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Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one most adaptable to change.”

If there was ever a time to be adaptable to change it is NOW. Driven by digital transformation, no one can rest on his or her laurels.

A major component to adaptability is a commitment to lifelong learning. Incorporating it into an already busy schedule is a primary challenge for many small business owners.

Learning On-The-Job Falls Short

Did you know that some of the most successful business owners do not have a formal education? They are who author, Michael Gerber, talked about in The E-myth: masters of their crafts.

We are business coaches, accountants, therapists, designers, and attorneys who have parlayed out skills and expertise into a small business.  Minus an MBA, our learning for budgeting, marketing, and operations (for starters) has been on-the-job.

On-the-job training served us well for a period of time. Nonetheless, with the ever-increasing pace of change, new times call for new methods. We can no longer wait for “learning opportunities” to pop up during our day-to-day operations.

What is needed to keep pace with change is a system for learning.

Learning at the Speed of Information

One of the biggest barriers to learning is access to the right information, especially when you consider the amount of information created daily. In a recent documentary entitled, “A Closer Look at the Human Face of Big Data,” PBS quantified the avalanche of information we face daily.

  • During the first day of a baby’s life, the amount of data generated by humanity is equivalent to 70 times the information contained in the Library of Congress.
  • Every two days the human race is now generating as much data as was generated from the dawn of humanity through 2003.
  • We are exposed to as much information in a day as our 15th century ancestors were exposed to in a lifetime.

Given this report, it’s easy to see why many small business owners struggle with keeping up with all that is changing. Staying relevant, in order to keep your business growing, has its many benefits — and is no longer optional.

Those committed to life-long learning note it’s many advantages, including

  • feeling more capable and well rounded
  • opening up new perspectives
  • making new friends by expanding their network
  • feeling more connected

How to Develop a Lifelong Learning System

Randall Stephenson, the AT&T CEO and Chair, recently told the New York Times, “There is a need to retool yourself, and you should not expect to stop…People who do not spend five to 10 hours a week in online learning will obsolete themselves with the technology.”

Long before Mr. Stephenson touted the importance of 5–10 hours of weekly learning, Ben Franklin, one of the most prolific inventors of our time, demonstrated the rewards of such a practice.

History tells us that Ben Franklin arose an hour earlier each day to read and write. He blocked out this time for reflection, improvement, growth, and learning. He tracked his personal and professional goals and turned his ideas into experiments and inventions. His learning was deliberate, intentional, and systematic.

Here are four steps to guide the development of an intentional life-long learning system akin to Ben Franklin’s:

    1. Know your learning style.
      Each of us has a different way in which we learn best. Some people prefer to interact with information by reading and writing. Auditory learners learn best by hearing information. Visual learners retain information best when it’s presented in a visual manner through graphs or pictures. Finally, experiential learners learn best through hands-on experience.Understanding your ideal learning style helps you choose the medium, style, or platform that works best for you.
    2. Understand the time available to dedicate to learning.
      Ben Franklin dedicated himself to five hours of learning each week. Others, like Bill Gates, have successfully followed his lead.It can be daunting to set aside five hours per week for personal and professional learning – until you realize that the average person spends 50 minutes each day on Facebook and five hours every day watching TV.
    3. Understand your drive to learn.
      Be clear on your intended outcome. (Having a goal is how adults learn best.) Avoid cerebral snacking by answering the question “why” beyond “read this book” to make your time count.Someone once asked me, “Do you have one year experience repeated 10X or do you have 10 years of experience?”

      Learning with purpose ensures your experiences — and success — grow each year.

    4. Collaborate and cooperate to expedite learning.
      Given the massive amount of information being produced every day, it is not possible to have all of the best information on a particular subject readily available to you.One of the quickest learning practices is to get involved in a mastermind group. Surrounded by like-minded business owners, you can absorb the experiences of others and accelerate your learning objective.

Open Your Mind and Say Ahhhhh…

If committing time to lifelong learning feels like it’s “one more thing to do,” you can also follow Josh Waitzkin’s lead. Instead of squeezing his days to maximize productivity, he creates slack in each day. His daily “empty space” is done purposefully. The extra slack in his schedule allows him to learn, create, and perform at a higher level.

Whether you’re more inclined to use the Franklin or Waitzkin’s method, doesn’t matter. The important thing is to be intentional in developing your system to become a life-long learner.

