Among the myriad problems confronting small business owners, there is one that does not sound like a problem at all: too-fast growth.
However, this nice-sounding dilemma can open a Pandora’s box of difficulties like tight cash flow, staffing issues such as changing roles and not having enough help, reduced profitability, conflicts about diversification versus specialization, and loss of control.
Some owners of growing businesses are reluctant to slow down long enough to address these challenges, fearing that their growth is really temporary luck, or they just do not want to do anything that might blow the flow. Sometimes, when these classic problems go unaddressed, today’s fast-growth company becomes tomorrow’s memory.
Fortunately, there are several inexpensive, non-disruptive ways to address growth management issues that do not require a growing business to slow down or stop. Among the best of these is the task force.
Christine Rosenheim’s Atco (NJ) based medical management/auditing firm is a good example of a firm that used in-house task forces to address many of the challenges faced by other growing businesses.
Rosenheim had been a nurse, and then an auditor, for several years prior to creating Medi Fax Consultants, Inc., a company that reviews and audits medical claims for insurance companies, in September 1985. Revenues for the year: $10,000. After five years in business, her firm had several major accounts, including Hanover, CNA, and Prudential. Gross revenues were $582,000 and her clients were happy. Why wouldn’t they be? Her company is very consumer-oriented.
“I could see that I had good people, strong accounts, positive growth, but at the same time, I could see that I was headed for trouble,” says the 39-year-old Rosenheim.
Behind the scenes, Rosenheim was growing increasingly uneasy. Everyone in the firm was so busy taking care of customers that she had lost a sense of what she and her employees wanted from the firm.
Like most entrepreneurs of growing businesses who face multiple challenges on a daily basis, she would mull the problems, reach a decision and tell others what would be done. Unfortunately for Rosenheim, the list of decisions was growing faster than the time she had available to sit down and consider options. At a time in her life when she had expected to be playing more golf, she was working longer hours than ever before, and if things kept going in that direction, the driving force of the firm would soon become the bottleneck of progress and productivity for her own company.
Some of Rosenheim’s employees were also becoming impatient. The firm’s inconsistent personnel policies were becoming a point of contention, and employees wanted to know where the business was headed. Conversations seemed to focus more and more on internal politics. She felt herself pulling back from going after new business that she knew was out there. Rosenheim had seen other business owners allow this to happen to them, and she was determined not to let it happen to her own company.
Rosenheim hired a small business consultant who recommended that she start with employee input. She needed an approach that would surface constructive ideas without disrupting their work. After all, one problem was that everyone was so busy that they did not have enough time to address their own needs. After interviewing employees to gain a sense of their strengths and their views of the company’s future, the consultant recommended that task forces be created around key market opportunities so that employees could gain a broader perspective about their own company rather than focus only on isolated problems.
Medi Fax Consultants needed to make some key market and marketing decisions anyway, so the task forces would not add a new agenda item to the company. She would just be modifying who was involved in the decision making.
Marketing task forces have been known to work for several growing companies. Marketing is a positive, creative process with several possible approaches rather than one pat answer, which makes it very conducive to group discussion, the open exchange of information and a sustained focus on customer needs and the future.
“To me, the most significant change in the firm as a result of our task forces has been improved communication and general understanding of how the business works,” says Jean Moor, a case management specialist for the company.
That is not surprising, actually. Marketing task forces provide an excellent forum for the entrepreneur to help employees grow with the business. After the excitement of a business’ start-up phase is over, employees often want and need to know more about what makes their company tick. Employees in growing companies typically know a great deal about customers and service delivery, but lack a comparable level of understanding about where new business comes from, what the reputation of the company is, what things cost, how their role impacts the entire business, and all of the tradeoffs involved in making business decisions. In growing service companies in particular, billable employees know just enough about their fees to incorrectly conclude that their company is making more profit than it actually is.
Task forces focused on marketing issues are often the optimum setting for discussions about gross revenue, overhead costs and profit margins. As employees look at the profile of a representative client for their firm, discuss optimum targets for future marketing campaigns and have to think through the cost and return on investment for each marketing idea they generate, they gain an increased appreciation for the company.
“We all gained a renewed appreciation for Chris,” says Terry Seaman, a secretary for Medi Fax Consultants. “For months, Chris has wanted us to offer practice management services for physicians and their office managers, starting with seminars. We can certainly see why she wants to do that as a result of our research.”
Marketing task forces have also contributed to overall revenue goal setting and the establishment of operating versus marketing budgets.
Over a period of about five months, Medi Fax Consultants used task forces to address product development and marketing decisions, internal communication and organizational structure. As a result of their task forces, Medi Fax Consultants organized its approach to marketing, further defined its existing services, introduced new services and went after new markets, updated its promotional literature, wrote job descriptions, hired a business manager, modified its approach to staff meetings, established separate budgets for marketing and operations, introduced team and individual incentives, and completed its business plan.
When the task forces began at Medi Fax Consultants, employees could select from among three task forces, each focused on a specific marget market (insurance companies, physicians and law firms). Each task force would begin its work by researching trends within its specific target market.
One of the great side benefits of the task forces was the opportunities for the employees to get to know one another better. “People seem to have more confidence in themselves and the future of this business,” says Rosenheim. “The task forces gave everyone the chance to work together to build our future.”
“We really surprised ourselves,” says Lorraine Dersch, an auditor with Medi Fax Consultants. “None of us thought that we could do market research. But we learned to use open-ended questions and really hear what the customers value and what they anticipate needing during the coming year(s).”
“We each now play a part in the management of the business, while still providing high-quality service for our clients. It’s rather exciting, actually,” says Virginia Meisner, an auditor with Medi Fax Consultants.
Because Medi Fax Consultants has caring employees, they were willing to give the new approach a try, and Rosenheim demonstrated confidence in her staff by scheduling the task forces during working hours. (Believe it or not, other firms have successfully scheduled task forces on a voluntary basis after normal working hours.)
“We can now see the changes in Chris, too,” says Lis Adomanis, an auditor with Medi Fax Consultants. “She used to handle all aspects of the business, and now she shares many of her responsibilities with us.”
“I have always hired bright, caring people,” says Rosenheim. “And we really benefited from that fact when the task forces were created. I was very impressed with their recommendations. I can see progress on a daily basis and look forward to delegating even more responsibility and authority. In the not-so-distant future, the weight of this business won’t rest entirely only on my shoulders.”
Rosenheim does not want to take her growth for granted either. “It’s too easy to make progress and then forget how it happens. If I were asked to make a recommendation to other growing businesses, I’d suggest that they not make task force-communication a one-shot thing, but rather find a way to keep communication flowing.”
Another secret to success in a growing business is to never stop learning, and task forces help you learn. “Any business in a rapidly changing field like health care will need to try new approaches to keep its skills and knowledge current,” says Rosenheim.
“That’s how you go for growth, I think,” says Rosenheim who expects revenues for her company to hit $1 million this year.
Creating a Task Force
If you consider the use of task forces to address the challenges of growth, it is essential that you:
- Do not wait for morale to hit bottom.
- Select task-force topics of relevance to the participants (your employees).
- Do not allow the task-force meetings to regress into complain sessions.
- Be prepared to share information with task-force members.
- Focus the task forces on the future.
- Set a specified deadline for presentation of task-force findings and/or recommendations.
- Demonstrate that you have heard and appreciate the recommendations that result from task-force work even when you think you cannot.