Assessing 2011 and planning for 2012: Part 1

As we near the end of December, it’s time think about how our businesses have fared this past year and what we’ll do differently in 2012. Over the next few weeks, we want to discuss some areas of assessment that should be considered as you begin to plan for next year. Next week we’ll look at assessing company finances but today’s column will focus on overall business assessment.

December and January are great times to do this. You’ll want to involve employees and conclude with a meeting to go over results. When considering who should be involved, at the very least include your key employees and managers. If you can make it work, input from other employees can also be invaluable. People who deliver goods, work on a jobsite or man the front counter may have some great observations and ideas.

Advance planning is needed to get the most valuable feedback. Everyone should be given an outline to follow with clear questions so they’ll understand the type of information you want to gather and what will be discussed at the wrap-up meeting. Explain that this is an exercise to help you and your management team with making decisions to improve the business.

Everyone should have at least a week to write their ideas and comments to the questions, based on observations of their particular areas and the company as a whole. It’s important that they feel safe in answering the questions honestly. Make it clear, however, that this is not a forum for complaining about the company or co-workers. You’re not expecting everyone to hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but you do need constructive input.

Here are a few areas to assess and suggested questions to help get you started.

Sales. Answers to these questions should give you an idea of how the company is doing at bringing in new customers, and growing and retaining existing customers. You may want to ask: How good is our process for finding new customers? Where did sales come from (the percentage of revenue from new versus existing customers)? Were they the right kind of sales? What worked in obtaining new sales — cold calls, social media, trade shows, special events or networking? What needs improvement? Do our current customers really know all we do and could we get more business from them?

Operations. Assessing overall operations will give you a better idea of how the company is doing as a whole. You may want to ask these questions: How well does the company run? What frustrations did we have this year? Where did we have some “wins” that went really well? What needs improvement? Did our systems and controls work? Where did processes break down and why? Have we outgrown the processes we have in place (or will we next year)?

Employees. Your employees are one of your greatest assets so it’s important to assess your team. You may want to ask: Do we currently have the right people? Do they need to be trained or better developed? Should we hire additional staff in the coming year and for what functions? Do the employees seem satisfied with their jobs? What needs improvement? Do we provide all the tools employees need to get their jobs done and, if not, what’s missing?

Opportunities. These can be anything from entering new markets, to developing new products or services, to strategic partnerships. Some suggested questions are: What opportunities were encountered this past year? Which ones were acted on and which were missed? Are there any opportunities already foreseen in the coming year? Are there pending opportunities we should be working on now? What needs improvement?

When scheduling your wrap-up meeting, plan for it to take several hours. In facilitating these meetings for clients and for our own companies, we’ve found it helps to get away from your normal place of business. Find a venue with a conference room, preferably where you can have food.

Ground rules should be established, making it clear that everyone’s ideas have merit and none should be shot down by anyone else in the group. At the meeting, everyone should be allowed to share answers to the various questions, which should be recorded. After the meeting, the notes should be compiled in a summary format and used to help with your business planning for the coming year.

Assessing the past and planning for the future are important practices for a thriving business. By looking closely at the various areas, you can more clearly see what’s working and where changes should be made to create a better tomorrow.

Laddie and Judy Blaskowski are partners in several businesses, including BusinessTruths Consulting. They are authors of The Step Dynamic: A Powerful Strategy for Successfully Growing Your Business. Connect with them on LinkedIn.