April 1, 2012

Organization is the path to success


I love the expression, God is in the details. One of my favourite entrepreneurs used it all the time. She ran one of the most successful bistros I have visited, and it was a spotless cafe. It was the epitome of cleanliness because she instructed her serving staff to clean, clean again, and clean yet once more, when there were no customers to wait on. A clean place does not happen by accident. It happens because there is someone who knows the importance of a clean operation. And when I am consuming food that I have paid good money for, I would prefer to do it knowing the kitchen producing it has been scrubbed recently.

The same thing applies to us this coming spring. God is in the details…and the organizing of those details! If we are not organized, we will not be in a position to harvest the twenty-dollar bills when they are offered. There is no point in chasing away customers, instructing them to return the following week when we will be ready for them. Customers, once they have made up their mind to purchase, are not easily persuaded to wait. They will find other places to spend their money, if not at your place, then down the street. Sometimes, we lose a sale not to another garden centre, but to a bicycle shop or a clothing retailer.

In order to be ready this spring, we need to have a checklist. I have yet to meet a successful greenhouse or garden centre operator, or a top-flight landscape or irrigation contractor who did not have a written checklist. The man or woman who insists they have the checklist in their head, does not have one at all. It is fool’s gold to make such a claim.

To start a spring campaign successfully, we need to have all stock ordered and the majority of it in our possession. It needs to have been checked in, inventoried and priced, ready to go on display as needed. The last thing we should be doing during the busyness of May and June is ordering product and arranging displays. There is of course an exception made for reorders.

The staff should be 99 per cent hired and trained by the middle of April. The training program should be in a printed format and every little detail should be included in that printed document. An employer cannot expect a new employee to know every policy and procedure, from break time to cell phone usage. If you have banned the use of cell phones by employees during work hours, and many have had a need to do so, then it should be in print. No one can complain they were not informed if it is written within the training manual.

New equipment, whether it is a tractor or a cash register or a bar code scanner must to be up and running before the need to use it, not after.
Banking and financing need to be arranged months before they are required, especially lines of credit. Financing left until the last minute places the tardy ones in a desperate situation. In haste, they must sign on for a plan that requires a ridiculous rate of interest or other less than advantageous terms. I hate fighting rear guard battles, and last minute arrangements are always a rear guard battle.

There are those among us who take pride in being crisis managers. They thrive on the adrenaline of finding ways out of stressful situations. I am not one of those. To be clear and firm: I have never seen the benefit or the rationalization of being a crisis manager. I am at the polar opposite of this conundrum. I believe that if you are a crisis manger, you are not managing at all, or at the very least, you are a bad manager. Good managers do not leave issues that fester until a knee jerk reaction is required. Good managers are planners and list makers, and ensure as smooth sailing as possible.

There are enough waves of insanity that all of us must deal with once the season’s flood-gates have opened. There are always unforeseen issues, so why increase their impact when they could have been dealt with months before?

When I operated my business, one of my standard rules was to explain to all the sales people who called on me, not to do so during the busy times. My adage was, May is for selling, not for buying. I was always flabbergasted by the novice sales rep who seemed to think May was the perfect time to present his company’s catalogue. One young fellow walked into my office in May, without an appointment, opened a catalogue that was several hundred pages thick, and began pitching me. He left, a sadly chastised man. I’m afraid my words didn’t have much kindness to them.

One of the most important things we can do to ensure success during the busy season is to develop a system of systems. I have learned over the years that to be a systems manager, is to be a true manager. Just as a football coach must develop a system of plays that respond to differing situations, so too must those within the green trades. No football coach calls the same play on third-and-one as he does on second-and-fifteen. If he did, he would be a bad coach.

As my garden centre grew in physical size and volume, I needed to develop a different system or approach to managing it. After attaining a certain size, we had to develop areas of expertise. To grab a metaphor from football and basketball, we had to switch from man-to-man coverage to a zone defence. As customers moved through the garden centre, they needed access to staff who specialized in trees, perennials, bedding plants and garden care products. Each staff member could no longer cover all areas. One young woman did not get, or refused to get, our system. She was assigned to work in the annual greenhouse. Yet, I would find her assisting customers in the perennial shade house or even further away, in the tropical plant greenhouse. Her explanation was that the customer had initiated the interest in moving from one area to the next and she had merely accompanied them. To her, this was the ultimate in customer service, a one-to-one approach, but in our system she had left a hole in her assigned area. She was not in place to serve those who required assistance in the annuals. After a few warnings, I realized she could not follow our system and I terminated her. I needed team players who would follow our system.

As most of us know, many uncertainties are bound to occur, even if we have been most methodical in our planning. Weather is perhaps the largest variable within our operations. We can go from being flooded with customers when it is sunny, to four customers and 26 staff members when a storm erupts. The only good thing about a snowstorm in May is that it does reduce complaints over the lack of available service personnel. 

It is important while managing success to always have a Plan B and a Plan C in place. When the customer count drops off, what is next on the list of things to happen? Who organizes that Plan B and how is it to be carried out? Those questions need to be answered long before it is time for implementation.

The busy season is at hand. Here are the essentials:
  • Have separate lists of what needs doing today, tomorrow, next week, next month.
  • Have checklists of all the products that need to be on display.
  • Have someone assigned in each area to review and order new supplies for those items on your checklist.
  • Have someone review all in-store signage from a customer’s perspective. Do the signs answer questions and clarify issues? Are the signs free of jargon? Do the signs sell product and service?
  • Are finances, especially lines of credit, in place? Do suppliers know when they will be paid? Do suppliers offer a discount for early payment?
  • Are both full-time and seasonal staff up to speed, ready to sell?
  • Is your best foot forward? Is everything clean? Are your customers uttering, “Wow!” when they walk into your greenhouse?
If you can answer yes to all of the above, then you are well on the road to success.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.