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My business’s keeper: 10 ways to ‘work on your business, not in it’ to come out firing after a downturn

07 April 2020

#Corporate & Commercial Law, #COVID-19

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My business’s keeper: 10 ways to ‘work on your business, not in it’ to come out firing after a downturn

We have all heard the expression ‘work on your business, not in your business’ but it is often easier said than done. Servicing customers, managing staff, bookkeeping, payroll, collections, marketing and business development – the list never ends. 

If things are a little quieter than usual in your business, it could be a great time to tackle all of the ‘work on your business’ tasks you and your staff have been putting off for months (or even years).

Use these unprecedented times as an opportunity to strategise and improve your business processes, systems and structure to help your business come out of a downturn or ‘hibernation’ fitter and leaner than it has ever been. Get a head start on your competitors and be ready to take full advantage of potential opportunities on the other side.

Depending on what stage of the business life cycle your business is in, there are likely to be a number of different tasks you have been putting off that could do wonders for your business if implemented correctly. The following list is by no means exhaustive and some tasks might not be as important for your specific business, but it should serve as a useful starting point when putting together your very own ‘work on your business’ hit list.

1. Upskill staff

With extra time on their hands now is a great time for your team to undergo additional training and start upskilling. This training doesn’t even need to cost the business a cent and can all be done internally. Each business function can take turns running sessions so that all staff have a deeper understanding of the entire business. Have the customer service team run through common customer issues, have the accounts team explain their procedures or have the sales staff explain the sales process and opportunities for other staff to upsell at future contact points with customers. This will help your staff remain connected during these difficult times and will mean a more skilled and adaptable workforce across the board.

2. Fix common customer complaints

When it comes to customer complaints, the business focus is usually on putting out fires as quickly as possible – which is completely understandable when resources are stretched and customers are looking for fast solutions. With time on your side, take a step back and try to understand why particular issues keep resurfacing and how best to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Start by compiling a list of the most commonly raised customer complaints and have staff workshop ideas to help reduce the number of these types of complaints. It could be as simple as developing a ‘frequently asked questions’ page on your website or updating your marketing materials to be clearer on certain aspects of your services or products.   

3. Strengthen customer T&Cs

When was the last time you reviewed your terms and conditions and considered whether any areas could be improved? Recent events may have brought to light gaps in your trading terms and you may be worried about your potential exposure across your customer base. Take this opportunity to bring your terms up to market standard and make sure they adequately address the specific needs of your business. The workshop discussed above regarding common customer complaints could even feed into changes that could be made to the T&Cs to help protect the business.

4. Good corporate governance

It is more important than ever to make sure your board practices good corporate governance. Directors may be looking to take advantage of the safe harbour protections (that protect directors from civil liability for insolvent trading when pursuing a restructuring plan) as they try to keep the business afloat and trade through these uncertain times. Working from home is no excuse to let the frequency or formality of board meetings slip, in fact your board should be meeting regularly to have robust and frank discussions about the state of the business and the plan for the future. Directors should also be scheduling regular discussions with key staff across the business to make sure they are across everything that is happening in the business.

5. Refresh policies and procedures

Chances are your policies and procedures could do with a refresh, particularly as the business has had to adapt quickly to the changing legal and regulatory environments. With many staff now working from home, some policies may not even contemplate the alternate working arrangements you have in place. Policies for work health and safety, leave, flexible working and finance or accounts arrangements are good starting points for a refresh. You may even need to consider if your privacy policy and procedures adequately cover the potential need to disclose health information to staff or authorities during this pandemic.   

6. Review corporate structure

Your current corporate structure may not be adequate for the ongoing needs of your business. While the single-company structure you started with may have served you well to date, these uncertain times mean there could be benefits transitioning to a multi-entity structure with the business’s assets separated from its liabilities (where possible). Your structure may have grown organically in a piecemeal fashion (e.g. when taking over a competitor or expanding interstate) without much thought to broader structural needs. Either way, there can be significant tax, legal and commercial advantages from having the right corporate structure in place, so assemble your key staff and advisors and consider whether the existing structure is the best fit for the business.  

7. Formalise shareholder arrangements

Many business owners do not have formal documentation in place with their co-owners.  This is particularly common between family and friends that launched a small business on a handshake with a “she’ll be right, mate” attitude towards the legal/contractual relationship between them. This approach may have worked out to date, but with uncertain times ahead a formal shareholders agreement could become very important. A shareholders agreement can help set clear expectations of all the shareholders, provide an agreed exit strategy, set out arrangements for resolving disputes and outline fundraising arrangements (in case the business needs an injection of capital in the future). 

8. Personal Property Securities Register (PPSR) health check

Odds are your business has granted security interests over its assets to third parties, such as in favour of a consignment stock supplier, finance provider or maintenance service provider. Redundant registrations, like those in favour of suppliers you no longer buy from, or ones that have been incorrectly registered, like consignment stock arrangements incorrectly recorded as an ‘all-assets’ security, can muddy up your security register and make it more difficult to obtain finance or to sell your business. A search of the PPSR costs just a few dollars and will let you see all current registrations against your business so that you can start taking steps to clean up your register.

9. Tidy-up employment contracts

Employment laws and regulations are constantly evolving, more so than ever in the current climate with industry, unions and regulators working together to keep people employed and in fair conditions. If you can’t remember the last time your standard-form employment contract was reviewed, sit down with your HR team and make sure your business’s employment terms are brought in line with current legal requirements and are suitable for the business moving forward.    

10. Protect your intellectual property (IP)

Over time your business may have built up a significant amount of intellectual property – potentially without even realising it. Your brand or trading name is an obvious one, but you may even have developed unique processes or devices that are crucial to the overall success of the business. Often the intellectual property is where the true value in the business is so it is important to take all available steps to register and protect it. Do a stocktake of all the intellectual property in your business (such as trade marks, copyrighted materials or patentable inventions), identify where your value lies and take action. 

Hopefully, the above list has given you plenty of inspiration to start working on your business and not just in it. More importantly, all of the ideas above will keep you and your team focused and engaged while helping your business be in the best shape possible after ‘hibernation’.

Authors: William Kontaxis

The information in this publication is of a general nature and is not intended to address the circumstances of any particular individual or entity. Although we endeavour to provide accurate and timely information, we do not guarantee that the information in this newsletter is accurate at the date it is received or that it will continue to be accurate in the future.

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