Control What You Can Control

A few years ago a friend and I were taking a trip from the US to Lisbon. The day before leaving I happened to check our itinerary and found that one of our flights had been cancelled and the airline’s response was to move us to a flight that would give us a 5-minute connection in Brussels. You did not have to be a genius to realize that was not going to work, so I called the airline to figure out what to do.

As the reservation agent and I looked at options, she recommended an itinerary that would take us right into an incoming storm that had the potential to mess up our connections and leave us stranded at a US airport. When I asked about changing our flights to go through another city, she said that would involve a $150 change fee per person. When I protested, she said “sir, we don’t control the weather.” “No,” I replied, “but you control your response to it.”

There are many aspects of your business that are outside your control. Things such as your clients’ financial resources, new technologies, the cost of materials, and of course the weather, simply are not things you can manage. What you CAN manage, however, is the impact these factors have upon you.

One thing that would help would be to identify the things that are outside your control and figure out how they might impact your business. If they will not have any effect, then ignore them. If, on the other hand, they can cause you problems, then you need to think about how you can deal with them. If you can plan around them in advance so as to minimize their impact on you, that’s great, and if not, then you can focus on how you will respond to them afterwards so they don’t create too many problems for you.

On the front end, once you have identified those things outside your control, you might try to reduce their potential for harm. For instance, if you are doing business with foreign companies, find yourself a bank that does wire transfers in foreign currencies (not every bank does, as I learned years ago when first doing some business overseas) so you do not have to move money between banks at the last minute in order to make or receive a payment. If your employees are traveling to clients in places affected by bad winter weather, consider adding an extra day on the front end of the trip to account for possible delays; the extra night you pay for in a hotel likely outweighs the potential disruption in your business relationship. If you are worried your employees will soak up a bunch of professional education paid for by you and then leave, consider requiring them to commit to staying with the firm for a minimum time after completing the course.

On the back end, try to plan in advance for contingencies, and give your employees some flexibility in how they respond to problems (after all, you cannot plan for everything). Consider that your first goal is to provide your customers what they are expecting, and your next requirement is to minimize your own costs. It helps if you have thought through your potential problems and possible responses, especially for those things that are most common. Try to put policies in place for reacting to the most likely scenarios. Since you cannot think of everything, though, you need to make sure you and your team have the tools (technology, financial flexibility, etc) to respond based on what your experience tells you is best.

In the end, my friend and I made it to Lisbon, and we had a great time (I highly recommend visiting!). After that experience, though, I avoided that airline. There are many things in this world you cannot control, but there are even more things that you can, and if you do not control them, your customers are likely to go find someone else who will.

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