If you're like most business owners, you've got a huge list of tasks that stay perpetually on the back burner. You know, like fixing the filing system that currently consists of two piles labeled (at least in your mind) "Hot" and "Procrastinate." Or addressing that long-neglected employee problem. Or bringing your embarrassingly outmoded website up to date. Now's the time to tackle those tasks with a vengeance, because leaving your business problems behind in 2006 is the best way to start 2007 off with a clean slate.
If you're feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and keep reading. I've put together a checklist of items that every business owner should take a look at now to ensure they won't be greeting the same problems in 2007. Here it is:
1. Review all your systems from top to bottom. Carefully examine what's working and what's not. Decide where the problems are, and figure out what can be fixed. You might be able to fix them yourself, or you might need outside guidance. Maybe you need a computer expert to help you use your technology more efficiently, or maybe you need a financial expert to improve the way you do your books. Whatever you do, don't assume anything. Don't assume that just because you've had a certain system in place from day one that it's still adding value to your business or your customers. A system review can be an eye-opening experience for business owners--they're usually surprised to find their business has fallen into habits that are hindering them from being more successful.
2. Review all your vendor contracts. Take a close look at how much business you're doing with each vendor. Are you getting the best rates based on how much you're working together? Is the relationship mutually beneficial for you and for them? If not, don't be afraid to make a change. On the other hand, if you're happy with your vendors, tell them! Let vendors know you want to create a great relationship with them. They'll appreciate that you're taking the time to make sure they're happy in the relationship, too. Let them know you want to be their favorite customer.
3. Determine who your best customers are. You may be surprised to find out that your best customers aren't who you think they are. Examine all your customers through a profitability lens. Just because you always seem to be doing something for certain customers doesn't mean they're the one who are the most profitable. During my own end-of-year review, I often find that my needy customers and my most profitable customers are two different groups. Of course, you should treat all customers well--but when you find out who your best ones are, you'll want to really give them the VIP treatment.
4. Touch base with your best customers. Now that you now who they are, be sure to tell them you appreciate their business and ask if there's anything you can improve on or do differently to help them grow their business. I always like to send out an end-of-the-year letter to my customers. It's a quick, easy way to let them know we care about their needs and to encourage them to give us constructive feedback.
5. Hold annual performance reviews. Discuss with your employees what they can do to help the company run more smoothly. Also take the opportunity to find out what they feel most passionate about in their work, and ask if there's another part of the business in which they'd like to play a larger role. I've always found that performance reviews are a great time to ask my employees, "What can I do for you?" Their responses often surprise me. Sometimes they want something as simple as getting their chair fixed, and sometimes they request something that I simply can't do. Regardless, always be honest with them, and take the time to listen to their concerns one on one.
6. Engage your employees as partners. The best people to help you solve problems, particularly those involving customers, are the ones who deal with them on a daily basis. Your employees are a (possibly untapped) wellspring of ideas about how you can make your customers happier. Hold an end-of-the-year forum designed to get them to share those ideas. Listening to and implementing your employees' suggestions is a great way to make them feel like valued business partners. It will stoke their passion for what they do and encourage them to work harder in the coming year.
7. Do an early spring cleaning! Purge your office. It's time to get rid of all that stuff you either don't need or that doesn't work anymore. Your employees will like working in a cleaner environment--chances are all of you will be happier and more productive. And don't limit your efforts to the inside of your building. Take a look outside, too. Are there things you could do to make it look nicer? You might even freshen things up with a new coat of paint or some potted plants. I'm a firm believer that our mental processes are influenced by our external environment. It's depressing to be surrounded by clutter. Clean up, and everyone may enjoy a boost in energy and creativity.
8. Review your marketing campaign. The end of the year is a great time to take a look at which marketing efforts are driving business and which aren't. Don't hesitate to make changes if you think your current efforts aren't paying off. Keep in mind that a lot of ads will automatically renew, so if you have an ad you don't think is helping your business, you'll want to make a change before you're committed to running it for another year.
9. Overhaul your website. In the same way that retail stores move around their floor sets, you need to make changes to your website to keep people coming back. Make sure all your information is updated, and post any articles that have recently mentioned your work. And be sure to set your company's website as the homepage on your browser. That way, every time you go online you'll notice your website--it serves as a great constant reminder that you need to keep making updates and improvements.
10. Take a look at your business cards. Chances are, you're handing out your business cards to all kinds of people: your customers, your vendors, potential customers, everyone. Make sure all the information is up to date. Are all numbers and e-mail addresses current? Does the layout (colors and design) match that of your website and other business stationery?
11. Review your professional magazine subscriptions. Are you really reading all those magazines that get delivered each month? Chances are, you're letting at least some of them just pile up somewhere in the office (to the detriment of your de-cluttering efforts) or you're simply throwing them away soon after they arrive (to the detriment of your local landfill). Cancel magazine subscriptions that aren't valuable to you. It'll help you save money--every little bit helps--and keep your office tidy.
12. Consider technology upgrades. If you need new computers or a new phone system to help things run more smoothly, the end of the year is a great time to make those upgrades. A new computer, phone system or other technology upgrade can make a huge difference in the daily lives of your employees by enabling them to spend less time attending to such problems as computer crashes or lost voicemails and focus more attention on the things that really matter. Just be sure everyone gets the appropriate training on the new technology.
13. Review your insurance policies. Often insurance policies are set up and then put to the side, forgotten, until something bad happens. Then, too many business owners discover they're not adequately covered. Take some time to carefully review all your policies. I know insurance isn't the most exciting subject in the world, but making sure you have adequate coverage now could save you a lot of money later. This is especially important if changes have taken place in your company during the past year that affect your liability.
14. Update your minute books. If your business structured is such that you're required to keep corporate minutes, then you'll want to make sure you keep your minute books up to date--it can save you from problems in the future. That's because, if you ever face a legal problem, the first thing your attorney will want to do is take a look at your minute books. If your books are already updated, it will help you get your legal case off to a good start and will allow your attorney to focus on the important details of the case.
15. Meet with your accountant. The end of the year is the perfect time to meet with your accountant to plan your taxes. Discuss with your accountant what you should do with excess cash and take a look at anything you can write off.
This may seem like an overwhelming list, but most of the items are easy to do. And like most things you procrastinate about, these tasks aren't as painful as you imagine once you jump in and take care of them. Make dealing with your "back burner" list your end-of-year resolution--you'll be amazed at how liberated you feel if you do. When 2007 rolls around, you'll tackle your new goals without guilt over all the loose ends you're neglecting. You might even be surprised at how much more smoothly your company will run next year. It's a great feeling, and one that you'll be eager to replicate next year.
Ty Freyvogel is a visionary entrepreneur who has launched and grown numerous successful small businesses over the course of a 35-year career. He's currently the owner of Freyvogel Communications, a consulting firm that serves the telecommunications needs of midsized and Fortune 500 businesses.