Are you spending 50 quid to save a fiver?

When you’re a Finance Director or CFO people always expect you to “have a tight grip on costs”, “rigorously pursue cost-saving opportunities” and “implement tight procedures to ensure maximum efficiency”…or at least that’s how job advertisements for Finance Directors and CFOs usually describe the role.

Of course any good Finance Director or CFO will have a keen eye on the running costs of the business. The last thing they’ll want to do is make it harder than it needs to be to create the profit the business depends on to survive and thrive.

But sometimes the need to control what people are doing to make sure costs are properly managed can be carried too far. More often than you might think, the costs of control far outweigh any potential savings the control might bring you.

I call this “spending 50 quid to save a fiver”. That’s something no rational person would do, but it happens more often than you might think.

The best way I can illustrate this is by way of an example from somewhere I used to work (no, I’m not saying where…). Most people find it hard to believe this control process was ever allowed to see the light of day…but it did.

People I use this example with tend to chuckle and say something like “that would never happen in my business”. Which is true to a point…this is undoubtedly an extreme example…but versions of this, at a lower order of magnitude, can easily be found in just about every business I’ve ever worked in.

Here’s the logic which sets a business up for “spending 50 quid to save a fiver” – if a little bit of control is a good thing, surely more control has to be better…doesn’t it?

That’s not necessarily true. There is a diminishing return from every control system and there comes a point where dis-economies start to kick in – that is the business would run at a lower net cost if it took out the costs of the control process and just let people act in a sensible manner instead.

I’m not advocating anarchy…I’m a Finance Director and CFO, after all…

Simple procedures with a proportionate level of sign-off are essential in any organisation to create a sense of order and provide a sensible level of assurance about the business having an appropriate level of management control in place.

So here’s the example from my own career…just to be clear, I didn’t play a part in designing this system and spent most of my time in this business complaining about it, but the powers that be prioritised increasing control over reducing cost, for reasons I’ll leave to your own imagination.

In this business we had to send people overseas on a reasonably regular basis to work with partner organisations and customers spread around the world. Most people would never go overseas at all. A small number of people would go overseas three or four times a year.

To be allowed to travel overseas, a staff member had to complete seven different paper forms…yes, seven…yes, paper…

Each of those paper forms had 70 or 80% the same information on them as all the other paper forms, but each also had a small amount of information that wasn’t on any of the other forms.

The form that went to the Travel Office (yes, we had one of those) had the visa details on it, for example.

The form that went to the Finance Department had the costs on it, but not the visa information.

The form that went to the Head of International (yes, we had one of those too) had a risk assessment for whichever country the staff member was visiting, but didn’t have either the costing or visa information on it.

The form that went to the Group Chief Executive…yes, they all did…had an essay on it explaining why this particular trip was necessary, even though all our client agreements specified a certain number of visits each year on a relatively fixed timescale to dovetail with our own business planning cycle back home, so none of the trips should have been a huge surprise to the Chief Executive or anyone else..

And so on, and so on…

The original idea was sensible enough. No organisation wants people incurring costs on unnecessary overseas trips willy-nilly. I don’t think any fair-minded person…including the people who had to handle multiple 7-form overseas trip requests each year…would object to that principle.

There were some sensible concepts in there too…even though the execution was flawed. For example, final approval for all business trips was given by the Chief Executive in practice, even though there was a limit in the process which said if the trip was less than £1,000 it could be signed off by the divisional head instead.

The trouble with that was most of our business was in the Far East and it took at least a week or 10 days to travel out there, do the work required with the client or partner and return home again.

Once upon a time it might have been possible to do that for less than £1,000 but those days were long gone. So, although there was, sensibly enough, a limit in place to avoid involving the Chief Executive unnecessarily, that limit was set far too low to be meaningful and in practice he got to sign off everything.

From perhaps even a relatively reasonable starting point…if I give the maximum amount of credit to those involved initially…over the years, the whole process just got out of hand.

There was a sensible solution, of course. One electronic submission which went everywhere with all the information entered only once…which, ironically, we did with other decisions in the business requiring multiple sign-offs, just not with travel requests…combined with a sensible view on what the costs of a 10-day trip to the Far East might reasonably cost would have been a good start.

However, that’s not the only downside of this process. There were some significant cost penalties from this “tight system of control” too.

