Empower the people who are part of the process to find the best answers. I sometimes find my own ideas are lacking, so I ask my people, who often come up with much better solutions. People who are part of the process should help make decisions and create systems.
Repeating Mantras Over and Over
As we added more people, we found the need to make sure they knew how things worked. We put together a folder in our system and started recording (video and written) activities that might need to be passed on to someone else. Things like, how to use the software, how to upload something, and our writing standards.
At first, all these systems were designed by me. As we got bigger, some of our people have stepped into leadership roles. They have each come with their own set of ideas, and they have added to our systems when they seek to optimize their part of the organization.
Caring about everything that happens at our company, I struggled to allow others to make decisions. I would often make those decisions through them. I would say, “You're in charge, but make sure to run everything through me.” I didn’t want to let anything slip.
At one point, there were too many decisions to make, which meant I started to lose quality of life because I had my hand in over 200 pages of ads and content every month. In addition to the thousands of small business decisions, a business owner makes each day. That meant errors happened and I had to learn it can’t all happen through me.
I had to start trusting people, but at the same time, I wanted to pass along my vision and standards. That was very important to me. Our company, and our reputation.
As a leader, I have found repeating the overarching idea over and over is a crucial skill for passing on principles. Here are examples of some things I repeat often:
"We Create Connection!"
This is our WHY. From day one and even the name of our company was inspired by the idea that we wanted to help create more connection in our lives and in the lives of the customers we serve. When we are making decisions, I often repeat to my team, our goal is to create connection. Does this effort create more connection for our readers, our cities, or our advertisers? This is a core principle so I say it as often as I can.
“We Are an On-Time Organization!”
I have said this so many times that it must sound crazy to our team. It came about because we struggled to meet our deadlines many, many times. We had to make sure people knew we were serious when we said, “We can’t accept your information late; it just won’t be in the magazine.” We also couldn’t allow employees to miss deadlines. Everyone needed to know and believe that we are an "On-time organization."
As our leaders realized how important this is, they have now become part of our “We are an on-time organization!” mantra. They have put policies in place to ensure that we are on time.
This is important to us because we have windows at our printers we can’t miss. They print us an average of 12mm pages every month. Which takes time, so if we miss the window, they will move other jobs in our place and we get even further delayed. We also promise advertisers their ad will arrive at a certain time of the month. Missing that isn’t fair for the advertiser who paid for their ad to arrive on time.
“Who Do You Serve?”
I use this to focus our attention on being a customer-centric organization. I think some companies come up with policies with decisions based on how to best help themselves. I think this is backwards. So does Jeff Bezos. He’s known for saying Amazon is the world's most customer-centric organization. This challenges motivations. If you are thinking about a policy change because something isn’t working, the tendency will generally be to serve yourself first.
When making changes, I ask my leaders to ask themselves: Who do you serve? Does this policy serve them?” It changes how people respond to challenges because these questions keep the focus on serving customers rather than just yourself. Sometimes painful decisions have to be made, but if you make sure you’re doing your best to serve your customer, they tend to stay your customer.
“We Have Integrity!”
This one is important when you make mistakes. The key is to always own up to your mistakes even when they’re not entirely your fault. The buck stops here. I am responsible, even when we make errors, but I don’t feel like it's an error. As the decider, I’m responsible.
There are times when the client doesn’t realize an error occurred. For example, say an old ad runs, but the customer doesn’t notice. Or, we overcharge a client, but they don't bring it up.
When this happens, it’s easy to listen to the little devil on your shoulder saying, “Don’t do anything, no one will know”. The problem is, you know. Your people know, too. They will realize you only have integrity when it is in your favor. If you are going to have integrity, it’s all the way, or not at all. There is no such thing as partial integrity. When you make errors, make it right.
I spoke with a friend about this recently, and she told me her daycare drops the price when a child reaches a certain age. Her child reached that age several months prior, but they hadn’t discounted her pricing. She hadn’t noticed and didn’t really care.
She was happy with their service. They came to her and told her of the error, and gave her an invoice credit. She told them not to worry about it, and just start the new pricing going forward. The daycare center said, “We don’t do things that way. We will refund you. Thank you for being a client.” That company values integrity.
You need to repeat your beliefs and standards over and over again. Let people know what your values are, and they will make decisions with those values in mind. A leader needs to allow themselves to stubbornly repeat those values, even at the risk of sounding like a broken record.
One of my leaders, Robert, always says, “Proof your Podio!” at the end of meetings because he’s all too often the recipient of an unreadable post in our software, which makes him have to chase down the poster to clarify what should happen with the article or ad. This wastes his time because it could have been avoided if the poster had simply filled in the info properly. “Proof your Podio!”
I learned this one when I was managing a direct sales team selling Cutco. When someone would call to check in, I would ask them what’s next. It keeps their thoughts on moving forward. This is a great one for sales people. It just gets them thinking about what is next.
"Your Brain Listens to Your Mouth"
I typically use this one with my kids. They say things that are degrading to themselves, or have super negative talk. I always remind them, "Your brain listens to your mouth!" I also have to use this one on the golf course, cause I definitely talk negatively to myself when I am playing terrible. I have started telling myself, I am only allowed to complain about my golf in proportion to the amount I practice, which is admittedly not much. Talk kindly to yourself because your brain does listen and it will believe what you say.
"You Can’t Get Better Until You Start Somewhere!"
This is one more thing I often repeat, even my kids hear this one. “You can’t get better until you start somewhere,” I say it to family, friends, and employees. You have to allow people to make mistakes. You can have limits on how many mistakes you can put up with, but when my people make errors, I don’t blame them. I blame my own training and leadership.
I find people want to do well; they want to fulfill their responsibilities with excellence. As long as they are clear on expectations and goals, and with an understanding of your business principles, they will fulfill their responsibilities with pride. Most of the time, there are exceptions, but I find those exceptions to be rare. They must be confident you will back them up when they make an error and know that you will correct them with kindness when they mess up. Another one of my leaders told me when she first came to the company that I was direct but kind. I am not afraid to tell people when something is off or needs to change, but I try to do so kindly and with respect for the person I am talking to. I give them leeway because I need it too. Plus, they must start somewhere, or they can’t get better.
Today’s post was a departure from my normal marketing-focused ones, but I wanted to talk about things I’ve experienced that can hamper your marketing efforts. Things can happen even if you have an awesome marketing plan executed by an awesome marketing team. You can still lose out on business without good systems and values.
It’s tough running a small business, but leadership is a skill that can be learned and taught. This is something you’ll find yourself working on for the rest of your life, I know I am still working on mine. I hope these insights help your small business thrive. Let us know if we can help, because we know you are WHO WE SERVE!