Sustaining Growth

Every business owner wants to be successful; or at least all of the business owners I know do. However, there are a significant number of businesses that do not succeed in the long term because of how well they succeed in the short run. Most often, this is because the business grows more quickly than their cash flow allows (see Its Cash That Counts and A Simple Tool to Calculate and Track Cash Flow). Adequate cash flow is vital to the success of any business, and it is possible to analyze your company’s financials in order to predict the rate of growth that your cash flow allows.

Allowable Growth Rate will tell you how fast your company may grow without changing any external financial inputs, such as increasing equity financing or loans. The lesson here is to know what your company’s allowable growth rate is without such financial adjustments and then be ready to apply the adjustments when needed. Negotiate the additional equity or loan before you need it!

This posting will look at the Allowable Growth Rate Formula, and next week will follow with a practical example. Here is the formula for Allowable Growth Rate:

AGR = Net Profit Margin  X  Rate of Retention  X  Asset Turnover  X  Leverage

Net Profit Margin: The first term of the formula is simply the percentage of your net profit, which is Net Income divided by Revenues. The formula presumes that the first source of operating cash is your company’s profits. Recall that I mentioned above that this formula addresses the allowable growth rate without external financial inputs. If your company does not yet have net profit, you will automatically need external financial inputs in order to operate at all, let alone grow.

Retention Rate: Retention rate refers to the amount of Net Profit that is retained within the company. For example, the company may be obligated to pay a dividend out of profits, or as the owner, you do not take any personal salary until after all other expenses are met. The retention rate is calculated by dividing the amount of profit retained in the company by the total of net profit.

Asset Turnover: Asset turnover refers to the number of times in a year that your company uses a dollar to move its operations forward. It is calculated by dividing the company’s Total Assets from the Balance Sheet by Revenues. Asset Turnover is a way of looking at how efficient your company is with its resources. This is important for determining your company’s growth rate: the more efficient that your company uses its resources, the greater the allowable growth rate.

Leverage: Although not everyone agrees with me when I state it like this, but Leverage basically tells us who owns what in a company (see DuPont Analysis: Capital, Debt and Equity). If the total capital in a company is $150,000, and the owner’s equity is $100,000, then that means that there is also $50,000 in debt (belonging to the bank or other individual or entity). In this case, capital divided by equity equals 1.5. Debt is used as a lever to increase the amount of capital available to operate the company. In many small companies, there is no leverage because the company has not taken on debt.

Next week, a practical application of the formula.

Effective, Efficient, Repeatable Processes

There are times, when dealing with different situations in business, when I remind myself that patience is a virtue. I ran into one of those times recently, though I will not release any names in order to protect the guilty! In this case, not only is patience a virtue, but the creation and maintenance of effective, efficient, repeatable and most of all, documented processes could have saved a large amount of virtue expended on my part!

Whether your business is large or small, when you reinvent the wheel with every new business opportunity, you are wasting precious resources. Even worse, when process is informal and undocumented, you could be wasting the precious time of a client or a vendor. This is essentially what happened to me. Had I known what was expected of me when interacting with this vendor, we could have been much more efficient. Imagine what might have happened if vendor employees had known what to do as well.

The first quality of a good business process is to be effective. In other words, the process is intended to accomplish something specific and is designed to do so. Forgive the old adage, but if you don’t know where you are going, you are very likely to wind up there! When designing process, always begin with the end in mind, and be certain through testing that the process actually accomplishes what is intended.

The second quality of a good business process is to be efficient. This means that the process should only include only those inputs, outputs and steps that are absolutely necessary to accomplish the end in mind. Many of us have a natural tendency towards complexity and we must resist at all costs. When you are creating business process, ask at each step along the way, “Is this really necessary?”  Think of the other person, be they client or vendor, carrying out the process; will they be muttering under their breath as to why they must perform this action?

The third quality of a good business process is to be repeatable. As mentioned above, the height of inefficiency is to do the same thing a different way every time (or was that insanity?). A process that is repeatable will gradually build up a body of experience that will help to increase efficiency and reduce performance time.

The fourth quality of a good business process is to be documented. What others don’t know they cannot follow! If a process lives only in someone’s mind, then there will be a constant battle to get the process done well. Of course, there are those who would like to preserve their position by keeping control, but that rarely works in the long run.

A final lesson here: a truly agile business will also have a process that handles exceptions to the rule. When an effective, efficient, repeatable and documented process produces an unexpected result, business agility requires that another process be available to handle the exception.

These simple, common sense ideas can keep all of us from expending too much of the virtue of patience!

