In part one of this short series, we discussed the importance of building systems in your business and the predictable nightmare that most small business owners suffer, due in large part to the absence of clear systems and processes.

If you are like most entrepreneurs, you were left feeling a sense of agreement with the idea of systemization, but completely overwhelmed at the prospect of actually getting a project like that done.

After all, your business probably contains dozens or even hundreds of individual processes that you and your team members routinely execute more or less the same way every day. The prospect of getting them all down on paper – or even figuring out how exactly you do what you do – stops most entrepreneurs in their tracks.

In fact, I was that entrepreneur. In 2009 when our business began to really take off, I was quickly buried by the growth. The phone was ringing off the hook for sales inquiries and support requests, and I was the only one who knew how to do any of that. Completely overwhelmed, I hired a few guys to start picking up support calls and another to do sales.

With no systems or processes in place, I had no way to train these new team members. So, I sat nearby and pretty much let them fend for themselves, answering as many questions as I could all day long. It wasn’t pretty.

Within a few months, the team had grown to seven, but instead of getting a moment to take a breath I was busier than ever putting out fires, answering a million questions, and making all the decisions. When that seventh employee came on I was so overwhelmed trying to manage all the spinning plates that I couldn’t take a second to stop and show her how she could help, so she sat there for a couple weeks doing just about nothing.

Fortunately, our eighth employee – and current COO Lena Requist – was someone who knew what she was doing and understood the value of systems. After a week or so of observing the mayhem that I’d created, she got to work on building systems around the most crucial parts of our business – how we served our clients and how we billed them – both of which were in relative disarray in those days.

Over the years, we’ve covered virtually our entire business with clear, repeatable, trainable, measurable and scalable processes. Once completely unmanageable at seven people, Ontraport is now (at over 100 people) very well organized across all departments with robust online training for nearly every position, making the company easy to manage and completely scalable.

Of course there’s always more to do, but I’m certain that our focus on systemizing our business has made the difference between success and failure. It’s that big of a deal.

And, of course, it’s completely changed my own experience of life as an entrepreneur. Not long ago I was a caricature of the overwhelmed and haggard startup founder, dazed by the Frankenstein of a business I’d created. Today, at 10x the size, it’s a relative cake-walk.

Where to Begin

This is a project that’s going to take a while to complete, but if you start in the right place you can get a lot of benefit by getting even just a few roles and responsibilities clearly outlined. In our experience, the ‘right place’ to start is usually:

1. Any role or responsibility that you urgently need to delegate or where you need to replace an employee.

2. Wherever in the customer lifecycle you most urgently need improvement.

In our case, we had the unusual blessing of tons of leads and customers, but we were buried in sales and support calls. I needed urgent help in those areas, so that’s where we started.

Similarly, if we had a position where an employee was leaving, we’d want to work quickly to shore up any missing documentation about their role so their replacement could quickly pick up where they left off.

One way to tackle this project is to start by listing out all the responsibilities of each position in your company. So, for example, the accountant may be responsible for doing the books, depositing checks, and paying the bills. You’d want detailed processes written for each of those tasks.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to even put your finger on exactly what you do all day, much less break it down into process-sized chunks. In that case, we have an annoying but effective little trick: grab a notepad and write down every single thing you do all day, every day for a week or two. Pretty soon, you’ll have a complete list of your responsibilities, which can then be thoroughly documented in your operations guide.

Note that you’re not the only one who can do this work. In our business, this documentation is always written by the people who are responsible for the task. In fact, no one is allowed to delegate or ‘graduate’ from any responsibility until it’s well-documented.

What Makes a Good System?

A system should clarify the steps required in enough detail that anyone qualified to do the job should be able to successfully accomplish it just by reading the documentation.

While it’s true that this is tedious work, it helps to remember that this kind of documentation is your access to escaping the cycle of fire-fighting and impromptu scrambling that most entrepreneurs face. By getting this work done, you have created the opportunity of delegating or even automating these responsibilities—you have started on the path to building a scalable, manageable business.

But, as we talked about in the last article, having the ability to delegate work is not the only benefit of building and documenting your business processes. Another enormous benefit is that systems like this naturally lend themselves to improvement.

The Customer Lifecycle

Once you’ve got the critical responsibilities covered, then it’s time to get to the good stuff that really improves your business.

Most business systems can be categorized according to their place in the Customer Lifecycle.

The Customer Lifecycle is a map of the most basic goals of your business: to Attract potential clients, Convert them into customers, Fulfill on your promise, and then encourage your happy clients to Refer their friends. Each of these stages will contain several unique systems and processes.

Your first job is to attract qualified prospects to your business. These processes might include how you design, buy, track and report on advertising, PR, social media engagement, your booth at a trade show or anything else you might do to make your prospects aware of you and your offers.

The second stage is to convert those prospects into leads and sales. In this stage, your goal is to ensure that every prospect who is a good match for your products or services actually becomes a client.

Typically, these processes will include getting the contact information of your prospects and then following up with them in the most effective way possible. This might happen via a free report on your website, a free consultation in your office, or some other low-barrier initial offer to get potentially interested prospects to raise their hands and become ‘leads.’ Then, you may want to send them something in the mail, a series of valuable emails or videos, or shoot them a follow up phone call.

Some businesses keep this very basic and simply drive traffic to a sales page, cross their fingers and hope for the best. Others have complex sales processes and might break this ‘convert’ stage into several smaller ‘conversions’ including capturing prospect information, lead qualifying, booking a sales presentation and so on.

Whatever you do, the goal is to stay top-of-mind, position your business as the best possible choice and to make your offer clear and powerful so that the right prospects buy.

