8 steps to surviving and thriving in a service business

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It’s likely that you started your service business by having one person as the key service provider – you. Having the technical skill to drive and lead the business, setting the business standards and pace. You then get to a junction where you can either continue this approach and have a very well paid job, or you can expand and handover those reigns to staff and create a real business.

I’ve gotten this transition wrong so many times and as a result I was forced to move away from my growth/leadership/strategic role back into the service ‘drivers seat’. A favourite Hemingway quote comes to mind: “He had always known what I did not know and what, when I learned it, I was always able to forget.”

Here are my tips for surviving and thriving in a service business:

Find the right people

Another favourite (and blunt) Hemingway quote: The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness except for the very few that were as good as spring itself.”

Have a proven and documented recruitment process, and have a reliable network of freelancers/consultants you can rely on. That way you don’t feel forced to employ someone who’s good because you don’t have time to find someone awesome. I have done this so many times but have now made a firm commitment not to hire anyone unless they’re an ‘A Player’. Getting the right fit is vital for your business values, culture and your clients.

Nurture your network

Having a ‘network’ and ‘networking’ are two very different things. A network is a concentrated group of people who you would do business with, and networking is you handing out your business card to everyone hoping they might need your services. However, it’s the quality of connections you make, and doing what you say you’ll do (“Ok, I’ll drop you an email.”) that is key to building a valuable network that stands the test of time. 

I started my network building through organisations such as the Telstra Business Women’s Network, PwC, Westpac’s Ruby Connection, CBA’s Women in Focus and NSW Business Chambers.

Retain clients

A service business that can bill clients on a retainer makes a world of difference. Cashflow, capacity and resources are now all predictable. Try to include a three-month notice period in your contract as a safety net if you’re a small business.

When I first started Pulse Marketing, the equation I worked out for a monthly Account Management Retainer was the full-time role equivalent in their business plus 20 per cent. I had no push back, and it was profitable.

Process map EVERYTHING

Spelling out the steps for the main functions of your business will ensure they’re done properly, and these efficiencies are embedded into your business. You will stop hearing “I didn’t know I had to do that.” I use Delineato to get my process maps out of my head and into a great digital application. That way I can also present them to someone else. It’s the best way to revise your processes and search for any holes.

Learn from your mistakes … the first time

The first time a client doesn’t pay, which will happen to 100 per cent of all service businesses, know what paperwork you should have in place and add this to the process map for onboarding a client.

At Pulse Marketing we also use Employment Hero to ensure all of our company policies and procedures are in place. And we use M+K Lawyers, who have been with me from day one.

Set a learning target

As the leader of the business, you’re assumed to know more than everyone else and this takes time and training. So, I set a learning target for the year, a certain amount of hours of learning that I hope to achieve. A learning opportunity, such a seminar or conference is usually coupled normally with a network building opportunity, so it’s a good investment of your time.

I’ve been a member of Entrepreneurs Organisation for five years, which means I have a structured learning program across the year. Mixing up international speakers, experiences within entrepreneurs businesses, inspirational leaders. This sets the baseline of learning, and then I top up with one more learning event a month.

Over engineering

Don’t over systemise your business. Talking is an acceptable ‘paper trail’, just get on with delivering what you said you would for the client. I’m a big believer, however, in technology. The main platforms we now use are Workflow Max, Slack, Small Improvements and Zoom, all great tools for a service business.

Have ‘someone else’ run your business

This person may seem like a mystical unicorn, but it is possible to find and trust someone else to run the business side of your business. That’s the only way you can put on your strategic/leadership hat and truly grow your services business.

Lauren Fried is the MD of Pulse Marketing.

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