Blog

Don Stavneak, Author at Volano Solutions

Real-Time Tracking & Reporting from the Field

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Volano was very fortunate this year to help two companies, Hunt Electric and Miller Electric, as they teamed up for the construction of a multi-phased million square foot data center. They were challenged with scaling their proven processes to a project this size and decided to leverage software to overcome this hurdle.

Volano created an end-to-end solution building both a reporting & management portal for the office as well as a mobile app that works together in real-time providing the communication and insight necessary for the successful installation of the electrical systems.

“Volano listened to the challenges we were up against and built us that solution. Their role in creating a mobile app for more efficient reporting helped our communication and process tremendously.” – John Lepak, Project Manager | HUNT ELECTRIC

Download the Volano Success Study for Hunt and Miller Electric (24 downloads)

How to Keep the 20% of Customers that Generate 80% of Your Business

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While there are many pieces to this customer retention puzzle, today we’ll focus on operations. Obviously, you still have to give ‘em the ol’ razzle dazzle with fantastic customer service but for the most part, this sale is won. The 20% of customers that generate 80% of your business are your recurring revenue stream (the ones you can’t afford to lose). So, let’s talk about how to retain these precious few with a flawless operations workflow.

Work Queues

How many times have you experienced operations delays because information was passed along via the telephone game? How many times has an operations process come to a halt because no one was there to take over at the next step? The worst part of these all too familiar scenarios is that no one is held accountable, because no one has been made accountable. Furthermore, your 20% doesn’t really care who’s accountable; all they know is they don’t have their order.  

Every operations department, or group of departments, should have automated work queues. The idea is that with every step of a process, the right person is notified of their expected action. Going further, these work queues should include all information needed to carry out the action, as well as a timeline for the process. Once one step of the process is complete, the next queue is triggered.

Automated work queues don’t forget to pass along information and they don’t give vague instructions. Work queues let employees know what is expected of them and what they are accountable for, making it easier for them to deliver.

Transparent Workflows

At Volano, we probably overuse the word transparency but with good reason. Firstly, transparency in operations specifically, grants each moving part a bird’s eye view of the whole process, increasing accountability and virtually eliminating bottlenecks and those wretched cracks that things are always falling through.

Secondly, and just as importantly, transparency creates context and where there is context, there is engagement. When a person knows how their efforts tie into the big picture, a sense of ownership occurs. It’s leadership 101 –engaged employees make happy customers. Engaged employees by definition are invested in the goals of the organization. If your goal is to retain your 20%, it’s your employees’ goal too.

Repeatable Processes

Transparency and automated work queues sound awesome, but they are part of a bigger workflow solution -repeatable processes and business rules. Establishing these rules and processes will take some trial and error, but they are 100% worth it. A customer can feel every pain point in your operations process -every time they get a product in the wrong color or size, every time their order is shipped 3 weeks after purchase, every time they can’t get someone on the phone. Tailoring and fine tuning your repeatable processes means a consistently positive experience for your customers, leading to their retention.  

Not very surprisingly, we found that operations failures aren’t caused by laziness or lack of attention, but rather ineffective processes. Please don’t be fooled by the current loyalty of your 20%. If they aren’t looking for a better product, service or solution now, they will be. Unless you work at improving your operations, they’ll find it. Their loyalty to you depends on your investment in their retention. Let’s talk about customer retention now.

Learn Constantly and Be Happy

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Our team at Volano is a pretty happy bunch. It’s a big part of our culture and is evident in our core values.

A recent blog post on the Huffington Post talks about how Dr. Kaufman analyzed 24 traits of 517 individuals and looked for associations to happiness. It so happened that two traits were significant predictors of happiness, or as the psychologists call it, well-being.

The first is a pretty well-known driver of well-being and that is gratitude.

The second actually ties directly into our top core value at Volano – “Love of Learning“. Our core values are very important to us. They are a part of the hiring process and part of every review. Topping the list of our core values is “Learn Constantly“.

Every day we give our team ample opportunity to learn constantly and everyone on our team embraces the challenge.  Our culture would not be fun and we wouldn’t be happy doing what we do if we didn’t have the keg, the whiskey Wednesdays, the darts, the Sonos jukebox…

But most importantly, seriously, if we didn’t have our deep love of learning constantly.

Knowing Expectations with Workflow

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In the early 1990s Gallup started to collection data and analyze the correlation between employee performance and various aspects of work life. They discovered that employees who knew what was expected of them at work were the most likely to be in productive teams. When employees answered negatively or even ambivalently, the lack of job clarity often gummed up production.

Two years ago, Volano had the privilege to be part of Gallup’s EAS program and it was there that Rod and I learned about the Q12 employee questionnaire and just how important setting expectations is for employee engagement. Gallup’s research tied in completely with a concept we started formalizing and implementing in 2009 as part of our custom software: Work Queues.

Work Queues are the home page of your workflow. They are lists of the work you or your team are responsible for. These queues are shown to you immediately when you sign into the application and provide navigation directly to the area of the application where you can complete the task you’re responsible for.

