Operational excellence: How to scale your small business

Editorial Team

12 min read
Two men discussing in stock room or storage space

The concepts of operational excellence are common sense for most business owners: continually improve a business across all aspects, with the buy-in of employees who are invested in exceptional customer experiences and high-quality products or services.

In a competitive business landscape where many great business ideas don’t make it past the 5- or even 1-year mark, operational efficiency is crucial for business success. For small business owners who have goals of expansion and of becoming leading corporations, operational excellence can help you scale your business.

The following are five key business strategies small businesses can learn from large enterprises to enhance their operational excellence and reap the benefits of streamlining processes.

1. Business processes management

Business process management (BPM) is the practice of learning about, analyzing, and improving business processes in a business. Business processes may include executing specific methods in support of a business strategy.

To streamline and optimize business processes, a process manager will look for ways to simplify processes and eliminate unnecessary tasks in a workflow. This makes processes easier to follow, replicate, train on, and improve over time.

To optimize business processes, large enterprises may follow a procedure similar to the following.

  1. Identify the processes to improve.
  2. Determine a baseline measurement and target goal. Define variables that validate measurement systems.
  3. Analyze measurement data, and identify critical factors for process execution.
  4. Identify areas to improve, eliminate, and/or reduce defects.
  5. Measure the new process.
  6. Use controls (documents, monitors, oversight assignments) to sustain improvement made by process optimization.

Many large enterprises employ dedicated process improvement experts, some of whom specialize in methodologies such as Six Sigma, while others rely on established process guidelines from reputable organizations like the Project Management Institute.

Actionable advice for small businesses

Leaner companies can take a cue from the business process management strategies of larger enterprises. Some ways to improve these include:

  • Identifying bottlenecks and inefficiencies: Look at how various business processes are executed. Determine which ones have significant pain points and where in the process they occur.
  • Implementing process automation: You can eliminate human error and improve process speed by using technology and automation. For example, instead of manually creating new email campaigns and sending them out each time, you can use email marketing software to automatically trigger campaigns based on customer actions. This ensures the right messages get to the right people at the right time.
  • Continuous process improvement: Measure your progress. Ask for feedback from your team on ways to improve various processes. Continually adjust and refine so that you’re always improving.

You can improve just about any business process in any type of industry. For example, in catering, small businesses like Lonni’s Sandwiches and Waffles in Paradise have improved their credit card processing for small business by offering mobile payment transactions. Instead of relying on equipment that may need an electrical outlet or internet access to take payments, these businesses offer mobile payments on a smartphone. These payment processing methods are quick, simple, and painless, both for customers and the businesses.

2. Leveraging technology

Technology typically plays a large role in big enterprises’ operations. According to McKinsey & Company research, committed and successful business innovators use digital tools twice as often compared to less innovative companies, with notable gaps in the areas of advanced analytics and artificial intelligence. Most enterprises in Fortune 50 companies use technology for collaboration, testing, prototyping, and commercialization.

Technology provides many ways to improve business processes, including:

  • Speeding up task completion through automation
  • Enhancing communication and real-time collaboration
  • Keeping projects on task with workflow visibility
  • Organizing business documents and enabling access
  • Providing data, dashboards, and analysis that help businesses make smarter decisions

While technology often provides a return on investment, there are barriers many small businesses face in using it effectively. One of those barriers is cost. It’s helpful to know most technology platforms will provide a free live demonstration and/or free trial, so small businesses can see if the technology is actually worth investing in. Many platforms also provide a dedicated account manager, who is available to answer questions and provide guidance for clients.

Other technology barriers may include infrastructure and training. The good news is, many technology platforms live online, with cloud access so users can work with the technology from any connected device, from wherever they are. If you have a small budget for computers and workstations, consider a software-as-a-service platform that lives online.

For training, you can invite your team to test out various platforms so they can get a head start on getting familiar with the user experience. Many platforms also have built-in training modules and support, so users can learn on their own time and ask questions of experts right in the platform.

READ: 22 free small business tools and resources

Actionable advice for small businesses

Technology can help your small business operate more efficiently, which can help you decrease expenses and improve your services for customers. To improve technology use at your small business, consider the following.

  • Identifying technology gaps: Going back to business processes, look at which business tasks you can automate and streamline processes for or enhance with technology. Try out free trials to see how various tools can improve your processes and provide a return on investment.
  • Prioritizing technology investments: While technology requires an up-front investment, you may find that the right technology ends up saving your business significantly long-term because of how it improves business processes. Create a ranking of the tools you would most benefit from, and create budgets that enable you to make those investments over time. If you can’t afford tools you think would help, you might consider a small business loan to help you meet your short-term needs.
  • Embracing digital transformation: Research from Boston Consulting Group shows the top quartile of digitally advanced companies continually outperform the bottom quartile in metrics like profitability and revenue growth. As technology continues to evolve, small business leaders who embrace a digital transformation can give themselves a competitive advantage. When you introduce new business processes, apply a digital-first mindset to your strategy.

One small business that’s used digital transformation to their advantage is Heavenly Sweet Tastes. In addition to using a mobile point-of-sale system, the business uses Clover’s integrated business tracking software to streamline sales and expense tracking. Using technology, the business was able to eliminate time-consuming and error-prone receipt tracking, which made doing taxes easier and more accurate.

3. Effective resource management

Another critical business function is resource management. Resource management strategies involve planning and allocating business resources, including finances, technology, infrastructure, and employees. Strategic resource management helps ensure the right amount of people, money, and tools are available for every program and project.

As large enterprises have larger amounts of resources to keep track of, they implement resource management strategies, such as the following, to manage them.

