In this last part of our three part series on business systems, we’re going to share how we manage the hundreds of documented processes we have at Ontraport and how we improve them over time. We’ll also share how we use our own platform to automate hundreds of daily tasks, making it possible for us to manage far, far more work than we otherwise could.

In Part 2, we talked about how we document and report on our processes, as well as where to start and how to organize a project as big as documenting your entire business. But once those worksheets start piling up, what then? How do you actually use them? Where do they go? When and how do they get updated and improved?

Where Processes Live

First of all, in case it’s not clear, the primary real-life use of these systems is training. In the beginning, we had all our task documentation printed out on paper and put in binders. We had a master binder divided into sections for each role in the company, with all the processes that each role is responsible for organized in their section. Each employee had a little binder with just their own processes which they were given when they started. We’d show them how we expected their job to be done, pointing out that everything was nicely outlined in the binder, and off they’d go (more or less). Over time, the employee would help improve those processes and complete them wherever there were gaps.

For many small businesses, this is as far as you’ll likely need to take it. But we were growing very quickly, adding many people to each role in the business, and having a ton of people moving between jobs all the time. Eventually we went digital and plopped them into a knowledge base online. Then we moved them to Google Sites. And now we’re moving them to what will (hopefully) be their final destination, Confluence, which is a fancy wiki that’s tightly connected to our project management software, Jira.

Since getting people up and running fast is crucial for us, we’ve turned many of these stacks of documentation into full-on training programs. Some are delivered live when new employees are hired, or on a quarterly basis, while others have been turned into online programs that we deliver via the open source platform EdX. This allows our team members to learn at their own pace, making them eligible for a promotion into a new department or role, for example.

Choosing where to keep your documentation need not be a big ordeal. All this technology definitely takes some time to wrangle, but we’ve found that it’s most important to ensure that systems and processes are easily accessible and updatable by everyone, because our systems are getting updated all the time.

Constant Improvement

As we discussed in the first two parts of this series, one of the incredible things about having clear, documented systems is that they’re naturally improvable. When everything you do is done a bit differently by everyone – or even by yourself – then it’s tough to tell what’s working and what’s broken, and even tougher to implement company-wide improvements to a system.

That’s a terrible shame, because by creating a culture of constant improvement in your company you can virtually ensure that your business will, little by little, improve over time. And many little positive changes eventually make happier customers, a more efficient business, loyal employees, more profit, and an easier to manage organization.

But when is the right time to make changes to your processes? How do you actually create a culture of constant improvement?

In our business, we find that there are typically four reasons that a process needs updating:

1. Something breaks

As you might have noticed, things don’t always go the way you plan in business. This will be true of your foray into systems-building as well. Especially when you’re just starting out, when a process is new, or you have a new person in a role, you’ll find that your processes sometimes don’t produce the results you intended.

In business school, when things don’t go according to plan they call it ‘an exception,’ and they devise all sorts of ways to handle them smoothly because when there’s an ‘exception’ in, say, the jet engine you’re building things can get really bad or cost a lot of money.

In most small businesses, though, processes aren’t a matter of life and death. When things go wrong, a customer might not get the perfect experience you were hoping to deliver or a product might not come out exactly as designed. You can usually apologize, make it right… and then fix your process.

We routinely review customer service tickets that contain issues that have upset a customer, a project that didn’t go as planned, or any other such breakdown for opportunities to improve. Often, breakdowns happen not because of a flaw in the process but because someone didn’t follow it. The solution to that is training and clarity about expectations.

But when your process was followed and things still didn’t go well, then it may be time to take a look at how to improve things so that the error is avoided in the future. We will typically brainstorm these improvements as a team so that all impacts of the change are anticipated and everyone gets on board. Then the documentation is updated, the team is trained, and life is good again.

2. Something changes

Sometimes, it doesn’t require a breakdown to see that a process needs improvement. When there’s a significant change in the business that affects a process, often things need to be reworked.

For example, when there’s suddenly a lot more work to do and you need to shift the responsibility for a task from one person to a team of people, often a change in process makes sense. You’ll need to make sure people are communicating, not doing double work, and handling the flow as efficiently as possible… all things you didn’t need to worry about when just one person was doing a job.

Other changes that may trigger a process review might be new laws or industry rules, the adoption of new technology in the business, or the decision to do some work remotely instead of in a single space.

