An Out-Of-Business Experience
Shortly after Mary felt a tingling sensation in her fingertips, she found herself on a gurney in the local emergency room. An annoying warning tone was blaring from her heart monitor. “I think we’ve lost her,” she heard one of the doctors say.
Strangely, instead of lying there, looking up, she had the odd feeling of looking down on the action from somewhere up above. She noticed that one of the nurses was distracted with her cell phone and judging by the coy smile on her face she must have been sending text messages to someone she was fond of. Another nurse had a pen leaking in his pocket. And when was the last time they took out the trash? Mary was thankful that she had listened to her mom who had often warned: “You never know when you’re going to end up in the hospital, so always wear clean underwear!”
Suddenly, the heart monitor started to beep and the doctor exclaimed, “She’s back!”
Mary then found herself back on the gurney, looking up at the action. Her out-of-body experience had rejoined reality. But wait, we’re supposed to be talking about business, not about strange phenomenon. Rather than an out-of-body experience, perhaps you could benefit from an out-of-business experience.
As a business consultant, I can “hover above” all the action and notice things that get missed by owners who are distracted by unending emergencies as they try to keep their businesses on track. But you don’t necessarily have to hire a consultant if you can change your vantage point from time to time. With a little practice, you, too, can hover above it all. Changing your perspective isn’t easy, but here are a few pointers that may help you achieve your own “out-of-business experience.” An OOBE might even keep your business out of the ER.
Get OutLet’s start with a relatively easy task: Put on a uniform and jump in a service truck with one of your techs.
As I moved from the truck to the office, I became very conscious of how easy it is to lose sight of the daily hassles of a service tech. These hassles affect performance as well as job satisfaction. And the more time I spent in the office, the more distant those hassles would become.
While I stared at spreadsheets, figuring out how to squeeze out another dime, my plumbers were out there trying to figure out how to get off the clock by 4 p.m. like all their construction buddies. Rather than force them into my world, I chose to get into theirs. Knowing how decisions from on high affect those who actually make contact with customers is important.
Spend a day with each tech, taking in the whole experience as you ride around with them. Your techs may be reluctant to open up with you, so do whatever you can to assuage their concerns about riding with “the boss.”
Explain that you’re on an idea hunt. You want to learn what company policies, written or unwritten, drive your crew crazy. Are you asking them to do things that slow down performance with no discernable gain for the tech, the customer or the company? Note: Don’t make promises to fix this or that heinous problem just because your plumber whines about something. You’re on an information-gathering expedition only. Remember, even when you’re having an out-of-business experience, you’re still the boss.
Another OOBE you can try is to experience a completely different business.
The next time you or a friend needs some sort of home service, especially if it’s the sort of service your company offers, call your favorite competitor and do your best to be an open-minded consumer. Make sure to “sanitize” your home by removing anything that indicates your business connections.
Or, rather than calling a competitor for service, try some other profession such as pest control, carpet cleaning or some other home service you could use. Don’t just critique the service experience. Instead, do your best to be a consumer. Later on, make notes about what you do and don’t like. Keep this maxim in mind: New ideas are very rare, but ideas that are adapted from other types of business can be the next “new” idea for your business.
Mystery ShopperAnother way to achieve your OOBE is to have a friend or acquaintance call your company for service.
Don’t give them any inkling of what to expect, just tell them you’ll give them a whopper of a discount for any service performed (free is good). The primary criterion for your surrogate OOBE practitioner is that he or she be willing to tell you what he or she really thinks about your company. When you debrief your “secret shopper,” don’t make excuses or explanations, just nod, write notes and say thank-you.
A much more difficult OOBE is to hover around your back office.
You have to detach yourself and become an observer, which is extremely difficult to do since you’re the boss and you’re hovering over your home turf. Be disciplined about your observer status. You may need to wear a sign that says, “Observer only, do not disturb” or simply tell everyone in the office that you just want to ponder how things work.
Make sure your staff knows that there is nothing in particular that you’re looking for. Nobody is in trouble; you just want to understand what they have to deal with every day.
Observe how a call is handled from the initial call, then as it flows through the processes to become a real service call. Remember, at this point you’re not there to fix anything, simply observe. There will be plenty of time for fixing things after you’ve had an opportunity to meditate on your experience. Be willing to listen to suggestions from your staff. Nod your head and make notes, but don’t allow the discussion to degenerate into a gripe session.
Whether based on observation or suggestion, you may have a tendency to begin the mental gymnastics of fixing problems while you’re still in observer mode. You must fight this natural tendency. Observe, feel the flow, be at one with the call center. You must gather information that you can process later. What sorts of information are you watching for? Any issue that bogs down the process, opportunities for human error to gum up the works, opportunities for human interaction to liven up the customer and technician experience.
Saving the toughest challenge for last, it’s time to move your OOBE into your own office.
Presumably, this is your hub of inspiration, the place where all your great ideas are knitted together. You’ve been gathering information by remotely viewing the other areas of your business, but now it’s time for introspection. Perhaps your office has evolved into a hiding place instead of a strategic command post?
Invite an out-of-your-business observer to help you visualize how you do things. Take the time to explain each action you perform as if the observer was writing a “how-to” manual about your job. Your observer may have a pointer or two for you, but it’s highly likely that the process of explaining things will bring you to a point of self-realization (oh good grief, this is getting too ethereal!).
Keep in mind that your current operation may be nothing like the business you grew up in, so you may uncover activities that you do now which are throwbacks to a different type of business environment. Be open-minded about what you learn, and then be disciplined to do something about it.
Embarking on your own out-of-business experience can be difficult, but can yield business improvements that improve customer service, employee morale and bottom-line profits. Rise above, experience the energy and have a safe landing.