Once they do, it’s time to fulfill your promise and delight every client who has invested their dollars with you. The systems and processes here will vary dramatically, but in general it’s about delivering the goods with the goal of creating a lot of happy customers.

Happy Customers

Happy customers are crucial, because they are the drivers of the last stage in our Customer Lifecycle. Referrals are, by far, the best thing that can happen to the growth of your business, and in this stage your processes are all about encouraging your happy customers to spread the word. You might simply ask for referrals, you might run a full-blown paid referral program, or maybe you throw parties and have your clients invite their friends. Whatever you do, the goal is word-of-mouth business growth.

Our experience tells us you should actually tackle the design and implementation of these systems out of order. We recommend building and improving your business systems in this order:

1. Fulfill and Delight: If you don’t make your clients happy, you don’t have a business. So, first do everything you can to make sure you’re blowing clients’ minds every time. Once you know your clients are happy with what you’re delivering, you want to move on to…

2. Refer: Since you’re already doing a good job knocking people’s socks off with your products and services, people are probably already referring you to their friends. Still, it’s a no-brainer to spend a little effort to make sure you’re getting all the referrals you deserve. After all, referrals are free!

3. Convert: Anyone with experience in sales and marketing knows that this is where the gold is in most businesses. Yet almost every small business could be doing so much better when it comes to communicating well and following up flawlessly with their leads. Plus, if you aren’t getting this right, it makes no sense to spend your time and money filling your funnel just to drop the ball before the goal line.

4. Attract: This is where everyone wants to spend their time, and it’s certainly a job that needs doing, but it’s worth doing only after you’ve got all your other ducks in a pretty decent row. To attract attention in this attention-starved world takes some real effort. To stand out, you’ve got to be good. Piquing the interest of qualified prospects can be expensive and time-consuming. You want to get every ounce of value out of the effort you put into this part of your business, and that means ensuring that you’re driving prospects to a high-quality experience.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t do the basics: create a Facebook page and announce it to your friends or start networking in your local area. But a full-fledged lead generation effort to attract new business is a later-stage move, in our opinion.

A CONVERT Example: New Lead Management

Let’s assume that you’ve got a product that you’re really proud of, which is getting stellar feedback from paying customers, and you’re generating a decent number of referrals. The next area to focus on is the convert phase.

“Converting” includes anything that is designed to turn the people who show up (at your website, your tradeshow booth, your retail shop, etc.) into paying clients.

Your current process might be simply to call up or email new leads as they come in. While that may be working, it’s easy to see how that system could be vastly improved.

A great place to start would be to make sure you’ve got a good reason for those people to give you their contact information. So, you’ll create some kind of low-risk (free) offer in exchange for an email address or a business card. But what happens next?

In many businesses, that contact info ends up as a ‘new lead’ in your email box or as just another business card in the pile on your desk, never followed up with. But since that’s a huge wasted opportunity, you’re going to do better.

So, you decide that every new lead should be emailed a free guide explaining the benefits of your service and how you differ from the competition. That’s pretty good. And maybe you could follow-up with a call three days later to see if they want to make an appointment.

But pretty soon you realize that 90% of the people you call never even opened your email and really aren’t interested in what you have to offer at all.

So, you get fancy: let’s only call the people that open my email and download the free guide. Much better! You’re calling the hot leads now.

But you start to get frustrated when you discover in your reports that only 22% of these hot leads ever answer their phones. So, let’s do a couple things when they don’t answer: send a few more useful emails over the next couple weeks. Then, if they still don’t have an appointment, let’s shoot them a postcard.

You can see how you might go on and on here, and how every additional tactic you add to your lead management process would likely improve your overall sales results.

You can also see, though, how a strategy like this might be really difficult or even impossible to manage manually. Fortunately, as we’ll share in Part 3 of this series, there are easy ways to automate even the most complex marketing communications strategies.

A few examples of systems that you might find in each of these stages may be these:

  • Attract – Content marketing, Advertising, Tradeshows, Event sponsorship, Networking
  • Convert – Lead capture Forms, Lead management, Long-term lead nurture, Sales-team follow up, Sales presentation, Online Order Forms
  • Fulfill and Delight – Order fulfillment, New client onboarding, 90-day check-in, First-time buyer surprise gift
  • Refer – Post-purchase referral request, 30-day satisfaction survey, Affiliate Program

Each of these systems may have many processes that need documentation. For example, our content marketing program has all kinds of processes and documentation associated with it including a writing style guide, a topic pitch process, an editing and approval process, a publication process and more.

Each of these documented systems is updated and improved over time as we come up with new ideas, discover flaws in existing systems, or find ways to streamline things to be more efficient.

As you identify your own systems in these areas, you’ll naturally discover gaps that need filling and ways that you could improve each stage of your customer’s experience. You’ll also discover ways to be more efficient or effective. Every little tweak and improvement you make will add value to your business, adding up to major improvements over time.

What’s Next?

In the final part of this series, we’re going to cover how we manage these systems once they’re clarified and written down including how we delegate and automate systems, enabling us to focus on growing and improving our business rather than spinning our wheels just maintaining it.

About Landon Ray
Ontraport Founder and CEO Landon Ray is a serial entrepreneur whose personal mission is to educate, motivate, and enable others to realize their goals of starting and growing their own business. At the age of 25, Ray transformed himself from a street-corner flower vendor into one of the nation’s top securities day traders in only twelve months. After beating the odds on Wall Street and again during the great recession, Ray has taken his research and personal experience and created Ontraport, a small business automation platform and related family of services, which reflect his passion for educating and supporting entrepreneurs.