Q&A: Employee Input Is An Ideal Source of Ideas
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Q: I have spent the past few years finding ways to keep profits up and bring in new customers during the recession. I feel that I am running out of new ideas just as the economy is getting better. What can I do to get new fresh ideas so that I don’t miss out on the prosperity?
A: Every day, small business owners scour the Web, business journals, and their own brains in search of ideas for improving efficiency, attracting customers, and boosting the bottom line. Many don’t realize that they already have a ready source of information, insights, and ideas—their employees.
Because employees spend every day serving customers, making products or performing services, or doing administrative work, they bring a “hands-on” perspective about their jobs and how those functions interact with other parts of your business. Tapping this knowledge resource can help cut cuts, improve throughput, and create a better customer experience.
Another attribute that makes employees a valuable source of ideas is that they’re not you. Instead of than having focused on starting, growing, and managing the business, they’re “outsiders” who may be more attuned to problems you overlook, or see things from the point of view of the customer or supplier. They also bring experiences from previous employers, including ideas that did and didn’t work.
What’s more, each employee has his/her own network. They may know people who have tackled just the problem you’re grappling with, or saw a sales promotion that could be adapted for your business. They can also serve as your eyes and ears for everything ranging from what competitors are doing to market intelligence on the Internet.
How do you tap this wealth of ideas and inspiration? Start by making open, two-way communication the foundation of your management strategy. From the day they’re hired, employees should feel their opinions are valued. Provide multiple channels for their input—in-person, through supervisors if your organization is multi-tiered, or via a specific email address for employee suggestions (an electronic version of the ubiquitous “Suggestion Box.”)
If your staff is small enough, hold regular informal meetings where employees can offer and discuss ideas. Here, you get the advantage of a group dynamic—multiple perspectives and opinions that can turn what began as a good idea into a great one.
Also, regularly communicate specific information on developments and trends shaping your industry or market. Awareness of the environment in which their company operates will likely get employees thinking about how to cope with or capitalize on opportunities.
Make sure suggestions are acknowledged with your thanks and a follow-up—e.g., the idea is being applied, it’s not suitable or cost-effective, it’s something that will require more study, etc. If appropriate, allow the employee to provide more information or modify the suggestion. But don’t simply leave the matter at “we’ll think about it.” Today’s idea may not work, but tomorrow’s might be a difference-maker.
A great suggestion for every type of business is to contact SCORE, a nonprofit association that offers a wealth of information resources, training, and free counseling designed to help entrepreneurs nationwide build productive, profitable businesses. For more information about taking advantage of these valuable services, visit www.score.org.