A yearly list of ideas essential to succeeding in business.

For me, January was a welcomed month of the year. I was in the heating business and from Labor Day 'till New Year's Day it was a flat-out pedal-to-the-metal existence. No time to think and barely time to breathe. But after New Year's Day, the pressure backed off. Most systems were up and running. The crush of the holidays was behind me.

I could finally put on my Owner's Hat and think about what I wanted to change in the upcoming year. And what I wanted to repeat. If something I had put in place was running smoothly, I would keep it tuned-up like a high-performance automobile. That's why every January I'd make a list of things I could do in the coming year to make things better.

I had too many ideas but I knew I had to keep the list short for it to be focused and doable. I settled on 10 things. So for something to make the list, it had to be pretty important. To remain on the list year after year, it had to be essential to the business.

Being a New Yorker and wanting to have fun with it, I patterned it after Dave Letterman's "Top Ten" list. I would keep shuffling the 10 items until I felt I had put them in order of importance.

Take a look at my list and think about what changes you might want to make for 2003:

No. 10: I can listen more carefully and talk less often when a customer complains. And when I'm done listening, I can take the time to find out my employee's side of the story before losing my temper. When my customer calls with a compliment, I can spend just as much effort to find the employee and acknowledge or reward them.

No. 9: I can devote five hours a week to reading about business. And 10 hours a week if I want to really excel. I'll read the trade magazines, like Plumbing & Mechanical, and make them available to my techs. I'll find business books that are generally 150 pages or less. I believe they had better make their point within 150 pages for me to remember it. I'll seek out my competitors' marketing materials and revisit my own marketing materials. I'll read and catalog the technical bulletins and manufacturer's literature for future reference.

No. 8: I can schedule seminars to attend and create training programs I want to do in-house. I don't want to wait until I'm slow because it takes too much time to plan training, especially if I don't have the programs ready to go. The effect of training is the same as taking the time to sharpen the ax before going out to chop down trees.

No. 7: I can objectively study what my competitors do very well and what they do poorly. Then, I can think about how I want to aggressively pursue my niche position in the marketplace.

No. 6: I can promise to write down my goals, why I believe I can achieve them and what actions I'll take to make them a reality. I want to have both short-term and long-term goals.

No. 5: I can wake up each day and decide what one thing I could do today that would make me feel I've spent the day well. And then I'll do it. If nothing else goes my way, doing this one thing will encourage me to keep going.

No. 4: I can work on how to systematically deliver what I've promised my customer each and every day, each and every time.

No. 3: I can work on making the phones ring when I need them to be ringing. Using a well-thought-out marketing plan and budget will allow me to react quickly when I see business beginning to slow down.

No. 2: I can accept that recruiting, hiring, training and cross-training our staff is a never-ending job. People get sick, they retire, they quit, they get promoted, they get fired or they die.

No. 1: I can better inspire and implement change if I appeal to what's in the best interest of both my staff and my customers.

It's my sincere hope that my list will inspire you to commit to doing what it takes to make your business less stressful and more successful.

I'm here if you need me.

Have a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.