Trends & Features

9 ways to improve your business

Paul Clapham has some expert advice

The media is always full of ways to improve your life, which are commonly of precious little value. Or are they? I picked out a group of ideas presented by such writers that are aimed at the individual or family and found they are just as relevant to the business owner.

Improve your working environment
We all know when we’ve been into business premises that have a buzz about them. The people are essentially happy, working effectively, cooperating with each other and as a result doing a good job. Clients like visiting such businesses and it’s always easier to sell on your home turf.

The buzz in question isn’t about constant frenetic activity, although some of that isn’t a bad thing. It can often be about creating a calm environment. Again, if visitors feel relaxed, they’re readier to buy. So cut out the shouting and histrionics, especially if that’s coming from the business owner.

Set some rules
Lots of business owners fight shy of this because ‘rules are for schools’. But you have some anyway. Do you enforce them? Timekeeping is a simple case. The person who consistently arrives late will also be the person who leaves early for vital, personal needs. It’s simply rude, treating the business and colleagues with a certain contempt. I’d put a stop to it.

I worked in one company that operated a ‘clear desk’ rule. Your desk could be a pigsty for eight hours, but if it wasn’t clear when you left for the evening, woe betide you. It’s a good discipline, because it pushes you to be organised through the day.

Reduce your multitasking
Not being good at it, I was delighted to read the words of Dr Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist working at McGill University in Toronto. He says the human brain isn’t designed for multitasking and as a consequence does it poorly. Trying to do two or three complex tasks at the same time means you do none of them as well as doing them in a linear sequence.

Those business and political leaders who appear to squeeze 25 hours out of a day are invariably linear uni-taskers, with a back-up team doing the mundane work. Collectively, they get great results, but it’s not done by juggling four balls.

A further point from Dr Levitin is: give the brain a rest. Between complex tasks, take some time out, if only for 10 minutes. It’s like switching off a computer – it always works better after you switch it back on. So too the human brain. Multitasking interferes with or prevents that time out.

Improve your teamworking
I’ve always been a big believer that teamworking is an important part of success in business. Nor am I alone. A large proportion of recruitment adverts ask for that skill. The benefit is clear: each person in a business is an expert on something. Knitting those varied areas of expertise together well is what makes for success.

But my enthusiasm is not shared by all. Felix Dennis, a multimillionaire publisher and noted eccentric, said: “Team spirit is for losers. It’s the glue that binds the losers together.”

In East of Eden, the writer John Steinbeck said: “Nothing was ever created by two men. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything.”

Both those comments come from committed individualists, but you can see the point they’re making. It matters because the millennials – those born between 1985 and 2000 – are much keener on working independently than as part of a team. So the concept of teamworking is, as a minimum, changing and even, perhaps, becoming outdated.

Confront what you’re avoiding
This can come in a wide variety of forms. In extreme cases, business owners stop opening the mail for fear of what it may include and it’s instantly apparent how destructive that can be. Usually, this is fear of the unknown taking control, a fear that’s invariably far worse than the reality.

Assuming things haven’t reached the extreme, you could probably use some help. If the issue is financial, start with your bank and/or accountant. There may well be simple or at least manageable solutions.

If it’s a staff member, you may well have to bite the bullet and get rid. I have seen a number of businesses go through this and each time that P45 has been beneficial because it turns out that the individual in question had been irking everybody.

Do you need a mentor? It’s lonely at the top. In a recent Times survey, a third of CEOs in the top 350 companies admitted to loneliness and they’re surrounded by other directors, non-executives and consultants. Having someone who has arm’s length perspective and a lot of experience can be hugely beneficial when you are struggling to decide on a course.

I confess that I don’t know how to find a mentor. A web search either gave me nothing or vastly too much. You might already know someone recently retired from this or an allied sector who has the expertise that will help.

How well are you?
The press is full of those diet and detox regimes. Perhaps you need one. If you’re visibly, significantly overweight, it could be having a negative effect on the business. You’re in the sports trade, where your customers will not be fat.

Much the same applies to fitness. If you struggle with stairs, it’s sending a negative message. That message is: ‘This person doesn’t look after themselves’. It leads customers to question how well you will look after them.

‘Fatism’ has become the acceptable, if unspoken, prejudice. Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and other books, as well as being a highly paid business consultant, says that ‘teethism’ is set to be the next acceptable prejudice. Visibly poor dentition sends the same message of not looking after yourself.

Switch off the technology
I don’t mean permanently and go and live in a cave, I mean for a time every week or every day. Switch off your mobile phone, so nobody can get through to you for an agreed part of a day. They can email instead, but ‘it’s my quiet thinking time’ is a totally valid reason. That includes family, incidentally.

Equally, don’t be a slave to social media. It may be one of your key business generation tools, but you don’t need to be on top of it all the time – you are not a needy teenager.

The same applies to email. Try this: for the next few days, mentally divide your new inbox into must, maybe and delete. I predict the proportion will be roughly one:two:five, which demonstrates how much trash you’re downloading.

Improve the effectiveness of meetings
Start by keeping them short. 20 minutes is good, because after 25 minutes our attention drifts and falls away seriously after 30 minutes.

Ban food and drink; anyone who can’t last 20 minutes without has a problem other than meetings. Outlaw technology: it is a distraction and old fashioned handwritten notes embed the information in our brains far better.

Do meetings standing up. When people sit down, they become verbose and upright is our mental cue for action, which ought to be the key purpose of a meeting.

Can you give yourself a pay rise?
In other words, can you increase your prices? A lot of businesses were forced to cut prices during the recession and haven’t got them back to previous levels yet.

Have a good look at recent invoices and hunt for any areas where you are undercharging the market rate. Is there anything you provide free that others charge for? Can you focus more on premium products that generate higher margins? Are there any additional sales you are missing? Aiming to sell socks with shoes and boots, every time, would have a very nice impact on total sales.

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