Get outsiders' view of business operation


January 28, 1991|By Mark Stevens

Admit it: You think that your company is a well-run business. Given the limitations of an imperfect world, you're convinced you do a good job of satisfying customers and employees. But do you? If you're like most entrepreneurs, a seed of doubt lingers in the back of your mind. You wonder if limitations in your management style, or in the company's products or services, is holding the business back.

How should you view this seed of doubt? Is it the healthy skepticism of an open-minded entrepreneur, or a red flag indicating that serious problems lie beneath the surface? To find out, you'll have to probe beyond your instincts and intuition, asking others to evaluate your company and its practices. The goal is to break out of the cocoon of self-assessment.

Consider the following strategies:

* Go to the company's front lines, personally asking customers what they think of your products and services. Although information gained from hot lines and suggestion boxes can be revealing, most customers won't bother to use them. What's more, gripes and complaints gathered this way may be discarded by anxious employees concerned that customer dissatisfaction will reflect poorly on their performance. Prevent this by going directly to the source.

Consider the course taken by a former chief executive for Bloomingdale's department stores. Determined to find out how well the company was satisfying customer needs, the CEO conducted a series of interviews at a subway stop beneath Bloomingdale's Manhattan flagship.

Armed with nothing more than a pen and a pad, he asked customers for a no-holds-barred assessment of the company's merchandise, pricing and salesmanship. This took him out of the executive cocoon and into the real world.

* Ask professionals such as lawyers, bankers and accountants to rate your company's performance. Not on the basis of "good," "bad," or "excellent," -- that doesn't tell you very much -- but instead by comparing your business to similar companies they service.

Make it clear that you prefer candor to diplomacy and that negative comments will be viewed as a learning experience rather than an insult. Try putting it this way, "I'd like your help in discovering ways this company can improve its performance. Even if you think I'm a good manager, we both know I'm not perfect. My goal is to identify problems we can work on together." This approach may encourage even the most reticent professionals to speak their minds.

* Assemble a board of directors, asking the members to offer a fresh perspective on your management decision-making. Make the board an informal advisory group composed of colleagues and associates in the entrepreneurial community, professionals and faculty members from local business schools.

Avoid the temptation to enlist good friends, relatives or others who feel obligated to protect your ego. Unless board members are experienced and outspoken, they will play the role of yes-men, making the board little more than a rubber stamp.

The owner of a music store chain discovered how valuable an experienced board can be. Faced with staggering rent increases at several of her stores, she feared the impact this would have on overhead. Still, she set out to renew the leases rather than abandon the store sites.

But that changed when a seasoned board member pointed out that the merchant was allowing an emotional attachment to existing locations to cloud her business judgment. His advice: Unless rents were in line with projected revenues, the leases should be allowed to expire. This freed the CEO to find more economical and productive space.

* Hire a management consultant, asking the individual to spend from one to five days inside your company, looking for the glitches and the weak links that can be costing you points in the marketplace. Because they have experience with dozens of companies, consultants are often in an excellent position to help you avoid the kinds of mistakes competitors may be making.

* Conduct "exit interviews" with departing employees. Although current employees may fear telling you what's wrong with the company, those who are leaving are often willing to spell out a laundry list of its shortcomings. Some of this may be sour grapes, but if you learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, you'll find valuable insights into your company's performance. All you need is the stomach to hear what you don't want to hear and the nerve to act on it.

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