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Module 8 of 9
In Progress

Building Systems That Scale

After selling the nonprofit app company, my agency accepted a contract to run the staffing for the software which included hiring and managing developers, service staff, and marketing teams. This would stretch my agency in a way we hadn’t been stretched in the past. We’d more than tripled our previous staff members in a matter of 6 months, which for any company, at any size causes breaks in your processes. So I set out to rebuild the processes that broke, it wasn’t easy and to this day certain pieces still break. But that’s actually a good thing. A broken process shows you where you are scaling and what needs to be improved to create a stronger foundation to support more business. 

As you grow and scale any product or service, the only way to guarantee success over and over again is to implement repeatable and easily understood processes for your team to follow. Some processes can be automated, in fact, more so than ever before. This is how small companies become big companies. Without these processes and automation, a lot of small companies get stuck in a cycle of production nightmare, often boring from future clients to complete previous clients’ work. This is where we were before we could scale as a company; always one step behind. 

We had hit this same roadblock a few years earlier when working on the nonprofit app company. We were stuck always behind, always in crisis mode, and always missing major issues that would happen both with our team and with our clients. It was a nightmare, and cost a fortune in mistakes. It wasn’t until we spent the time and effort to rebuild processes that we were able to accept customers in mass. 

You might say “why didn’t you just build processes in the beginning?” and rightfully so, but if you’ve started any sort of business you understand that you start with what you think you’ll need and learn, over time what you really need. Systems and processes are living things, they continue to evolve as you grow. 

Whether you’re a one-man shop or a multi-member team, you need systems to grow, even if you’re the only one that follows them. This module is about automation, building scalable systems, and paying attention to the little things. 

 

Process defined. 

A process is simply an organized and duplicable set of actions that happen in reaction to something else. Have you ever gone to Taco Bell? Don’t lie. Of course, you have! When you go through a drive-through, and order, in the background the staff members are following a specific process to construct your order. 

Sure that might be a rudimentary way of looking at a process, but simplicity is really important when you look at processes. So often entrepreneurs complicate how they or their team produce and deliver a product. We entrepreneurs are not exactly known for our simple mannerisms, are we?!

A process in your business could look like a number of things. For example, if you’re a web designer, you usually have a process for onboarding a customer or a process for billing and sending a receipt. If you’re a pool cleaner, you have a process that you repeat every time you clean a pool. 

These are simple processes that you can’t run a company without and most of them you’ve probably already created because you had to create them. I want to dig into more complex processes that you’ll need to scale, not just the ones you need to survive as a company like the ones mentioned earlier. 

 

When to create a process.

When should you create a new process for your company? This is completely based on your business. If you can have enough foresight to anticipate issues then fantastic create a process for your team before building your team! But, if you’re anything like me, anticipating issues isn’t exactly what your Ph.D. is in. 

Most processes are implemented in reaction to something happening; a customer is angry that the delivery of their website had typos, so you create a new process to quality check the product before it goes out the door. 

This is a natural way to build processes in your company, over time and in reaction to an issue that came up. Don’t be afraid to ditch old and outdated processes that no longer serve your company for new and more efficient ones. 

When we started the Growth Team under Apollo I built document after document of processes thinking they would fix most issues I could think of before we even hired the staff. Today, almost one year after founding the Growth Team, maybe 2 or 3 of the 20+ processes still exist. I had no idea what future issues we’d face as we took massive marketing jobs and things broke. Ironically, today’s processes in the Growth Team are simpler than the ones I created in the beginning.

 

Simple Processes Work

A simple process fixes more issues than a complicated process. They’re easier to understand and thus have fewer issues when being followed. When you create a process that’s 6 pages long and hard to remember, people don’t follow. So then you need to spend more time and money enforcing them, which kinda defeats the purpose of simplifying with a process in the first place. 

A simple process is usually a complex process that’s been broken down into bite-size and easily followed pieces. Think of Ford Motors when they built the assembly line. Prior to the assembly line that Ford is famous for, cars were built by one or two men doing each part of the assembly. This took months and even years for a car to be complete, and even longer to learn how to build each and every piece. 

When Henry Ford designed the first assembly line his secret was that he taught one group of people to do one thing well, over and over again. That group didn’t know how to do the rest of the build and they didn’t have to. They just needed to accomplish one task and hand it off to the next group to accomplish the next step of the task. This also dropped the need to spend months training someone as all they were doing was one simple task, over and over again. 

In the 21st century, this gave rise to automation as you can more easily teach a computer or use an app to replace one step of the process than you can have a computer fulfill the entire process of producing your product or service. 

 

How To Build a Process 

Processes should always focus on roles and not individual people. This way you can build something that will outlast your current employees. Plus, you never want to be left training the same process over and over again, you’ll need to document it. 

I use Google Docs pretty religiously when building a process for my company. But there are other options out there like Process Street and Monday.com that help you document out your process and automate steps. 

  1. Figure out where the process starts and where it ends. 
  2. Define what roles interact with the process and at what time. 
  3. Document the basic steps of the process. 
  4. Dig deeper into each step adding potential scenarios and how to react to them. 
  5. Add in where those steps intersect with other processes. 

