This article is one of a series from The Big Book of Small Business by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.
Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.
Thanks to Tom’s warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team’s relentless focus on customer service, the company’s turnover rate ranked among the industry’s lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.
In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems (www.gegax.com) to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through business guidance.
Blame, shame, panic, pander — enlightened entrepreneurs don’t do any of these to employees who miss their marks. Sure, these execs may be frustrated. But they’re cooperative and exploratory, not combative and accusatory. They know that a disciplined attitude, tight procedures, and plenty of intellectual elbow grease can make problem solving more like piecing together a puzzle than pulling teeth.
Say your store’s sales report reveals that Bill’s in free fall. When you ask Bill what’s up, he points to a desk-full of factors beyond his control. “I’m doing everything I can,” he insists. “But the deck’s been stacked against me for weeks. Business is down all over, man. Those new guys are really under-pricing us. And the weather is affecting sales!”
The stage is set for the one-two knockout punch — external comparison followed by internal analysis.
Be direct and upbeat. Express curiosity, not condescension, or you may plant seeds of anger and resentment.
“Really?” you might reply. “According to this report, Debbie and Max hit their numbers in the same environment. Let’s take a look at how well you’re following the system.
“The plan calls for you to make 12 to 15 call-backs on previous quotes daily, and I only see a handful of calls on your call sheet. Why is that? By the way, have you notified your customers about the specials we posted? I only see checks by half the names on your log. Sorry, not to belabor the point, but your new-account follow-up matrix only has a few chicken scratches on it. Sure you’re doing everything you can?”
What can he say? He’s cornered, and he knows that you know that he knows. Hopefully, this jolts him out of denial. After he takes responsibility, nudge him with some kind words: “I know you’ve got what it takes to do a lot better than this, Bill. If you plug back into the program, you’ll be back on track.”
Not all problems can be solved one-on-one. That’s why it’s important to learn my group problem solving technique. When I hit the road for store visits, it was actually a fun challenge to identify and resolve roadblocks as a group. The process can yield a big harvest wherever you roam.
Group problem solving
Here are the seven steps for group problem solving:
1) Build rapport. Learn or confirm everybody’s name: “Nice to meet you, Mary, glad you’re on the team.” “Great to see you again, George, you’re looking good.” Ask about spouses and kids, and whether anyone’s had recent accomplishments or adventures.
Genuinely making the effort to connect, one human being to another, builds the bonds of an effective working relationship. The goal here is to get everyone to chill and loosen up. A lighthearted clubhouse atmosphere teases out the creativity essential to problem solving.
2) Offer assistance. Confirm that everyone’s getting all the support they need. Almost always, somebody is thinking, “How can we take on something new when we can’t even get support for what we’re doing now?” Maybe one employee isn’t receiving an important report on time. Perhaps your marketing person isn’t providing your sales people with enough lead-time on promotions. Promise you’ll check into things and get some answers.
Some people hesitate to mention irritants because they don’t want to be branded a kvetcher. But they’ll open up if you demonstrate a willingness to unplug blocked channels. Later, when you do discuss concerns with the appropriate people, do not name names. Prefacing your comments with “Jill said this about you” plants seeds of resentment and leads to a corrosive culture. If you absolutely must reveal a source, positively frame her suggestion: “Jill had a terrific idea for how we can make this process even better. But I need your help.”
3) Review the numbers. Ask for stats — revenue, customer satisfaction surveys, advertising response rates — that reflect the store’s performance. For instance, I’d ask the store manager for last month’s profit-and-loss statement and up-to-the-second leading indicators. That info provided valuable context. It’s also a reality check to the “Everything is great!” syndrome (phony optimism is a huge red flag).
4) Compliment and congratulate. Recognize and praise individual and team successes. In exceptional cases, promise to pick up the tab for a team outing. Praising people in front of their peers pumps up the team and sends the message that excellence is expected, appreciated and rewarded.
5) Identify roadblocks. Ask everyone where improvement is most needed and where they see obstacles. In an atmosphere of trust and security, it’s amazing how a simple question like “What’s going on?” produces all sorts of valuable info. At the first hint of a problem, drill down with Columbo-like questions until you hit a gusher. If revenues are lackluster, find out if basic protocols were followed. In our stores that meant pulling work orders and asking questions: “Were the brakes inspected?” “Was it noted on the inspection sheet?” “Was the customer told?” “Was her response recorded properly?” Remember, the answer to every problem is in that room.
6) Cast the net again. Just to be safe, occasionally hand out blank sheets of paper and ask everyone to anonymously describe the best things about the store and its biggest challenges. This always produces eye-openers. If it’s a small group, collect the responses and mix them up to preserve anonymity. Then address them one by one, cheering the positive ones and digging into the challenges. For large groups, schedule a follow-up meeting so an assistant can merge-and-purge the comments and distribute the results. No matter how supportive you are, however, some employees may still hold back, especially if the issue involves singling out a colleague. So wrap up with a reminder that you’re always available to discuss sensitive issues one-on-one.
7) Get commitments. It’s natural for somebody to be embarrassed when they’re identified as a roadblock in front of their teammates. Disarm the situation by warmly pointing out what the person is doing right and framing the matter as a teachable moment: “I’m really glad this came up because it’s a great reminder that every single step in our process impacts customer service, store earnings, and, ultimately, your bonuses.” Gently ask the employee how he can make things right. If you’re satisfied with his answer, agree on a course of action. Then — and this is pivotal — ask for a commitment to make it happen and set a date for a progress report. Finish with a dollop of genuine praise: “Great, John. You’re a sharp guy and I know you can do it. We’re all cheering for you.” You’ll get great results, as long as the room doesn’t feel like someone’s just been offered up as a sacrificial goat.
The magic of candid group sessions can illuminate every angle of a problem. That leads to better decision-making and deeper support for your decisions — and for procedures already in place. It was a rare brainstorming session that failed to produce effective solutions. It’s like Voltaire said, “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking.”