Most business owners might agree that flexibility and agility are essential for success. When your flexibility helps you to meet changing customer requirements, you can earn a competitive advantage over competitors. But, agility can also be a curse when a lack of resources leads to reduced quality, missed deadlines — and an eventual loss of customers.
Even flexibility requires planning and forethought. Here are five agility techniques that meet client needs without turning your business into an out-of-control, wheel-spinning whirlwind.
1. Identify true customer needs
If you can pinpoint what your customers need to succeed, there is no need to say "no" to their last-minute requests. For example, consider a customer that has suddenly increased next month's order of your product from 100 to 1,000 due to a sudden flurry of customer demand. With a quick phone call, you will probably learn that they don't need 900 more items on your traditional first-of-the-month shipping date.
With that knowledge, you now have choices. You might arrange to split the excess product shipments over two or three weeks. Your customer still gets what it needs when it needs it, but you now have the staff and time to ensure that you continue to ship a high-quality product, and you don't have to send other customers to the back of the line.
2. Proceduralize emergencies
For most businesses, similar types of emergencies come up again and again. While you can't predict every specific issue, you can proceduralize enough aspects to help you retain high quality, even at a rushed pace.
This is also known as having a back-up plan. You might rely heavily on one parts supplier, but what would happen to that rush order if your supplier couldn't handle a sudden increase? For that matter, what happens if the supplier's building is leveled by a tornado? Do you have another supplier waiting in the wings?
Even if you have to eat a somewhat higher per-unit price for one parts shipment, it might be worth it to keep your customer happy.
3. Retain all quality checks
Agility only works when you can retain full quality, whether you need to turn out products or services more quickly, or if you provide customization that is outside of your set offerings.
Your long-time customer may suddenly request that you provide a Spanish translation of your traditional product warning label. This does not mean that you should give up a quality check to make time for label translation and production. In fact, you would need to add a new quality check to make sure that the translated label says "Warning: to avoid electrocution, do not expose this product to water," rather than "Be careful: electric eels do not like this product." For the record, the use of free online translators is never a good idea!
4. Empower team members
Agility is a team effort; you can't take charge of everything on your own. But, here's the good news: as a business owner, you probably hired staff members with the skills needed to pitch in beyond their job descriptions. Many of the people you hired are likely natural decision-makers.
Your employees undoubtedly come to you regularly to resolve problems, but each interaction can become a learning opportunity. Rather than handing solutions to them, ask them for recommendations. The resulting conversation can teach them how to consider costs, timing and other factors to arrive at the answer that makes good business sense.
When they're ready to make more decisions on their own, make sure that they know that you are always available for questions or concerns, but let them fly.
5. Communicate all around
Great communication is essential to any business, but agility requires even more. Staff members have to talk more frequently to inform each other of sudden changes, and someone has to talk to the client every time that unexpected questions arise or even just to provide regular status updates. The more that all players know, the easier it is for them to make the mid-stream adjustments that agility demands.
Business owners can take a lesson from yogis and circus performers who rehearse endlessly to stay flexible in their own way and accomplish seemingly impossible physical feats to delight their audience. With practice and forethought, you also can meet outrageous customer demands- but, maybe you should stay away from the high wires.
Carol Roth is a radio host on WGN, a CNBC TV contributor, a ‘recovering’ investment banker & a bestselling author of The Entrepreneur Equation. You can find her on Twitter @CarolJSRoth or at www.CarolRoth.com. She also has an action figure made in her likeness.