Let’s run through a quick example. Say you’re producing a website for a customer, but last time you onboarded a customer the team botched the client onboarding and confused the customer because they didn’t understand expectations. Using the model above we’ll build a quick process for this scenario: 

 

Client Onboarding Process

What this process covers:

The portion of the client lifecycle starts post-contract and ends before the website goes into edits and revisions. 

What roles are involved in this process?

  • Sales Agent
  • Web Designer 
  • Copywriter 

The Process 

  1. After the contract is signed by both parties, the Sales Agent informs in an email that the customer is ready to be onboarded. 
  2. The Sales Agent then schedules a call with the Web Designer, Copywriter, and the customer. 
    1. Once this date has been confirmed with the customer, the Sales Agent emails all parties the time and call url. 
  3. After the call, the Web Designer reaches out to the customer with this email template [link for template] setting appropriate expectations of deliverables. 
    1. Adjusting any dates to ensure they align with the team’s agreed delivery dates. 

 

Let’s say you implement this simple process. But then, a customer presents in the onboarding call that they actually need more work than they let on or was agreed to. What then? Well, you build that situation into the process. 

  1. After the call the Web Designer reaches out to the customer with this email template [link for template] setting appropriate expectations of deliverables. 
    1. Adjusting any dates to ensure they align with the team’s agreed delivery dates. 
  • In the event the customer presents additional services needed, not already agreed to in the contract, Web Design documents those and sends them off to the Sales Agent for approval or collection. [link to sales process]

 

This process now intersects with a sales process. So you would then link the sales process to ensure no confusion as to how the Sales Agent should handle the situation. 

Processes like this might seem simple, but they leave no room for excuses when balls are dropped, like the Sales Agent not informing the designer that the customer can start. Or the Web Designer just doing work that wasn’t originally agreed to. 

Over time, you’ll add more and more into the process, but don’t forget to keep it simple. For example, we had a process where all contractors have to come up with a due date for every task written in our CRM (Monday.com.) Over time we kept wondering why they were missing deadlines constantly. We found out the managers were adding deadlines because the contractors kept forgetting to, and of course then the contractor doesn’t live up to the deadline they didn’t set. 

To fix this issue, we implemented a 24-hour rule. If the manager has to set a deadline, the contractor has 24 hours to refute it or it’s set in stone and they have to live up to it. This addition mixed with accountability measures, helped us clean up the missed deadlines and thus missed client expectations. 

 

Accountability

As your processes get more in-depth they tend to get less fun to follow by your staff. This is why accountability measures are so important. I learned this the hard way when I was building the nonprofit app company and found out that my sales staff didn’t inform my app designers that the customer was sold, despite it being in the process documents. This created a number of issues including customer cancellations and the design staff getting overwhelmed when the pile of customers sold overtime came in all at once. 

If I’m being honest here this is probably my weakest and most frustrating skill as a leader. I’m just not great at keeping accountability and not the biggest fan of confrontation either. Hence my I levels (on the DISC) outshining my D levels, I can be confrontational I just don’t enjoy it. Maybe you’re different and that’s awesome, this will come easier for you. But if holding accountability with people that work for you is not something you’re used to or enjoy, I’ve developed a few simple ways to implement it without the textbook response of “you’re losing your pay if this isn’t followed!” or other strong-arm methods to get people to do what you want over and over again. 

In the earlier example of the contractors not fulfilling deadlines, we had both an accountability issue and a process issue. The managers weren’t enforcing the process to begin with and the contractors weren’t following it. So how do you correct a process and enforce it without creating significant friction? Here are 4 methods of accountability that I’ve developed over the years that help me build better processes and enforce them. 

 

  • Ask
  • Build Together
  • Social Accountability
  • Upfront & Ongoing Expectations 

 

Ask

Yep, simply ask why it wasn’t followed. This will bring light to the things maybe you don’t see. I asked my contractors why they weren’t hitting deadlines. To which they answered, “because we didn’t create them.” 

This opens the door for the contractor or employee to help shape your process in a way that they feel comfortable following and understand fully. 

When someone is not following a process and it’s a repeat offense, my managers draft an email to myself, the other owners, and the staff member having the issue expressing concern for their well being as it appears they’re overworked because they can’t seem to finish things on time, listing out the offenses. 

This does a few things, firstly it opens the door for the staff member to communicate what’s going on in their life. Maybe there’s something we aren’t aware of. Secondly, they see that the owners of the company are cc’d this creates strong social signals that something’s not okay. Thirdly, they understand they can never use the same excuse twice. 

 

Build Together

Involve your staff in building the process. We have this sang in sales referring to the sales manager and sales staff “if I say it, it’s my opinion. If they say it, it’s fact.” that holds true in just about every department though. 

 

When a staff member has the opportunity to help construct how something is built and what processes they’re required to follow, they’re more likely to follow them. They have a little excuse when they don’t follow through with something they agreed would be the best way of doing it.