For starters, in general, air travel is cheaper the earlier it’s booked. And the nature of this business was that most trips could be predicted a couple of months in advance.

But it took between two and four weeks to get the necessary “live” signatures on all seven travel forms before a booking could be made. So it wasn’t unusual for air fares to have increased in the time between the trip being requested and sign-off being received, necessitating another “go round” of the process to get a higher budget signed off.

So let’s think about this process…designed to “ensure tight cost control” and “ensure robust processes are implemented”…

We had a Travel Office to coordinate many, but not all, elements of this process. They didn’t do the travel bookings, for example…that was subcontracted to a travel agent…they just handled the paperwork.

Including salaries and on-costs, there was probably the thick end of £100,000 per year just in the costs of this department…even before a single flight or hotel was booked.

The dozen or so signatures required on the various bits of paper…some required more than one signature on them…meant that a whole range of pretty senior people were spending time scrutinising the travel arrangements for someone who, in practice, they didn’t know and had no way of fully appreciating (despite the essay-style forms in some cases) precisely why someone was wanting to arrange the trip they were being asked to sanction.

Because all travel requests ultimately went to the Chief Executive, you can bet your bottom dollar that everyone whose hands touched one of those seven forms made absolutely sure they knew as much as they could in case the Chief Exec asked a question about their particular part of the process.

In practice, there was a flurry of emails and phone calls from different senior managers to the person proposing to travel overseas just on the off-chance the Chief Executive asked that particular senior manager about the trip. He rarely did, in practice, but still…just in case…

So to “save money on travel” we had a system which required a department costing £100,000 to administer.

Taking account of all the preparation time for the seven paper forms and the multiple sign-offs by senior people, up to and including the Chief Executive, that must have cost at least another £100,000…with an opportunity cost probably a lot higher than that.

And because we tended to end up paying more for air travel than we needed to, due to the delays in making bookings which this convoluted system forced upon us, we probably dropped another £100,000 there.

This was in an organisation which, whilst by most business’s standards did “a lot of international travel” but spent less than £1 million each year on it.

When the “overhead” of running a supposedly robust process is one-third of the cost of doing the activity in the first place, that’s a sure sign the admin burden has got completely out of hand.

Metaphorically, that business spent 50 quid to try to save a fiver.

There’s always a better way than that. All it takes is an outbreak of common sense.

(Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash )

Why thorough processes delivered to a high standard might account for all the problems in your business

The world is becoming increasingly process-orientated. There are positive aspects to that – if you’re the pilot of a 747, the Operations Director of a nuclear power plant or a surgeon carrying out microsurgery on a vital organ, I’d feel a lot more comfortable knowing that what you do, and the order you do them in, has been designed in a reliable, dependable way.

Even though most of our daily work activities aren’t anything like as mission-critical as those examples, the business world seems determined to introduce ever-greater numbers of processes and procedures to govern every aspect of what they do.

I’m not sure that’s a good thing for a number of reasons, but in my capacity as a Finance Director and CFO what bothers me most about our process-heavy world is that this approach often turns into a really expensive way to do something simple, and can easily lead to a range of less-than-wise decisions.

There is a better way…which we’ll get there in a moment…

But first, the inspiration

This article was inspired by a tweet from the always-interesting Mark Pollard (@MarkPollard on Twitter) reporting on a conversation with Phil Adams (@Phil_Adams). Here it is:

Their conversation was specifically in the context of producing good creative work, but I’d argue this concept matters for just about everything a business does.

The maths is unarguable.

Phil Adams points out, correctly, that even with just a 5-step process, where each step is done right 90% of the time, the likelihood of getting to a perfect answer each time is less than 60% (59.049% to be exact), assuming we’re dealing with a sequence of independent events (quick statistics primer here if you would like a refresher)..

Yet the holy grail for most large corporations is a detailed process with dozens of precisely crafted steps, each done right at least 95% of the time.

For a business process with even just 12 steps, however, each done right 95% f the time, the likelihood of everything happening exactly as planned is even less than Phil Adam’s example above. In fact, that process will only work as intended 54.04% of the time on average for a 12-step process, or not much over half.

Think about this. With a 12-step process where each step is done right 95% of the time, nearly half the time this process will go wrong somewhere along the line.

With a more complicated process, say one with twice that number of steps, you’re down to things going right less than 30% of of the time (29.2%). More than two-thirds of the time, your customers will be disappointed or something will be going wrong in your business. This will inevitably, one way or another, increase your costs.

