Business Management Practices

If you’re a small business owner and have weathered this economic downturn, you’re probably no stranger to tough decisions. Forget new copy and coffee machines for the office; you had to eliminate things you used to consider business necessities–including valued employees.

Now you have fewer people and less capital, and you’re worrying about the future: “Can I be more efficient and productive with fewer people and less capital?” The short answer is yes, but you’re going to need to “roll up your sleeves and get involved in your business,” says Jim Paluch, president of JP Horizons, a business solutions company.

It is true that the economic depression of recent years has left a new world in its wake. The national economic situation has had an effect on everyone. Don’t be afraid. There’s hope. It’s just a matter of adjusting behaviors to fit changing circumstances.

We just need to shift our minds from the national economy to your local economy and get proactive about the future. It might benefit your business if you try to bring some new approaches and lean management to the operation. There are changes you can make without breaking the bank or spending any money at all.

You can start by asking yourself a few basic questions:

What is my local economy saying? Is my company running as efficiently and productively as it can?

Even though times might be hard, it’s good to know that some areas are turning around. “Landscape contractors have to learn how to analyze. If you say the economy is terrible all over, you’re wrong,” says Judy Guido, principal of Guido & Associates, a business management consulting firm. “Micro dynamics are going to give them the information they need.”

Before you answer the second key question, know that evaluating your own company might not be easy, but it’s necessary. You’re doing it to get valuable information on how to be better. “Nothing is sacred,” says Guido. “Look at everything.”

Pick one person to take a comprehensive look at every aspect of your operation, no matter how big or small it may be. That person is going to be like your company’s wide-angle lens, taking in the whole picture. Your evaluator can be in-house, like your controller or operations manager, or outsourced, like a business consultant. Either way, you want them to be able to be objective about your company.

Having this “evaluator” find your problem areas can help improve them. Yes, it might be hard to take if the consultant says you’re the issue that needs solving. No one likes to hear that he is the problem. But, it’s better to be aware. There’s no hope of improving anything if you don’t know it’s bad in the first place.

Now you have your evaluation and all the information within. What’s the next step?

You can start by making sure your office is running efficiently. The best employees can still have trouble if they’re completing unnecessary paperwork or duplicating processes.

Sometimes paperwork can get lost and you lose customers you never knew you had. Never returning an inquiring customer’s call is a surefire way to guarantee they take their business elsewhere.

Paperwork can also disappear, causing you to miss out on payments for work you’ve already completed. If billing isn’t recorded properly and vigilantly, you might lose money that should already be yours.

Once you have gone through the technical parts of your company, you can focus on the employees themselves. Think about who’s on your team and whether they are capable of doing what you need them to.

“Your talent has never been more critical,” Guido says. “How deep is your bench?” “Create a performance-based metric for your employees,” she says, and make sure that your expectations are standardized for everyone. Let your evaluator use that metric so they know whatyou’re looking for.

Cliched, perhaps, but what they say about snowflakes is also true of people: no two are alike. By having a better understanding of yourpeople as individuals, you can utilize themmore effectively.

There are qualified employees pounding thepavement in search of jobs. With all the talent available, make sure you have the best staff possible.

“The key is communication, communication, communication,” says Paluch. “Have meetings with your staff frequently, and engage them by keeping them in the loop.” You can even share the performance metric you’re using to evaluate them. If some of them are falling short, give those employees suggestions on ways to improve. Either way, make sure they’re involved.

If you already have a wonderful staff who really stepped up to help out, that’s great! “Keep them motivated and don’t forget to thank them. As we begin to recover (economically), we want to be nice to the top performers,” says Jeff Carowitz of Strategic Force Marketing, a leading consultant in the green industry. “If your best employees feel like you don’t see their value, they might go somewhere else once the economy gets going again.”

When you’re considering the people you work with, don’t stop at the four walls of your office. There are a lot of people involved in your operation, even if you don’t technically sign their paychecks. Take, for example, your subcontractors, your lawyer, or even your CPA.

