Stop Telling Me It's a Good Problem!
6/12/2012 6:21 PM
As I write this, I am looking out the window of a rented home at powdery white sand the consistency of confectioner’s sugar and blue-green, rolling, crashing waves. I’m thankfully on vacation this week and SO glad to have ducked away from my custom installation offices for a brief respite.
I can also imagine that while I write this, the phone is continuing to ring off the hook at Custom Theater; both lines tag-teaming each other in an effort to drive to try and drive whomever is running the store insane. Installers are calling or texting in on the cell phone looking for something or relaying some in-field crisis. Delivery trucks are pulling up, cramming an already overwhelmed back room. And people are streaming in through the doors, needing a TV mounted, a remote programmed or audio added to some part of their home.
And just thinking about it gives me a full body shiver.
As the economy went, so went a lot of businesses around the country, and Custom Theater was certainly no different. We had a period in 2011 where we literally had nothing on our job scheduling boards for a two month period. And it was definitely stressful, wondering, “What will the crew do today? Or tomorrow? Or the next day…?” But we always knew that it was a drought that we just had to weather, and that if we could get through the hard times, sooner or later things would start picking up again.
And they have. With a vengeance.
For the past couple of months or so we have been not just busy, but crazy, overwhelmingly busy. Running on the improbable 110 percent only ever spoken of only by nuclear submariners, pro basketballers and Lou Ferigno. When we are at our most optimal, we are working our crew 38-42 hours a week and scheduling jobs about a week out. This allows us to keep jobs queued in an orderly manner and to have an efficient and happy staff. It’s also enough work that you aren’t wondering where the next bit of work is coming from, while still being able to schedule things in without too much of a wait.
Right now we are scheduling work for July 6 and later.
So now when people call or ask how things are going and I tell them that we are *crazy* busy, they all respond with, “Oh, well that’s a GOOD problem to have.” (No joke, my wife’s aunt *literally* just said it to me. “That’s job security!")
And as bad as those slow times were, I’m telling you that being TOO busy is a much worse problem to have and one that ultimately has more potential to damage the business. (Assuming, of course, that the periods of “too dead” don’t last so long that you have to close down your doors.) Here are seven reasons why being too busy is much worse than being too slow.1) Customer Service Suffers
When an existing customer calls with a system problem, you can’t very well tell them that you’ll send someone right out to take care of them…in a month. Even Mother Theresa would start dropping F-bombs on you if you told her that she was going to have to wait 28 days to get her Netflix situation squared away on her Blu-ray player or her intermittent WiFi issues sorted out. In fact, when the schedule starts getting more than about 10 days backed up, you risk having people getting downright nasty. “I’ve been a good customer and you have to service this system you sold me! You can’t expect me to wait for a month to get my system working!” The truth is, they’re right. They shouldn’t have to wait that long. But, here we are.
Conversely, when things are slow, you have guys just waiting around ready to spring in to action at the first hint of a service call or job spec. There was a time when it almost felt like we had work vans loitering around Cold War nuclear bomber style waiting for a “Go!” call. “What’s that? You need your Blu-ray player looked out? I’ve already got a guy in a van headed over. Oh, I believe he’s pulling into your driveway now. How’s that for service!” This was a way to *really* impress clients.2) The Customer Experience Suffers
Whether it is in the store or at a client’s home, when the schedule is overwhelmed, the experience the customer receives often suffers. You don’t have the extra time it takes to thoroughly explain and go over things. Also, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been forced to cut a presentation short because of an incessantly ringing phone. There are only so many times you can say, “Excuse me, let me just answer this really quick,” before the momentum of the presentation has been Shanghaied.
When it’s dead and you have nothing to rush off to or a phone that is trying to ring itself to death, you can spend those extra minutes going over everything so the customer feels totally at ease with the new system and feels like they really received concierge-level treatment. Or you can give a thorough demonstration, addressing every question and concern that makes it more likely that you land that new project.3) Quality Can Suffer
It’s no mystery that people that are overworked make more mistakes. When you are tired, frazzled, or stressed, you are going to be more likely to make a little mistake that you don’t catch. A wire that gets terminated incorrectly or a setting that doesn’t get set. Sometimes it is just a matter of not taking the time to go over all of the different options, like trying every activity on the remote control. I find that when my guys are routinely working 10 hour days with 3 and 4 calls in a day, we are far more likely to get those calls of, “You’re guys came out and they were great, but I’m not sure they got a chance to check X because it doesn’t seem to be working…”
Again, when it’s slow, the crew has more time to handhold the job, meaning that they spend a little extra time and do it right the first time. Also, when their hours were on the line, they were a lot more proactive about things like suggesting upsale options to the customer like adding zones of audio, or a smart remote or a Blu-ray player. 4) You Risk Losing Business
This is a real biggie. In fact right now we are contemplating walking from a large project because we are worried that it is going to just consume too much man power in a period of time when we would likely have to blow everything else off the schedule. Or, when you tell someone that you can sell them a TV and surround system but you can’t come out to install it for nearly a month, they usually ask you if you can recommend someone else that could come and do the work sooner. I've had multiple people lately say, "Well, I'm glad to hear that you are all so busy, but I'm going to need to have this problem fixed, so I'm going to have to call someone else." Think that we will be the first person they reach out to next time? Or maybe they'll go with the "new guy." We’ve also recently done the equivalent of pulling your goalie late in the game to get an extra pair of skates on the ice. We’ve started closing our store occasionally to get that manpower out into the field. However, who is to say what business you lose when someone pulls up and sees a, “Sorry! Had to step out!” sign on the door or calls and doesn’t reach a person?