I’ve worked for some large multinationals in my time and it was never much of a challenge to find processes 24 steps (or more) long. But even in relatively small businesses activities such as manufacturing products, responding to customer enquiries and tendering for new contracts can quite easily have two dozen steps or more to follow before reaching the right answer.

So this is a real problem for many businesses. Especially in large businesses which don’t often realise how often the end-to-end process goes wrong because each department involved in the process trumpets their 95% success rates on the individual elements.

That goes double when the process involves several different departments within the business and everyone tries to claim their share of the credit for doing their bit well, while doing their best to deflect the blame for customer dissatisfaction, or manufacturing inefficiencies, onto some other part of the process for which they are not responsible.

But it gets worse…

After a while, let’s say someone notices that the customer service department has ballooned to 20 people because of the volume of customer service incidents generated. Each of these customer service people costs £30,000 a year with on-costs.

Someone who feels they have a point to prove about how good their thrusting entrepreneurialism is for the business turns up at a management meeting and says something like “over half a million quid a year on the call centre – we need to save some of that cost”.

Strategies what what happens next vary, but common solutions are one or more of the following…

First, starting salaries get pared back. In a high labour-turnover environment like a call centre, there are always people leaving. So, thinks some aspiring company superstar, when one of our £30,000 a year people leave, we’ll replace them with someone on minimum wage so that, over time, we’ll only spend half as much. The Finance Director and the CEO will be delighted, they imagine.

I’m all for saving money and for giving entry-level people an opportunity to embark on a meaningful career. The part of the equation that’s often overlooked is that junior, inexperienced people are very unlikely to carry out the assigned tasks as well as the more experienced person who has just left.

Our 95% success rate for each step in the process goes down to 90%, let’s say. So our 12-step process with each step done right 90% of the time means only 28.24% of transactions will go through properly. And for a 24-step process at 90%, only 7.97% of transactions will go through right first time.

What looks superficially like a smart cost-saving move is often one of the least smart decisions a business can take, for reasons we’ll cover in a moment.

Another popular option is to look at a £600,000 cost and try to outsource the work. Although the outsourced customer service industry doesn’t enjoy the best of press, there are good businesses in there (I know, I used to run one of them).

But the first thing any self-respecting customer service outsourcer will do is ask you to be really explicit on what steps there are in the process, how you want their agent to respond in a number of different scenarios, how the interface to the client’s IT systems will work and so on.

It’s almost nailed on that your 12-step process will have just increased to, let’s say, an 18-step process. However your 95% success rate for each step is unlikely to change. After all, you’ve told the outsourcer exactly what to do, haven’t you, which you’ve naturally based on what your current staff do now.

An 18-step process performed as intended 95% of the time will have a 39.72% rate of successful completion. A similar 50% uplift on a 24 stage process means it’s right just 15.8% of the time.

I won’t even calculate the 90% options – let’s just say they’re almost never right.

These scenarios are not the fault of either the new, junior member of staff or the outsourcer. They’re only working with the material you’ve given them, and frankly they were never likely to result in a positive outcome, although both are common “budget saving” strategies.

The final common approach is to decide that everything is going to be self-service through your website which means you don’t need a customer service department at all.

There are two major problems with this.

Firstly, it is literally impossible to do everything through a self-service website. Even the kings of web self-service, Amazon, have telephone based support for particularly thorny issues…which is, perhaps surprisingly, very good, in my own experience.

If Amazon can’t make an entirely web-based service work, let’s just operate under the assumption that your business is unlikely to achieve a goal Amazon hasn’t any time soon.

The second issue is that developing web self-service options to cover every eventuality is expensive. An external firm will charge a high six-figure sum to develop one for you, or you can do it yourself but you’ll need to beef up your IT department to do it. At least over time, you’re likely to spend as much in IT resources, internal and external, as you’ve been spending in customer service costs.

Oh no, it’s even worse than that…

Sorry to say, we haven’t finished with things getting worse.

All the common solutions lead to an increase in costs.

Hire much less-experienced labour who get things wrong more often and you’ll have to beef up your management resources to deal with queries, handle dissatisfied customers and authorise refunds, special deliveries and whatever it takes to try and put things right again for the customer.