This creates an excellent work environment for the employees who want to be effective – the employees you make sure you keep.

How Succeed in Business Draper Style

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This last issue of Esquire had an excellent article on how Mad Men is applicable to our day and age:

The man in the gray flannel suit is the direct ancestor of the man behind the MacBook watching him…

A huge number of Mad Men fans are haunted by the same question that haunts Don Draper: What’s the trend?

This question is the basis of virtually every current intellectual struggle, from the creation of epic novels to technology blog posts, from Thomas Friedman’s op-eds to bankers’ briefing meetings. It is the question George Saunders had to confront every time he wrote a story for Tenth of December, and it’s the problem the copywriter who made the Pepsi Next ad for the Super Bowl had to figure out as well. What is happening now? What are we in the middle of becoming?

A while back I watched this special feature of Mad Men. It does a fun job of tying some sound business rules with examples from the previous four (at the time) seasons of Mad Men.

Season 6 starts this Sunday and following each episode we will write a post about one of these rules on how to succeed in business Draper-style and tie it back to what had transpired during the episode of the week.

Our Culture: For Wonks, By Wonks

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Recently our culture was described as “for coders – by coders”.

I’ve never thought of it like that before, but it is spot on.  Makes sense too, considering my “corporate up bringing”.

Work hard, reward employees and have fun

My first “real job” happened when I was promoted to Junior Programmer at National Research Corporation in Lincoln, NE. They had the typical company calendar at NRC that was printed and distributed every month.  But the most iportant task I remember being on the calendar was which department was responsible to go on the beer run for Beer:30 on Fridays.

At the time, this was a 15 year old company with 100+ associates yet they had never missed a Beer:30 in the history of the company.

I accredit much of my thought on how a business should be ran (flat structure, no HR department, reward new ideas and hard work) to National Research Corporation and Mike Hays.

Open door and camaraderie

My second job was when I couldn’t take the commute to Lincoln any more and found another market research company in Omaha, Customer Service Profiles.  When I started, of the 20 employees, the only other guy was the co-owner and salesman, Sandy Friedman.  Because of this, Sandy and I bonded and I really appreciated the approachability of a company owner.  CSP was very good at putting on company events, whether that was a picnic outside, potlucks, etc. it helped bring the employees together.

Client-Partners

Then I went into consulting – staff augmentation actually.  Staff aug can be pleasant or horrible or somewhere in between.  You can be set up at a folding table with rough edges to rest your for arms on while you sit on a metal folding chair and work on archaic technology.  Luckily, I was placed at IntegriGuard for 3 years and they treated me like an employee.  I even received “employee of the month” while I was there.  Working with the folks at IntegriGuard, made me understand the difference between being treated like a vendor and working together as a partner.

Presentation, polish and good coffee

Lastly, before starting Volano, I had a quick stint at MSI.  MSI made me understand the importance of polish.  At MSI, people dressed nice.  It was a sales-driven organization.  It had good coffee always available.  They knew the importance of presentation.

With each of these companies, there were also things I learned not to do, but I’ll save those for another post.

That’s how the Volano culture came to be – at least a large part of how.  

Our culture

We work hard and we very much like to have our fun.  There’s no HR department at Volano.  We play darts and drink on Friday afternoons.  We play our jukebox.  We reward people for thinking of better ways of doing things.  We eat lunch, go to movies and go to the bar together.  Our clients are our partners – that’s not just something we say.  We work to the best of our ability for each and every client-partner we have.  We can effectively communicate with the client and present ourselves in a professional manner from the C-level executives to the entry level staff.

That is Volano.

The Employees You Want

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There are two types of people in the world: those who take responsibility and those who shun it.

I have always had a problem with those who shun responsibility – especially in the workplace.
They are the people who place office politics and covering their ass over being productive.
Not the kind of employees I want on my team.

The employees you want are the ones who take responsibility – who actually thrive on being accountable for the work they do.
They are the curve-busters. They upset the others who are happy with just getting by.

Don’t waste your time on the people who will dodge responsibility every chance they can – instead, you must foster an environment that is built upon accountability. This kind of company culture will attract and retain the people you want in your organization.

Our company values are:

  • Learn Constantly
  • Perform to Completion
  • Take Pride in Our Work
  • Adapt Easily
  • Be Fun

The two to highlight here are Complete and Pride. Without taking on responsibility, you will probably not perform to completion and the result of your work will not be something you can look at with pride.

The people who will be your biggest producers want to know what they are responsible and accountable for when they walk into work everyday. The extremists even want to know what else is within their reach so they can tackle that as well!

This is the whole philosophy behind the work queues that are on your home page when you log into Steelwool. As soon as you sign in, you see what work has been directly assigned to you as well as everything that is the responsibility of your team. When you have completed your work you move it along to the next step, go back to your home page and see what your next priority is.

Simply, you give the best employees in your office the tools and environment to thrive.

