Problems in your business? Why don't you just ask your staff ?

In 2014 I did just that, and this is what happened…

Back in 2013 we were just coming out of the biggest worldwide recession of my life time. Things were going well at ATG, but I wasn’t enjoying myself anymore. Yes, we were making money, but something was missing and I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

I had been running ATG successfully for over 25 years. When I say successfully, I really mean profitably, as at that time that’s how I defined success - it was, back then, all about the money for me.


I was at my accountants one day and, although I can’t remember the exact conversation, I was probably moaning about my staff - like a lot of other small business owners also always seem to be doing. “I wouldn’t have any problems if I didn’t have staff” was the usual, off-the-cuff comment when asked how things were. At this stage of my development I never blamed myself for my companies’ issues. It was always the staff who were causing me lost sleep and giving me all these issues and, to be honest, I was getting tired the daily battle.

There must have been a pause in the conversation, and I clearly recall my accountant saying, “Have you asked them what they think?”


He continued, “Why don’t you ask your staff what they think about ATG and how they would improve things if they were given the chance?”. I walked out a little stunned to be honest, “ASK THE STAFF?” I’m the boss, why would I need to ask them?!

So being a business owner for over 25 years, my visionary profile doesn’t really let the grass grow under an idea, so as soon as I got back to work I decided that I was going to create a staff survey and send it to all my employees to complete. I was concerned about how honest the feedback would be, as in my experience employees were never totally honest around the boss. After all I paid their wages, so I was normally the last person to get the honest answer.

This bothered me, and my solution was to offer them a choice. They could complete the survey anonymously so that they could not be linked to their answers, OR, they could stand up and own their honest response and have the chance to win a Marco Pierre White dining experience (complete with taxis so the wine could flow)

I sent out the following 17 questions (see below) with a request that the survey be completed and returned by a specific date – the 31st August 2013.  

1.   Why do you think that customers buy from ATG?

2.   What areas do you think, we as a company excel at?

3.   What ideas do you have for improving the way we work with our customers?

4.   Are there any other areas of the business where you think could be improved?

5.   What do you think of our current ATG support customers?

6.   If you had the authority to change 3 things that would make the business better, what would they be?

7.   Do you know where you want to be in 2 years’ time?

8.   Where do you think ATG’s will be in 2 years’ time?

9.   What do you think the customers think of ATG?

10.  What areas do you think will be big for ATG in the future?

11.  Do you think we should look at having IT application Training in house (showroom)?

12.  Do you understand the direction that ATG is going, do you agree with it?

13.  What one thing, would enable you to do your job better, quicker or give better customer satisfaction or just improve you personally?

14.  We are on the short list for PCR awards best UK IT dealer and NG best MSP in the UK, do you feel that you are working for a great company and if so are you proud? If not, why not?

15.  What could I do better as the owner of ATG?

16.  What could your direct manager do better?

17.  Any other areas I have missed, or you wish to comment on.

At the end of August 2013, I was at a friend’s wedding, on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. Back then I used to check my email all the time, especially while on holiday, as I was out of the business and didn’t really didn’t trust anybody could do their job as well as I could. I was checking my email and reading the survey responses, and I realised I had a problem - I had only received 14 of my 17 staff questionnaires by the deadline!

I was so annoyed that 3 members of staff hadn’t returned their questionnaires, and to be honest it ate me up so much that these 3 staff members, one of whom was the Head of Technical and a senior manager within the business, couldn’t be bothered to follow my instructions and return the survey on time. My annoyance was so great and I allowed it to ruin the last few days of my holiday.

The first thing I did on getting back to the office, was call a meeting with the 3 members of staff who hadn’t returned the questionnaire on time. I entered into the meeting feeling combative, upset that I had been ignored and generally not happy, so I was completely nonplussed when I received their answer as to why they hadn’t me the deadline.

They didn’t want to upset me on my holiday, that’s why they didn’t send it to me for the 31st August.

Well, that hit me link a sledge hammer. I was so shocked that any staff member would consider my feelings ahead of a deadline that I had set, I felt so bad that all I could do was apologise and thank them for thinking of me.

You might ask why their comments would upset me, let me try and explain.

Ok, so I now had 17 fully completed questionnaires back and to say I was shocked by some the answers would be something of an understatement. Yes, there were a lot of positives but as an owner I never really focused on those, at that time I only ever saw the negatives.

When read the 17 questionnaires separately I was really upset and, at first, annoyed, thinking “How the hell could we be making money, providing a quality service and being a good place to work for the last 25 years?”, because, if you read the answers to my questions, you would have thought that we were a terrible company to work for. On first reading I was defiantly regretting that I had listened to my accountant and wishing I hadn’t sent out the questionnaire.

So, a couple of days later I had calmed down and I found that I was grateful that the staff felt that they could answer the questions as honestly as they did. This had surprised me as, being the boss, I often felt that I rarely heard the truth, not to my face anyway. Now obviously I wasn’t proud of the negative answers my staff had given and I realised that I was at a crossroads. I could bury my head in the sand and do nothing, or I could take action. I decided there and then that I was going to stop blaming everybody else and look first to myself. After all, I had asked, and my staff had answered.

I decided to get all 17 questionnaires laid out on a table and start making a list of all of the things that recurred, or linked, or caused concerns. For example, “no real process’s” was on 8 answer sheets, so Process’s went on my list. Job descriptions, slow internet, kitchen untidy, pay structure, training - all went on the list and I ended up with about 20 issues that I needed to be put right.

I then had a meeting with the whole company and thanked them for being so honest with their answers. I apologised to everybody for not realising we had these issues, accepted responsibility for them and I committed to fixing all the items on my list within 6 months.

When the meeting had finished I started with the items that were the easiest to fix first - that way I could see the list reducing but, more importantly, the staff could see that I was also sticking to my word.

So if you are feeling unhappy with how your business is going, like you have lost control or your staff just aren’t stepping up, perhaps your business has changed so much since you started it and maybe you don’t enjoy work anymore, then its really simple: just ask your staff for their opinion. You will be surprised to just how much of a buy in you get once you involve them and they understand that their comments are being taken seriously.

I did, and have come to understand that when my employees are engaged and feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves, they are happier, more productive and invested in the company’s success. I have only looked forward since.

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