From the November 2002 issue of Startups

The holidays are knocking on the door and, if it's like years past, you and your staff will be faced with a workload that seems undoable. And while the holidays may be extra busy for retailers and their suppliers, other businesses have seasons as well--ski resorts go all out when the snow is falling, beach communities are hot when the sun is shining, and florists just love Mother's Day.

Well, those very busy times can be a lot less stressful on everyone if you plan for them and prepare in advance. It's not as though they're unexpected--most of them repeat year after year. Before we talk about preparing for these routine, though trying, periods, keep in mind that without being able to handle the peaks, many of us would be out of business. Quite often, those peaks mean the difference between profit and loss.

Let's pretend we're in the inventory-counting business for a minute. Although inventory services have a repeat customer base throughout the year, they face enormous manpower and equipment challenges from the end of December through the end of January. Meeting those challenges will allow the companies to perform up to customer expectations. But meeting the manpower and equipment requirements have different time lines. The acquisition of working equipment requires a projection of the year-end business months in advance--and having the right amount on hand on December 15th combines such things as repair and maintenance of existing equipment; ordering new, specialized equipment; and possibly renting some units. It's much the same in other businesses. How much equipment or merchandise is needed? When is it needed? Where is it coming from, and how much lead-time is required from suppliers? Are your equipment or merchandise suppliers reliable? Know the answers to those questions, and equipment or merchandise will be in place for the busiest of seasons.

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It can be a bit more unpredictable when you have to hire additional staff, especially short-term staff. So, first analyze your expected needs as far in advance as you can. Again, determine how many work hours you expect to need, where the workers come from and how much lead time you need to get them. Undoubtedly, like inventory services, some of those additional hours will come from your existing employees working overtime. Some will come from newspaper and Internet ads, employee referrals and temp services. Just make sure you have a realistic expectation of the ability of each source to deliver.

Some companies experience great success using newspaper recruitment ads, while others find the Internet or temp agencies to be better sources. Wherever you find your pool of new workers, just remember that unlike the equipment you need, employees aren't plug-and-play. They need some training, and that will push your hiring date back a bit. And, if a shortage of employees will destroy your year--as well as your reputation--try to anticipate problems and begin earlier than you may otherwise want. Sure, you may have a few employees on payroll a week or so longer than needed, but if that first ad doesn't bring in the expected number of applicants, you'll have time to run it again or to try something different.

Perhaps the most important thing is to rehearse. That's right, practice throughout the year, only on a smaller scale. Check those supplier lead-times. And remember, your competitors will be begging the same suppliers come crunch time, so factor that in. Test your help-wanted ads. Do they draw crowds or yawns?

With proper planning, preparation and testing, you'll find yourself looking forward to next year's busy season.


Rod Walsh and Dan Carrison are the founding partners of Semper Fi Consulting in Sherman Oaks, California and the authors of Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way.