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Maggie Harlow

The Surprising Value Complaints Bring to Your Sign Company

Some of the best ideas for improvement start out as customer, employee and owner problems.

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PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

WHEN I GATHER WITH other business owners, it’s almost inevitable that we complain about the “crap” in our businesses: We complain about customers, employees, vendors, installers, materials and maybe even our business partners.

I think this is inevitable. We can’t really complain to anyone else, as only another signshop owner knows the exquisite pain of a hair caught in laminate, a print head strike or that really talented employee who just can’t seem to come in on time.

What can often be lost in this cloud of complaints, however, is how these complaints point toward opportunities — if we are paying close enough attention. Most of the improvements our shop has made in processes, profits and performance have been the result of problems and complaints.

In fact, I’ve found the complaint process so helpful in determining our trajectory, we have an annual meeting for “airing of complaints” as a team and figuring out which issues are most impactful, and when solutions are most promising. We call this airing of complaints our “All Team Meeting,” and here are some of the great developments that have come from the discussion:

  • Creation of defined and managed communication channels to streamline information sharing
  • Standardization of naming so that design/sales/production are all using the same terms for products and services
  • Implementing management software
  • Improved culture through social events and public appreciation

Sometimes the complaints are ones that I have personally, as the CEO. I eventually take notice when I have a complaint over and over. Sometimes it takes me years to realize this complaint is pernicious before I decide to try to resolve it.

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Here’s a great example: For years we found ourselves looking at the last week of the month, facing what we believed would be a terrible month in closed invoices. Those last couple days of the month, after badgering and begging, suddenly a wave of invoices would close, and ta-da, we were having a good month after all! After finally having enough of sleepless nights worrying about the imaginary “bad months” we were having, I came up with an incentive to get our team to work collectively to hunt down orders that could close each week, rather than waiting until the end of the month.

Shot Clock was born! Each Friday we have a sales goal to meet, and if we meet it by noon on Friday, and not a minute later, the team can have the following Friday as a paid half-day off and everyone leaves at noon. Once we figured out how to establish the goal, based on the number of employees, the rest was natural. The team wanted to leave early on Fridays, so suddenly it became their effort and motivation to find and close every potential invoice they could. They would even collaborate across departments on knocking out an install to be sure it could close by noon, including posting photos of the completed job.

Many good innovations in our company have been born out of complaints:

  • Customer complaints helped us create a streamlined, quick-turn department.
  • Staff complaints led us to physical improvements in the building. Our next improvement is a better break area for resting employees.
  • We also improved our PTO policy.

Now don’t get me wrong — our employees aren’t without complaints that sometimes I just can’t resolve, and you’ll still sometimes find me kvetching with my peers about material pricing. Some problems you just can’t fix.

But I invite you to turn your ear to whatever issues you see coming back time and time again and ask yourself, what you might do if instead of complaining, you leap into action. It just might be your next big success story.

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