Kafka Revisited (Or How Not to Give Good Customer service)

Over the last couple of months, I have been dealing with a government agency that will remain unnamed. Over the course of my dealings with the agency, I began to feel like Josef K. the main character of Kafka’s novel, The Trial. Josef K. had been arrested, but all during the legal process, nobody ever told him why, or what was going on.

After each call with a Customer Service Representative of the agency, I, like Josef K., have felt more confused and frustrated than before. Based on this experience, I would like to give you some rules on how not to give good customer service.

  • Give incomplete or misleading information. Never give a customer the complete set of information that they need to know, although it is all right to let them believe that they do have that information at the end of the call. If you are a big company, chances are when they call back they will speak to someone else.
  • Berate the customer. Tell the customer that they should have known that information already. Make them feel that they are stupid for not knowing the information in the first place and should not have called (forget that if all the customers did know already, you might not have a job!).
  • Send the customer in circles. Tell the customer that you are not in the correct department to help. Be sure to send them to a department that cannot help them, and will insist that they call your department back.
  • Keep the customer waiting. Put the customer on hold for long periods of time with awful music and the occasional announcement that “Your call is important to us!” Hang up on the customer from time to time.
  • Don’t call back. When the customer asks for your supervisor, tell them that your supervisor is busy, but will call them back in a few minutes if the customer will leave a name and number. Be sure to lose the name and number immediately after you hang up.
  • Play on the customer’s emotions. Always tell the customer that you understand why they may be upset then do everything you can to aggravate them further.

There is an old saying, “Those that don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”  I would like to make a modification of that saying to, “Those that don’t know literature are doomed to repeat it.” For the last few weeks I have asked each customer service representative at this agency if they had ever heard of Franz Kafka. Not a single one did!

Genial Relationships and a High Performing Management Team

There comes a time in the life of many small companies when outstanding performance leads to growth. The small company no longer consists of the founder and a handful of employees. At some point, it becomes apparent that the founder cannot manage every aspect of operations, much as they would like. The company now needs a management team.

Forming any management team, let alone a high performing management team, is a challenging task. What follows is not a complete guide to the process of forming a management team, but a few ideas that I believe may be lost along the way. Among them are: a genial relationship among managers and commitment by the managers to each other, and to the company.

In the age of demanding executives, it would seem that the way that people relate to each other is less important than it might have been one time. I don’t have to mention names for anyone to think of one executive or another that is highly demanding with their team and less than cordial when their demands are not met. Despite the fame of these highly successful people, I believe it to be the exception rather than the rule.

In the instance of a small company management team, I believe that a “genial relationship” among the team is a crucial element to be high performing. Now, I don’t expect that a management team will restrict their social circle to the team, nor that every member of the team must be best friends, but I do believe that if any member of the team is not well disposed to every other, then there will be problems. By genial, I do mean that when members know each other, their strengths, weaknesses and style, it is much easier to develop the cohesiveness necessary to be high performing.

That is where commitment comes in. I do not describe commitment as a general feeling that one has towards others, but rather the specific things that each member of the team commits to one another and to the company. For example, the management team members must commit to clear communication with one another. Finding out about problems indirectly can be the cause of dissension on a team, so each member ought to commit to going directly to another team member when there is a problem. When team members know each other well and share a genial relationship, it is possible that communication can concentrate on a problem, rather than a person.

Management team members ought to commit to the company strategy. This does not mean that there should not be discussion or disagreement on the development of the strategy, but that such discussion, disagreement and eventual consensus around strategy should focus on the business, not the relationships among the management team.

Finally, management team members ought to commit to the success of each other and the recognition to each other’s success. Becoming successful by pulling another team member down is rarely the path to long-term success for oneself. Helping another team member that is struggling strengthens the whole team. Success is rarely a one person achievement, so that recognizing the participation of another management team member and their employees in one’s own success will lead to a more sound management team.

Unintended Consequences

Business agility demands that a business be ready to react quickly to their environment in order to take advantage of change. However, there are times when a fast change results in unintended consequences. Many are the stories of plans gone awry, even when well researched and grounded in fact. All the more reason not to make snap decisions that can take your business in the wrong direction. Here are some questions that can help you discern the difference.

Are we equipped to handle the change? There are many companies that are the victim of their own success. Something that seems like a good idea turns out to be a great idea, to the point that the company is unable to keep up with demand. Before making a change or introducing a new product or service you need to ask several questions. The first is about volume, do you have the infrastructure to keep up demand? The second is about resources, do you have the people to keep up with the demand.

What would we do if demand was 2 times what you predict? 10 times? 100 times? Using hypothetical numbers allows you to analyze what effect different scenarios might have on your business. You may discover that up to a certain point, you can handle the new business or increased volume that a change may foster, but nothing beyond that point. If that is the case, you may want to introduce the change or new product to a smaller segment of your clients or the market.

