The 2012 Plan

Planning works. A year ago, I shared The 2011 Plan and last week I shared the success story of that plan when I wrote “How to make what you write come true.” Finding a planning method that works for you is, unfortunately, not so easy. I’ve settled on a method that combines Chris Brogan’s three words method and the visual thinking approach of Sketchnotes, which results in the drawing included with this post.

The 2012 Plan dissected

Growth – One of last year’s words was “customers” and it turned out to be the key word. We learned two important pieces of information about our customers in 2011: Who they are and where to find them online. Armed with that knowledge and the other two words in this year’s plan, significant growth of the ventures I am involved in is achievable.

Automate – Late last year, I had an “ah-ha” moment related to automation. A task worth doing manually is worth automating. If it’s not, then stop doing the task entirely. Your business is not truly systemized until most – if not all – of the business processes are automated. It takes more time to delegate and train those to whom you are delegating if the process is not automated. Automated tasks have a much higher probability of being done correctly.

Teams – It’s one thing to hire people to help you. It’s quite another to empower them to manage the team without you. This year, progress must happen without my involvement. Handing over business processes that have been automated is one way to ensure this outcome. While I can and sometimes will be a player on the teams I help create, I don’t intend to ever be the coach.

Back to growth

The strategy that came out of this planning exercise is: More and more of my time must be dedicated to tasks focused on long-term enterprise growth. Some might call this sales. I’ll be out searching for the relationships that allow us to partner our technology and knowhow with new audiences in 2012.

Here’s to an awesome 2012. Lets’ do this!

Automate it or stop doing it

If you’re performing a task manually and can’t justify automating the task, is it really worth doing in the first place? For several years I managed sign-ups and renewals for one of our web-based solutions manually. We convinced ourselves that there were always too many features to be added to divert development time to user maintenance.

The automated self-service model

This year we took the time to make sign-up and renewal a self-service process. I still process some sign-ups, such as those with a purchase order, manually but I no longer need to be involved in every transaction. That saves me several hours each week since the automated self-service model has been in place.

I’ve also been thinking about what else we can automate in the process.  We’ve identified a few functions we perform for customers each week and are adding those to the self-service portal over the next few months. The benefit to us is clear. We free up hours each month that can be directed at business and software development. What we are doing is not new or innovative; it’s just a part of the process I think many small business don’t think they can afford.

The bigger pictures

The image with this post shows the different ways we utilize customer and prospect information at ColorMetrix. The aforementioned sign-up and renewal process is just one piece of that puzzle. While I’ve always dreamed of automating the flow of information between each system, I’ve always figured it was just something a company our size couldn’t justify financially.

The success with our automated self-service portal has changed my mind. Now I’m looking for ways to link all those databases and have them synchronize and move data amongst themselves with little or no human interaction. This is definitely a big picture project for 2012 and I don’t expect to have it done in months but hopefully by the end of next year.

Sacred cows?

When you undertake an automation project, you need to have a willingness to change technology and vendors when necessary. For example, we just moved to 37signals Highrise as a CRM, but I’m already looking at Batchbook because it integrates better with our email marketing tool Mailchimp. It also integrates with the accounting system FreshBooks, which means we’d have to leave QuickBooks.

They will be no sacred cows in this process. We’ve experienced the time savings and customer satisfaction firsthand and whatever it takes to keep this ball rolling forward, we’ll do. Remember as you automate, don’t dehumanize the process from the customer perspective. Make sure they know there are humans backing up all the automation.