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In September, we mentioned a previous column that included a branch walkthrough list. Every once in a while, we seem to strike a chord and get a good number of requests for additional information. (As an aside, we love your feedback, coming up with fodder relevant to your business is not easy. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.) We decided to revisit this topic and update our list.
Here’s an outline for the process that we use. Ideally, you will adapt it to your situation:
A branch evaluation is a combination of what you observe and what you hear from the branch team.
There is an old saying, “Believe none of what you hear and only half of what you see.” In our experience, this accurately sums up the results from the most poorly executed branch visits.
Decide whether you are looking for posed pictures, or if you want to determine what is really going on at your stores.
If you call the branch and announce a visit by an executive, you will get to see a wonderfully posed picture of how you wish the branch really looked. But it bears no resemblance to what the branch really looks like. Everything will be in order. Your customers might think they accidentally have walked into the wrong store. If you want to see the good, bad, and ugly, drop in unannounced and come in through the back.
Talk to a bunch of people to get a diverse perspective.
Each person brings different information to the party, with different takes on the situation. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to look at any situation from the perspective of a small sample of your team. First, most of us gravitate to other like-minded people who share common beliefs and similar lifestyles. These team members will tend to validate your opinions. There may be no ill-intent, you think alike. It’s a lot like buying something online by looking at a single picture taken from a distance. You can only be sure that the item seems ok at a distance from a single point of view. To get a clear an accurate idea of what the item really is, you will want to look at close-up images from every angle, inside and out.
Talk to people, one at
Many times, managers will gather the team together for a group huddle, thinking it’s a fitting way of getting input. The group dynamic may restrict the feedback and may prevent some individuals from offering up anything. Typically, the dominant type-A folks will drive the discussion while the other non-A types will sit hoping for a quick end to the suffering. Further, if you do get candid feedback, one team member’s negative views can spread discontent in this open forum. We think some wholesalers use this approach for the optics. It looks like they are seeking input while curbing any real candid feedback.
Talk in a private setting.
If you want to preclude candor, talk to people in a location where others can overhear the conversation or where there are continuing interruptions for either party in the discussion.
Listen! Don’t talk, listen.
You will need to introduce the process as you talk to people, but then let the room go silent. As we have said before, take notes for a couple of reasons: 1) If you are conducting many interviews, you will want to keep the conversations straight; 2) It shows respect for the person providing their thoughts. When you listen actively and take notes, it demonstrates that their ideas have value. When people feel that their ideas are valued, they will contribute more.
Put the cell phone away.
Having your cell phone face down on the table off to the side is not the same. If it is within sight, it gives the impression that you are not engaged in the conversation.
Ask non-directive questions.
If you want to limit discussions and shape the input you receive, ask loaded questions. Non-directive questions are generic questions where you are attempting to remove your personal bias from the discussion. For example: “Can you think of any areas where the company needs to improve?” You came into the conversation thinking that inventory control was the hot button, but from the perspective of the person across the table, order picking accuracy is destroying customer satisfaction.
Allow off-the-record comments.
Some of the best information may be off the record. If you want people to continue to provide information, you must honor confidentiality as if you were a priest taking confession. Don’t put off-the-record comments in your notes, and don’t disclose them to anyone, ever. Of course, there may be limitations if illegal acts are involved. In that event, talk to your attorney.
Seek greater clarity by asking follow-up questions.
To clarify the ideas and to demonstrate interest and understanding, ask for examples to further improve your understanding.
Observe the operation of the business.
This is our walkabout checklist as a starter for your facility inspections:
1. Signage: Maintained, lights in working order, properly visible. Always show the website address.
2. Driveway and parking lot: Clean, potholes filled, parking spot marked. “Customer only” spots marked AND never used by employees, owners, owner’s spouses, sales reps, etc.
3. Hours of operation, display: Clearly marked in large enough type that they can be viewed from a distance and easy to find on the company website.
4. Hours of operation, accuracy: Respected, as in, really open and operational at the opening time, and fully operating until closing, possibly after, if customers are present.
5. Emergency contacts: On the door and on the company website.
6. Front door: Clean and any signage in good shape.
7. Counter, general: Clean, clear of clutter, computer terminals clean, keyboards clean.
8. Counter, marketing: Planned and measured marketing materials/demo units, any marketing displays properly maintained and removed when in disrepair.
9. Coffee area: Very clean, with proper accessories. Some wholesalers win the first order of every day by the way they provide coffee and amenities to customers. Some always offer coffee, water, and ice while providing extensive amenities like donuts, snacks, hot dogs, popcorn, etc. on a regular or ad hoc basis. Some customers will place their orders at the counter as they have for years. Tech-savvy customers will use your webstore or mobile app to place the order, then pick up their order and a cup of coffee and a donut.
10. Bathrooms: Very clean, properly stocked. Checked at least daily. A marketing opportunity to show plumbing customers new products (not a circa 1980s pink commode). Make sure they are in good working order. Also, I hope we do not need to say this: If you have changed fixture or faucet lines or are in a leased facility, try not to promote competing lines…it looks bad when you don’t like your own lines enough to use them regardless of the reason.
11. Ceiling tiles: Clean throughout the facility.
12. Lighting: Clean, bright, and working throughout the facility. Some stores feel like you are walking into a dive bar, not a wholesale branch…they just feel depressing. Just because you are barcoding, doesn’t mean you can pick orders accurately in the dark.
13. Walls: Painted, no water stains, a great place for current advertising and promotional posters from your suppliers.
14. Self-service area bins: Clean, neat, organized with product in the proper bins. We like signs to help new customers find what they need quickly, but you must update the signs if and when you move items to different areas.
15. Warehouse: Ideally, off-limits to customers or at least moving toward that. Remember, allowing customers into your warehouse is like a bank allowing unescorted customers into the vault with dollar bills lying around on shelves. (One caveat: if your webstore is the only marketing tool in your toolbox, walking through your warehouse may be the only way your customers and sales team can discover all the products that you stock.)
16. Safety: Are there tripping/slipping hazards? Is material properly stowed?
17. Material: Put away promptly so it can be sold and picked efficiently. The inventory experts seem to recommend putting away today what arrives today as the mantra.
18. Yard: Fences in good order, gates and locks operational, lighting in proper order, security cameras operating, junk-yard dog hungry (kidding), free of hazards. Most yards that we have walked are rife with safety issues ranging from tripping hazards to racks that might collapse at any moment.
19. Trucks: Clean, proper signage, including emergency numbers and website address, maintenance current, especially safety-related issues.
20. Other company vehicles: We feel that company vehicles ought to have signage to build the brand with few exceptions. Any salesperson who doesn’t want to promote the brand day and night doesn’t understand.
21. Quick audit – we always like to do a quick on-hand count of a small sample of items. You count the bin and compare it against the count in your computer. The exercise shows that accuracy is essential, and sometimes you discover theft or procedural problems.
As we have said before, our mantra is: Deal in facts and don’t kid yourself. If you really want to improve performance, perfecting a process for branch evaluations will give you the facts needed to make important adjustments to your operation.