Reviews Revisited
We have a library of employee-evaluation material for our in-house staff, but we have nothing specifically for our telecommuting (mostly home-based) employees. We'd like new ways to review their performance. Any ideas?

Paul Krupsaw

President

Card Guard/Check One

San Diego

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Carolyn Thompson, president of CBT Training Systems in Frankfort, Ill., suggests four steps for designing your own evaluation system for telecommuters. First draw up a list of reasonable expectations; benchmarks; and a tentative schedule of "check-in" times that you and the employee agree on. Then, with the help of those benchmarks (such as monthly sales-report data if, say, you're reviewing sales reps), figure out whether the person has met expectations by comparing this year's stats with last year's. Once that has been determined, you and the employee can set down measurable goals for the coming year. Finally, let the employee write an "action plan," a road map to achieving those goals. The review system should be "ongoing and participatory," says Thompson.

When scheduling check-ins and reviews, consider how well linked the telecommuter is to headquarters. In some cases more natural interaction can mean less-frequent reviews. For example, at Leegin Leather, a belt maker in Industry, Calif., sales reps tote laptops and are in constant contact with home base, so president Jerry Kohl and his managers feel they need to meet with individuals only once a year for a four-hour review and goal-setting session. Companies that are less automated might need to touch base with telecommuters more often. Tony Frederick, CEO of FrederickSeal, a marketer of industrial sealing devices in Bedford, N.H., hosts a monthly professional-development day for his outside sales reps. "It breaks their annual goals into smaller, more manageable pieces."

Another technique you might try is self-evaluation. Roger Flax, president of Motivational Systems, a management- and sales-training firm in West Orange, N.J., suggests having employees videotape themselves so you can critique a day's performance together. Or you could ask employees to log the number of calls they make in a given week versus the number of sales made or meetings set up. And if an employee works closely with a few clients, ask those clients to comment on his or her performance.

For more tips on planning, designing, and implementing tailor-made appraisal systems, check out Designing Performance Appraisal Systems , by Allan Mohrman, Susan Resnick-West, and Edward Lawler (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1989, $29.95).

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Growing Pains
My wife and I own a profitable $2-million company, but we want to continue growing it without working more than 40 hours a week each. We don't feel comfortable hiring an outsider as a general manager. What can we do?

Fred Edera

Owner

Generic Parts Service

Lake Oswego, Oreg.

You don't need to work more hours to grow your company -- you just need to make the hours you do work more productive. The trick is to keep your focus on the big picture, and that will involve delegating responsibility to employees, investing in timesaving technology, and rearranging your schedule to maximize your productivity.

There are disciplined ways to start getting a fix on the big picture. Steve Swartz, a consulting principal with the McGladrey & Pullen Family Business Group in Minneapolis, advises business owners to block out an hour every day to answer the question, If we weren't fighting fires, what would we be doing? Each meeting should have an agenda and no interruptions. After two weeks the meeting should be expanded to two hours and held once a week. The exercise, explains Swartz, gradually gets you into the business of planning, managing, and monitoring.

That leaves some of the "doing" roles vacant, so if you refuse to hire, you had better be willing to delegate with authority. Jody Wright, co-owner of Motherwear, a Northampton, Mass., mail-order company offering products for nursing mothers, suggests you give employees more and more responsibility so that eventually you've given away an entire task. Over the past three years Motherwear has promoted or hired five people (including a business manager) to assume some of the duties originally done by Wright and her husband. But the additional payroll cost is well worth the extra time the owners can now spend with their four children.

Another way to maintain a big-picture focus is to use timesaving and labor-saving management tools. For example, in 1990 Kitson and Julie Logue, founders of Stewart Pet Products, in South Bend, Ind., spent $325 on a database that Kitson customized to track customers' addresses as well as their specific shipping instructions and payment terms. When an order is placed, the Rapid File system pulls up the customer's file, automatically creates an invoice, and performs the necessary inventory subtraction. Kitson credits his small investment with saving at least 15 administrative hours a week.

There's evidence that once managers resolve work and family conflicts, they become more productive and company morale gets a lift. You'll also see that message in Joan Kofodimos's Balancing Act (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1993, $25.95), which teaches managers how to integrate successful careers and fulfilling personal lives. Motherwear's owners balance their lives by overseeing opposite ends of the business and working staggered hours, an arrangement that lets them make decisions independently. At Stewart Pet Products, the Logues dedicate one night a week to date night. "Of course, we sit and talk about the business all night," says Julie, "but it helps to recharge our batteries." Kitson also spends most Fridays on the phone with his network of business associates and friends, exchanging tips on topics such as how to better juggle work and family.

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Software Shopping
As a new business owner, I need a basic accounting-software program. What do you recommend?

