Efficiency and effective organisation are paramount for start-ups and entrepreneurs with limited resources. How can you grow your business and enhance your offer when all of your time is taken up by business as usual? The answer lies in successfully managing your workflow, and here are a few practical ways to do just that.
The first step to efficient workflow management is to set up a system that records what tasks need to be done as they emerge, and assigns an 'owner' to each task. Collaborative software tools like Trello are good for this, but you could just as easily use a large whiteboard and a series of Post-it notes. Whenever a new task comes over the horizon, capture it with one of these systems so it doesn't' get lost in the chaos of day-to-day business.
Once you've captured a number of tasks, you need to determine in what order they should be done. Factors to consider include when they actually need to be done by, whether you currently have everything you need to get it done and how long the task is expected to take. You can use a simple system to designate the priority of a task, such as one-three with one being a top priority. Record this alongside the task and change it as needed later on.
There are many different organisational systems that you can use for tracking tasks, but a simple one that can be highly effective for small businesses is 'Kanban', which was first developed by Toyota in the 1940s. With Kanban, workflows are visualised through a series of columns, with individual tasks flowing through these columns.
The simplest form of this is to draw three columns on a whiteboard - 'To do', 'Doing' and 'Done' - but you can customise this to suit your specific business needs. All tasks start off in the 'To Do' column, and from there they can either be assigned to or chosen by specific team members, depending on your organisational structure. In this way you can quickly see what tasks are currently being done and by whom, what's complete and what's in the backlog.
The less time that you spend carrying out mundane, simplistic, but nonetheless necessary tasks, the more time you'll have to spend on doing the things that develop your business. There are many software solutions you can use to automate tasks, such as Nuance's Power PDF, which allows for instant conversion of Office documents into PDFs and the ability to access them from anywhere via the cloud.
It's worth taking a look at what specific processes are currently slowing your work down, and then searching for what software solutions can be used to automate or simplify them.
Sponsored post: copyright © 2015 Nuance Communications, Inc, a leading provider of voice and language solutions for businesses and consumers around the world. Its technologies, applications and services make the user experience more compelling by transforming the way people interact with devices and systems. Every day, millions of users and thousands of businesses experience Nuance's proven applications. For more information, please visit www.nuance.co.uk.
As a manager there are some crucial communications that need to be made around expectations over the Christmas period. And this communication is a fine balancing act. Fail to communicate any expectations and productivity may tail off as Christmas fever takes over. But be too heavy handed and you run the risk of being considered a Scrooge, and tasks may well be completed but with bitter resentment.
To get this balance right, you need to ask yourself: "How can I give my staff the best Christmas ever?"
This is an opportunity to allow them to enter the holidays with a sense of pride about what they have achieved. What goals and targets can you set that would give you the chance, on Christmas Eve, to say: "Thank you for everything you have achieved, go home, celebrate, you have earned every bit of a brilliant holiday."
The targets do not need to be big or dramatic, but something significant, so your staff leave with a strong sense of personal satisfaction. Showing appreciation is something staff value greatly, above and beyond big Christmas parties or bonuses.
If you additionally feel the need to mark the close of the working year, write each person in your team a personal Christmas card thanking them for something they personally have contributed during the year.
If you have staff working between Christmas and New Year, this is another communication that needs to be made. What could make this a rewarding period for both them and your business?
Normal work may not be possible, so what does this unique period of time provide the opportunity to achieve? Tidy files and records? Reflect, plan and prep for next year? Research and learn? Discuss with you staff members what they want to achieve during this period and plan to acknowledge their application over the holidays and completion in the New Year.
And finally, the most important Christmas communication of them all: what are you planning to say to staff when they return to work after the holidays?
They are likely to come back rested and a little bored. If you have sent them off on the holidays with a sense of satisfaction around their work, they will be returning energised and with positive anticipation for the new year.
This provides a clear opportunity to gather your people together to define some great goals for the next three months. As a manager or business owner you are definitely required to say something. If not, the new year will quickly be forgotten and their productivity will slip, within a couple of days, to last year's everyday norm. If you want something more and different for 2016, you need to create it now.
A new year message like this will need to reference the "why" of your company. What is the fundamental reason for your existence? What difference would outstanding service make to your customers? How is the world a better place for the business's contribution? Then work to discuss and define some enticing goals to achieve in the next three months. Longer goals can also be set, but clearly defined targets for the next three months will mean people are required to take action today to celebrate again at the end of March.
Finally, lead a discussion on the "how". Do not be tempted to state how the goals should be achieved. At this point it will be very valuable to have staff members determine the "how" for two reasons. One, they may come up with better ideas than you. And two, if they think about it, introduce it and argue for it, they have more ownership of the idea and therefore more commitment.
Christmas is a fabulous time. It offers all of us the opportunity for a complete pause and rest. Be sure to harness the energy that it gives in the new year and create a fabulous 2016 for you and your business.
