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How standard operating procedures can help you grow your business

It's about more than just documentation—it's about business growth

By Judith Meyer · October 13, 2020
Hero image of a woman at a salon spraying hairspray

I built a brick-and-mortar business from the ground up. And when I realized I couldn't do everything myself, I took a deep breath and decided to hire other people to help. It was a great decision—but I did it all wrong.

In training the new hires for my nail bar, I went with the show-and-tell method. I hoped the recruit would learn by doing exactly what I did. Great, if I could remember everything off the top of my head—and hope they didn't forget either. But that's not how brains work.

It ended in self-manufactured chaos.

On some occasions, I would cringe after seeing how the staff would interact with customers. Other occasions left me wondering why people would call me to ask for basic instructions that they should have been able to figure out for themselves. And when they did figure things out, I'd sigh and think, "No, not like that." Everyone was frustrated.

Instead of seizing the opportunity to train, empower, and hold people accountable for their work, I disempowered them by adopting the attitude that if you want something done right, you do it yourself. It's a recipe for disaster.

What are standard operating procedures (SOPs)?

Coming from a 9-to-5 corporate environment, I underestimated how difficult it would be to build processes and systems from the ground up in my own business. I thought about everything that was in place on the back end of my old job. How the engine ran under the hood. And that's when I realized: one of the missing pieces for my business was standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Here's the thing: expectations can't be implied. You have to tell people exactly what's expected of them and give them enough support and resources to meet those expectations. That means transferring best practices from your head onto paper.

Standard operating procedures help everyone get on the same page about what to do, when and how to do it, and why.

It's about more than just documentation—it's about business growth.

By definition, standard operating procedures (SOPs) are step-by-step processes required to complete specific, repetitive tasks. Here are some examples of when you might need an SOP:

  • Customer service functions like onboarding and offboarding clients

  • HR functions like recruiting new team members

  • Marketing functions like creating and publishing content

  • Sales functions like putting together a bid or proposal

  • Operations like packaging orders

  • Accounting tasks like invoicing

Good standard operating procedures highlight whose responsibility it is to complete certain tasks. They state the goal of the process, when it needs to be done, the steps involved, and what resources are available to complete the process.

Basically, SOPs help you transfer those best practices you developed inside your head into documented processes. Once documented, the standard operating procedures allow someone else to complete those tasks with the same standard and care as if you were doing it yourself.

The benefits of standardizing with SOPs

Honestly, it felt rigid to have standard operating procedures for all the processes in my business. But in reality, SOPs were the first step to enabling me to start working on my business and not just in my business.

Before you start creating SOPs, it's important to really understand why you're creating them. Here are a few of the main benefits you'll see. As you write your SOPs, keep your eye on the prize.

Enable business growth

As demand for your services grows, so will your team. This can mean anything from outsourcing certain tasks to freelancers to employing permanent staff. Having standard operating procedures means that you can serve more people by replicating processes at scale—without compromising quality.

SOPs also help your team grow. They're no longer bogged down mentally, wondering if they're doing things right. Instead, they can execute quickly and focus on growing their skills.

Make processes more efficient

Standardizing will help you see where every process fits in, how well they fit, and if there isn't a better way to do things. You'll begin to see how each process improves your business—or not. It's not only about documenting your processes; it's also about making sure those are the right processes to begin with.

Plus, once processes are standardized and documented, it'll be easier to find technologies available to automate those processes. For example, if you notice a process that involves moving information between apps that you have to do frequently, it's time to automate.

Scale your training

Simple documented procedures become training manuals. When you bring in a new team member, they'll be able to get up to speed without you micromanaging. As your business grows, you won't have time to train every new employee—SOPs will take care of a lot of that work.

Maintain quality standards

Good customer service comes from a culture of excellence. If you want your business to excel at giving customers the same quality consistently, there must be a framework in place that ensures that everyone provides a uniform service even in your absence.

This is where it clicked for me: there was no point in hiring people if I was going to do everything myself. By setting up SOPs, I made sure everyone gave customers the same high-quality service every single time.

Take a vacation

I used to feel guilty when I took a vacation. That's not because I was so dedicated to my work—it was because I had a process, delegation, and empowerment problem. If you feel like things will fall apart in your absence, figure out what needs to happen to change that. This should be enough motivation to get those SOPs in place.

How to write an SOP that improves your business

A checklist to begin creating an SOP

If you focus on the benefits of creating standard operating procedures, you can be sure that what you create will help you get there. Your documentation will be different depending on your business, but here's a general guide to how you can create SOPs that will help you get where you want to be (ideally, on a nice vacation).

1. Identify core processes that need to be standardized

Think about which tasks in your business are repetitive: you do them a lot, and they need to be done in the same way every time, with little to no variation. You don't want to have SOPs for every little thing—only processes with lots of steps.

2. Map and document the processes

Start by writing down these processes in clear and simple sentences—avoid long paragraphs filled with jargon, and always remember your audience. Add screenshots or images where you can to make things even clearer.

If this is a process that's done on a computer, record your screen as you complete the task so that people can literally watch you do it. Show, don't tell, whenever possible.

I've also found that flowcharts can help. While they don't add the necessary context, they can be a great first step for someone first learning a process. The new team member can review the flowchart, which gives them a big-picture look, before diving into the specifics.

A basic flowchart showing the kind of process that might require an SOP

Remember: if you already have a team, include them in this process. You don't want to create processes that people don't identify with; plus, it's possible that your team has already figured out a simpler way of doing that same process.

3. Implement your SOPs and communicate the processes

Make sure everyone on your team is on the same page about the documentation. For example, if, in writing your SOPs, you tweaked processes a bit to streamline them, you need to communicate this to your team—don't just assume they'll notice.

Also: make it clear why they need to follow these procedures. If people understand the significance of the documentation and how it will help the business and their professional growth, they'll be more inclined to take them seriously.

4. Monitor and review your SOPs regularly

It's easy to create SOPs, feel a sense of accomplishment, then let them collect dust in a Google Drive folder.

But SOPs aren't user manuals that you toss aside after opening the box, only to consult when things have gone wrong. These are living documents that you'll update whenever something changes in your workflow or you find new efficiencies for your processes.

5. Automate anything you can

The real game-changer for SOPs is discovering processes that can be fully automated.

Automating will free you and your team to focus your energies on doing work that will put you ahead of your competitors, delight your customers, and encourage growth. By creating SOPs, you're essentially reviewing all your processes and can figure out which ones you can automate. Here's what Zapier tells us makes a task ripe for automation:

  • It's something you have to do frequently, or on a schedule

  • It involves moving information between apps

  • It's boring and doesn't require higher-order thinking

  • It takes you away from what you really want to be doing

Once you set up a few automated workflows, automation will become a habit, and you'll be on your way to eliminating repetitive tasks. And it all starts with your SOPs.

I was able to scale my nail bar to a second location because I had the right processes in place. If I had continued with the attitude that I had to do everything myself, I would have stayed stuck.

If you're feeling stuck, SOPs are an easy way to get back on track.

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