We are a small (currently 5 employees) e-commerce company that sells widgets from our website. We are poised for growth, and have been for some time, but there's something major holding us back-- aside from a couple of core people that have been here since the company's inception, there is a high turnaround rate for new employees. We actually had to throttle our incoming orders (cut down on advertising, stopped sending e-newsletters, etc.) because we can't keep enough customer service people to handle the number of orders that we COULD be getting. We desperately need to hire more customer service reps, but the issue we keep running into is this: We have certain ways of doing things here, ways that have generally proven to be quicker and/or more efficient and/or less expensive (and there's a reason behind every one-- they're not arbitrary), but there are a LOT of such rules, and it's nearly impossible to train a newcomer on the litany of things they're expected to follow for every procedure. "You can drop-ship this order, but only if it's before 3PM, and only if the customer didn't choose expedited shipping, and only if the order is between $30 and $100 dollars, but if they DID choose expedited shipping, or if the order is over $100, then..." and so on.

As the lead (only) web developer here, I've been trying to handle as many of these little rules as I can, programmatically. That is, in our store's backend, I code things so that certain buttons or functions are shown/hidden or enabled/disabled based on whether or not they apply to that order or situation... I'm trying to make it as easy as possible for the people who need to use the backend to process orders and help customers, but it's still not enough. New employees inevitably end up making mistakes because they didn't know (and had no reason to know until it comes up) that orders for blue widgets shipping to Ohio on a Wednesday get a different kind of mailing label... and so on.

This "system" would work just fine if the manager was the only employee, or if the company was staffed entirely by robot clones of the manager, but unfortunately we're operating in real life and we need to come up with some kind of actual onboarding and training process for new employees so that they don't need to run their every action past the manager, because at this point it's like a bottleneck. Orders, returns, and things get backed up because they need the manager's attention, and he's got 10,000 things on his plate at all times. Objectively, he's right about each of the reasons behind why we do things the way we do, but in the bigger picture, it's holding us back.

Is this a common scenario? I recognize that we need to take some huge steps toward standardizing our procedures, but I have no idea where to begin.

  • 1
    Who is causing the new employees to leave? Are they being fired for not being able to perform as expected or is the system so complex they are quitting out of frustration?
    – JasonJ
    Jun 28, 2016 at 21:00
  • Is your manager the owner of the company? Jun 28, 2016 at 21:14
  • What about some implementation of a rules engine?
    – SJuan76
    Jun 28, 2016 at 21:26
  • 2
    "I code things so that certain buttons or functions are shown/hidden or enabled/disabled based on ..." - it might be helpful to include messages to the operators to assist them in learning why something is disabled, e.g. "This order cannot be drop-shipped. An order which has expedited shipping can only be drop-shipped before 3:00 PM. Please see rule 5a of the company order policy."
    – Brandin
    Jun 29, 2016 at 8:14
  • geoff Money makes the world go around. Tell your Manager that you doing These "Projects" is worth the cost and that it helps expand the Company. Otherwise write a Guideline "outside" of the System and make a "calculator" on what Action to take if you have time for it (should be faster than changing your System). Jun 29, 2016 at 13:32

3 Answers 3


This is not a common scenario in successful businesses, however as @DanPichelman points out it is likely a common failure mode of small businesses. It's pennies smart, dollars stupid.

Your business processes are worthless if you can't effectively train for them. Your staff will eventually give clients the wrong information and the pennies you save by having all of those custom rules will be lost for dollars when that client doesn't buy from you again. If your business is growing too large for an entrenched genius to do customer service then you need to simplify your processes to the point that they are usable for the average person you can hire for that role.

To convince management that these processes are not in the best interest of the company use the employees that didn't work out as case studies.

"Adam failed to follow this exception in the shipping rules and just treated a mauve widget like a common widget. Had he followed the mauve widget directive we would have saved $1.03 in shipping and processing. Fall out from this failure led to Adam quitting, leading to us needing to rehire and retrain at a cost of $3,287. If we were to simplify the processes for mauve, pink, and purple widgets we could reduce our hiring/training costs by a third with a break even point at three years of employee retention."

If you come at this with a strong case of "complexity leads to cost in these ways" most people will take a step back and evaluate.

  • 3
    This may be a common scenario - I suspect a lot of small businesses fail because the owner spends too much time working in the business (i.e., doing the work) vs. spending the time on the business (training others so the business can scale) Jun 28, 2016 at 21:28
  • 1
    @DanPichelman I was thinking not common in that most successful businesses don't do this but I suppose a very common mode of failure for young businesses.
    – Myles
    Jun 28, 2016 at 21:30
  • @Chad Answered the question at the end, ignored the one in the title. Editing for that.
    – Myles
    Jun 28, 2016 at 21:42
  • @DanPichelman, excellent comment, getting right to the heart of it. The key, that you pointed out, is setting up a foundation so the business can scale.
    – geoff
    Jun 29, 2016 at 13:45
  • 1
    @geoff To go-hand in hand with the excellent numbers argument I added an answer that speaks from Fortune 100 contact center experience and focuses more on where to begin on the training and standardizing side of things. If the manager pushes back on dropping the complexity or asks for the proposal to focus also on the soft-skills part of on-boarding, it may help.
    – newcoder
    Jul 3, 2016 at 19:21

This is not uncommon in any business. Some of the problems are just more hidden than others. There are whole disciplines of project management around solving these problems. One that probably applies here the most is Six Sigma or Lean. Though you dont not need to go through all the training to implement some changes.

