The schedules of professionals are often dictated by the demands of clients and colleagues. The start of the New Year – as clients and teams take time off – provides a great opportunity to review what's important rather than urgent.
Here are four ways to use precious downtime to improve your business and life in 2015:
1. Visualize processes.
When I trained a few years ago to become a pilot in the Navy, I was told to “fly my desk.” It wasn’t a put-down but legitimate advice about enlisting the power of visualization to become expert at something.
Elite performers – whether fighter pilots, actors or athletes – spend time visualizing processes, ticking off items on checklists and predicting obstacles, all in their mind.
The equivalent of the fighter jet or sports arena is your office, and the best way to make improvements is to walk through your processes. Think about how a client would experience all aspects of your business, starting with submitting an inquiry to the company website.
You’ll probably find three (embarrassing) things: Client processes have some pretty rough edges, the procedures rely on lots of manual legwork and some steps that used to make sense do not anymore.
Mentally put yourself in the position of a client. Where do frustrations and inconsistencies lie? Do clients have the knowledge or tools to know what’s going on as you work for them?
Identify process weaknesses and try to systemize them. When you’re juggling half a dozen projects or struggling to keep the lights on, you can’t effectively visualize solutions. Now is the time to think things through to become more efficient and effective in 2015.
2. Study the competition.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed when a competitor makes a move you deem threatening. On top of dealing with the usual workload, you’re caught off guard and feel you must react instantly.
Now is the perfect time to examine your competitors' work of the past year. Take stock of what they accomplished and how this relates to your goals. Was a rival's product release as big as you anticipated? Is a competitor's service that different from what you offer? Be honest in your assessment so that you can identify areas for improvement.
While Google makes it easy to do research from your office or home study, I’ve found great success in using a lesser-known Google product. With Google Docs, you can create a document or a spreadsheet and then share it with key stakeholders and colleagues for contributions and collaboration in real time.
A plan I created a year ago turned into a powerful, collaborative workspace when I shared it with members of my team and their ability to comment in line proved helpful.
3. Evaluate clients.
Another valuable and often overlooked task is re-evaluating clients. Consider the projects you worked on in 2014 and make a mental note of profitable ones and effective partners.
Is there something the good (or bad) ones share? What attracted the good clients to your firm and why are they likely to remain?
Identifying clients who are employee favorites can be helpful. The best customeres are engaged, challenging and open to a larger scope of work. When you determine why clients are great to work with, you’re better equipped to pursue similar ones in the future.
This time of year is ideal for conducting a customer survey. With a survey, you show clients that you care about their needs while gaining valuable data on processes that isn’t easily quantified.
Ask customers what they like about your business, changes they’d like to see and other services that would interest them. Their in-boxes at this time of year are probably less full and you’re likely to have better response now rather than later when things get busier.
Any pain points revealed in the responses (especially reoccuring ones) should be at the top of your list of items to address in the coming year. Use the results to identify your most loyal customers and provide them a special thank you.
4. Get organized and automated.
It’s easy to fall behind on simple administrative tasks while adressing pressing client concerns. When tasks are unfinished, it’s impossible to obtain an accurate view.
As you wrap up the lingering to-dos, notice which tasks were continuously pushed back and search for ways to automate them. Today, technology can automate the most frustrating things that tie people up: Customer-relationship management systems can now update themselves whenever an employee emails, calls or meets with a client. Timesheets can be filled in and billing done automatically.