You don’t have to be working with anyone who isn’t doing their best to help your business flourish. Are they helping or hurting you? What might their function be, apart from filing forms with the IRS or providing your bank statements?

You’re already paying these people to do your taxes or help with landscaping work. Why not ask them to help you even further, at no cost to them or you? They can refer you to other clients or potential customers. They might even have friends who need work done. As we know, referral is powerful.

“Get everybody thinking. Identify opportunities for everyone to sell,” says Guido. You have a chance to create an environment of people constantly thinking about selling the products or services of your company. Getting everyone selling can also increase their loyalty. If you’re still not convinced, here are the numbers: this kind of group-effort selling “increases business 20 to 27 percent and you’re allocating no to low expenses to do it,” says Guido.

Now you’re creating a brand and standard for yourself and your company. Using that standard, you can be more aware of how you present yourself to your customers and the rest of the business world.

There’s an old saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That doesn’t just apply to first dates and job interviews. With all the competition, your first impression could make all the difference.

A company’s image starts with basics like uniforms and vehicles, and continues to your story and sales presentation. Ideally, yours should be clean, sharp, and confidence-inspiring. You have an opportunity to win these people over before you even talk numbers.

“The exterior covering of your brand is how you present yourself. Engage your team in improving it. Work on keeping your trucks clean and not leaking oil on customers’ driveways,” says Paluch.

One pitfall landscaping professionals fall into is that “people focus more on selling the service rather than the business or themselves,” Carowitz says. Customers have tens of options, and they all offer similar services. You need to sell yourself as much as the services you offer.

But before a face-to-face meeting is ever in the cards, there’s another sort of first impression.

It’s probable that your potential customers are finding you online. “Your web presence is essential. Google has really changed how homeowners and property owners identify good contractors,” says Carowitz. “Before a customer calls your office to inquire about services, theyhave almost certainly Googled you.” Get ahead of the curve and Google yourself. Check out your website and see if it's user friendly and professional. In sharing your company “story” with potential customers, you’re introducing your brand to them. Think of a website as your virtual handshake.

There are other ways to make the Internet work for you. Social media is turning the world on its head, and it’s free! Take advantage of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other means of self-promotion. The web can be an excellent way to get free PR and publicity.

Paluch recommends Facebook’s “Fan Page” feature for your company. “It’s a wild phenomenon, and I don’t believe it’s going away,” he says. “When you send out your billings, tell your customers to become a fan and that they might see their product or job on your page.”

Marketing yourself and your services is essential, and as we’ve seen there are lots of different ways to do it. But before you get too far, think about exactly what you’re selling. Think of your services as a personal resume. The more you have to offer, the more valuable you are to others.

Consider what you have in your arsenal and what you can add. The improvements don’t even have to be services; they can be training for yourself and your staff. You can get LEED-certified, industry-certified, or take workshops to learn about green initiatives.

The globe is going eco-friendly, especially the United States. Offering green alternatives is a new and highly profitable way to stay in the game. Water and energy savings are important to consumers, and they’ll pay now for the benefits later. “Customers will spend money to save money,” Carowitz says.

Water and energy rate prices are rising over the country. You can stay competitive by looking at what services you offer to reduce those costs. As well as going eco-friendly, there are a host of other services you can provide, like offering retrofitting or LED lighting.

No matter what you do, business is about selling yourself and the services you offer, and generating a profit in the process. But, it can also be daunting.

Change doesn’t happen all at once; that’s why its called a process. Pick a place and start there. Just like donations to a good cause, every little bit can help.

All these suggestions and places for improvement are pieces of a larger puzzle. Unfortunately, “There’s no silver bullet that can solve everything. There’s no magic trick,” says Paluch. But don’t despair. “Remember why you got into business in the first place and have fun with this. If you’re still working 12-16 hour days, you’re not running your business, it’s running you,” he says. “Have fun.”