3. Something is learned

As an entrepreneur, you’re always looking for new and better ways to do something. Sometimes you’ll get a new idea from reading an article, seeing how another business runs things, or getting a tip from a peer or a sharp employee.

Of course, if you’re anything like me, many of your brilliant ideas don’t shine quite so brightly under the harsh light of reality. So, you experiment: you might try a new way of advertising, a different approach to sales presentations, or a twist on your product.

Some things work better than before, some don’t. When they do, that’s the time to update your system documentation to reflect what the organization has learned.

4. Deep dives

One of the things we’ve learned about building systems is that sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. Good intentioned and diligent people get busy adding to and extending processes to avoid breakdowns (real or anticipated) and over time something that was simple and effective can begin to look like the Winchester Mystery House. These byzantine systems pile upon one another and pretty soon you find yourself asking for TPS reports and wondering what happened to your soul.

Also, even when things aren’t getting out of control we’ve found it valuable to periodically take some time to step back and look at your creation and wonder if there might not be a better way.

We call these processes a ‘deep dive.’ Typically, our COO or director of operations – people who are born organizers – will take on a different part of the business each quarter and, with the help of the manager and the people in that department, review the whole thing for opportunities to improve, streamline or simplify things. Over time, each department gets a ‘deep dive’ every year or so.

One breakthrough we had during a deep dive a while back was in our support team. We used to have one level of support rep and all issues were handled the same way by whatever rep happened to grab the ticket.

What we saw during the deep dive was that:

  1. A minority of tickets took a whole lot longer than the average ticket and…
  2. The more senior reps were a lot faster at handling those complex tickets and…
  3. While junior reps were mucking up tough tickets, simpler tickets were languishing in the queue unattended.

So we made a change:

  1. First we created a new tier of support rep (‘tech support’) and put the senior reps in that position.
  2. Then we made a change to the ticket handling process that said ‘if a ticket takes longer than 10 minutes to handle – or even looks like it might – pass it immediately to tech support.’

Suddenly, our more experienced reps were handling the tough tickets better and faster than before while our junior reps were answering the majority of tickets dramatically faster. Not only did we massively improve ticket response times and the quality of those responses, we found that we were able to handle many more tickets than we previously could, with no additional staff.

By taking the time to step back and look at the big picture, we saved ourselves a ton of money, improved the experience we were delivering to our customers, and made life better for our reps. After all, who wants to struggle for an hour on a ticket when you know that the rep next to you can solve it in five minutes?

Bring on the robots

One of the most compelling benefits of systemization is that once you turn a responsibility into a process, it’s often possible to automate some or all of it completely.

Of course, our favorite tool for that job is our own software and, to this day, we remain the biggest user of it in terms of the number of processes that we automate with it.

We use it to automate our entire recruiting process including taking applications, organizing interviews, getting team feedback, and more. We use it to automate the management of all internal requests including requests for time-off, a new computer or IT support, or an internal request for our design or engineering teams. We automate our lead management and sales processes, our new client onboarding, our concierge services projects, our abuse desk and on and on.

Without the kind of process automation that we have created, there is no possible way that we’d keep the wheels on as we grow so quickly and support our thousands of clients.

But even at Ontraport, we don’t dive headlong into automating a process without thinking things through. After all, automating bad processes is a quick way to turn out a lot of poor experiences.

If it’s at all possible, before we turn over anything to the robots, we first do things manually. A lot can be learned by getting your hands dirty for awhile. Then, once we’ve figured out what the ideal process is, we map it out. How we map our processes is beyond the scope of this article, but we have some resources you can check out that explain how we think about this.

Then, it’s simply a matter of building the system into Ontraport and letting ‘er rip. If you do it right, you’ll be able to get all the stats you need to measure the effectiveness of your processes over time.

What you’ll find, as we did, is that the more you’re able to successfully automate your business, the easier it is for you and your team to focus on creating new value for your clients, better and more efficient systems, and on whatever else is most important.

Get it done

I encourage you to make this project a priority. It takes time and effort, it’s true. But the difference having documented processes makes in both the value of your business and the experience you have running it just can’t be overstated.

We, and thousands of entrepreneurs around the world, believe that Ontraport is the most powerful tool available to small businesses for doing the real work of business-building, and we are thrilled to be able to give entrepreneurs all over the world the freedom to focus on delivering their unique value and on creating a better business and, ultimately, a better life.

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.