Smart Systems Make for Smart Businesses

It’s been a rough day. I woke up late and nearly ran out of gas on the way to work, barely made an important conference call because my Outlook has suddenly determined that I’m on Midwest time, and then got to the dog’s 7 p.m. acupuncture session…only to realize her appointment is actually tomorrow.

“You need a calendar app,” my friend tells me.

I have a calendar app. Unfortunately, this only works if you set it up. And program in all of your scheduled activities. And have a phone that doesn’t only stay charged for four hours ever since you accidentally left it plugged in overnight.

But it occurs to me that what I need is not more technology, or even better technology. What I really need are better systems. I’ve gotten into the habit of living life on the fly, and then turning my life over to technology when things get too busy,. Yet neither is ideal from a productivity standpoint because both fail to start with a central plan.

Talking to my designer friends, I find it’s a common refrain. We rely on memory instead of systems; “smart” devices instead of interactive communication or planning; artistry instead of business savvy. We waiver between trying to keep it all in our heads, or entrusting everything to technology, forgetting that technology is only a tool, and cannot get us where we need to go unless we first devise a direction and a strategy for getting there.

Planning is hard work, which is why so many businesses still fail to begin with a solid business plan. Yet in his “Bettering Your Bottom Line” column (see Page 20), Ken Peterson details why planning things out to the end is so important, both for gaining knowledge and growing your business.

In a recent RICKI survey (see story, Page 46), 79% of dealers and designers polled cited clients’ unrealistic budget expectations as a major problem – yet few seemed to have a plan for addressing this problem. In fact, of those who had “fired” a client during the design process, 12% did so for lack of adequate budget – something that likely could have been avoided if a system was in place to qualify clients at the start.

Likewise, when it comes to charging a design fee, designers seem to be all over the place: Some charge one but refund it if the prospect becomes a client; others say “it depends,” with the decision based on a variety of (largely subjective) factors, from the perceived agreeableness of the prospect to “how serious” the prospect seems about the job. Others don’t charge one at all. Yet 55% of designers surveyed say one of their biggest complaints is clients seeking free designs and then shopping them around – a problem that would seemingly be addressed by making it standard policy to charge a design fee.

Sure, it’s nice to be able to make decisions on a case by case basis sometimes. And, as creative professionals, many of us find ourselves naturally resistant to systems, viewing them as constricting or simply boring. Yet efficient systems are not at odds with being creative or forging relationships with clients; in fact, when done well, they support and promote our creative efforts and relationships.

As an example, in this month’s portfolio of showrooms (see story, Page 36), a well-thought-out system helps a newly enlarged showroom maximize design appeal while minimizing sensory overload. Another showroom features a Design Lab that incorporates systems to promote client interaction with the products, encourage discussion and, ultimately, increase sales.

Systems also apply to personal communication. For instance, the vast majority of dealers and designers say they start the design process by having a lengthy discussion with clients to determine their likes and dislikes, needs, budget, etc. Most seem to prefer an open-ended conversation to a written questionnaire, as they feel it’s more interactive and better for picking up on any unspoken subtext. But unless there’s a system in place to ensure the conversation has addressed all the key points, it’s easy to forget something.

Just as every great kitchen or bath starts with a plan and a system to get from tear out to completed design, every business needs an overall plan and well-thought-out systems to help get there. And that applies to everything from business management to client relations to showroom design.