Focus on Business This Summer

Some small businesses shut their doors—or mentally check out—during the summer. But companies that do so will leave new business on the table, says Tom Hall, a serial entrepreneur and principal of Tucker/Hall, a crisis communications company in Tampa. Hall recently co-authored a book, Ruthless Focus: How to Use Key Core Strategies to Grow Your Business, with leadership expert Wally Bock. Hall spoke with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about the importance of pushing business forward and avoiding the summer doldrums. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: It feels like a lot of small businesses don't get much work done over the summer. Is that impression outdated?

Tom Hall: It should be. It's a psychological issue: People save up mentally for vacation and start focusing on vacation a week or two early. When they get back, they're mentally on vacation for another week. So a week's vacation turns into a low-productivity month.

What's the alternative?

Summer is a great time to jump your business ahead. If your clients and customers are all taking a break, take advantage of the slow market and get yourself ready for the fall.

What kind of preparation would you recommend?

Hold a companywide contest for the best suggestions on improving customer service or saving money. Give the winners small prizes, like an extra vacation day or an afternoon off. Assign a task force of half a dozen employees to study your top competitors and find out what they're doing right. Meet up with them once a week over sandwiches and listen to what they've found out and what they think could be done at your company. Make these assignments fun, and you'll get some great strategy, as well as employee buy-in on putting it into place.

How would you make it fun?

Tap into that vacation mood. Have picnics on Fridays—inside or out—and use the time to brainstorm or get to know your employees better. Buy flowers for everyone's desks one day. Bring in lemonade and dessert after lunch. Relax the dress code at least one day a week and pipe some beach music through the office.

What suggestions do you have for dealing with clients during the summer?

Remember that your clients—and your competitors—have the same summer problem you do. Go out of your way to communicate with your clients at least once a week. Customers love to be remembered, and you'll look smart and available while your competition may not be. By extending that extra service while your competitors are just trying to keep their people focused, you may win more business.

How can small employers stop their employees from using vacation as an excuse to slack off?

Sit down and talk with employees getting ready to go on vacation. Make sure they know which specific assignments they need to get done before they leave. A pending vacation should trigger them to be mindful of deadlines, rearrange flexible projects, and ask for help if they need it. Let them know that when they come back, they'll be expected to pick right up. And then tell them to have a great time and not to worry about the business while they're gone.

What about vacations for business owners themselves? Entrepreneurs are notorious for working too hard and burning out.

For so many entrepreneurs, it's tough to relinquish any responsibility, because they believe somewhere deep down inside that they have to do everything at their business. That attitude is the biggest enemy of success, and it's also terrible for their employees, who don't grow and get additional responsibilities. And what happens to their business if they get into an accident and can't work? Their company will die.

How do entrepreneurs remedy that?

Realize that other people can do your work for you, at least for a week or two. Work up until the last day before vacation, finish everything that needs to be done, and then go. Don't take the BlackBerry, don't get the computer out every day. Don't call in, or write in, or check your e-mail. Tell your employees to contact you only in an absolute emergency. It'll be the best thing you can do for yourself. When you come back relaxed, with the pressure off and the anxiety gone, you'll be in much better shape to get back to work.

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