Whenever you seek input on how to better your business – whether you’re looking to increase profits, improve cash flow, or make yourself attractive to lenders – you’ll get this bit of advice:
Cut your overhead.
A business that controls its overhead costs is one that’s well positioned to weather lean times while boosting its margins all the time. But cutting deeply into service costs or product development threatens to undermine the very things that make your business unique.
So here are 12 ideas that any business can pursue to reduce its operating costs without sacrificing quality.
Low Hanging Fruit
Most businesses budget are chock full of waste and fat, and it’s incumbent upon owners to look at every line-item carefully. Consider these areas:
- Rent: Are you using all the office space you’re paying for? There are 168 hours a week; how many hours are people actually occupying your space? If your answer is 40, you’re paying to lease space that’s being used less than a quarter of the time. Consider reducing yours by reducing your footprint. Options include downsizing to a smaller space within your current facility; subleasing unused space; renegotiating your lease; or moving. Think you need all the space you have? Consider how many of your employees are perfectly capable of working from home, at least part of the time, and would love the opportunity. Consider, also, how much space each of your employees is taking. Do you have a lot of private offices for employees who don’t really need them? If you work in a “cube farm,” how big is each cubicle – and how big does it really need to be?
- Energy: Energy can be a big expense. Using less space is a great way to reduce that monthly bill. And with deregulation of utilities, it’s easier than ever to find ways to cut your energy costs even further. Shop around for the most cost-efficient provider. Consider energy-efficiency systems that can help you save money. State agencies and most utilities offer incentives, rebates, and other assistance to help you implement these systems.
- Travel: Inexpensive meeting software like GoToMeeting is making it easier to have face time with clients, employees, and partners without the need to fly or drive. When you travel less, not only do you cut your travel budget, you also spend less time in transit and more time actually working.
- "Miscellaneous": Whether it’s supplies, office parties, or something else, every company (and every department within every larger company), spends a certain amount of its budget on things that no one is really managing. Pay attention to every penny.
- Anything that's not driving ROI: Eliminate everything that’s not producing a return on your investment: that Yellow Pages ad, for example, or a subscription service you’re not using. Dump anything that’s redundant, too. For example, it’s not uncommon for different departments or individuals to be using competing versions of the same business software simultaneously. Get everyone on the same system.
Involve Your Team
Your employees are full of ideas on how to cut overhead you’d never come up with on your own. They’re closest to the action and, therefore, the most likely to see waste and redundancies first. Of course, getting workers involved can be tough — or even backfire if it’s seen as an effort to cut staff.
Here, then, are several strategies to help you encourage a culture of employee engagement.
- Be credible: When you ask employees for advice, approach them with facts, not false reassurances or corporate jargon. If you need to cut overhead to make your business healthier, say so. Present them with some high-level numbers. Your employees will appreciate your honesty — and reward you for it.
- Go beyond the survey: For businesses with more than 20 or so employees, surveys can be an effective method of gathering opinions – and simple online tools make them cheap and easy. But they’re also sometimes unwelcome. They’re a chore to fill out. Employees are often skeptical that anyone’s paying attention, but if they aren’t certain they survey is anonymous, they won’t be candid. So feel free to use surveys to gather input, but at the same time look for other platforms to solicit feedback. Private social-media groups, intranet boards, and instant messaging tools may encourage employees to share their thoughts organically, and engage in conversation.
- Show your appreciation: Reward employees who make helpful suggestions in ways both large and small. Meaningful bonuses tied to meeting specific cost-cutting objectives; contests awarding prizes to the employee who has the best overhead-reduction idea; and even small thank-you gestures are appreciated by your team. More importantly, they’re effective in encouraging positive engagement. And make these awards in ways both expected (end-of-year banquet, employee of the month) and not (surprise gift cards and random thank-you emails).
Examine Your Payroll
Salary freezes, shorter hours, pay cuts, and targeted layoffs should never be taken off the table, especially in lean times. In fact, you need to always be examining your payroll, which is likely your largest expense.
No doubt, you’re proud of being able to provide meaningful employment for your workers while also making money for yourself. So if you do have to trim staff, you’ll want to do so thoughtfully and smartly.
- Current employees: Start with a detailed evaluation of who’s performing essential functions and who’s not. Look for redundancies among your current team’s responsibilities, and evaluate each person’s capacity for professional growth. It may be that two employees are performing a job that could be consolidated into a single position. Instead of just keeping the more senior person, ask which employee might be adaptable to additional responsibilities. An employee who has been doing one job for 10 years may be great at that job — but it’s fair to ask why he or she hasn’t been promoted into new opportunities. In the long run, you need employees who can grow with you, and even help accelerate your growth.
- Outsourcing: Many business owners try to keep as much in-house as possible, thinking it’s cheaper. Often, it’s not. You can cut payroll by outsourcing functions that are not core to your business, while also accessing experts in those functions — be it information technology, marketing, human resources, or something else — to do what they do best instead of forcing you to wear every hat.
- Freelancers and independent contractors: A close cousin to outsourcing is the use of independent parties to perform services on a freelance basis. It’s tempting to reserve the use of freelancers to one-off projects, but independent contractors now perform all kinds of jobs. Indeed, before adding a new permanent position to your payroll, you should always consider whether the job could be performed just as well on a contract or freelance basis.
- Automation: Thanks to technology, the most routine functions of just about any job can now be automated. Using business “softbots” — e.g., QuickBooks — to automate accounting, taxation, invoicing, and payroll can immediately help you reduce headcount. There’s also software that can help you cut overhead by automating, for starters, marketing, ad buying, and logistics (routing, fuel expenditures, vehicle maintenance logs, etc.).
Talk to Your Advisors
Outsourcing or automation? Engaging employees or eliminating perks? Using the cheapest vendor or the one with the best reputation? These are tough questions. Don’t try do it on your own. Your mentors, peers, lender, and banker are all valuable advisors. Use them.
For help in getting these questions answered, reach out.