How to Diagnose, Solve your Retail Business Problems

By Donald Cooper

In every business there are surface problems, which are actually just symptoms of much deeper issues, underlying problems and the real or basic problems that are the root cause of what’s going wrong. There’s a tendency for business owners, leaders and managers to focus on the former and not the latter because surface symptoms are more obvious, easier to address and much less threatening. Dealing with these problems allows you to point a finger at someone else, rather than yourself. But you’ll never solve anything without digging deeper.

Here’s a medical example of symptoms, underlying and basic problems. High blood pressure is a symptom of a number of underlying issues like consuming too much salt or too many calories, not drinking enough water, physical and emotional stress or not exercising enough. But the real basic problem could be lack of information or motivation, toxic lifestyle or career choices, unhappiness, lack of self-discipline or self-esteem. If you don’t address these real basic problems, the underlying problems will continue and the symptom (high blood pressure) will persist.

Let’s say your business has an unhealthy bottom line. That could be a symptom of a number of underlying problems, such as not having a clear and compelling value proposition, ineffective sales and marketing, excessive discounting, not understanding the math of profitability, poor expense control, antiquated information systems, low staff morale, failure to deal with non-performance or make key decisions, and so one. These are all underlying problems. The basic problem is ineffective management and leadership.

Or perhaps some aspects of your customer service or customer experience aren’t what they need to be. Those are not problems. Rather, they’re symptoms of underlying problems, such as unclear expectations or low standards, hiring the wrong people, improper training, ineffective communication, lack of empowerment, dysfunctional systems and processes, a negative business culture, no performance measurement, insufficient passion for customers, or failure to listen to customers and frontline staff, all of which are the result of the basic problem of ineffective management and leadership. You don’t ‘fix’ bad customer service. You ‘fix’ the underlying and basic problems that are causing it.

The basic problems, the ones you’re reluctant to identify and deal with, could be managers at various levels (including yourself) who are not aware, not focused on the right things, not properly trained, don’t have time, haven’t made the transition from ‘player’ to ‘coach,’ are not empowered, not interested or simply not capable.

As painful as it may be, you must deal with the real challenges in your business and not just the surface and underlying problems. That requires insight, bravery and even outside perspective or help in some form.

How do you get to the real basic problems?

It’s uncomfortable but easy. You involve the best minds and truth sayers in your business. You start by stating what appears to be a problem or shortfall and then add, “which is caused by (fill in the blank).” You list all the underlying causes of that problem or shortfall, as you best understand them.

Then, for each of those underlying problems or shortfalls, you state again, “which is caused by (fill in the blank).” You continue to ask and answer that question honestly, each time digging a little deeper until you get to the real basic cause. That’s the thing or person that needs to be improved, coached, refocused, fixed or dealt with in some way.

Finally, you’ll determine what action you must commit to take to fix the basic problem and by when. Most businesses are reluctant to embrace this process because the deeper you go, the closer to the top of the organization you get.

This exercise takes both insight and courage, but it’s the only way to get to the real issues that are holding back the business and hurting the bottom line. The alternative is to carry on in denial until it’s too late and your business fails.

Donald Cooper has been both a world-class manufacturer and an award-winning retailer. Now a Toronto-based business speaker and coach, he helps business owners and managers rethink, refocus and re-energize their business to create compelling customer value, clarity of purpose and long-term profitability. Donald can be reached at [email protected].

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