Copyright © 2015 Sue Ingram, author of Fire Well: how to fire staff so they thank you and founder of Converse Well, a training company that provides workshops for managers on how and what to say when managing and firing staff. Sue has spent more than 27 years working in HR and related fields, she is an Honorary Teaching Fellow at Lancaster University, where her workshop forms part of their International MBA program. Connect with Sue and Converse Well on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
For most business owners and entrepreneurs, using a major law firm is like taking a space shuttle to the supermarket. Expensive and likely to burn lots of fuel right as you're trying to lift-off.
When you're bootstrapping you don't need a lawyer with wow factor. You need an expert in a specific field who can get the job done for a reasonable price. With this in mind, here's some advice about how to squeeze the most out of your legal bill.
In large firms, juniors will often "learn on your dime". Many lawyers will remember their early years being charged out at eye-watering rates, despite having next to no knowledge or experience.
Delegating work to juniors makes sense in some circumstances, for example, when it comes to basic research, due diligence or litigation "discovery" tasks. So ask your lawyer: exactly who will do your work? If juniors will be involved, get them to show you how the economics stack up in your favour.
If you're a start-up that's getting traction, you may find yourself being courted by a brand name firm. They might offer discounts or defer their fees, betting that one day they might (for example) get to work on your capital raise. The fees for that future work will more than compensate for backing a few "loss-leading" start-ups with cheap or free services in the beginning.
But it's worth remembering that the lawyer working for you still faces internal pressure to meet their own "billable targets". Be upfront and ask them: "I know you're losing money by doing our work. When the big clients call, will I go to the bottom of the pile?"
The trouble with lawyers charging by the hour is that it rewards time spent - the more the better. If a mediocre lawyer spends a day on a task, one that takes a great lawyer only two hours to complete, the mediocre lawyer gets rewarded and the client loses out.
The systems and culture of recording time by the hour and rewarding lawyers by the amount of time billed works in their favour - not yours.
Here's the thing: many lawyers hate billing by the hour. To escape, they leave big firms to go to smaller, boutique or solo practices. These firms are often structured to offer fixed fees, where you get the price up front for a defined scope of work.
Big firms excel in complex or large-scale transactions and litigation. Their lawyers eventually become a highly trained, specialised elite - whose expertise comes at a high price. But outside of those firms - and without their overheads - those same lawyers can deliver their services for a fraction of the cost, at fixed fees.
They might live in Bristol, rather than Mayfair. And their office might be their kitchen table. But you get the same "big firm" training, for less money. And no junior will ever learn on your dime. Now that's a no brainer.
Copyright © 2015 David Bushby of Lexoo, which can get your business multiple quotes from specialised lawyers, all handpicked and vetted by Lexoo.
The UK has more than 5.4m active businesses, ranging from multi-billion pound heavyweights to sole traders. Some 60% of businesses with five employees or less still don't have a website of their own. When your business has little or no online presence, it becomes much harder to manage its reputation online. Reviews of your business may appear much more prominently, and negative reviews can be extremely harmful.
Smaller businesses that don't have a large advertising budget or search engine optimisation campaign find themselves competing against review and directory sites on the first page of Google. This sometimes means that reviews of your business outrank your own website, and it will certainly mean that those reviews share the front page with your own web content. If a bad review is posted, it might show up when your business name is searched. This could be very harmful to your reputation unless you manage the situation carefully and take steps to repair the damage.
If a bad review appears online, it can be devastating for a business. Customers look to the experiences of others when making a decision about where to spend their money, and reviews are hugely popular online. Search engines such as Google will return review sites and directories when you search a business name, presenting you with information about the business at the touch of a button. You need to know that the information about you is accurate, fair and positive.
Is there anything you can do to address a bad review? The first step should be to look into the reasons given by the person posting. Is the criticism fair? If it is possible that they have a valid complaint, you may want to contact that customer and see if you can do anything to resolve their issue. An apology or nice gesture could go a long way, and might even encourage them to revoke their original review and post about their positive experience.
If the customer is not open to removing the review themselves and if the issue has not been resolved after action was taken, you may need to accept that the bad review will stand - and concentrate on encouraging good reviews from future customers instead.
You can't please every customer and some will find fault with everything. Sometimes, people just like to complain - and others have too much time on their hands.
Whatever the reason behind them, bad reviews which are false or exaggerated are a big problem for businesses. There is nothing you can do to resolve the issue from the customer's point of view, but in some cases you can take some legal steps to remove the review.
First, you can contact the review site itself and ask for the review to be removed. This can take time, because they are likely get thousands of similar requests, and your request might not be granted. After all, to an extent, people have the right to say what they think. However, if a review is overly negative or clearly false, some websites remove them. If this fails, many websites give you the opportunity to post a response to give your side of the story. Another option is legal action against the person posting the review, but this can be costly and there is no guarantee of success.
The best way to handle negative reviews is to develop a positive online presence that outshines the bad content. Reputation management companies can help you with this.
