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End of year 'must-dos' for small business owners, part 1

December 18, 2012

All year long you’ve been in frantic motion. You’ve put out fires. Solved employee snafus and issues. Juggled conflicting priorities. Fielded exhausting back-to-back meetings, telephone calls and endless emails. Motivated yourself and others. And, kept blocking and tackling month after month by leading and managing your company toward achieving the objectives and goals you set. In other words, it’s been a typical year in the life of a small business owner, and, suddenly, December is here, and 2013 is right around the corner. With a little focused thought, the last month of 2012 can also be the most valuable one.

Sometimes the business world pauses to catch its breath in December. This may or may not be true in your industry or company. But either way, you owe it to yourself, your customers, your employees and your future to tear yourself away from the daily grind long enough to do some end-of-the-year or early-next-year reflection and forward planning.

Typically, entrepreneurs and small business owners have trouble seeing above the action and the dust it creates. But maintaining a cool and measured perspective on where you are, where you’re headed, and — most importantly — exactly what you need to do to get there is crucial to next year’s success.

My new book, The Facts of Business Life, explains how to do this. As the title suggests, the book lays out seven of the most critical facts successful business owners use to their advantage every day. Most importantly, I delve into how those facts play out through the five levels of every business’s life cycle, from determining whether a business opportunity even exists to moving on when it’s time to go.

Too many owners and their senior staff just get so caught up in the daily whirlwind that they lose sight of the realities of business ownership. When that happens, success may not evaporate overnight, but it will, inevitably, slip away. It doesn’t have to be this way. It pays to step back and re-evaluate your market and your company’s place in it by making sure your practices are in line with “the facts.”

Here are eight “must-dos” to tackle before the end of the year:

Hold a 2012 post-mortem.

Start by analyzing whether you’ve been an effective leader. A skill every great leader has is the ability to self-analyze, away from the high fives of success and the consistent pressure tight cash flow brings.

This is a good chance to gauge the effectiveness of your leadership. Good leadership begins with defining the destination and direction of the company and deciding how the business should look and operate when it arrives. If you haven’t done those things, you aren’t leading, and if you aren’t leading, no one will follow.

Ask yourself: Did your business have a successful year? What did it do well? What could it have done better? Where are the future opportunities that will grow your business? What are the threats to your company’s success, or what is holding your business back? These are serious questions that demand serious answers. And once answered, then it’s up to you to define the leadership skills needed to move your business from where it is today to where you want it to be tomorrow.   

The good news is that the most important aspects of leadership can be learned. And, the sooner you start, the better your likelihood of long-term success. But a note of caution: Before you can lead a business forward, you have to define where it is today, evaluate your personal strengths and those of your business, and compare those evaluations to those of your competitors. This self-evaluation is an important part of being a successful leader. Because at the end of the day, if your business is equal to those of your competitors, it’s the owner’s skill that makes the difference between one business being successful, and another being below average.

Do a top-to-bottom walk-through of your systems and procedures.

Examine what is working and what isn’t. You may find that a system that once worked well no longer does (because the marketplace has changed, your competitors have changed tactics and strategies, or your customers’ needs have shifted) or that your business has fallen into bad habits that hinder success. In particular, look for inconsistencies in how employees handle tasks, especially those that directly impact customers and those who handle the data you use to make decisions about the business. This allows you to catch problems before they develop into crises.

It may not be politically correct to say so, but if you’re not controlling your procedures and processes, you don’t really “own” your business. You’re just a spectator watching others play with your money. Great procedures and processes need controls, and these controls in turn create great results and skilled employees. The key to understanding the importance of processes is to understand the concept that processes operate your business — and employees operate the processes.

Pinpoint your best customers. Give them a heartfelt end-of-the-year thank you.

I insist that protecting your company’s assets is job one. Those assets are not just monetary — far from it. Customers are some of the most important. After all, without them, no one gets paid. What’s more, all customers are not created equal. Some are more profitable than others, and they’re not always who you think they are.

Once you’ve identified your VIPs, create ways to enrich the relationship and continually create added value for them. Obviously, saying thank you doesn’t hurt, no matter how often they hear it. No one likes to be taken for granted. A call or letter from you will show them that you don’t. It’s amazing the ROI you’ll get from such a simple action.

The bottom line for all owners is this. Both the gross profit and net profit you make is actually your competitor’s opportunity. Just as your opportunity is their customers and the gross profits they generate — they are worth attracting and worth fighting for.

Facts four through eight appear in part 2 of the article here.