You have fewer £30,000 a year call centre agents, but a lot more £50,000 a year managers to look after the new minimum wage staff. (Again, this is not the staff’s fault, the deck has been unwittingly stacked against them.)

Outsourcing can be a good idea, but if you’ve got a £600,000 a year outsourcing contract which is your main interface with all your customers, unless you’re an extreme risk-taker (which I don’t recommend if you still want to have a business to run in a couple of years) you’ll need a relatively senior manager to make sure the outsourcer keeps on their toes and delivers what they say they will.

So you can probably add £70-80,000 back into whatever savings you make…perhaps even more than that if you deal with complex processes or work in an industry where there’s regulatory oversight to contend with.

And as for the web self-service option, there’s a real danger that you’ll just swap 20 customer service agents on £30,000 a year for 10 software engineers in the IT department, each on £60,000 a year.

The simple, low-cost solution

The biggest, fastest, lowest risk way to reduce your costs (outside the flight deck of a 747 or the control room of a nuclear power station) is to look at the process and take some of the steps out.

If you reduce the steps by only 25%, what was a 12-step process becomes a 9-step process. At a 95% success rate for each step. a 9-step process goes right first time 63% of the time.

That’s getting on for a 20% improvement over the 12-step process, even though the average success rate for each individual step has not improved. In my experience, they often do, just because there’s less going on in a customer service agent’s mind and they’re likely to make fewer errors. But let’s not even factor that very pleasant surprise on the upside into the equation.

If we consider the 24-step process with the same success rates as above, a similar 25% reduction in the number of steps makes it into an 18-step process. End-to-end, that’s likely to work as intended 39.7% of the time. That might not sound like much to write home about, but it’s about 30% better than the old 24-step process.

The changes are even more dramatic when the percentage going right is 90% instead of 95%.

The old 12-step process, now a 9-step process, is now right 38.7% of the time, and the old 24-step process, now 18 steps, is right 15% of the time. That’s a 30% improvement and a near-doubling, respectively, compared to the original success rates.

So next time you want to save money, don’t just work with the numbers, think about the underlying processes. Simplify those and you’re well on the way to a low-risk way to save a lot of your budget.

And maybe ease back on the need to have detailed processes at all.

Years ago, I heard the CEO or Ritz-Carlton speak at an event and they had absolutely minimal procedures for their staff. Instead they told their staff to focus on the customers needs and deliver whatever they, in their best judgement, thought best-served the customer’s needs.

My memory is a little hazy on the detail, but I seem to remember that any staff member could, on their own authority spend a significant amount of money on the spot to satisfy a customer need. It might even have been as much as $5.000, but don’t quote me on that. It was certainly a number in the thousands of dollars.

I remember most of the audience wincing at this approach, but it’s actually one of the smartest ideas I ever heard.

How many complaints did Ritz-Carlton get into their call centre? Almost none as all their customers were satisfied at the point the problem arose. They spent a bit more on the front end, but they saved a fortune in their call centre.

How much did Ritz-Carlton need to spend in IT resources to develop a self-service model? Nothing at all. The staff member they first spoke to sorted out whatever the problem was and they never had to go onto the website to try to find a way to resolve their issues.

And how much did this really cost Ritz-Carlton? The CEO was a little coy on that point, but he did say that firstly they worked hard to make sure very few customers were dissatisfied, so complaints were relatively few anyway. Secondly, he hinted that the average charge was a lot less than the $5,000 (or whatever the number was).

Of course, some did cost the full allowance, and some went over that limit at which point a manager did need to get involved. The impetus was still centred around making the customer happy, so there were still no calls to the call centre and so on, but a manager had to authorise the budget in light of the amounts involved.

More often, I’m sure the guest’s problems would be rectified with some express dry cleaning or the cost of an extra cab to send on the glasses someone had left in the hotel. Minimal costs against a top-dollar five-star hotel room.

And that, for me, is the secret to cost saving.

To people who hadn’t thought this through, giving every member of staff $5,000 they could spend if they had to sounded like a needless extravagance.

It was actually the cheapest way to run their business. There was just a single step in the process “do whatever it takes to satisfy the customer, up to a limit of $5,000”.

In practice only tiny amounts were spent by staff members and Ritz-Carlton saved a fortune on call centre and IT resources.

I’m not suggesting this is the right approach for every business in every set of circumstances, but there’s definitely something worth thinking about in there.

