I built my company, First Rate Solutions, New Windsor, N.Y., from the ground up, about 18 years ago. With the unwavering support of my wife, Elisa, I learned the technology of pest management, developed relationships with customers and worked out all the bugs related to making my business profitable. I came to rely on myself for just about every aspect of the business. As I hired employees and managers, including members of my family whom I trust implicitly, I found myself hesitant to delegate certain responsibilities. It never occurred to me that anyone else needed to know all of the important information I kept inside my own head. After all, I made all of the customer-critical decisions; the buck stopped with me. Why would anyone else need to know what I knew?
Well, because I’m human. In 2010, I suffered a mini-stroke that seriously compromised my short-term memory. For three months, I was unable to recall much of anything, and it took me two-and-a-half years to completely conquer my amnesia. During this time, my senior staff members — my niece and two of my nephews — were at a loss because I had not shared important information about the company with them, including:
They didn’t know who the major players were at our largest accounts. Although my staff members had built relationships with customer representatives working in the offices for day-to-day issues, I had never introduced them to the key decision-makers. Suddenly they realized that they didn’t know who needed an immediate response when an issue came up. They faced questions like these: Who is the No. 1 decision-maker? Who’s demanding? Who’s flexible? Who requires some kind of special white-glove treatment that we don’t know about?
They didn’t know my pricing policies and payment terms for each client. Without background knowledge of each customer, my team members had no basis for determining who should get regular pricing and who should get preferred pricing. Likewise, because they didn’t know each client’s payment history, they had no direction in terms of deciding whether they should grant extensions on outstanding balances or cut off services until bills were paid.
They weren’t aware of some procedures — such as reporting insurance claims. Again, more questions: What gets reported? Who does the report go to? What kind of follow-up is required? What kind of response should we expect?
My niece and nephews are very competent, capable professionals. They were outstanding at customer service, routing and complaint resolution, but I hadn’t given them the tools and information they needed to succeed from an administrative standpoint. As I gradually recovered my memory, I vowed to remedy this situation.
I started to keep detailed notes on every account, writing down everything I could think of that might help my team. I also took my senior staff members to account meetings with the lead decision-makers so that they could begin building their own relationships. As I did all of this, two things happened: (1) I instilled the confidence and knowledge into my team to run the business with or without me, and (2) I reduced the level of stress on myself by entrusting some of the more demanding responsibilities with others. I actually take vacations now where I turn off my cellphone!
The ultimate benefit? Our new, better balanced structure has enabled us to grow. In the coming year, we expect to grow by 20 to 25 percent, and we are expanding our suburban routes in the NYC Metro/Hudson Valley markets we serve. I’ve stopped thinking like a small company, believing that as the owner I need to do everything, and started to think like a growing enterprise. Once you understand that you’re only one person and you can’t — and shouldn’t try! — to do it all yourself, you position yourself and your company for ongoing success.
As told to Donna DeFranco.