Putting together a pre-installation checklist of items that must be addressed before a floor is laid is an example of a system that goes a long way in reducing expensive callbacks.

When it comes to training, encourage interaction between your installers and all other members of your business and sales team. This promotes problem-solving communication over finger pointing.
If you've stayed abreast of the previous articles in my Journal of a Start-Up Flooring Retailer series, you're likely well aware by now of how exhausting it is to establish a new business from scratch. But even once it's established, the work required to keep the operation running profitably and efficiently never really diminishes. As a start-up retailer, you face long days and never ending challenges - but virtually unlimited opportunities.

Once you've put the fundamentals in place, your most important feat will be to challenge your existing systems, tear them down, analyze them, understand them, and then rebuild them so that they are simpler, easier and more efficient.

You probably also will discover that your staff is the most fragile component of your business. Remember, they are real people whose lives beyond work are rife with problems that range from financial woes to saddened hardships, all rolled in layer of emotional trauma.

And do not forget sales - you've got to have them, especially because cash flow is the lifeblood of any successful business. Finally, any business owner who expects to be successful over the long haul must plan for the future. Let's dig in to see how we can maintain what we've built and plan for the future.

The system is the solution

The road to success can be long, bumpy, dark, and treacherous. But establishing effective systems for your business can make that road a safer, more enjoyable journey. I view "systems" as a documented, step-by-step detail for every situation and scenario that you potentially can encounter in the course of daily business. Systems should be available to your staff for reference, open discussion and should be continuously improved.

Recently, I was plagued with small annoying callbacks that were the result of poor communication, memory lapses or items that were simply overlooked. My initial inclination was to blame my installers for the errors, but I soon realized that, most of the time, these situations could be remedied by improving our system.

The result of our efforts is an in-depth checklist for every aspect of the installation that must be completed before moving on to the next step.

The most recent example was an installation of a floating wood floor - a job in which the consumer asked us to eliminate the squeaks in the subfloor before installing of the flooring. Formality drove us through the task of re-screwing every floor joist, but we had no provisions for checking our work before covering the floor with wood.

Guess what? Once the floor was finished, we noticed a monster squeak at the foot of the bed in the master bedroom. The result was two men lost two hours of labor.

Our improved system now provides a line item to check each joist for squeaks before moving on to the flooring installation. This requires one man, minutes to check and creates no callback. The result - a happy customer and a happy business owner!

Modifications or additions to documented systems can be created in a few minutes. The resulting savings can be huge, and the stress borne by the entire team is reduced.

The business owner's goal should be to build a foolproof system that eliminates every potential problem. In reality, however, this is impossible. The fuel for change at our place is fundamental math - a one-time incident is isolated and does not warrant the time to make system changes, but a second occurrence of the same incident raises a flag for change and having the same issue crop up a third time confirms a problem that requires immediate attention.

Drill into the problem, openly discuss it with everyone, solicit suggestions, and make the change. The modification can always be refined and improved as the problem is solved. Do not become a victim to complacency.

The importance of your staff

Maintenance and driving a plan for the future is dependent on your staff, regardless what role they play in the grand scheme of your business. I think everyone realizes that a personal interview does not represent a guaranteed means of identifying good employees.

In fact, the proof is in the pudding. I firmly believe that a new hire's first 30 days on the job will determine whether or not he or she is a keeper. Certainly, the first six months will uncover most of any person's undesirable characteristics.

Follow your gut. If the person is not a team player, does not mesh well with others or just blatantly disregards his duties, get rid of him. Such employees aren't going to change.

On the other hand, always bear in mind that employees are human beings who are struggling to strike a balance in their lives. And never believe that your business will be as important to them as it is to you. Once you have learned to tolerate, forgive, assist, and become compassionate, you are way ahead in the people game.

My pet peeve has always been arriving to work on time, every day. I make it crystal clear how important it is, and at one time was convinced that I could threaten everyone into being on time. Now that I am older and wiser, I have learned that often my employees are dealing with the trials and tribulations that tend to clutter our lives. Instead of allowing my blood pressure to increase, I think deep about that person's overall commitment to the company, the team and me.

More often than not, my pet peeve is just that. The typical victim of my anger is usually someone who never complains and who, without my asking, will always step up to plate when needed to do whatever is necessary to accomplish our goal.

Never lose sight of the importance of ongoing training. It's one system that's guaranteed to improve the performance of your business.
Compassion has been a difficult lesson for me to learn. But I now realize that, to deal effectively and fairly with people, it is imperative to understand and work with them.

