* This article was originally posted on Forbes.com *
If you’re not gearing up to plot out your year by the time the confetti falls on New Year’s Eve, you’re already behind. There are five essential steps every business should be taking to ensure they are set up to tackle their goals.
The holiday season is typically the most intense part of the year for a business, particularly those in the retail sector. Don’t underestimate the value of decompressing after this time. Go beyond a general overview, and analyze each element of your peak season.
People are often quick to look at vanity metrics and simple sales figures, but you need to dig deeper. Sit and talk with your customer care team and figure out what the rush was like for them. Examine the emails you received from your customers. Analyze the comments on social media, and discover what kind of hashtags people used when posting about your brand. Study what was done and said so that you have a full picture of how things went from top to bottom.
Once you’ve mined your records for all this information, it’s time to put the data to work.
When I was working in e-commerce, I would put together a pro forma plan for the following year’s peak season based on what we learned from the one we just completed. We would document that in excruciating detail in January. We would then sit down and ask ourselves, “If we had to do this again today, what would we do differently? What have we learned from what just happened?”
It might feel strange to plan for a season that’s more than nine months away, but it’s absolutely vital. It’s common knowledge that time dulls the memory, but it can also alter it. In the immediate aftermath of your busy season, things may feel raw, but your memory of them will be acute. Don’t let selective memory hamper your planning.
3. Quarterly Checkpoints
Now that you’ve gone through the motions of laying out your ideal peak season, focus on making sure that all of your annual strategic planning, objectives and desired key results align with that endpoint.
The main consideration here is that, in retail, a large percentage of your revenue comes in the last three months of the year. You’re spending the first three quarters of the year ramping up for that one big peak, so don’t wait until October 1 to check in on your goals.
I recommend that you set milestones every quarter to ensure you’re staying on track. Having these checkpoints throughout the year will help you to pivot more fluidly when necessary. The focus here isn’t a “completion” of any sort. This isn’t a pass or fail. It’s just a way to see where the reality of business lands you 25%, 50% or 75% into the year and what adjustments you need to make. The methodology is up to you — objectives and key results (OKRs) and key performance indicators (KPIs) are both good options — but the important thing is that you’re taking the time to do it.
4. Peer Listening
Many of the major e-commerce industry trade shows take place in the first quarter of the year. While it’s easy to get caught up in all the cool, new, sexy things available at these trade shows, I recommend that you take this time to communicate with your peers about what did and didn’t work for them last year. It can give you a fresh layer of consumer insight into the market.
For instance, say returns were through the roof for you last year, but you talk with your peers and discover that returns were steady, or even down, for them. You now know this was isolated to your company and not market-driven. These are opportunities to discover what you did differently that may have contributed to your high return rate. Kernels of knowledge like this can inform your plan in the coming year.
How can you better handle returns? Minimize return costs? Put an experience in place that mitigates returns? Increase your overall sales to help make up for the increase in returns? Afford to offer free returns? Peer listening opens up a host of potential paths and conversations.
When you listen to this chatter and investigate these patterns at the start of the year, you can more easily adjust course. No company is an island, and you can’t operate in a vacuum, so take this opportunity and lean on your peers to keep a constant pulse on the market.
5. Internal Evangelism
Up to this point, marketing and customer operations are probably the only departments getting into the nitty-gritty of next year’s work. But it’s all for naught if you don’t get everyone on board. Everyone in your business should feel involved and educated. Remember, each member of your team is affected in some way by your planning, and they deserve to know how the company is doing.
Work from the ground level up, openly sharing the debrief from last year and the plan for the coming year. Sentiment, engagement, morale and buy-in are huge factors in helping everyone operate from a place of confidence. There are always little things every person in your company can do to make the overall customer experience better.
If you arm your team with knowledge, they may figure out a way to improve one or two components of the workflow or strategy. Empower every member of your team to be an active participant, and give them a sense of ownership by including them in the conversation.
This might feel like a lot of effort to put into planning your year, but if you take these steps, you’ll likely be in a better place a year from now. Don’t look back and regret not taking the time to approach planning with nuance and a thorough eye.