Avoiding the Insidious "Displacement Activity"

December 21, 2010
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I like to do things that cause the company to succeed. I don’t spend a lot of time doing my favorite activities. - Michael Dell

    Gore Vidal said once, “Never lie to yourself.” Great advice, and an even better reminder! But sadly, many cleaning and restoration business owners out there are still lying to themselves.

These struggling entrepreneurs are busy, busy, busy, frittering their lives away on non-productive fluff that does not contribute to the long-term growth and success of their company. Back in April 2008 we examined some of these dangerous diversions, what I call “Displacement Activities” or DAs, and the insidious threat they pose to your success.

Well, it’s a threat that never truly goes away, which is why I thought it prudent to take a look at some other DAs just waiting for the opportunity to take you down.

The single most precious resource of any business owner is their time. As your company’s owner/manager/troubleshooter/long-range planner/financial juggler/free labor, etc., your time has huge value. Squander your time on non-essential DAs, and your long-term success will be jeopardized.

Regain wise use of your time by constantly asking one simple question:  “What is my highest and best use right now/today/this week, etc?” True, as an entrepreneur you inevitably play the daily carnival game of “Whack-a-Mole,” constantly reacting to urgent crises. That won’t stop until you get pro-active by designing business systems to “make it easier to do it right than do it wrong.”

The subtle danger of a DA is it is always more pleasurable than the “higher and better use” task you are subconsciously avoiding. A DA doesn’t have to be fun recreation either. Usually a DA will masquerade as an urgent, even important business priority. For example…

You are trudging toward your office like a condemned man with the unenviable chore of making collections calls on past-due accounts. But walking through your shop you realize how dirty and disorganized it is. So you grab a broom and at the end of the day you are exhilarated and your shop is a thing of beauty! However, how will you make payroll, since you didn’t make those unpleasant collection calls?

Don’t get me wrong here. All DAs in and of themselves are not wrong. Sometimes you just need a break- a mindless physically and/or emotionally gratifying task that makes you feel good about the tangible progress you have made. A “DA break” like this may be just what you need as long as you recognize it as such. The problem comes in when a business owner is busy, busy, busy, but on the wrong things and they refuse to recognize it!

Let’s analyze some DAs common to the cleaning and restoration industry, and ask yourself how often you “displaced” other higher and better uses of your time with these little darlings!

Personal Errands and Tasks

From picking up the mail to personally tuning up your van, any activity you can delegate out for less money per hour than you can immediately earn by engaging in your chosen profession is a DA! These tasks are probably necessary, and certainly much more enjoyable for you personally, but they are distracting you from your more distasteful but “higher value” work. But these DAs pale next to…

Working in Areas Outside Your Expertise

You can blow a few therapeutic DA hours cleaning your shop without destroying your company. However, far too often I see cleaners inflicting long-term, unrecognized damage to their company trying to be someone they are not. The most common problem? Designing your own website.

Every day I see carpet cleaning websites that look like they were put up by a 4th grader! Amateur cookie-cutter site design, garish and unreadable colors, pathetic spelling and grammar and absolutely disastrous marketing, sadly, are the norm in our industry. The typical web prospect will see a pitiful site like this, subconsciously shudder and quickly navigate away.

Website design and search engine optimization are both a profession and an art. Many website designers can crank out a great looking, functional site that will convert web shoppers into booked jobs in just a few hours. Even better, these folks will create your site for less than you can make actually cleaning carpets in the same time. So why not let them do what they do best, while you do what you do best?

Now, there is nothing wrong with a carpet cleaner becoming Internet/web design savvy (for a free step-by-step guide on how to dominate your local Google listing, go to tiny.cc/SFSdg). Frankly, you need to know the basics just to protect yourself from the rip-off artists prowling the net. Also, much of the maintenance and adding new content to your site can and should be done by yourself. But the initial design of your web site is normally better left to an experienced professional.

Dabbling in other unskilled business DAs may also come back to haunt you. For example, I’m appalled at the complex legal questions that are put up on the ICS Bulletin Board for other carpet cleaners to weigh in on! Some replies are amusing while others, if followed, would be legal suicide! The old saying about “a doctor who treats himself has a fool for a client” goes double in the legal sector!

A better bet is to look into pre-paid legal services. While these services won’t replace a personal attorney, in a difficult legal case they give cost-effective legal opinions beforehand that can keep you out of the courtroom.

That brings us to perhaps the biggest DA in our industry…

Not Getting Off the Truck

Far too many carpet cleaners convert what could be a flourishing business into a back-breaking “job” simply because they won’t let go of their scrub wand! I actually enjoyed the physical act of cleaning carpets. (And, being an inveterate showman, I loved the customer’s reactions to the “before and after” drama of turning their filthy flooring into sparkling clean carpets!) But there is potential here for this to morph into a DA.

You may be thinking, “Whoa! Wassup with this? I thought the whole purpose of my business was to clean carpet!” Well, yes and no. As an owner-operator, if something isn’t getting cleaned, it’s quite likely you aren’t bringing in cash and, obviously, cash flow is essential. But if you, as the owner, are personally focused only on cleaning carpet, this will eventually become a self-defeating DA.

Early in my career I too fell into this trap. I liked cleaning carpets, I enjoyed my customers and I loved the “big money” I was making. In other words, I was in my comfort zone! But I finally realized my pleasant daily routine was one big DA that endangered my long-term financial success. If I wanted more out of life than “owning a job” I had to break out of my comfort zone.

I realized I was not letting go of the truck because I feared what you may be fearing, that nobody can do it as well as you can. You know what? You are right! No mere employee is going to invest the blood, sweat, tears and sheer effort of pleasing the customer that you will. But guess what? It doesn’t really matter.

May I suggest a new definition of “perfect”? Instead of insisting that an employee has to be exactly like you, reflect on this: “Perfection is sufficient for its intended purpose.” If your employee is consistently raking in riches for you while making Cheerleaders for your company, that sounds like “perfection” to me!

So why is this idyllic scenario the exception and not the rule in our industry? Because we fall into one more DA trap…

Not Hiring the Best

To the outside world, carpet cleaning is a humble profession and a worse job, but ICS readers know just how gratifying and profitable a carpet-cleaning business can be! But due to this industry-wide inferiority complex, many cleaners hire “too low on the totem pole” by
  • not paying more than the “going wage” and
  • setting their sights too low
  Now more than ever, quality young people want to join a small, nimble, fast-moving service company where they can create their own job security by making themselves an indispensable superstar. Wonderful! That is what you want too! So constantly be searching for these valuable people, and then nurture and care for them. If you do so, you will have the freedom to spend more time in all those Displacement Activities that you know and love! 

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