On Consistency

I recall reading from a sales book very early on in my career that one of the most important aspects of running a business is consistency.  I sadly can’t recall the book name itself anymore, but the basic idea was that customers want / need a consistency of experience to feel ‘comfortable’ and thus become repeat customers.

It’s something I know for myself, as a consumer, it definitely helps.  If you know what you can expect, it makes life a lot easier. It holds very true for our distributors as well – I have a few distributors who, if I place an order today, I know it will ship the same-day.  Another couple I know will ship the order the next day.  Unfortunately, I also have distributors who are all over the map – some orders will be shipped immediately, others might take up to a week to ship. I might have to call them to get the order dealt with, or just send an e-mail and expect it to happen.  Some orders get an invoice sent within 24 hours, other won’t have any invoices sent till I ask them.

As a business, inconsistent suppliers make our ability to be consistent for our customers difficult. If we tell a customer ‘it should arrive within a week’ on a back-ordered item, it’s based on a best guess estimate on when a product will arrive.  Being unable to meet that ‘promise’ can cause trouble for us.

It also translates to our website – we want to keep the functions of the website generally consistent across devices. Of course, this is much more difficult with the numerous devices out there, and it’s what probably drives our development cost up.

As an example, over the weekend Canada Post stopped working. It wasn’t our site but Canada post. What it meant was that we were no longer receiving rates directly from Canada Post and were thus using our ‘failover’ rate.  It unfortunately meant that no one was getting a ‘free shipping’ option either, which almost immediately resulted in complaints.   A quick ‘hodgepodge’ fix was thrown into place till Canada Post came back online, but it’s a great example of inconsistency causing problems.  I’ll never know how many customers who built up a $175 cart on the weekend just left and never came back because of the outage…

Automation & Costs

As a small business, one of the most important things we need to do is drive our costs down.  One of the best ways to do that is to automate as much of our business as possible; figuring out the best ways to do the same amount of work in less time.  That often means we then just add more tasks to the pile in an attempt to increase our value add for our customers.

A great example of automation would be our homepage.  We used to edit the Bestsellers list and New Games list manually; pulling the data from our reports to code the HTML directly.  Now, we’ve managed to automate the entire process.  It doesn’t save us a huge amount of time – probably 2 – 3 hours a month; but that’s time we can now use for other projects.

Another example is the tracking number we send out for our Shipment Information.  Again, it doesn’t take too long but a few hours a week saved here and there is worth a lot for a business like ours.

Of course, there’s a cost to all this; and that’s the cost in development time.  Since I’m not a programmer myself, that means we have to hire a developer to work on these projects for us.  If you’ve never hired a programmer / developer yourself, let’s just say that it’s not exactly cheap.  At least not the good one’s.

So it then becomes a matter of balancing costs – would paying $1000 to upgrade X feature be worth the time savings we will see? If we pay $10 an hour (for example’s sake); that means it needs to save us 100 hours of processing time to be worth it (not including the testing and development time we have to dedicate to get the project up and running).  So the question is, how fast should this return happen? 1 month, 1 year, 3 years?

I generally use a rule of thumb of 1 year myself.  With upgrades on the site and server, it’s quite possible that within a year we’d have to junk the change (or have it upgraded as well); so the returns have to happen fast.

The business of keeping the business running

It always amazes me the sheer amount of work required to keep a business running that customers never see.  Before I got into business for myself, I never really had a clear idea about the sheer amount of work the business of running the business would entail.  I’m not talking about marketing or design or shipping the orders out; but all the small niggling administrative details that keep the business running.

I had a full day today of back-office work, and after the day finished; I started wondering where all that time went.  I started breaking it down, and figured you all might find it amusing to read too:

8am : Deal with Distributor’s mistake
8.15am : Deal with box shipment delivery attempt #1
8.15 – 9.00am : E-mails
9am – 10.45am : Check stock levels and place distributor order for shipping today
10.45am : Deal with box shipment delivery attempt #2
10.45am – 11.30pm : Locate and fix bug on Starlit Citadel
11.30pm – Noon : Lunch & Read BoardGameGeek (Btw – whoa Kickstarter posts!)
Noon – 5.15pm : Accounting
5.15pm – 7pm : Break & Dinner
7.15pm – 8.30pm : Update site stock & Write this blog post