When we were slow, we would meet with someone, return to the office to generate a proposal, sell and schedule the job all within about an hour, often performing the work the very next day. 5) The Schedule Is One Giant Jenga
Right now, our schedule is tightly packed and delicately -- oh, so delicately -- balanced. We go over it constantly; honing it and seeing what job has some “give” to it where we could cram something else in or who could be bumped – triaged – for something more pressing. Frankly, it’s all just one minor problem away from falling apart. If something goes wrong and doesn’t get finished in the amount of time we allotted, the entire machine throws a massive cog and putting it back together takes an act of God. This puts the whole company on a razor’s edge of stress where everyone knows that if something goes not-according to plan, there will either be 12 hour work days or some other blowback. And inevitably there is going to be some emergency/crisis call that is going to come in that just cannot be pushed back. A security system that is faulting. A long-term marquee client that has a real crisis. A construction project that will be derailed if something isn’t done rightnowtoday!6) Housekeeping
Downtime is a great time to do things like have maintenance performed on the vehicles, clean up around the shop, straighten the nightmare of the back room perform the deep-cleaning that my guys like to call “douching the vans,” etc. All of this gets totally back-burnered when we are busy. 7) You Can’t Just Staff Up
Sure, right now our problems would be greatly mitigated if we had more staff. In fact, if I had two more installers and an additional salesperson right now, we would be kicking our business into overdrive instead of smoking crystallized stress out of a heated spoon. And we’re looking to staff up. But, this isn’t an industry where you can just throw up a “Now Hiring” sign on the reader board and take the first people that show up with a decent shave, minimal amount of visible piercings, and no hint of booze on them. This industry requires a lot of training, generally very specialized training that only comes from having been in this industry already. I need someone that can program remote control systems, specifically URC and Control4. I need someone that can jump in and hit the ground running with pre-wires and retrofits and system connections. I also need to be able to trust that I can send them into a customer’s empty house and not have even a .01 percent doubt that they might steal something.
When it’s slow, you can staff down. It’s hard and it sucks, but you can do it. We had to trim staff last year and it isn’t a fun thing to do, but it was a necessary evil of the times.
3 comment(s) so far...
By firstname.lastname@example.org on
6/14/2012 3:13 AM
Stop Telling Me It's a Good Problem!
This a a great column John - it speaks clearly to the challenging balance that we have in running our businesses. I prefer not being busy enough over prolonged periods of being too busy (as long as we can still meet payroll) because our customer support and employee moral is at it's peak during those less hectic times. Gordon
By email@example.com on
6/14/2012 1:33 AM
Stop Telling Me It's a Good Problem!
I hope you had this one "in-the-can" BEFORE leaving for vacation...
We are in the exact same boat as your company. Referrals keep driving new business and those new clients are the ones that need to be impressed, so they will send in new referrals (and the circle keeps on turnin'). Luckily, we are not retail, so no one needs to man the store.
I end up going out on the 'rightnowtoday' issues, and that impresses the clients enough to keep the referral machine running. BUT, that means that the office stuff doesn't get done until after-hours. It's never boring!
The talent pool seems to be the owners of businesses that have closed down, a very scary place to hire from.
Also, if one more client, Rep or distributor tells me "Don't work too hard" as an exit salutation, I'm gonna explode...
Audio Video Guys - Houston
By firstname.lastname@example.org on
6/14/2012 4:35 AM
Stop Telling Me It's a Good Problem!
We are in the same damn boat - the patient ones are waiting 4 weeks for their stuff, while the impatient ones are either getting service after hours, or getting mad and taking their ball and going home, so to speak.
The hire/fire issue is the hardest to deal with, as you may need them now, but what about in February? And we have laid people off in the past - it sucks.
We may have reached the limit of our operational potential, and that's a good thing to know. But while some clients will be patient, I agree that lots of other factors suffer.
One that you didn't specifically mention is the stress level that the organization can feel while you are running at 110% - it doesn't trickle - it cascades - and if people are stressed for one reason or another unnecessarily, it infects the whole place.
Another nice article, John. Talk to you soon!