Mulligan Stew: Random Observations -- and Ideas on Management

A bunch of different stuff that owners and managers of woodworking business should think about. 1998.

by Anthony Noel

Most of the time, these articles offer strategies aimed at specific challenges of shop management. Over the course of writing this feature, a few topics have arisen which were too brief to handle separately, but are important to touch on. What to do?

You guessed it - throw them all together in a sort of mulligan stew. So get out your spoon (or do you prefer a fork?) and dig in.

Put it in Writing!
Besides its importance for contracts and crucial specifications, there are other times when practicing careful documentation and using letters and/or faxes can save your company time and money.

Some call letter writing a lost art. But if you make an effort to 'find' it, the ability to spell things out will serve you well.

A company I work for purchased a brand-name computer monitor. After about six months of use, it went on the fritz. We sent it back to the manufacturer for service (under the terms of the warranty) and it came back about two weeks later.

The monitor worked just fine for about six weeks and went down again. A call to the manufacturer prompted the company to replace the equipment with a 'new' monitor. Little did we know that they were using the term 'new' to mean 'different' - they sent us a remanufactured unit.

That might have been all right, had the 'new' monitor worked. But two days after hooking it up, we again found ourselves staring at a blank screen. This time, the manufacturer asked that we send the 'new' unit back for service. The trouble was, we had already gone out and purchased a truly new monitor, from another manufacturer. We did not want this game to go on, and we wanted our money back from the maker of the original unit.

'Well,' the customer service rep told me over the phone, 'they are pretty reluctant to do that. In fact, they almost never do.'

'Okay,' I said. 'Let me talk to your supervisor.'

After patiently explaining our entire history with the junky monitor and its even worse replacement, I got the same response from the supervisor. 'Sorry, but we don't give cash refunds.'

'Fine,' I told him. 'You will be receiving correspondence from our lawyers.'

What? Me? The guy who time and again has admonished readers against getting involved with the time and expense of lawyers, running off to my nearest attorney?

Not quite. What the company actually got was a one-page letter, written by me, with a copy of the purchase receipt for the original monitor. It carefully recapped the situation, using the Merchandise Return Authorization (MRA) number under which the original monitor had been returned as a reference. (I do hope that you save all your receipts and take notes during phone conversations. It pays off, as you will learn in a minute.)

The letter explained that we had chosen this brand of monitor because of the maker's reputation for quality and reliability. It also made clear that, despite giving the company every opportunity, we had received neither quality nor reliability.

But the letter offered the manufacturer a chance at redemption. If they were smart, it said, the company could still salvage some respect from us by refunding our money. While we may not recommend their monitors to anyone, we would still speak highly of their customer service department. I sent the letter registered, return receipt requested (always a good idea if you have played the 'lawyer' card).

About 10 days later, I got a phone call. It was from the same supervisor who had steadfastly refused my initial request for a refund, the man to whom my letter was addressed. He had spoken to his superiors, he said, and they had agreed to refund 90 percent of the purchase price - plus the sales tax.

'Works for me,' I said. After all, we did get six good months from the monitor. I also thanked him profusely for working with us on the situation. (In fact, once it was clear they were giving in, the phone call became a veritable love fest. It was pretty embarrassing.)

Why did the monitor maker cave? It had less to do with our lack of happiness than with the fact that they were staring down the throat of careful documentation and a possible court case showing how their practices flew in the face of their own warranty.

We all do a lot of business these days by voice, either in person or over the phone. Generally, a handshake is still a pretty firm agreement. But if you want to be sure your feelings are known (and really throw a scare into certain companies), there is still nothing like a letter. It serves as dated proof of what has transpired, or at least your version of it. Back up your letter's assertions with other documentation, and even the most selectively deaf companies will take notice.

Another thing: Don't tell me you cannot write. Anybody can, and the more writing you do, the easier it becomes. If you are still intimidated, just remember to keep it simple, straightforward and, most important, professional. Do not get into name-calling. State the facts and be persistent until you get what you want.

One recurring trap for many owners and managers is failing to delegate certain work to others in their organization. Even those who are vigilant about keeping focused on the things they do best and which are most deserving of their expertise can turn around one day and find they have bitten off more than they can chew.

Avoiding this trap requires not only a clear understanding of your own goals and abilities, but of your employee's aspirations. Just as you are less effective at doing things which are not of interest to you, the same is true for employees.

In two prior articles (Interviewing Potential Employees and Training Workers) we discussed strategies for developing and maintaining a reliable workforce in the shop. These same principles must be applied to tasks in the office. As your company grows, you may find that you are 'spread too thin' to handle the job-in/job-out details of project management, for example. That is the time to look into developing the post of 'project manager.' Staff it from within the organization (preferably) or with an experienced project manager from the general labor pool.

The same goes for purchasing, accounts payable/receivable, sales and the full range of positions which contribute to your company's overall success (or failure). While your business is small, you will develop effective ways of handling many of these jobs. But as your client list grows, you will need to make decisions about the areas in which you perform best. Delegate the other jobs to specialists with the tools, talent and desire to give customers the service they expect and deserve.

Hands-on management is fine. Just remember that humans have two hands, and only two, for a reason. If you are juggling too many things, you are bound to drop some. Better to hand them off, carefully and thoughtfully.

Hold Regular Meetings
Of course, handing off doesn't mean letting go entirely. This is your business, after all, and its success or failure depends in large part on your ability to manage.

The importance of meeting with your employees on a regular basis cannot be overstated. If yours is a medium-sized business with some of the specialists mentioned above already on the payroll, you probably meet with them regularly. Getting regular weekly reports on production, cash flow, project management issues and the like is basic.

But three or four times a year, you should hold a company-wide meeting during working hours, with attendance mandatory. Many owners overlook the people on the front lines, those who produce the high-quality work which leads to more work coming in the front door.

Give everyone in your organization a voice by meeting with them as a group each quarter. Ask what is good about your company and what needs improvement. Ask for suggestions on how to make the business work better for everyone and follow through with approaches aimed at eliminating problems.

When the company meets again, deal first with the challenges identified at the previous meeting. Have things improved? Gotten worse? What should we try next? Then, move on to new concerns. Do not focus on just the problems, however. If a particular project went especially well, praise your workforce for making that happen. Look for other positive areas and point them out. Wherever possible, model solutions to challenges after approaches which have worked in other areas of business.

Recharge your Batteries!
Running a woodworking business is a rewarding, exciting, frustrating, exhausting pursuit. Eight-hour days are nonexistent; 10 is a minimum and 12, 14 or more is often the norm. Once or twice a year (or three or four times!), commit to working only eight or 10 hours per day for a week or two (two is better).

This will not be easy. The first few times you try it, you will be tempted to stay 'just a little later' to get 'just one more thing done.'

The truth of the matter, however, is that 'one more thing' will still be waiting for you in the morning. Enough of the ownership experience is akin to self-inflicted flogging already. Why not let that extra item wait once in a while, and open your eyes to the life you work so hard to enjoy?

Do this now and then, and the renewed vigor you will bring to work when the days get long again will amaze you. You will wonder why you did not try it sooner, and it will become a significant tool in your stress-reduction arsenal.

Anthony Noel writes, consults, and teaches woodworking and journalism, along with doing an occasional custom job in his shop in Macungie, PA.

Have a business related question? Visit WOODWEB's Business Forum. The Business Forum is co-sponsored by ISWonline and is moderated by Anthony Noel. All business topics are welcome, from sales and marketing to dealing with difficult customers.

This article is reprinted by permission of Custom Woodworking Business Magazine.