Is the change based on fact or a hunch? It is true that there are those that can study a market and get a “gut-level” sense of what is going on. Generally speaking, I would not believe that of myself, and you should be skeptical as well. Is your hunch based on research and data, or is it based on anecdotal evidence but not supported by more extensive research? Getting to market with a new product or service includes doing a certain amount of research to back up the hunch.

Do you have a Plan B? If the new product or service does become successful beyond what you can handle, do you have a Plan B in place? Plan B can include outsourcing on a temporary basis, or using temporary staff to fill in. Be ready for success beyond what you predict.

These simple questions can help your business avoid unintended consequences on the road to success.

Resolve to Follow Your Cash Flow

I saw an interesting saying on a sign the other day, “New Year’s Resolutions, they go in one year and out the next.” That is my philosophy as well when it comes to New Year’s Resolutions. Yet, as a business owner, there is one resolution that ought to be made for the coming year: pay attention to your cash flow.

Most small business owners review their Profit and Loss Statement (hereafter P&L) more or less regularly, but often forget that the bottom line of a P&L is an accounting number. That is, the net profit on a P&L does not take into consideration the timing of cash flows. The business owner will look at the P&L and see a great number, then look at their bank account and say, “Where’s the money?” There are a number of reasons why those numbers may be different.

First, take into account the credit you extend to your customers, also known as receivables. If you have booked sales in a given month, but the actual payment is coming 30, 60 or 90 days in the future, your bank account will not reflect that fact. If you picture your sales as coins flowing into a bucket, any sale made on credit actually has an IOU on it instead of a dollar sign.

Secondly, take into account the credit your suppliers and vendors extend to you, also known as payables. For example, If you look at a P&L that contains cash that will not be paid until 30, 60 or 90 days into the future and do not take that into account, your cash on hand will be inflated beyond what it really is. If you spend those committed dollars on something else, such as payroll, and then have a problem with cash inflow, you might not be able to meet those supplier and vendor obligations when they come around.

The best way to avoid this problem is with a Cash Flow document that takes into account the timing of cash flows. The cash flow document will not register sales for a given month, but the actual cash inflow. The document will not register purchases of goods or services, but the actual cash outflow in a given month. The Cash Flow document should also show the recurring monthly cash outflows for payroll, rent and other expenses. By creating a cash flow document that moves into the future at least 6 months, you will be much better able to predict what cash you will need in any given month in order to cover all of the cash outflows.

Resolving to follow your cash flow in 2013 is one resolution that you can’t afford not to make!

Great Customer Service is No Accident

Nothing brings out the bulldog in me more quickly than poor customer service. Recently, the bulldog has had too many occasions to come out! In one case, a company website where I was trying to pay a bill was not working. The site was quite rudimentary for a $6 billion dollar company, with no help function at all. When I called the only number listed on the site, I went through the “pass you on” routine, with lots of hold time during which I was told how important I was to their company.  Finally, I reached the office of the right person to talk to, but she was on vacation. I sincerely hoped that she would make it back from vacation else I might never be able to pay my bill online (or anyone else, for that matter).

In another instance, a well-known delivery company left me a form to sign to have a package delivered on the second attempt. I even called the company to let them know that they could leave the package in the foyer and that I would sign the form. The next day, I found a second form next to the first. When I called this time, the customer service person could not tell me what happened and passed me on to the local terminal.

After a couple of tries, and more messages about how important I was, I reached the terminal manager. The manager explained to me that company regulations did not allow them to leave the package in the foyer of my condo. To put a quick end to the story, about fifteen minutes later when I removed my teeth from his leg (figuratively, of course), he agreed to have the package left as I had requested.

Customer service should be in the DNA of every company, and it does not happen by accident. Based on my experience, both as a customer and as a service provider, here are some guidelines to great customer service:

  1. Every employee of a company is potentially a customer service agent. Even amid the myriad choices in a company’s voice response system many people get through to one employee or another. Therefore, all employees must be trained and ready to handle customer service at a triage level, that is, be able to understand the problem and get the customer to the right place the first time.
  2. There should never be a circumstance where the only person who can solve the problem is not there. When there is a technical problem, multiple experts must be on hand. For a small company, this may mean having experts on call. With today’s technology, reaching a person who can solve a problem should not be a problem.
  3. Customer service representatives must be given reasonable authority to solve a problem. Repeating company policy is not a solution. Nor is saying, “My supervisor is not here right now, he will call you back.”
  4. At the very least, customer service representatives, supervisors and managers must learn how to ask questions and listen, not only to understand the problem, but ascertain what the solution is that the customer wants.

Finally, a suggestion to all companies: please stop using the “your call is important to us” routine!