Encouraging positive reviews from happy customers and going the extra mile with your service should see the good reviews outweigh the bad ones. Most of the online shopping customers are influenced by customer reviews/feedback.
You should also consider growing your web presence. You don't need a huge budget to get web-savvy. Social media is a great way to network for free, so sign your business up to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Google should return your business pages when people look for your company. Get your website in order as well, and consider a paid advertising campaign. Push the negative content back and let yourself shine online.
Exactly a year ago, I took the plunge and decided to become an internet freelancer, helping people grow their business online. Going out into the big wide world was daunting at first and there were some ups and downs.
But now I've got to a point where I am an established freelancer, working with reputable companies such as Groupon, Xexec and Call Wiser. Here are my top tips based on what I have learned so far:
It's important that the people closest to you such as friends and family know what you do, because they are going to be the ones most likely to recommend you to potential clients.
Start by posting regularly about your expertise on Linkedin and Facebook. Share posts about your industry, write blog posts or get an interview with the local press and share it. Soon, people will start associating you with that particular skill, such as PPC or SEO, and they will recommend you to others looking for that service.
As a freelancer, you need to ensure that you are constantly getting work. Without a regular monthly salary, you need to keep busy. Making connections with others in your industry is key.
Initially, I got in touch with dozens of agencies and freelancers and arranged meetings with a few who were interested. Eventually, I had a strong relationship with a few companies who regularly referred me work and continue to do so.
Clients come in all shapes and sizes. Some will squeeze every penny out of you, have huge expectations and expect you to overwork. Other clients will treat you respectfully and value your expertise and these are the clients you want to keep.
There is nothing wrong with turning down work from demanding clients even though it pays the bills. It is better to focus on those clients that treat you well and pay you on time. Overall, you will be more motivated and happier with your work.
There is really no need to pay too much for office space as a freelancer. By avoiding commuting and office costs, you can simply keep more money for yourself.
If you don't have space at home, it's likely that friends or family have a spare room where you can work. Or perhaps someone you know has a spare desk in their office that you can use one day a week. And of course, every high street has cafes such as Starbucks that offer a place to work and free wi-fi.
Having a back-up plan as a freelancer is important because you never know if the work could dry up for a while. This is common during the summer months or the Christmas break where people take more time off work or don't want to commit until the busier season.
So having a plan B is essential, whether it's a side project that you are working on and can devote more time to during slower periods, or giving lessons to people on your expertise, either in person or through online portals like Udemy.
There are also freelancing platforms like Elance where you can potentially pick up work at short notice. Above all, being busy is key to being a successful freelancer.
Copyright © 2015 Daniel Tannenbaum. Daniel works in London as a freelancer in SEO, PPC and digital marketing under Tudor Lodge Consultants.
There are a number of strategies you can employ to make your small business more productive.
Productivity apps – many free – can help you streamline processes, remember tasks and assign projects. Be careful though – while they can dramatically increase productivity, it can be easy to get distracted by the various options – trial a few and pick a favourite.
Never forget your existing customers in the pursuit of new business. A Kissmetrics survey discovered that 71% of consumers have cancelled due to poor customer service. Around 40% of businesses focus more on acquisition than retention. This is despite the fact that customer acquisition typically costs five times that of customer retention. Loyal clients can be your best source of referral leads and for many companies, repeat business. Particularly for service-based and independent contractors, reputation is currency, and devaluing that is a recipe for disaster.
A simple way to improve employee morale and increase productivity – simply reduce noise. The majority of offices now are open plan, which many employees find distracting and stressful. A recent Ipsos/Steelcase survey found that “office workers are losing 86 minutes a day due to distractions.” While collaboration is improved, and costs are reduced, the productivity lost may well cancel out the benefit of open office space. Consider letting staff who don’t need to answer the phone listen to their own music. For customer-facing staff, quality office headsets can reduce ambient noise, help keep staff focused and reduce the detrimental physical effects of traditional handset telephones.
Time management and efficiency guru Laura Vanderkam has extolled the virtues of outsourcing, from the personal to the professional. She believes that we all have core competencies we should focus on, and that everything else can and should be outsourced. Hiring skilled professionals helps you create a more efficient workplace. For example, an accountant is likely to complete your taxes more quickly and accurately than you would yourself. This frees up your time and enables you to focus on your core competencies - growing and developing your business.
Not every employee has the right temperament for flexible working. However, for those who do, it can be a way to reduce your costs and dramatically improve productivity. Employers who offer flexible working have reported higher engagement, output and loyalty from their staff. One company called CTrip found that flexible working increased productivity by 30%, and an RSA/Vodafone study found that it could contribute £8.1bn to the UK economy each year.
Flexible working, outsourcing, customer retention, productivity apps and noise reduction are all effective productivity boosters.
Do you have any tips for improving small business productivity?
Copyright © 2015, Darren Page, Co-Owner of Headsets4Business.