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On Processes and Predictability

For a while I was against formal processes. They just seemed to get in the way. I’d worked in big companies where an overabundance of processes often led to extra work and boredom. To me, all these rules and regulations were impersonal. They were the roadblocks that must be overcome. They were there to shepherd the incompetent, but they often seemed to just get in the way.

But I was wrong.

The first time I seriously considered processes valuable from a business perspective was when I read The E-myth by Michael Gerber. If you’ve never read this book, I highly recommend it. For creatives and entrepreneurs, it makes a great case for implementing processes in your company. His argument in this book was that processes are imperative for a business to grow. That a business needs to be able to operate at the lowest level of talent possible and set processes makes this possible.

In a sense, this is true. If you’re building a fast-food restaurant, you want the most incompetent person to be able to easily complete the task. But what happens when you build a great team? What happens if the people on your team are all A-level players with their own motivations, thoughts, and goals? Isn’t it enough as a leader to just set the vision, then encourage and guide as needed? Processes would naturally form, but making them official guidelines seemed so limiting. Do you really need processes for the high performance team players?

Yes. You do.

It’s Personal

But it is personal. That’s what I didn’t get at first. I always looked at processes as impersonal. They were rules, guidelines, boundaries, and limitations. If anything, they often got in the way of serving my client or customer in a way that was effective for them. Last week I finished this podcast by Andy Stanley further digging into processes. And his argument was one of the most profound that I’ve heard regarding processes.

You see, good processes are actually very personal. They are personal to the customer. To the person on the other end of your customer service line, good processes show consistency. They give us guidelines to ensure that situations are handled the same way every time. They give us a framework with which to operate.

Take the example of a fire drill at a school. When parents entrust their kids to the school, the existence of a process becomes incredibly personal. Parents needs to know that there is a plan in case of an emergency. A well executed emergency plan helps ensure everyone stays safe and no one is forgotten. If there was no plan, there would be mass chaos when the fire alarm sounded.

But there is a plan. Everyone knows what to do. Everything is systematic and orderly. And everyone stays safe. Parents get their kids back safe at the end of the day. Now that is personal.

As marketers and creatives, we rarely (ok, never) work in settings where someone is physically at risk. Yet we work with companies and organizations who trust their brand to us. Many owners, operators, and managers have poured their heart and soul into their business and building their brand. As a result, they care about how they are treated, what they get, and how they are represented.

To these company owners the brand is personal. Having systems and processes in place to ensure things do not get missed or dropped is obviously a great part of customer service. It is also very personal to customers.

Evaluating Processes

But just because you have a process doesn’t mean it’s a good one. After all, your telephone or cable company has processes for their customer service. You’re probably thinking, “I HATE calling customer service for my cable company.” But the problem here isn’t that they have a process. It’s that they have a poor process. The never evaluate their processes. They don’t care. The process was put in place so it was just good enough to get by. Unfortunately, this is where most corporate processes live. They do just enough to get by.

This is why processes need evaluation. Process aren’t set-and-forget. They take work to refine. Chances are, there is always a better way to do something than the way you are doing it. Evaluation gives you the opportunity to change things. It gives your employees and volunteers a voice. These people are the ones who are in the trenches everyday, so they know how to do their job better than anyone else. Let them take part in the creation and evaluation of the system.

You also need to evaluate with the right metrics. Customer service lines are seen as an expense by companies, so they do everything they can to minimize that expense. In reality this should be an investment. It’s how they retain customers and drive customer loyalty. Rather than measuring customer happiness, they are purely looking at dollars and cents in the short term – missing opportunities in the long term.

If I look at the businesses where I’ve constantly had a positive experience – companies like Chick-fil-a, Disney World, Sweetwater, and many, many others – they are all based around systems that are constantly refined and evaluated. Each of these companies is a leader in their industry and for good reason. The experiences customers have with these brands are usually far better than the experiences customers have with their competitors. In the case of Disney World, it’s even described as magical.

Creativity and Process

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Which brings us to the final question: How can you capture this magic in your processes? How do you build magic into a system that is a bunch of forms and rules? In other words, how do we become predictable in our behavior but unpredictable in our creativity? We talked about this a little already in our post on building a creative process, but there’s certainly more to be said.

The magic comes when we go above and beyond. Getting your burger at a fast food restaurant isn’t magical. Nobody is impressed by that. But getting a burger and free fries – for no particular reason – is something that people talk about. Great customer service, in every industry is magical. Companies that go above and beyond what is in the contract, those are magical places.

You see, building an efficient process doesn’t take away the magic. It simply makes sure you get done all you’re supposed to get done so that you can then go above and beyond. It’s no good if you order a double cheeseburger and you get three burritos. Sure, the burritos might be worth more and even taste better, but if you were expecting a burger, you’re not going to be happy. Start by building a system that allows you to do the basics flawlessly, then build on that.

An Inside Look

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At Mack Web we are redoing our processes to help ensure that everyone gets what they ask for. Not only is this what clients expect, it’s also what we should be doing anyway. Once we’ve taken care of all the basics, then and only then can we go above and beyond to really impress our clients. Processes allow us to be predictable on our tasks but unpredictable in our creativity.

So what does this mean for you? First, make sure you have processes in place in your organization. Do you have systems that ensure nothing slips between the cracks? If not, start building them today. If you’re part of a business that has been around for a while, your systems may need an update. Are your systems in place just to do the bare minimum or do you have the flexibility to allow your team to delight your customers? At the very least, pose these questions to your team. If you don’t know the answers, they will.