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Business viruses

Management | October 1, 2011 | By:

Businesses are just as susceptible as computers.

We all know how devastating a computer virus can be, but not every owner or manager is aware of the destructive viruses that can infect a business. Unlike computer viruses, which attack through cyberspace, these profit killers attack strictly through internal causes. Because they’re often not easily spotted in day-to-day operations, they’re sometimes hard to eradicate without a company-wide policy.

Listed here are six of the most common business viruses, along with the antidotes needed to keep your business from being weakened.

Telephone sickness. Your telephone can be a powerful business builder, but only if used correctly. Every time a customer or prospect dials your number, it’s a request for information, help, or the placing of an order. Any failure to deliver skillfully on these needs can lead to a direct loss of business—and reputation.

Inoculate your business against telephone sickness by training everyone in your organization to understand the importance of one of your most powerful business tools—the telephone—and the need to treat every caller with courtesy and respect. In particular, make sure that phones are always answered promptly. Never allow a phone to ring more than three or four times, and make sure that everyone identifies himself or herself by name in a cheerful voice.

Never leave a caller on hold for more than a few moments—the perception will be that the call is not valuable to you. And always, always, call the customer back when you have promised to do so. Never force a customer or prospect to wait for a call that never comes.

The tardy invoice. Neglected accounts receivable can be devastating to your cash flow. It’s essential to stay current with your receivables. You’ve earned that money; you have a right to it; you need it. Letting paperwork of any kind pile up is a bad idea, but a common problem.

Cure the tardy invoice virus by setting up a system for promptly sending out the invoice for every order, and by following through just as promptly on every late payment. This can be just as important to your financial success as the quality and professionalism of the products and services you offer. If you teach your customers that you’re cavalier about money owed to you, they’ll stretch your deadlines (and your cash flow) to the limit.

The invisible low-performer. Even one slacker in your operation is an internal virus that will eat away at productivity, profits and employee morale. Dealing with an under-performing employee is challenging for most managers, but failing to face up to the problem will make a bad situation even worse. It can result in added stress on other employees who may have to take up the slack—and resentment among those who can’t understand why the offender is allowed to continue with poor work habits.

Keep in touch with your employees about performance on a monthly basis, and address problems fairly but quickly. And make sure that your top-performing employees know how much you value their work.

The invisible employee. In the course of your demanding schedule, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of superficial contacts with employees. Consider this exchange overheard between a business owner and an employee passing in a hallway:

Employee: “Good morning, Mr. Smith. Looks like we’re going to have a nice day.”

Boss: “Fine, thank you. And how are you?”

That sort of casual disconnect is all too common today, and it preys upon the susceptibility of workers at all levels of the workplace hierarchy who are starving for individual recognition and the essential dignity that should be part of each person’s job. Failing to supply it provides a perfect setting for loss of initiative, lowered work ethic and destructive depression on the part of the offended employees.

One of the simplest and most effective ways to develop and demonstrate sincere interest in your employees is to take the time to find out something about each one of them, beyond performance-related information: such as the names of spouse and children, or hobbies and special interests. Follow through from time to time with questions that show you’re genuinely interested in the employee.

The faultless manager. A faultless manager is literally without fault— by striving to make sure that it’s always someone else’s fault when things go wrong. This is a common virus among business owners and managers in any industry, and it eats away at business success in several ways.

Former President Harry S. Truman eliminated this virus from his presidency with a sign on his desk that read, “The buck stops here.” By acknowledging his willingness to shoulder the blame when things went wrong, Truman put both his subordinates and his constituents on notice that he was responsible for what happened on his watch.

If your employees and associates feel that you’re not willing to shoulder even part of the blame for business miscues, they’ll withdraw from the kinds of decision-making and innovative thinking that ultimately could make your business more successful.

When there’s a problem, share responsibility rather than focusing blame, and find ways to make sure it’s a one-time problem. Consider the possibility that your instructions weren’t clear, or that the involved employee made what reasonably appeared to be a good decision at the time. Learn from mistakes. At times, it may be necessary to accept blame even when you know you aren’t at fault, if that’s what it takes to get things running again.

Unclear communication. Are directions and instructions you give to co-workers and subordinates always clear? If you’re sure they are, there’s a good chance you’re wrong. The ability to communicate with precision doesn’t come naturally to most of us, regardless of the extent of our education and business experience. Industrial psychologists studying the effectiveness of communications uncovered an astonishing weakness in this vital area of our lives. Much of the problem, they say, is the result of a limited vocabulary and the way many of us choose our words.

Of particular concern is the communication of information or instructions by way of e-mail, a tricky medium for any but the simplest of messages. There is probably no other communication medium as susceptible to misunderstanding as the hastily composed e-mail.

Some years ago, a detailed study on business owners and managers revealed that a broad vocabulary was the most often seen characteristic in successful executives. Because a manager must get things done largely through the efforts of others, the ability to express thoughts with clarity and precision is vital.

An expanded vocabulary can improve the quality of our thinking. That doesn’t mean, however, relentlessly adding exotic or obscure words just because you can. The trick is to master the words needed to allow clear expression of your thoughts, and clear reception of them by employees and co-workers. And customers, ultimately.

Effective communications can be an elusive target. But as you read through this list of businesses viruses, one common element to preventing or fixing all of them emerges: managers who work to improve the way they express themselves, and hone their ability to understand and appreciate employees and co-workers.

Curing business viruses doesn’t require a magic pill. But it does require recognizing the fact that management is a skill in itself, and needs to be updated regularly.

William J. Lynott is a business writer based in Abington, Pa.

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