EAS Impact Summit

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Volano had the opportunity to participate in Gallup’s EAS program this year and I had the privilege to talk yesterday at the EAS Impact Summit.  Here’s the five minute speech I gave.

I met our guide, Sandy Friedman, in 1999 when I went to work for his company at the time Customer Service Profiles.  I was director of IT and needed to hire a programmer.  This was when I first came to the conclusion that attitude and aptitude matter more than what can fill up a résumé.

My hire was selling banking hardware and software at the time – coin counters and the like.  He had no real experience writing code.  But I hired him on his attitude and aptitude and he turned out to be one of the best programmers I’ve worked with and he’s my business partner, Rod Smith.

Rod and I started Volano five years ago because we love building software.  Since then we have carved out our niche of being experts in managing work.  Whether it’s through our product, Steelwool, or if we custom tailor software specifically for you, we help businesses – especially those dynamic companies in the small to medium markets – manage their workflow.  But we’re not just interested in building software, we want to build a real company, one that we hope will be our legacy.

With Volano, we’re not looking for an early exit strategy, our only exit strategy involves the life insurance policies Rod and I have on each other.  No we’re looking to make Volano our legacy and as a business owner, EAS has helped us in this endevour to take the time to work on the business instead of heads-down in the business.  At the beginning of this year we declared it to be a building year and since then we have launched our product, changed our marketing and sales strategies and participated in the EAS program from which we implemented many of the take-aways.  When we started Volano we didn’t have a business plan much less a vision or mission statement – those things seemed trivial to us.  Our employees are a true personification of Volano because we’ve always hired based on strengths and cultural fit – that ATTITUDE AND APTITUDE.  But to stay on the same page as an organization, we learned you still need to ensure your vision, mission and ethics are well communicated – and having those things written down is pretty important.

One of the keys to our success is that each of our employees works directly with the client.  They are empowered to do what it takes to exceed that client’s expectations.  They are expected to over-communicate with our clients.  And this is how we have differentiated ourselves from day one.  Hiring the right person isn’t easy – we’re trying to find computer nerds who can over-communicate, right?  But because we take the time to hire, we see 85% of our clients ask us to help with additional projects after the initial work we do.  That’s because our employees are engaged and love what they do and the customer feels that.  This is something the EAS program preaches.

As our guide Sandy, has long said, “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.”  EAS gave us the tools to measure and see our hard work and thought we’ve put in for the past five years in concrete results.  This is the single biggest benefit the EAS program has had on us because once we saw the results of each survey tool, we got a big shot of confidence.  Confidence is a game changer.  That confidence brought us to closing three contracts in the last couple months that all surpass any other in our 5 year history.

This year, though it was a building year, we still saw sales increase over last year – a 5 year winning streak now.  We saw sales last month 42% higher than the start of the year and in direct correlation, we have increased our staff 43% since the start of the year and are still looking for another employee with the right attitude and aptitude to join our team.  I can tie those increases back to the confidence boost we received by going through EAS.

To conclude, on behalf of Rod and myself, I would just like to give our sincere gratitude to our guide Sandy for introducing us to the program and for mentoring us all these years and to Governor Hineman, dept of economic development, university of nebraska, Jim Clifton, Todd Johnson and everyone else that make the EAS program a reality and feasible for companies like ours to participate.

Thank you.

The Developer’s Code

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I was talking to one of our consultants, Harry Berman, about coding the other day and he threw out something that I really dug:

You should treat code the same as Boy Scout’s with the Outdoors – leave it better than you found it.

So, being the Eagle Scout that I am, I went ahead and modified the Boy Scout Outdoor Code to be applicable for developers. I like how it turned out.

As a Developer, I will do my best to –

  • Be clean in my coding manners.
  • I will treat the code as my own, even if I didn’t create it.
    I will take care of it for myself and others.
    I will keep my bugs out of production releases.

  • Be careful with releases.
  • I will prevent regression bugs.
    I will release to production only when appropriate.
    When I have finished a release, I will make sure the source has been appropriately labeled/tagged.
    I will leave a clean environment and remove all evidence of temp files.

  • Be considerate in the code.
  • I will treat other’s code with respect.
    I will use low-impact methods of refactoring.

and

  • Be architecture minded.
  • I will learn how to practice good architecture by not over-architecting the solution.

Hiring a Team

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Something that really frustrates me is when I run into projects that give custom software a bad name. This could be because of budget, timeline, quality – or most likely a combination of the three. There are plenty of bad custom software development companies out there, but it seems the culprit is usually an independent contractor at fault or more likely, a moonlighter. There is an inherent problem with the solo effort either way – there can be only one. If they run into a problem, they only have themselves to turn to. Today a problem arose. Derek and I collaborated on a solution, Shane installed IIS on a box, Brandon helped configure IIS, Derek coded and I was there to assist. Together, we were able to have a viable fix in place in two hours. It’s times like these when I’m proud of the company we’ve built.