Who hasn’t banged their phone on their desk while being rerouted through a tortuous telephone tree currently known as “customer service.” Press 3. Enter your pin. Follow with the # sign. Ugh!

Today’s consumer needs are evolving. They have greater power and are no longer at the mercy of business. In fact, they are most interested in experience — not things.

They want clarity and transparency — nothing vague. Plus, they want the same experience across every touch point (i.e., website, social media, print, customer support, etc.) And, if it’s instantaneously, that’s even better!

Is this your small business customer service experience?

describe_customer_service_experienceConsumers Willing to Pay More for Good Experience

Have you noticed your loyalty shift based on your experience as a customer? Whether you’re shopping for groceries, eating dinner out, having your automobile serviced, or mailing packages, you’ve likely noticed a change in the businesses you’re willing to support.

Here is one simple example from my own experience.

My behavior — and loyalty — swayed from the bureaucracy of the United States Postal System (USPS) to a local, small Mail ‘N Ship store this past year. Why?

The staff at the local mom-and-pop store always has a smile on their face! They keep the line moving, are cordial, make eye-contact when speaking with you and, best of all, they know my name and use it the minute I walk in the door.

Some of the USPS front-line employees are cordial, friendly, and do the best they can. Sadly, the USPS culture is notoriously plagued with inefficiencies, long-lines and, if an employee is having a bad day, they can be merciless.

Could USPS create the same experience? Absolutely!

Shipping costs at the mom-and-pop store are more expensive but that’s not reflective of the experience they provide. Costs are higher because of overhead. It doesn’t cost extra to create a positive experience that keeps customers coming back.

Customer experience goes beyond customer service.

small_business_customer_experienceDescribe Your Customer Experience

How do you want your customers describing their service experience? Understanding what today’s consumer wants is an ideal place to begin:

  1. Personalization. This can be a bit of a challenge but “one size fits all” is no longer going to cut it. Marketing software developments and automation make it much easier to achieve the level of personalization your consumer desires.
  2. Options to reach you. Your consumer wants to select the method that best meets their needs — not yours — to contact you.

Watch for website chat to grow this year as 43% of consumers prefer an immediate answer to their question while browsing your website. Only 18% of consumers are interested in self-service. Cover all your bases with online and offline options available.

  1. Continual contact. As more consumers unsubscribe from email newsletters, unfollow your social media platform, and block your mobile marketing texts, this seems a bit counterintuitive. However, consumers define what they want to hear, where, and how often. Be sure to give them options.
  2. Listen/respond. Ask your consumer to rate you on your service and what do you get? Crickets! Nothing is more annoying and time consuming for your customers than taking senseless surveys.

To get their attention — and valuable input — speak directly with your client. Then, reward them by implementing their ideas and a $50 Amazon gift card for giving of their priceless time and insight.

Undoubtedly, it’s challenging to look from the inside out to see how your business stacks up. Plus, it can be tough to hear unflattering feedback. Yet, the loyalty provided by someone who describes your customer experience as stellar places your business at a greater advantage.

Are you ready to uncover the moments of truth for your business?

It was early in my business when I realized I was repeatedly performing the same tasks. Frankly, it felt a bit like a scene from the 1993 movie classic, “Groundhog Day.”

Small business automation was not yet coined as a “thing.”  Yet, there was already a craving in the business community for a better way to handle redundant tasks — without paying someone to do the same work over and over and over.

So, my brilliant team and I gathered our collective brains to come up with potential solutions. Hence, the Client Café was born.

The Client Café became a private portal that stored routine documents. Rather than digging through numerous computer folders and clogging up my clients’ inbox with worksheets and assessments, the Client Café became the main resource center, saving us countless hours.

Presto! It was the first automation at Synnovatia. (We were so ahead of our time!)

Two Many Tasks — Too Little Time

The fingerprints of a small business entrepreneur are on everything. They’re on bookkeeping, project management, marketing, human resources, operations, invoicing, customer service, payroll, etc., etc. You get the picture.

Ask any business owner the one thing they want more of and, without hesitation, they respond, “time” — which is quickly followed by “help.”

Conceding that hiring staff to handle repetitive tasks may not be financially feasible, a practical solution to free up time is to streamline wherever and whatever we can. It’s the only way to keep our heads above water.

