Don’t Depend on One Person to Get the Job Done: Document Business Processes


Steve Kiernan
Co-Founder & CEO
May 15, 2018
minutes to read

Get to the Point:

  1. Choose ONE - Start off choosing one task or job that you want to document. This process needs to be done in small digestible pieces.
  2. Just Talk (and write) - Explain from start to finish how you do the task as if you were just talking to your teammates.
  3. Make it Easy - Take the information and format it. Make sure to use images, charts, bullet lists, and anything that’s quick and easy to understand.

"Document Your Processes" 

I read this advice to owners of contracting companies a lot. I can also hear you crying as an owner, "How time consuming! It'll be out-of-date the moment I write it down. Who'll read this?" Yet experienced advisors like Matt Michel, CEO of Service Roundtable, just made this #4 on his post for Contracting Business titled "The 12 Essential Steps for a Profitable Contracting Exit Strategy, Part I." How can you make this medicine go down with a lump of sugar? I have some ideas I'll expand on below.

It's not a waste, but it's easy to get lost.

Let's start with with Matt's thoughts:

"Your company is people centric or it is process centric. No one outside of the sports and entertainment industries pays a premium for a people centric business. Start documenting your company processes. Take each employee and activity. Identify step-by-step what they do. Step-by-step, what is the process for handling cash or checks? How does a technician approach the customer’s door? What does he say? How does he approach the diagnostic?"

"When everything is documented, you will see ways to make improvements and become more efficient while simultaneously providing a higher level of service. When someone leaves, the loss of tribal knowledge is minimized and the time to get a replacement up to speed is eased because there are documented processes."

I agree with Matt, but I believe you need a place to start and rope to keep you out of the weeds. Docs lower your stress and raise your business' value in three ways:

  • Training: Speed up the time to a new hire becoming an effective contributor to your team
  • Freedom to move up/out: With knowledge captured, your best staff can be promoted without leaving a hole, and you can prune your worst staff without them holding you hostage
  • Improving process: Think about changing your team's frame of mind. When a problem is solved they'll ask, "What needs to change in our process to prevent it next time?" This is a big shift from "Who do we blame?"

So, what's a practical way to document your business processes? Here's some guardrails I used to jot down processes in my own contract decorating business, and it did help raise our value when my partner and I sold it.

  • Who am I writing to? Your own staff, not the next owner and not a trainee. Your own staff will keep adjusting these notes and sharing them with other staff. They'll also use them to train your new team member. Knowing your audience helps you focus on what they need to know and avoid trivia that everyone already knows, at least in your first pass.
  • Format: Choose a lightweight, easy to update method. Don't write in formal paragraphs on pretty pages with lots of art. Jot in bullet lists with titles to start. Organize after.
  • Where to start? Start with why, then how, and finish with what. Trigger good questions more than answers. Your team will keep improving the answers but need a reminder about all of the issues.
  • Take it in stages. Start at a high-level and work down into detail only where you get a payoff
  • Share: You'll know if you're hitting gold when your team member say, "Hey, can I post that? I want my team mates using that every day." Turn your most potent lists into diagrams, flow charts, posters, forms, bullet lists, and so on. Visual triggers work better than books.
  • What does done mean? If you're picking up a job from a teammate, what makes that good for you and the customer? How about when you it hand-off to someone else? Don't stop at the middle of the task. Think about the edges too.
  • What's distinctive? Your customers call your company for a reason. Howe does that show through in every process?
  • Delegate: You don't have to write this all yourself. You'll miss your team's pearls. Make it an honor to be the person who writes up a process, and give them generously. You can still review the work. Also, leave the nuts and bolts of technical training to the experts who you already depend on. Document your special take on their material.

Even though I sold the business, I still keep my favorite document from all those years -- an early drawing of the my team's customer service workflow. We did so much to make that better. Here's an example of the stuff we captured around customer service:

  • Flow chart for calls
  • Script for triage, satisfaction, and advising customers about options
  • Price book
  • Examples of our work
  • Work order checklist: what does done mean?
  • Position descriptions
  • A prioritized "Day in the Life" of a customer service rep
  • Daily and weekly meeting agenda
  • Key Performance Indicators: numbers we looked at weekly to determine if we improved (or early warning on problems)
  • Values: how should we treat out customers? We used these to judge whether a CSR was doing their best for the team.

Start with all of your jobs! Does everyone know all the work you're doing as a company? What if they need to get an answer and no one else is around? Your work order management tools like Field Nimble were made for getting those details in a lightweight way, keeping you focused, and keeping your whole team current.

Documenting your business is really about changing your company's approach to getting better. You'll know you're doing it right when your staff asks to share your docs where they make an impact. When it comes time to sell, imagine your prospective buyer asking your team about their work, and your newest team member saying, "It's all here!"

Look at Pricing

The start of the year is a great time to look at pricing. Usually, you have an idea of how your company fared the year prior, and you want to ensure you will continue to grow in the months to come. Many of us make New Year’s resolutions with respect to spending or saving in our personal lives, and it’s no different for business owners. Making sure your pricing is in line with where it should be is one of the strongest ways to start the year the right way.

Part of looking at your price book is finding where the issues are, and that can take time. An HVAC company in January is going to be very busy, so it’s a difficult time for a close look. However, a plumbing company might not be as busy. Whenever you tackle this job, your best bet is to look at what your labor rates are. Start there, and let it trickle down across the board. Ask yourself, “Are my labor rates helping my business stay profitable?”

Remember, there are many different services out there and many different groups or communities that you can engage. Never hesitate to say, “Hey, I’m a business owner in Florida. What should my labor rates be?” You can build your price from there. There are also some great billable hour calculators available.

Set Goals

There is no better time of year for looking inward than January. Set your personal goals and company goals for the following 12 months. If you can break those down into departmental goals, even better! Perhaps that means a CSR booking closing rates a little better, or a truck doing 250,000 a year rather than 200,000.

Many companies have found that using an Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) goal-setting system pays off. Looking for a guidebook when it comes to OKRs? Check out Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs by John Doerr. 

One key question is the best way to handle setting goals: Is it smarter for business owners to handle this solo, together with staff, or to delegate completely? 

The best approach is to set goals at the department level. As an owner, you need to take the time to understand what the goals are in each department, and make sure they are in line with your goals for the company. No one likes to set unattainable goals for themselves, so make sure you push your departments to set goals that are lofty, rather than simple ones to feel good about hitting. Entrust your staff to aim higher, and watch how they respond.

Pass Along these Points

There's more where that came from.