  • Resource capacity and demand management: looking at resources available and work needs to determine priorities
  • Resource allocation: ensuring the appropriate resources are available for work priorities
  • Resource measurement and analysis: tracking resource use to optimize future resource planning and management

Resource management affects everything from budgets to workloads, which in turn impact how effectively your team can serve your customers. Successful resource management leads to better short and long-term business outcomes.

One example of resource management in action is the small business My Mobility Medics, which uses Clover’s Local Inventory on Google app to enhance its inventory management in stores and on the business website. Both employees and customers can gain automatic visibility into shop resources, which creates clear inventory expectations and helps the business anticipate resource needs more quickly to better serve customers.

Actionable advice for small businesses

Creating effective resource management processes when you’re a small business can help you stay organized as you grow. Some tips include:

  • Conducting resource audits: Frequently audit the resources you have and how they’re being used so you can get a clear view of areas to optimize. Technology can help you track inventory resources, project resources, and worker resources.
  • Implementing lean resource allocation: The fewer resources you have to use, the lower you can keep costs. For small businesses, you may want to allocate fewer resources to start, then expand as needed.
  • Scalable resource planning: Use technology to track projections, so you can anticipate resource needs earlier. Look for resource planning tools that offer data, analysis, and trends that give you deeper insights into how your business currently uses resources and how business growth will likely impact that.

If you haven’t yet identified and compiled your business resources, do so now. Since they cost time and money and require planning, taking the first step to categorize yours can help you optimize them and lower costs.

4. Customer-centric approaches

Without customers, there’d be no business. Large enterprises use a customer-first approach to identify customers’ biggest pain points and needs, then devise solutions and services that address those.

Small businesses may face some challenges in adopting a customer-centric approach. One is having to gather customer data in order to understand current and target customers. Another may be customer relationship management (CRM) and understanding all the touchpoints a customer has with the business. Using technology like CRM software, small businesses can gain deeper insights into customer behaviors and preferences.

One small business that strives to deliver what customers want and need is Winfield Street Coffee. The coffee shop uses digital punch card Rewards to offer loyal customers deals and strengthen customer-business relationships. The shop also uses POS technology to make the checkout process fast and easy for busy customers.

Actionable advice for small businesses

Product and service development is important, but it’s only effective if it meets your target customers’ needs. Small businesses can use the following approaches to improve their customer-centric offerings.

  • Creating a customer-centric culture: Improving the customer experience starts with your team. From your company mission and vision, to the training you provide to employees, make serving your customers the center of everything you do.
  • Gathering customer feedback and insights: To understand your customers, you’ll need to learn about them through methods like surveys, customer data capture, and demographic analysis. You can gather customer data in a variety of ways, including: collecting customer data when customers sign up for email newsletters or store offers; looking at social media and website analytics; and building a customer database through promotions programs.
  • Personalized customer experiences: Personalization can help you build stronger customer relationships. According to McKinsey & Company, personalization drives a 10%-15% revenue lift, as customers who receive targeted messaging and relevant offers are more likely to respond. Personalization can be as simple as auto filling a customer’s first name in an email message, to promoting products based on past purchases.

Small businesses should make it a goal to learn as much about each new customer as possible, to deliver solutions and products that better meet their needs, while offering a personalized experience that makes customers feel like the business is invested in them.

5. Strategic partnerships

Strategic partnerships help large enterprises expand what they can offer customers, as well as develop exceptional products and services more quickly. For example, most McDonald’s customers know they’ll be able to get Coke products from the restaurant chain. Chase Bank offers cash rewards for Lyft ride-sharing services to its credit card customers.

Strategic partnerships can include:

  • Integrating one product or service into another product or service
  • Using a technology provider to power a service or product
  • Employing a business partner to execute certain business functions
  • Partnering with a supplier or vendor to source certain goods

These are just a few examples of the types of partnerships large enterprises engage in to enhance their businesses. For small businesses, there may be a challenge in forging partnerships, simply due to a business’s lack of experience and connections. One way to deal with inexperience is to network with other small business owners, at in-person events and online using networking sites like LinkedIn.

One small business that has made strategic partnerships one of their core strategies is MASAMI, a hair care brand. The founders host small business pop-up shops, where dozens of small independent brands with similar missions sell their products in a single store. These pop-up events help shoppers learn about like-minded brands and products, and help increase sales baskets across all brands. The business owners get to increase their connections, learn about each other’s success stories, and explore collaborating more in the future.

Actionable advice for small businesses

Strategic business partners can improve innovation, drive more effective service, enhance product development, and help increase revenue for small businesses. To build successful partnerships, small businesses can employ the following tactics:

  • Identifying strategic partners: Look at where your business is lacking in skills or expertise, or areas that could benefit from additional help. Participate in networking or industry groups where you can meet potential partners who specialize in those areas.
  • Building mutually beneficial relationships: Think about what your small business can offer in terms of skills, expertise, products, and services. The more “win-win” a partnership can be for all parties, the more likely it is to last long-term.
  • Leveraging partnerships to increase brand awareness: You can promote partnerships in a variety of ways, including marketing materials, product labels, in-store signage, and on your business website. Consider mutual promotions as you outline partnership agreements.

Strategic partnerships can be instrumental in growing your business, as the more you learn about others in your industry, the more that can inform your operations and product/service development. Networking is vital in business growth, so consistently seek out ways to get the help you need while helping others and building relationships.

Optimizing your business operations with the right POS system

Every big business grew from something smaller. By learning from how top companies operate, you can apply those same techniques to your small business in a quest for growth. By using these tactics, you can take meaningful steps toward operational excellence.

To get started, consider how Clover POS systems for retail, restaurants, or service industries can facilitate many of these tasks. Clover POS solutions streamline business processes, improve employee management, keep track of inventory management, help you build stronger customer relationships, and more.

Why wait? Elevate your business, and get started with a Clover POS system today.

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