 

Social Accountability 

Ever been called out in front of friends or peers? It’s unpleasant but incredibly effective. I’ve found that reviewing deadlines, tasks, quality inside a stand-up or team call is one of the strongest forms of accountability. Now, I’m not saying go reprimand your staff on a call, in fact, you should always praise in public, correct in private. 

In fact, if organized correctly you can allow people to hold themselves accountable on the call. For example, we walk through the tasks and deadlines that the team set for themselves at the beginning of a project. These standards are assessed by the team daily, going over what each person has done to contribute to the end goal. And if someone missed a deadline or their quality is not up to par, they’re given the opportunity to provide feedback expressing major roadblocks or frustrations. Again this opens the door for discussion instead of jumping to punishment, but over time a consistent lack of performance is noticed by all their peers. With this daily discussion in place, teammates are able to support one another in an open, communicative environment where no one feels less than the other. This promotes extreme communication and cohesiveness between the team.

The goal is not to embarrass someone, but to give them the opportunity to improve and keep themselves accountable to their team. Most staff are more afraid of their peers’ opinions than they are of yours. This effectively leaves out most of the need for private correction. These calls and daily communication between teammates, create a better end product, accountability, and leave you the space to know your team is holding one another to a standard of excellence that they can be proud of and feel fulfilled by. 

 

Upfront & Ongoing Expectations 

When hiring someone you should always draft and both sign an expectations document. This ensures if and when expectations are not met, you can always refer back to this document and if they signed it, how can they refute it. This allows an agreement to be your accountability instead of having to give a staff member all the reasons they’re not doing great at their job. 

But expectations are living and breathing, so how do you adjust expectations as time goes on without having to sign a new document every single time something changes? I faced this very thing with a business partner of mine, every week something changed, and it was often in conflict with something we agreed on previously. 

So after every call, we’d submit bullet points of what we heard and agreed to, allowing the other person to reply “I agree” or clarify something that they misunderstood from the call. This paper trail saved my ass more times than I can count because you can always go back and refer to what was discussed and agreed to, especially when you’re doing multiple things at the same time with a business partner. 

This worked so well that I implemented it with a lot of my leadership, asking for consistent notes after getting off a call, explaining what they understood. It’s hard to fight something you wrote. 

At the end of the day, accountability doesn’t need to be about forcing someone to do something, often it can look like just allowing staff into the decision-making process, and then allowing themselves, in written or public settings, to keep themselves accountable. 

 

Automate and simplify 

This is my favorite section. I love automating. If I can find a software or app to do something well over and over again, I’m all for it. It’s literally the epitome of efficiency and the only way that you can scale without staffing costs exploding. It’s worth noting that this is also the simplest process in this entire course. But I’ve successfully scaled every company by following 4 simple steps. 

But first, what exactly can you automate? Things done over and over again, in no unique fashion, by the same person or team. I’ll have a few examples shortly. 

Here’s my process for automation: 

  1. Audit
  2. Document 
  3. Scratch 
  4. Replace

 

Audit

When we were scaling the nonprofit app company we first looked at the most time-consuming pieces of our company. This was pretty apparent just by asking the staff what they spent their time on most. This audit process doesn’t take too long, and depending on how big your company is, can often happen over a call. 

Things to ask in your audit: 

 

What do you spend most of your time on? 

What things do you do over and over again? 

What is super annoying about your job? 

 

Using these questions we found out quickly stuff like the customer service team answering the same questions over and over again or the app design team reaching out every week to hundreds of customers to request edits. 

 

Document

When you’ve identified something that could potentially be automated using a 3rd party application, ask the team member to document exactly what they do in the process that needs automating. 

With the app company, the customer service team listed out the questions they answered over and over again for customers. The app team documented exactly when they reached out to the customer to remind them to submit edits. 

 

Scratch 

Ask yourself if this is really necessary? Sometimes staff members have the best intentions but they consistently do something that eats their time thinking it’s just what they have to do. For example, one member of my team explained to me one day that she spent an hour or two a day calling old clients that had fallen off the map. When I asked how many answered her call, I was shocked at the response; “Less than 1 or 2%” 

She was just following orders, but the process needed to die. It was a waste of time. I considered momentarily automating a text to those customers but realized quickly the effort to automate would be more than the payoff to scratch the whole thing. Be willing to ditch bad processes when they don’t work. 

 

Replace 

Now, you can find a replacement for the process. This step requires a little research but I’ll list out a few of the go-to’s for most of the automation we do in our company. 

We used Intercom, for example, to automate the most commonly asked questions customers have by creating a bot inside the platform that listed common questions and answered those questions. 

We automated the edits request from the app design team by using Zapier to remind the customer on a timer, saving hours of manual reaching out. 

  • Monday.com (or other CRMs.)
    • Most CRMs have automation and workflows already built-in. But we find Monday.com is probably one of the most robust we’ve seen for task management automation. Allowing actions on one task to automatically take actions on other tasks.  
  • Zapier: our most used tool ever. 
    • This is a middleman API interface, meaning it allows you to connect thousands of applications around the web. Automating data transfer, welcome emails, text messages, even calls! 
  • Intercom
    • Automate your customer service and help centers. 
  • More tools are listed in the workbook section.