Delegate, but monitor. Or prepare to pick up the pieces.

30th April, 2015

With most small businesses there comes a time when you need to trust someone else to perform tasks you have managed yourself until now, and they are often crucial to your business success or service offering to your customers. Tasks might include quote preparation, repairs to goods, filling orders or invoicing, but the main point is that you have always done it and have a process that works.

Even if you already have employees, you have mastered and controlled certain tasks, and that attention to detail may be the reason you have a good reputation and repeat business. Now that your business is moving to the next level, you need to delegate some of these tasks to others.

Here are my tips and some cautionary tales form my own experience.

  1. Document the process in plain English, down to the minutest detail. Don’t assume any prior knowledge or experience — or indeed, any common sense — by your replacement.
  2. Once documented, illustrate the workflow or chart the process, as some people learn better from diagrams.
  3. Walk your replacement through the entire process, again not assuming any knowledge or taking short cuts. (Bad habits are first to stick!)
  4. Once you are confident they can do the job, let them carry out the task without supervision, but review the outcome before it goes near the client.
  5. Be prepared to repeat steps 3 and 4 numerous times to get it right.
  6. Maintain regular checks on the output — this is still your business, your reputation and your future at risk.

So how did I mess up this process?

I have worked in small businesses for over 20 years, and my first mistakes were within a small life company in Saudi Arabia. When I delegated to staff, I assumed they would follow my hands-on training. However I did not follow steps 1 and 2 above, and as a result, employees developed their own processes.

I found out a few weeks later that a crucial step was missed that meant we had discounted all our income on 40% of the business we wrote that month. Because I had not documented the process, the person I delegated to missed a stage in the quoting process and left a simple box unticked, which cost us $20,000.

The second instance was after setting up my own business here in Australia in 2006. I found the need for an assistant to monitor data and follow up with customers once I had finished taking care of a client’s initial work.

All they had to do was confirm business that had been placed and ensure the client received all the paperwork and understood how to access their accounts. Now this time I documented the process and put a flowchart in place, as well as trained the staff member via telephone and email to ensure he was able to carry out the process by the book. We even had a final checklist to be returned to me once the tasks were completed.

All seemed fine until about four months later. A few clients started phoning my mobile concerned that they had not received some information or that their requests had gone unactioned.

That same week I was at a conference in Alice Springs and received a call from Telstra that my Internet limit had been exceeded and my bill was now above $2,000. On returning to the office, I found out the employee felt his work was too menial. He simply put all the forms in the bottom drawer and ignored them, while ticking all the checklists so I would assume the work was done.

Instead of working, he downloaded music and movies to watch. I spent the next three months cleaning up the mess and personally visiting each affected client to re-establish some level of confidence in our service. I was unable to take on any new clients during that period, as I was flat out repairing the damage and training a replacement. The Internet bill meant no salary for me that month.

A lesson learned is a lesson remembered

When you go through the list above make sure to give every step the same level of attention as you can. Delegate but train, supervise and monitor regularly, as it is your ultimate responsibility and your reputation at stake. The ex-employee went backpacking in South America without a care in the world for the damage he caused. I still have flashbacks, and clients still mention those issues nearly a decade later.

I’d love to hear your own delegating experiences.