All Aboard the Small Business Automation Train

In order to multiply and magnify your efforts (without adding staff or hours) automation of various business functions is key.

Before plunging head first into small business automation, put your well-earned money where your automation ought to be with a few strategic considerations:

  • Where do tedious and/or redundant tasks occur repeatedly?
    This may include unsubscribing from promotional emails, social media posting, marketing emails, reconciliation of bank accounts and credit cards.
  • What tasks eat up your time?
    This may include managing your day via post-it notes, communication, scheduling meetings, email, project management, banking, managing vendor relations, or overseeing staff.
  • What activities require multiple touches to complete?
    Here’s an example that routinely occurs when collaborating on a document. Can you count the number of steps? How much time you would regain if this process was automated.

A document is sent via email.  Access inbox where you are met with a flurry of distracting emails. Locate the desired email with the document. Download the document. Read the document. Make edits and suggestions. Save the document. Access inbox. Click on new message. Add recipient email. Craft subject line. Type response. Click on “paperclip” to open document folder. Search through folders. Locate document. Select to attach. Click send.

  • What areas of business can be automated?
    Business functions to consider for automation are operations, sales and marketing, customer service/relationship, accounting and finance, human resource management, production, research and development, and administration.
  • What tasks are being done that are a complete waste of time yet needs to be done?
    These are the tasks or activities that elicit heavy sighs and eye rolls.

Options for Automation

Now that you have a better sense of where automation may free you from the dull and tedious, there is no limit to what you can achieve.

To help narrow the possibilities, these are some of the automation tools happily implemented by our clients and/or us.

  • CRM – Hubspot, Zoho, Insightly
  • Project Management – Redbooth, Trello
  • Payroll/Accounting – Quickbooks, Freshbooks
  • Social media management – Hootsuite, Buffer, Socialoomph
  • Email management – Mailchimp, Constant Contact
  • Scheduling – Doodle, Boomerang Calendar, Calendly
  • Task management – Active Inbox HQ
  • Marketing – Hubspot
  • Customer support – Zendesk

Additional automation tools to consider are anything Google (calendar, email, docs, etc.), Dropbox, Zapier, and IFTTT.

Once you’ve researched our recommendations, ask your colleagues about their small business automation applications. There are hundreds of other software options, tools, and apps designed to make your business run more smoothly — and get back the hours for the activities that you enjoy most.

Trust me, this is just that start of your love affair with automation. Before long, you’ll wonder how you ever did business without it.

Most entrepreneurs readily admit to being disciplined. In fact, for many it’s a badge of honor. After all, what else propelled you to your destination more than determination and discipline?

Yet, thumb through our calendars or peek through our browser history and one might think differently. Are we truly disciplined or, as my business coach put it, are we…

A Yes Waiting to Happen

small business performance Early in my coaching practice, I hadn’t given much thought to my decision-making process.

I happily went about my day looking for ways to be helpful to small business owners and contribute to the community. I volunteered at the chamber of commerce. I spoke at no cost to organizations. I even helped start a women’s networking group. The list goes on and on and on and on…

At this point, many of you are wondering what could possibly be wrong with that. Although it sounds like most of my time was spent on business-related activities, as we say in business improv, “Yes, and…”

Yes, and…most of the activities calendared were not part of my strategic plan. (That’s a topic for another blog, When Business Owners Stray from Their Strategic Plan.)

Yes, and…I felt overwhelmed, burned out, and frustrated because I had little time for much else.

Yes, and…my business goals were not being achieved.

A calendar bulging with appointments unrelated to my business goals – and a skimpy bank account – prompted a discussion with my coach.

She listened patiently to my story of woe. Finally, when I took a breath, she said, very matter-of-factly, “You’re a yes waiting to happen.”

It was the funniest thing I had heard…until the magnitude of her direct and immensely accurate message sunk in.

Years passed. Improvements made. Yet I still struggled with saying “no.”

Discipline is a Verb

Greg McKeown’s book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, is the missing piece to tame an idling yes. It’s powerful and transformative.

His simple, yet potent, concept of essentialism conveys what most entrepreneurs ultimately want – better-quality performance, meaningful work, enhanced productivity, quality time for family, friends, and oneself, underwhelm, energy, restful sleep, relaxation, and more. How could anyone resist?

And the key that unlocks the little bag of benefits is discipline!

