I was speaking with a contractor recently and the discussion turned to training and education. He was talking about his desire to keep up with the latest business and technical training available, and how important it is to keep up to date on the latest innovations that will keep his company healthy and profitable.

He mentioned how he would like to learn as much as possible, but the thought of attending an out-of-town seminar or training program had him worried.

He was concerned that too many things could go wrong in his brief absence. He's not alone in that thinking. A lot of contractors - big and small - share that same fear.

It isn't the mentality that "while the cat's away the mice will play." Far from it. It's simply the fear that something may happen that would require a decision from the owner on the spot.

It's great to think that in the age of rapid communication we could instant message someone via cell phone or Internet and solve the problem. But too many important decisions require an owner's physical presence.

This contractor, who owned a small residential service company, said that before he considers taking any future out-of-town trips, he will have to make a list of the potential fires that may need to be put out - ones he won't be around to extinguish.

He ventured that such a list might be daunting on short notice, so he would have to get started on it right away.

At this point a light bulb clicked on over my head. Why not make a "potential fires checklist" before planning a trip?

Many of the basic items would be the same no matter what the occasion, and specific items could be added or updated periodically.

Making A List

It's not a revolutionary idea. Many business owners have similar emergency plans in place. It's not that different from leaving a list with the babysitter with the name and phone number of the doctor, the closest medical facility, the next-door neighbor, and nearby relatives, as well as how many minutes to microwave the popcorn, etc.

If you don't have such a plan in place, stop for a minute to consider all of the things that have gone wrong in the past, whether you were there to handle them or not. With those pleasant memories in mind, let's see what types of fires might need extinguishing.

Probably the biggest problems to worry about involve health and safety issues.

What if an employee is hurt on the job or causes an accident that injures someone else, including your customer?

You never want this to happen, but you have to face the possibility that it can. These things happen.

Does everyone know what to do in the event of an emergency?

Do employees know who is responsible for contacting the appropriate people, such as a doctor, hospital, and/or insurance agent?

Have employees been briefed on how to handle the media, in case inquisitive reporters call wanting to know, say, why your service tech caused a 10-car pileup on the freeway?

Is there a procedure for determining the priorities for service calls?

What if the computer crashes? Are there tech support people who can be reached in the event of an emergency?

What if a customer has a problem that only you can solve, but you aren't available? Can customers or employees contact you when you are away?

Is there a chain of command at your business that designates a person to speak for the company in your absence?

Make up a list - and check it twice. And let me know what's on your list.

John R. Hall is business management editor. He can be reached at 248-244-1294, 248-786-1390 (fax), or johnhall@achrnews.com.

Publication date: 12/13/2004