Saturday, November 03, 2012

Handling Multi-Task Overload

On a recent trip to Chile, I snapped a photo of communication lines in the intersection of the city. I was in total awe how such a massive number of lines could operate under user demands. It didn’t take long to understand the lines didn’t operate under the load; two blocks over, traffic was at a standstill as emergency crews scrambled to repair downed lines.

Passing the downed lines, I reflected on how I push myself to multi-task even when my brain is screaming, “OVERLOAD.” Our culture pressures us to maximize every second of the day. Just handling kids, family duties and a social life can take a toll on our quality of life. When you throw in a faltering economy and pressures of running a small business it can be overwhelming. In a pursuit to compete with the big guys, small business owners tend to operate in multi-task mode. The fury to succeed often results in a brain power outage resulting in a crash and burn situation due to overload.

Most small business owners don’t have extra staff or revenue to offset production, inventory and labor costs. I speak from experience when I say the start-up costs for a small business can make you step back and say, “What was I thinking”. If you are the sole employee, it’s likely you operate in “Multi-Task” overload on a regular basis. It’s an intimidating place to be. If you aren’t connecting with local or online support to help you work through the crisis moments, you could be doomed.

So, how does one survive multi-task overload in this age of instant technology? Here are four questions I ask myself when wires cross and an overload may be hindering the success and growth of my business.

How big do you want to grow your business?
Forget the rhetoric of business textbooks; they aren’t running your company. In my first two years of business it was suggested I curtail business growth to ensure I was able to adequately service my current customers. I was appalled. What? Turn down new business. I later learned there was credence to this advice. When you begin to experience the pitfalls of trying to be everything to everybody, the point sinks in.

Bottom line, a business can only service customers based on current inventory levels and staff. If your business is growing but you aren’t ready to employ additional staff (or the monetary burden of additional inventory), that’s OK. If you have to add a day or two to order processing, then include a discount coupon or free sample in the customer’s shipment.

 How do you interact with your customers?
It’s important to determine your ability to communicate with customers. As the owner of Mold Market, I’m not always available to take calls. I rely on my personal assistant to respond to emails and oversee customer questions/concerns. My assistant’s online interaction with customers gifts me time to grow the business and focus on marketing, designing and managing the company’s future.

If you are a home-based business, generating enough revenue to employ extra help to process orders, handle returns or answer phones is generally not an option. But that doesn’t mean you can’t provide top-notch service to interact with customers. Prompt shipping and speedy emails go a long way in generating repeat business. It is confirmation you are serious about the service or product being offered. Some of my best online experiences have been with Etsy shop owners who are raising small children while operating an online business. It’s not uncommon to hear a child’s voice in the background when placing a phone order. Should a call occur during a multi-task overload (nap-times, etc), they have no problem asking, “May I call back shortly to ensure I provide you with great customer service?”

Do you know when to delegate?
If you are a type-A personality, you know you have the driving urge to control. Even if your body and mind screamed HELP, you may not recognize the benefits of delegating. I know the personality type well, because I am the poster child.

If you want to advance your business to the next level, you must expand your capability to get things done. Failing to delegate may put a lid on the growth of your company and communicates your lack of confidence in a worker’s ability to perform a task. Here’s a good example. There was a time I processed all postal shipments fearing my workers were incapable of preparing international customs forms or selecting the correct service. It’s no secret a business can’t afford returned packages due to an address error or invalid customs paperwork.

However, when upgrading our company’s payment gateway system, I was forced to relinquish postal shipments to someone else. The change caused an increase in postal shipments I could no longer keep up. It was time to delegate. To my surprise, my workers completed postal paperwork must faster than I did. It resulted in one less “multi-task wire” for me and a realization that delegation could prove to be my best friend.
Once you have trained someone to perform a task, it is important you entrust them with total responsibility for the delegated task. It’s difficult to hand over full responsibility, but workers will never set their expertise in motion if you are hovering over their shoulders.

Are you making time for family/friends?
A sure sign of operating in overload is failing to schedule time to enjoy life. If you’re not interacting with those you love, then it’s time to rethink your mode of operation. Time to shut down the computer, cell phone and walk away from work. It’s amazing how a few hours of interacting with friends and family can help clear your mind. You may also be surprised how dismissing work for even a few hours can make a big difference in the quality of work you do.

Unlike electronic devices, our brain needs downtime. Operating in overload inhibits creativity, organizational skills, and most importantly, our ability to have fun. At what cost are you navigating the perils of multi-tasking? According to a recent Forbes magazine post, the cost may be more than you think. It’s an interesting read:

Gadget driven connectivity is undermining our ability for in-depth interactions with customers, family and friends. We have entered a faceless means of communication that just skims the surface of any real in-depth relationships. Succeeding in any online business is critical to our ability to balance the never-ending influx of data technology while continuing to nurture our interaction with people offline.

Multi-tasking can fail us. At some point, overloaded and crossed wires can crash and burn. Internet technology allows great opportunity for small businesses, but it is a 24/7 operation (with plenty of competition). One vital secret to success is recognizing when you are in multi-task overload and responding to the brain’s cry for “HELP”.

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