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God or the Devil? The Answer is Always in the Details

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Small business owners are the busiest people on the planet so we're always looking for a faster, easier way to grow. We're admonished to move quickly so as not to give up market share to a competitor. And of course, we want to increase revenue and build our staffs.

So what if you have to cut a few corners to be the first one out of the gate? Think Big and you can build it. Right?

Call me crazy, but I'm obsessed with thinking small.

Last week a writing student asked me, "Can you just tell us the steps to writing a story?" The answer, I reminded her, was simply to "focus on the details."

As a writer and teacher, I've learned that details are what separate the good from the bad. I tell my students that good writing--even a memo about payroll schedules--should be a conversation, a dialogue between writer and reader. Otherwise, why bother?

Successful business owners understand this concept too. We're not just selling a service, we're building a relationship and that's hard work. But paying attention to the details can make it a whole lot easier.

We're All Storytellers
Entrepreneurs need to learn what fiction writers have long known: the success of a story rests in finding "the significant details" as Eudora Welty once wrote. In good stories, it's the details that captivate us, that allow us to "see" the story, and that invite the reader to get involved in the conversation.

If I tell you my first bicycle was pink with training wheels, that's not much to go on.

But if I tell you my first bike was built by the boy down the street who added training wheels and ribbons, and then jogged down the sidewalk with me, holding the banana seat with one hand while I learned how to pedal... now I've given you enough details to "see" the image. I've gotten you involved in my story.

In business, the same is true. Attending to the details--even ones as small as providing pen and paper at a meeting--can mean the difference between a client who feels uninvolved and uninvested and one who is now your project partner.

Slow Down to Speed Up
Churning out products and ideas quickly may be the end goal. But in reality, it's when we slow down to consider the ramifications of an idea that we save ourselves time and money. Considering the details early on in the process can not only help you avoid mistakes, but more importantly, they can lead to new ideas and streamlined processes.

Your customers don't care how long an idea was in the making. They care that it works to their satisfaction. So before you jump into the fray, make sure you can deliver what you promise.

It was almost eight months after I completed 10,000 Small Businesses before we officially launched our Words for Work program, the main component of our "growth plan." Why the wait? Because we had so many good ideas and not enough details to make sure they would all be successful.

So like the fiction writers we are, we "murdered our darlings" and culled only the best ideas. Then we took some time to flesh those out with the necessary details to ensure excellent client experiences.

That 8-month wait helped deliver a tight package of service offerings, a clear "story" that we can easily share with clients. We've managed to cut down our RFP response time by more than 60 percent, and that includes customizing each proposal.

Details are for my staff. I'm the Visionary.
Yes. I like to think this way too.

But don't think of "vision" and "detail" as being mutually exclusive. They should be partners, two sides of the same coin. Implementing the details may be left to others on the team, but considering and planning the details should be everyone's responsibility.

Thinking in small parcels also offers another important benefit: it can help you see an interaction from the customer's perspective. Website user experience offers reams of evidence of how often we design our marketing communications from our own experience rather from the customer's. It's these small details that will cost you. Just because you know that little blue icon is a link to the product information, doesn't mean your customer does.

Seriously. Just Tell Me the Three Things I Need to Know?

1. Moving fast is great. But while those big thoughts are swirling in your head and making their way on to the ideaboard, remember to also have a column for "details." You don't need to have all of them worked out in advance, but the more planning you do, the better off you'll be.

2. Big problems can sometimes be caused by one small detail. When you get stuck on a project or have to deal with an unhappy customer, think small and focus on "the significant" detail that may be buried within the issue. Ask a lot of questions to pull out as much information as you can about this one part of the process until you find what you can alter and make your client happy again.

3. Execute. Execute. Execute. Finding the details is necessary. Following through on them, essential.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.