Name Withheld

Beats us; software reviewers we're not. However, the experts and users we've surveyed say the answer to your question depends on several factors -- notably the depth of your financial knowledge, the kind of business you're in, the amount of growth you hope to achieve, and, of course, the size of your wallet.

"No one program will magically solve your accounting problems," warns Jeff Tarter, the publisher of "Softletter," a Watertown, Mass., newsletter that follows the PC-software industry. Start your basic research by contacting popular computer magazines to order reprints of product reviews or their lists of best buys. Fellow computer users also can give you valuable feedback. Call the Association of Personal Computer User Groups' locater line (914-876-6678) for groups near you.

If you have little or no financial experience and you're running a one- or two-person business, Tarter recommends QuickBooks (Intuit, about $99). Widely distributed and supported, this relatively inexpensive, easy-to-use program does not presume you're up to speed on the numbers. It tracks projects, helps you budget, controls your checking accounts, handles accounts receivable and payable, and allows for flexible reporting.

However, if you're dealing with complex inventories (as a retail store does) or sophisticated payrolls (as a temp agency does), or you're in a business that deals with big-ticket sales and negotiated prices, QuickBooks may not be for you. Since the program can't add interest to overdue invoices, calculate commissions for sales reps, or track back orders, it's more suitable for service-based businesses that don't require depth in one particular area, observes Tarter.

More sophisticated software programs include DacEasy Instant Accounting (DacEasy, about $150) and Peachtree Complete Accounting (Peachtree Software, about $129). Each has systems for handling general ledgers, invoicing, receivables and payables, payroll, inventory, and project tracking. "Either program is good if you already have some financial background," says Eileen Quann, president of Fastrak Training, a provider of software services in Columbia, Md. Although Peachtree reports are considered more banker-friendly, Quann sticks with DacEasy. It's helped her manage the near-800% sales growth Fastrak has experienced since its start, six years ago.

If you still need to bolster your financial literacy, you might ask your accountant to show you how he or she analyzes your income statement and balance sheet. Steven Wasserman, the president of Bizware, a computer consulting firm in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., recommends another option: a self-study course in book form called Fundamentals of Finance and Accounting for Nonfinancial Managers (Stock #950110R1, American Management Association, 800-262-6969, $99.95).

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Reducing Turnover
I have a small commercial-cleaning business, and I pay employees slightly more than the minimum wage. I'm frustrated by our turnover rate, which is at least 300%. Before I experiment with perks and benefits, I'd like to know what incentives work. Larry Ruggiero

Owner

Service One

Colorado Springs, Colo.

If you think you can reduce turnover by tossing perks at your workers, you're mistaken. You must first get to the root cause of employee dissatisfaction by setting up exit interviews to ask them why they're leaving.

Find out if you're paying less than the competitive wage in your region by checking stats kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics or by contacting the Cleaning Management Institute (518-783-1281, annual membership is $95), which publishes surveys on pay. If your workers feel they are being mistreated by their supervisors (a common gripe), you ought to observe them on the job. For solid management guidance, contact Cleaning Consultant Services (206-682-9748), in Seattle, which offers training videos, on-site seminars, and management software.

Your first challenge, though, is to hire hungry self-starters. Don't recruit through ads when you can get qualified referrals from existing employees. Just take a no-nonsense "I'm-trusting-you-on-this" approach, says Gary Clipperton, president of Professional Cleaning Associates, also in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has found dedicated cleaners through religious organizations. You could also target persons with developmental disabilities and college students.

Over the past three years All American Pest Control, in Orlando, has managed to cut turnover in half. Its Simply the Best program includes rigorous preemployment screening (about 5% of applicants land a job); a three-week training program that covers everything from bug biology to proper handling of equipment; and field certification, which sharpens interpersonal skills. Team members at All American are on commission; noncommissioned staffers are awarded raises when goals are met. You could implement a comparable program by adapting some of the proven turnover-reducing strategies found in Roger Herman's Keeping Good People (McGraw-Hill, 1991, $10.95).

Understand, though, that the incentives that work for other companies may not necessarily work for yours. "Because we have such a diverse group, we use all kinds of incentives, and we roll them over frequently," explains Joe Fairley, director of franchise development for Coverall North America, a Glendale Heights, Ill., franchisor of commercial and industrial cleaning services. Ask your employees what motivates them -- and make it easy for them to respond.

Lillian Lincoln has found helpful ways to enhance employee relations. The president of Centennial One, a janitorial-service company in Landover, Md., gives out recognition awards, uses team-building techniques, and holds semiannual meetings at which the company's objectives are reviewed with staffers. But the key to motivating your people, says Lincoln, is to provide them with a comprehensive training program. For more ideas on incentives, she suggests you network with members of the Building Service Contractors Association International (800-368-3414; annual dues vary).

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Reported by Karen E. Carney, Vera B. Gibbons, and Stephanie Gruner.