  1. Document your process
    Create a flow chart, figure out the time and dollar costs of each step

  2. Determine the cost of the process
    Create a calculator app or spreadsheet to calculate the costs of each path. Include the costs of failures you are experiencing, and the limits of your production due to the process.

  3. Improve the process(Stream line)
    Brainstorm some ideas that would be the best way to stream line. You can also just pick off a small chunk. and just improve that part.

  4. Determine the cost of the new process
    Remember to include increases to production capacity that the new process allows. The new process may have a higher cost than the old process but the streamlining may allow the company to recoup the costs through increased capacity.

  5. Show management benefits of new process

  6. Implement new process

  7. Repeat with additional improvements


tl;dr Changes need to be made for your company to grow and succeed. You must create an environment which sets new employees up for success while also putting the company in a strategic position. Lowering standards shouldn't be the go-to answer when a company wants to compete.

Being pennies-smart, dollars-stupid is a great way to fail. However, you have to face the fact that the complexity itself isn't the issue, as business is complex. The issue is how the company and its employees face and understand that complexity. Whether or not you do away with the small savings complexity now, you need a framework that scales with growth.

To expand upon Chad's answer, these problems are more common than you think. Management will need to examine the cost/benefit tradeoff of doing things as you are now, vs streamlining as the title suggests by automating a rules engine, simply backing off of the complexity, or some combination. I can't speak from experience on the small business side of things, so my answer will focus on my experience of transitioning from being a new widget support employee to knowing how to rely on (and when not to rely on) a rules engine, then training and coaching the newest hires at a very large, established organization.

At my current company, our widgets are financial products and services. This means the call center new hires do everything from drop shipping payment cards to identifying and responding to possible identity theft. Of course, the industry is also heavily regulated, with steep penalties for not meeting certain deliverables, which I'm sure weighs heavily on favor of keeping the nuanced procedures.

Do your employees have an up-to date, well developed knowledge base to consult? Is it user-friendly? Does it enable your employees to become subject matter experts without requiring expertise at first use?

If I'm drop shipping a blue widget to Ohio on a Wednesday and am going to do so accurately within handle time targets, I'd like to consult the "Ship a Widget" knowledge base, reach a decision branch, open the alternate shipping label generator, and complete. However, I'd much rather type the shipping address and have the system automatically recognize that today is Wednesday and for Ohio it needs to print label type B, with an onscreen notice to me to set the customer's expectation to expect company B within (system call to current shipping contract handle time) days. In the latter case, I'd like to be able to click into the knowledge base and read the approved disclosure to provide if the customer asks why she's not getting her widget via company A like Aunt Irma in Michigan did.

The least ideal situation is to expect your employees to efficiently and accurately do all of this from memory, calling back to what they learned in training months and (if you up those retention rates) years ago. Think, too, how any given system will respond if Wisconsin starts getting a different label for mauve widgets on Monday. If the information on this living system is not available in a dynamic way when and how your front line needs it, how will you coach and correct inaccuracies?

Whatever you do, increase the company's responsiveness while freeing up your employees' working memory. The answer may involve allowing people to specialize, either formally by job title (expedited mauve widget order team over $100) or informally by recognizing which front line members currently know the most about mauve widgets and letting it be known (and allowed for in their metrics!) that folks who are unsure about the nuance of a mauve widget can consult Alice and Bob.

The company may currently expect the team to have knowledge spread thinly over too many subjects. This is especially true if some subjects are rare enough that a given agent never really gets the seat time to build mastery. Lets say that split billing of an order, with split shipping, where the splits do not match is one of these subjects. That is to say, $10 on this card, $90 on this card, but $50 of widgets to each of two addresses. Why expect everyone to know how to input this order to your back end systems when you can give them a form which gathers the pertinent details and sends them to Alice. She's a mauve widget rockstar, so why not uptrain her to input such oddball orders and take the load off the rest of the team?

  • Excellent answer! I'd add that having capacity for extra complexity to deal with regulations or customer requests, like your split order example, can make a huge competitive benefit. Having extra complexity in the order processing to save a buck here and a buck there without any customer facing difference is tempting but should be weighed out carefully. Troubleshooting when something goes wrong with the shipping process can be tough if it is a well know, linear process let alone if we have 53 different processes arrived at through a decision tree.
    – Myles
    Jul 4, 2016 at 15:28
  • Very well-put distinction. I shudder at the thought of troubleshooting some of the more obscure processes.
    – newcoder
    Jul 4, 2016 at 18:06

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