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I have been very fortunate during my career in this industry to have worked with many talented and successful people. One of the true highlights was the opportunity to work with a group of individuals that took a small retail brand name and turned it into the largest carwash chemical company in our industry. Due to that experience, I have often been asked the secret to our success. Thinking back on that experience, I think that how we achieved such success has many lessons that could be used by all in our industry today.
Set a goal and maintain your focus
We were fortunate to have a leader that had a vision and focused on the goal he laid out for all of us. It was a clear-cut goal that included a timetable and an end result. In the early stages of our development, we often wavered on how to achieve that goal, but we never were allowed to question it. While that may sound dictatorial it was important that we spent our efforts toward achieving that goal rather than questioning it. While we did not always agree on how to attain that goal we all knew what was expected of us: To be productive members of the team. That created an atmosphere that encouraged creativity and drive and allowed each of us to maintain our individuality while working toward that common goal. While we had fun, we also knew how to work hard when it was necessary. As an individual, it was important for our growth to maintain our identity, and as a team it was important for us to combine our energy to achieve that goal.
We also had a certain controlled flexibility in our efforts. While we never were allowed to lose sight of our goal as a company, we often changed our methods. There was a lot of trial and error, especially in the beginning. As we experienced growth we needed to manage it without stunting it or letting it get out of control. We were allowed to fail at times as long as we used those failures as lessons to grow and succeed. As a team we were directed to recognize each other's strengths and weaknesses and to use them as learning tools. While we all had egos and strong personalities, we were not allowed to let them get in the way of working together. Again this may sound a bit harsh, but true leadership is not always democratic. When egos or personalities inhibit the efforts of a team, someone has to recognize this and deal with it.
In our industry today there are many challenges at all levels, but I think the greatest challenge is for leadership to set a goal with a timetable. There must also be standards set in place. While it takes a good team to work together, something has to keep that team on track. Focusing on a goal does that. Ultimately everyone involved must gauge their success by how well they work towards that objective.
Manufacturers, distributors and operators also need to set a realistic goal and establish a plan. While some may form a group of individuals to set that goal, I think it is very important that someone takes the lead and has the final say of how people in their organization will play their part. Without a true leader, factions or other individuals can stray and create their own goal which may or may not be in line with the common good of the company.
Hire well and then guide your employees the right way
I have mentioned the word "team" several times already with good reason. Each member has the skill sets to be good team players. The key was that we were not told how to do our jobs, and while there were certain boundaries set, we were given the leeway of using our abilities and efforts. At the same time, we were held accountable for our failures as well as our successes. Manufacturers, distributors and operators in our industry need to hire wisely for each position.
Good leadership dictates hiring people who can do their job. This may sound logical, but it is not always the case. Like many other industries people seem to change their jobs either due to being in the wrong position for their skill set or factors beyond their control. People that have been successful managers may not be good at other roles, while some sales people have a difficult time managing others or accepting responsibility for others under their control. It is the duty of leadership to recognize what an individual does best and use those abilities within their organization. Success in one role does not always translate as success in another.
At the same time, if you have hired well, let the individual use their skills and abilities to do their job. Along with accountability should come the freedom of doing what the individual does best. If you make them accountable, you must also allow them to "do it their way." If you want something done a certain way you have the right to lay it out that way, but if you do, you also assume much of the responsibility for the result. Nothing stifles enthusiasm and growth more than holding someone accountable for something they had no choice of direction for.
Train, train, train then train some more
We set many requirements for our company sales reps as well as the distributor's reps. We held a training school every three months and required distributors to send any new reps they hired to the next available school as well as the distributors. We committed all our resources to these training meetings. These were not "meet and greet" sessions. They were three solid days of classes of hands-on instruction taught by key individuals in our organization. The classes were updated constantly and some distributors even sent guys that had already attended a previous school for some reinforcement training. It was an expensive proposition since we paid all of the expenses except for travel. We treated our distributor reps in the same fashion as our company reps. They had access to the same resources as the company reps. We made an extra effort to maintain that contact after they attended a class.
We also maintained a close relationship with our distributors. Our company held an annual meeting that was attended by the management team and our regional managers. All our distributors attended these meetings as well, and we shared our company information with these distributors openly. They were active participants in our discussions and many of their suggestions became part of our operation. I would have to say that if an outsider came into one of these meetings they would have not been able to tell who worked for the company and who was a distributor.
Today many companies assume that when they hire an individual they should already know most of what it takes to be successful. However, it is important for manufacturers, distributors and operators alike to make available as much training as possible. Classes should provide critical information and techniques needed for them to excel. Even at times when money is tight and expenses are closely watched, training money is money well spent for immediate success and continued success in the future.
Recognize and support everyone's efforts
Every class was followed up by a visit to each participant by at least one of our staff members. No matter how well a class is structured and taught there is no substitute for working in the field. In addition to requiring a distributor to send sales reps, we also required that they permit us to guide the follow-up field work in association with their efforts. We had a successful sales program, and when applied in the field it worked the majority of the time. For it to work successfully, we felt that there was no substitute for follow-up field work. We also either periodically did field support or offered it to all our distributors upon request. Once again this was an additional expense on our part, but we always knew our field work would pay off in dividends.
This is an area that seems to be the one of the first expenses that companies either drastically reduce or eliminate all together in tough times. Follow-up work in the field or at a company location no doubt costs money. Travel costs have risen dramatically. Distributors feel the economic crunch allowing their employees to participate in field work. Taking the time at a wash to do follow-up training has a cost in the form of wages and time spent. However, hands-on training and field work not only improve an employee's efforts but are essential for their professional growth. Companies must view these efforts as an asset, not an expense. It should be considered an essential expense for current efforts and an investment in future success.
Be patient, but keep the ball rolling
Everyone would like to see immediate results for their efforts. We certainly did, but that was not always the case. It wasn't easy to wait to see the results of our work to be financially beneficial. We had the confidence and faith to continue our efforts even during those times when sales had not met expectations. We instead knew we had to work smarter and harder. We often made some changes, but none of those involved cutbacks or reduction of support in any way. In the end we were able to achieve continual growth and reached our goal of being number one.
As I have said before, many of us are struggling through tough economic times. This often causes companies to question every expense that will not produce immediate gain. While that is an admirable objective, it may be very shortsighted and unrealistic. To be sure, budgets must be cost effective and expenses have to be covered by sales activities.
Unless you intend to operate as a nonprofit organization, profit needs to be made to keep the doors open. Planning and thinking on a day-to-day basis may allow a company to stay in business in the short run but may do a great deal of damage in the long term. There is no substitute for the knowledge gained with an effective training program. It may require better strategic planning to get the most out of field support or follow-up training, but it should not mean that it should be eliminated or severely curtailed. It also means giving all those efforts time to work.
In some respects, I think we succeeded even beyond what we had planned. As I look back, those were some of the best and most successful years I have experienced in this industry. I also feel there is no reason that companies today should not expect similar success now and in the future. It takes setting a goal, keeping focus, training, field support and patience. I don't think we reinvented the wheel in the way we grew, but we knew what we wanted to achieve and stuck to our goal even when it looked unattainable. That worked back then and certainly can work today even when times are tough.