Since I've learned the compassion lesson, I have come to realize that more gets done with less effort on my part and, most important, that our staff works harder as a team to accomplish the goals of the company when someone is in need. This is nothing more than a cultural change that instills pride and leadership in everyone.

I've also found that an ongoing, comprehensive safety training program will not only reduce costly injuries, but reinforce your concern for your staff as human beings. Wellness programs, exercise, training personnel to maneuver within your health care system, and detailed discussions on how to regularly care for one's teeth, body and mind go far beyond the meeting room.

My staff is young. You would be surprised to learn how many of my employees avoid doctors and dentists because they fear the unknown. Help them help themselves! And finally, never lose sight of ongoing training - whether it pertains to product, installation, professionalism, health care, safety, or even something simple like how to open a checking account.

If you take the time to build your company on the premise of human compassion, you will develop a loyalty among your staff that will carry you through the toughest times. Think for just a moment - when your computer is not working, do you scream, cuss or kick it? Maybe, but a wiser person seeks to understand the problem through a process of elimination until the problem is identified. Then, he adjusts his day for the lost time, takes the necessary steps to fix the problem and then simply moves forward. Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you!

Maintaining and planning for long-term success

So, you've put your systems in place, your great staff is waiting to deliver to clients and all you need is sales. Selling is easy - the challenge is to make the most of what you get from the sale.

The previous suggestions for systems and staff will always bring more money to the bottom line. An oversight for which I am guilty is assuming that everything is being done to make this thing called a business more efficient when revenue is flowing. Sadly, good times spawn bad habits. Analyzing your revenue stream when it is flowing and business is thriving is difficult, but you can be assured that the waste is growing like a cancer!

Looking for waste should be a daily discipline. Allow me to review just a partial list of things we do to tighten our belts. We take quick-pay discounts whenever possible, consolidate orders to reduce freight charges, reduce our number of vendors so the business grows enough to justify price concessions from them, institute checking account drafts to eliminate service fees, and outsource costly necessities (such as payroll).

In addition, we negotiate advertising discounts via frequency, ad size, etc., use a purchase-order system to check incoming freight to avoid receiving incorrect shipments, institute driver's training for insurance cost reduction (at work and for individuals), encourage wellness through corporate fitness memberships, provide safety training specific to our business to avoid costly workers' comp claims, always check for volume discounts regardless of order size (e.g. roll-in price for a12-by-13-foor piece of carpet), and organize storage for supplies to avoid double ordering. And the list goes on.

Bottom line: you will always find small opportunities to save without compromising your service or product. Make that a habit!

To enhance sales efficiency, we continue to advertise, survey our current client base for overall satisfaction and seize opportunities for improvement, treat every sale as if it were crucial for our survival, market creatively, and sell quality products. We also mark with a price every item we sell - from labor to floor-care products. We recover freight charges, build a buffer for slower times and reward the staff for jobs well done (e.g. verbal acknowledgement by management).

Personally, I am not a salesman by trade. Therefore, I depend heavily on product knowledge and shooting straight with a customer. Most consumers appreciate a salesperson who is knowledgeable, honest and fair.

These are just a few suggestions for maintaining sales. The benefits of training that involves both your installers and office teams can be the simplest approach to improving while maintaining. Encourage their interaction - you will find them solving problems through communication instead of pointing fingers. Both installers and salespeople learn from each other.

Don't pass on this opportunity. It's too easy and can bring huge savings to the bottom line just by reducing lost time. I know of several people in our industry who offer exceptional training for improving sales. For instance, the training offered by Sam Allman, my fellow NFT columnist and dean of Mohawk University, would be money well spent for your sales staff. You will find exceptional sales training everywhere. Just research the available programs, to make sure they are right for your operation, before investing.

Last, but not least, plan for the future! Michael E. Gerber, author of "The E-Myth," advises one to build a business to sell it at a profit. Imagine yourself as an investor looking for the perfect business in which to invest. Your entire perspective changes when you look at it from that side.

As an investor, I want a business that has successful history, is profitable and efficient, and that empowers people to make decisions. It should be a company that is built around the entire business and not one critical individual. It should be a long-term concern that includes equity (such as real estate) and that can be sold easily because it is successful.

All the concepts I've covered in this series help drive your future plans. If you plan your work and work your plan, you will be successful and will easily sell the fruits of your labor.

I hope you've benefited from my insights as a start-up retailer. Your feedback is important to me - especially from a critical standpoint. Such comments often uncover new topics and ideas for future stories. I urge you to e-mail your comments or questions to me at reggie@floorconsult.com.

Good luck with your own retail flooring business!