A few weeks ago, the Office Manager of my small business went to Hawaii for two weeks. Good for her: sunshine, sandy beaches, mai tais. Not so good for me: answering phones, taking orders, shipping. Suddenly, for the first time in years, I was in charge of the day-to-day operations of my own small business. I learned a lot—a whole lot.
I suggest every small business owner step in to the jobs of their employees for a few days to experience the nitty-gritty details of their tasks. Pay attention to what can be done to improve the productivity and profitability of your business and the satisfaction of your workers. It’s enlightening.
Just a few of the take-aways about small business operations that I learned in my two weeks of being Office Manager and Shipping Clerk:
- Shipping costs too much. Sure, every month I look at our total bill and have seen shipping costs skyrocket, but I didn’t see all the add-ons that shipping companies now tack on to each and every shipment. What can you do? First, renegotiate shipping rates and shop around. It’s been a few years since I negotiated with the three big shippers—UPS, FedEx, and the US Postal Service. If possible, get out of the day-to-day shipping business. We sell books and software—retail and wholesale. When I saw it cost us $17 to ship one book to a buyer’s residence (we can’t charge customers that much for shipping, so lose money on these sales), I decided to throw in the towel. No more retail sales of physical books; we’ll have our distributor do fulfillment to wholesale customers, and we’ll only fulfill downloadable products.
- Know everyone’s passwords and user names to all applications. If you’re smart, by now, you’re running many of your business processes in the cloud. You’ve got a whole raft of them: to run your website—applications like WordPress, Wix, or Weebly; to connect with customers—applications like Emma, ConstantContact, VerticalResponse, and MailChimp; to manage your payments—applications like Square, QuickBooks GoPayment, PayPalHere, and so much more. But each user has their own user name and password (that they may have to change frequently). If your employee is gone, you may not be able to easily access those sites and have to spend a lot of time convincing someone at those companies to give you access.
- Train other employees to do back-up. You don’t want to be the only one who can step in to someone’s shoes when they’re gone. Take it from me.
- Create, and regularly update, an operations manual. We’ve had an operations manual for years. Without it, I might not have been able to easily manage the steps of inputting invoices into Quickbooks, interact with the many divisions of our book distributor and print-on-demand supplier, Ingram, and other processes. But we haven’t updated the Operations Manual in 24 months, and that proved to be an issue with Emily gone.
- Hold regular “infrastructure” or operations meetings. You’re busy growing your business. As a result, operational issues tend to fall to the bottom of your to-do list and a lot of your routine business is on autopilot. We’re now insuring we pay attention to our operations by establishing a monthly infrastructure meeting, where we challenge everything, from applications, processes, prices, vendors, even office hours (we’re on the West Coast, and many of our customers are on the East).
- Redeploy staff. Since we’re now going to do less (or almost no) shipping, that means freeing up a lot of Emily’s time. What are we going to use that for? Fortunately, Emily is good at social media, so we’re going to use her newly-freed time to experiment more with social media marketing and have her address other infrastructure needs.
- Recognize you can’t do two jobs at once. While Emily was away, my own work definitely suffered. You can’t build a business without enough good help. Stop trying to do everything yourself, get the help you need, pay fairly, and give employees the appreciation they deserve.
- Everyone needs a vacation, and that includes the boss. Emily came back energized, ready to get back to work and take on new challenges. Maybe it’s time you took a break too?
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2017
This article originally ran in USA Today on August 30, 2017