The Myth of Having It All

I cut my professional teeth during a “have it all – do it all” culture. There were no trade-offs, no compromises, no concessions, and no reason to be disciplined. It was a formidable influencer of saying yes to everything.

Sadly, that turned out to be quite the myth for many in the height of their professional careers.

We can’t do it all, nor can we have it all. Consigning vital resources, such as time and attention, to what’s most important is a delicate balancing act requiring trade-offs, many of which we must grapple.

You Can’t Say No to What You Don’t Know

Much like the Pareto Principle, McKeown believes that only a few things really matter. It’s not an easy task given the glare of the bright lights and enticement of shiny objects life offers. However, before we can say “no” with greater conviction and frequency, it’s good to know what deserves a “yes.”

Getting to that place is equally exasperating. It takes time and wrestling with the countless exciting options available.

Read more: How Small Business Owners Get Things To Go As Planned

Once the mystery of what is essential is unraveled, it’s much easier to know what requests, events, and even goals may require an affirmative “yes” and what no longer requires time and attention.

Exercise Your Choice to Say No

Many of us think of discipline as being something children require. And, now that we’re adults…well, lets just say, we’re too adult for discipline.

Discipline, in the context of our discussion, is not meant to be that of scolding or reprimand. Rather, it’s the exercise of choosing based on what is deemed to be essential.

While it does require discipline to choose “no,” it’s important to remember that in doing so, it’s okay to:

  • wrestle with the decision to choose no
  • feel a bit of remorse when choosing no
  • give yourself permission to choose no
  • it’s not easy to choose no

None-the-less, once you decide what is essential in your life, exercising the discipline to say no is vital. You’re doing much more than merely saying “no.” You’re making a choice to give your full attention to what is essential. In order to do so requires choosing no.

I live in Los Angeles. No one, I mean no one gets into their car without a clearly defined purpose, destination, and directions – or at a minimum, Google maps.

When getting on the freeway to go anywhere means puttering along at a whopping 15 mph. When traveling to an event requires twice as much time as the event itself. When something as simple as a trip to Home Depot is planned strategically to avoid school dismissal and long lines at stoplights. You know planning is purposeful.

Yet, few business owners are as clear about their destination for their small business.

Whoomp There It Is

It happens without notice. No amber light signals a warning; nor a red light that forces us to stop and take inventory…if only for minute.

The business clarity with which we launched our enterprise melts into a puddle of things to do. We lose sight of the destination we were certain to realize. The lights are on green but the road is rough, the traffic is heavy, and we’re traveling in circles.

Time and energy is wrapped into keeping one’s head above water rather than on a trajectory forward.

In the Absence of a Small Business Destination…

…any road will do. Minus a strategic destination, your schedule is not your own. Others easily control your time.

Lacking a clear destination, you don’t know where it’s best to invest resources. You become a nomad – a wandering generality.

Without a destination that is filled with intent, purpose, and planning, business is chaotic.

From Clutter to Clarity

The free dictionary aptly describes clutter as being a confused or disordered state. Considering one’s state of mind in the absence of a clear target, that sounds about right.

Honestly, would you ever leave your home minus a destination? What would be the point? Yet, each and every day, over 77% of all small business owners failed to achieve their vision. Why? They launched onto the freeways of their business with no clear target.

Less Doing…More Thinking

What do you really want? If you answer that question honestly, you might be surprised to learn that it’s not what you think. Many of your true intentions are best described as hidden goals.

How will you get there? Someone once said that the most important step in any project or toward any destination is the first one you take. That’s sound advice…once you’re clear on your end game.

What resources are you willing to invest? The notion once touted in the 80’s of “having it all” doesn’t exist. There is a price to be paid in time and treasure relative to the breadth and depth of the destination.

What tradeoffs are you willing to make? If the price you have to pay is greater than the risk, will it be worth the compromises that are required? It’s okay if you’re not willing to make the tradeoff. Revise the destination. Is the risk worth the reward? What will you have to risk?

Think about it: Where are you going with your business?

Core Business Assessment


Brooke Billingsley

Vice President
Perception Strategies

Synnovatia is a strategic coaching firm that is detailed and knowledgeable about business. i have a small business that grew from $150K to $750K because of the goal setting and resources that Synnovatia provided. It saves me years of learning on my own.

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