So next time you want to do things differently in your business, or you’re under pressure to save costs, why not experiment with having fewer steps in your processes, or even just fewer processes, full stop.

Perhaps try giving your people a little more discretion. Even allowing for the fact that they’ll get it wrong some of the time, this is likely to be a much cheaper way of running your business than adding an extra half-dozen steps to your current processes in an ultimately futile attempt to “engineer out” things that go wrong.

It might seem a little counter-intuitive for a Finance Director or CFO to recommend a lighter touch on the process front, but even after allowing for the fact that things will still go wrong from time to time, that may very well reduce the overall costs in your business. And isn’t that what a good Finance Director or CFO is supposed to be concentrating on?

(Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash)

The difference between a good accountant and a great Finance Director / CFO

In his play ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, Oscar Wilde described a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

That’s pretty much the difference between a good accountant and a great Finance Director or CFO….a good accountant can tell you what you’ve spent, a great Finance Director or CFO should be building value for your business.

Let me give you an example.

Some years ago I worked for a business which gave all its employees, after a qualifying period of, I think, a year or two, one day’s paid time every month to volunteer for a local community project of their choice.

Out of approximately 20 working days in a month, you might say this initiative “cost” the business around 5% of the salary bill for eligible employees.

The volunteering initiative was in place before I arrived at the business, so I can’t take any credit for it, but in reality it didn’t cost the business a penny. It made much more money than it cost…alongside doing a lot of sterling service for our local community. Here’s just a few of the more obvious benefits…

  • People who volunteer for community projects tend to be naturally enthusiastic, high-energy people who are dedicated to making the world a better place. Their presence lifted our whole business and their continued enthusiasm in the face of adversity brought incalculable benefits when our backs were against the wall.
  • They did their jobs, on average, much better than the rest of the workforce – typically by 10-20%. Nearly all of our high performers were also community volunteers, so they covered the cost of the scheme just through their own natural positive energy and their desire to do a great job for a company that let them volunteer on company time to support their passions.
  • You might be wondering whether those naturally enthusiastic people would have done a better-than-average job anyway, even without the volunteering scheme, and at some level they probably would. But even then, there’s a difference between doing a pretty good job and striving to do the best job humanly possible. The difference between those two levels of contribution is easily worth 5-10% on productivity, output and quality in my experience. By offering a volunteering scheme, we unlocked the “striving” level of commitment.
  • Not only that, but when skills were scarce our very best employees tended to stay with us, even when there was more money on offer from another local business, because they couldn’t get their volunteering time paid anywhere else. Were people occasionally tempted by a few grand a year extra in their pay packet…sometimes yes, but they tended not to last in their new job and often came back because they missed the opportunity to volunteer in their local community.
  • The cost of recruiting and training a new member of staff is somewhere between £20-30,000 a time, according to ACAS statistics. So every person who stayed with us saved the business that amount of money. This easily covered the cost of the volunteering scheme on its own in a high-turnover industry. It also mitigated against the risk that when we recruited a replacement for a top performer, we didn’t get an average (or worse) performer in their place which would have diluted the quality of our workforce as a whole.
  • Without us having to put on an expensive training and development programme, many of our volunteers ended up in management roles with the business a few years down the line. They were, without exception, great managers. The skills they learned while volunteering – how to deal with people, managing tight-to-non-existent budgets, developing their creative thinking and many skills they picked up along the way – made them first-rate managers who we “recruited” without an executive search fee and without the risk that someone who was “good on paper”, or a seasoned interview performer, but not that good in practice, would manage to sneak through our hiring processes and cause more problems than they solved.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The community volunteering scheme wasn’t a cost at all. It generated significant value for the business which more than covered any costs it incurred.

A good accountant could tell you this scheme cost approximately 5% of the salary for eligible employees.

A great Finance Director or CFO could tell you that the community volunteering scheme generated so much value for the business, in both obvious and less-obvious ways, that spending whatever it cost with a smile on our faces was by far the most sensible, and economically valuable, option.

At the very least, any costs were covered by the greater productivity our community volunteers tended to display in their “day jobs”. More likely there was a significant upside to the business as a result of having unwittingly developed one of the smartest staff retention, productivity enhancement and management training schemes we could ever have hoped for.

We learned the value of the volunteering scheme, and didn’t obsess about its cost. Oscar Wilde would have been proud.