All businesses face challenges. Small businesses face the same types and scale of challenges as enterprise businesses. Course corrections—the results of decisions—impact businesses every day, and some decisions hit harder than others. Now, consider a small business, which is in a growth stage or hyper-growth and, well, there are often just not enough hours in the day. One key is to base decisions on information, with data at the core. There is a saying from W. Edwards Deming: “In god we trust, everyone else bring data.”
An entrepreneur will tell you that each challenge is an opportunity to make a change. Decisions are made quickly, often with only experience and instinct driving the process. Good decisions lead to success, which in turn drives growth. Then the idea of ‘scalable and repeatable’ become the concept required to fuel continued and sustainable growth. In a business of any size, making something scalable and repeatable is about a proper balance among people, processes and systems. Balance in hyper-growth is hard. Putting new systems in place, new processes in action and new people into teams requires change, and everyone loves change, right?
Data is the constant
In the information age, data is the lifeblood of a business. People are the heart and soul, but data is the foundation for business growth. It needs to be captured, stored, protected and used. Using data means transforming it into information and molding information into insights. In a small business, data and information, both, are locked up in personal emails, spreadsheets or worse: in someone’s head. This allows for visceral decision-making but does not scale.
As you expand the size of your team the goal is to move beyond ‘shooting from the hip’ to creating an environment where people feel organized. At this stage, the executive team needs to spend time talking to customers, and planning for next quarter, as well as next year. As you increase the size of your team, new team players are going to ask for two critical things: Where is the data, and how do I use it. In other words, what are the documented procedures; where are the customer list, lead generation tools, marketing materials; what is the playbook?
Are you ready?
It is time to step back from the chaos and ask the tough questions:
Do you understand how your customers find you? Where is customer information stored? Is it in more than one place? You need to store and structure information in a way that is useful to you, your teams and the new people who are going to be joining you. You want your teams focused on your customers—not on a computer screen, trying to find that one piece of missing data. Yes, CRM is the answer, no questions
Do you understand what your customers like most about your product? Do you know what jobs your customers need to get done? It is important to have a consistency of message. For example, if you ask everyone what the core value proposition for your product or service is, will you get the same answer? As the business expands, more and more people will need to be able to communicate these messages. Do you have the message complete?
What does the pipeline look like for next quarter? As your organization matures, it is important that predicting the future (the pipeline) has some basis on reality. A system will help you track the numbers, but the numbers are based on human input. How confident are you in next month’s pipeline? Next quarter’s?
Most growth businesses have a good idea of the answers to the questions above, but taking a few minutes to validate these point is time well spent. It is likely that the answers to the questions above are in your head, or someone else’s. An important transition step from a small business to a medium business is capturing institutional knowledge and sharing it. Businesses of all sizes can benefit from collaboration tools, when used properly (yeah, I said it).
Back in the day, data was housed within one system, in one place; it was easy to find, easy to manage. Now, it is more likely that you keep two or three copies of (the same) customer information in various, company-run, systems. This is, of course, in addition to the little black book, or the private/personal CRM system kept by each salesperson. Also, customer information is certainly available in the order management system, e-commerce system or ERP. The folks in customer support have found something they like, a trouble ticket system, that they are managing with tons of data.
Unfortunately, businesses that are successful often have a difficult time explaining what it is that made them a success. Therefore, change, even when framed in the context of growth and transition, is frowned upon. Oddly, the reason is that change is often perceived as getting in the way of future success. Trust my gut, or trust my data?
Transition from Routine to Efficient
Culturally, you are at an inflection point; the old-timers (six months might be old, just saying) are fighting the change and the newbies want more. While you might not be referring to your routine as processes, they are there: you simply have not identified them as practices or patterns. You are managing people, tasks and customers, because manual, multi-step processes require management.
As your team matures, so do the routines, thus progressing from non-repeatable processes to barely repeatable. Even fast-moving companies have routines and can get stuck in their ways. This is a step in the right direction and will lead to automation, even if everything is not integrated technologically. You have identified goals, but measuring progress isn’t always complete or accurate, because the data requires manual input. Some of your teams are hitting their objectives, but not consistently.
This is a critical point in the maturation process.
Businesses looking to sustain and accelerate growth need to help their teams see the value in the transition:
Putting data into the system will help your teams get more out of it. – Having easily accessible, accurate information is critical to the success of organizations of any size. When a customer calls on the phone, more than one person needs to be able to help the customer. If the customer has a support issue, it is important for the sales/account team to be aware of the event.
Lead nurturing will bring more qualified leads, and is a team effort. – No one likes to waste time on the phone or writing emails. While every lead may not be perfect, knowing which ones to spend time on, and when to spend time, and engage, is important. Spending time on dead leads would be time really wasted.
Success breeds success, happy customers are vocal and powerful. – Your teams need to understand that happy customers are an asset. As the organization grows, companies sometimes ‘take their eye off the ball’ here. The executive team needs to work hard to prevent this from happening. There will come a time when each sales team member needs a reference to close a deal from the customer of a peer in the office.
Act by putting together a data strategy, supported by goals and tactics. This does not need to be overly complex. Make sure data is secure and the team understands the value of the data. You might not need to capture everything. Do not put an undue burden on front-line employees just because you might need something later. Think of one thing from the lists above that you will act on, and please share that action with your team, your manager or your CEO.