Killer viruses: Not in your computer, in your business

By William Lynott

We all know how devastating a computer virus can be, but not everyone is aware of the destructive viruses that can infect a business. Unlike computer viruses, these profit killers aren’t transmitted through cyberspace; they grow and fester within the infected business strictly from internal causes.

Here are six of the most common business viruses along with the antidotes needed to keep a distributorship infection-free:

1.Telephone sickness. The telephone can be a powerful business builder or a destructive business killer. Every time a customer or prospect dials your number, it’s a request for information, help, or even the placing of an order by a new customer. Any failure to deliver skillfully on these needs indicates the presence of the telephone sickness virus.

Inoculate your business against telephone sickness by training everyone in your organization to understand the importance of one of your most powerful business tools—the telephone—and the urgent need for treating every caller with courtesy and respect.

In particular, make sure that your telephone is always answered promptly. Never allow it to ring more than three or four times, and make sure that everyone identifies him- or herself by name in a cheery voice. 

Also, never leave a customer on hold for more than a few moments; doing so is one of the surest signs of telephone sickness.

Finally, always call the customer back as promised. Never put a customer or prospect in the position to be waiting for a call that never comes.

2. The invisible low-performer. Even one slacker in a business is an internal virus that can eat away at productivity, profits, and employee morale.

Dealing with an underperforming employee is a challenging task for most managers, but failing to face up to the problem makes a bad situation even worse. It can result in added stress on other employees who may have to take up the slack—and resentment among those who can’t understand why the offender is allowed to continue on.

The cure? Let top performing employees know how much their work is valued and that slackers won’t be tolerated.

3. The tardy invoice. Neglected accounts receivables can be devastating to cash flow, making it essential to not allow receivables to go untended.

Slay the tardy invoice virus by setting up a foolproof system for promptly sending out the invoice for every order and by following through relentlessly on every late payment. If customers learn that you are cavalier about money owed to you, you can be certain they will stretch your patience (and your cash flow) to the limit.

4. The faultless manager. The faultless manager virus would have you believe that it’s always someone else’s fault when things go wrong. This is a common virus among business owners and managers and it eats away at business success in several ways.

Former President Harry S. Truman eliminated the faultless manager virus from his presidency when he coined the phrase, “The buck stops here.” By acknowledging his willingness to shoulder the blame when things go wrong, Truman put his subordinates and constituents on notice that he wasn’t a finger pointer.

If your employees and associates feel that you’re never willing to shoulder even part of the blame for business miscues, they’ll withdraw from the kinds of decision-making and innovative thinking that could make your life easier and your business more successful.

Inoculate yourself from the faultless manager virus by being willing to shoulder the blame instead of pointing an accusing finger. Consider the possibility that your instructions weren’t clear or that the involved employee made what appeared to be a reasonably good decision at the time. Once in a while, accept the blame even when you know you weren’t at fault—that’s a sure way to ban the destructive faultless manager from your business culture.

5. The invisible employee. In the course of your demanding schedule, it’s all too easy to fall into a pattern of superficial contacts with employees. Consider this actual exchange overheard between a business owner and an employee passing in a hallway: 

 Employee: “Good morning, Mr. Smith; looks like we’re going to have a nice day.” 

Boss: “Fine, thank you. And how are you?”

That sort of disconnect between an employee and a busy manager is all too common today and a sure sign of the presence of the invisible employee virus. This virus preys on the susceptibility of many workers at all levels of the workplace hierarchy who are starving for individual recognition and the essential dignity that goes along with it. Failing to supply it provides a perfect setting for the loss of initiative, lowered work ethic, and destructive depression on the part of the offended employees. 

Fortunately, banning the invisible employee virus is easy even for the busiest executive. One of the simplest and most effective ways to develop and demonstrate sincere interest in your employees is to take the time to find out something about each one, including simple things like the names of spouses and children or hobbies and special interests, and then following through from time to time with questions that show you are genuinely interested.

6. The foggy instruction. Do you think that the direction and instructions you give to subordinates are always crystal clear? If you think so, there’s a good chance that you’re wrong. The ability to communicate with precision doesn’t come naturally to most of us, regardless of the extent of our education and business experience.

Industrial psychologists studying the effectiveness of communications among humans uncovered an astonishing weakness in this vital area of our lives. Much of the problem, they say, is the result of a limited vocabulary and the way many of us choose our words.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by the failure of a colleague to follow your instructions or carry out a project the way you intended, it’s quite possible that the fault was your own—that you failed to make your instructions unmistakably clear. Too often, we assume that everyone will, or should, understand everything we say or write; this situation provides a happy breeding ground for the foggy instruction virus.

Of particular concern these days is the communication of information or instructions by way of email, a tricky and especially difficult medium for any but the simplest of messages. Arguably, there is no other communication medium as susceptible to misunderstanding as the hastily composed email.

Trying to pinpoint the blame for specific incidents of miscommunication probably isn’t worth the effort. Still, there is little room for doubt that the heaviest share of responsibility for effective and profitable business communication rests with the person assigning the task, not the person on the receiving end.

Some years ago, a detailed study on business owners and managers revealed that a broad vocabulary was the most common seen characteristic in successful executives.

That’s not surprising when you consider that words are often the only tools we have for communicating our thoughts to others. Because a manager must get things done largely through the efforts of others, the ability to express thoughts with clarity and precision is an obvious necessity.

Of course, since words are necessary in the formation of our thoughts, an expanded vocabulary will improve the quality of our thinking. However, they say you should not take the job of building a powerful vocabulary to mean the relentless addition of exotic words just for the sake of sheer numbers—quite to the contrary. The most appropriate word will seldom be the longest or most obscure one. The possessor of an unnecessarily large vocabulary runs the constant risk of being misunderstood.

The trick is to master enough words to allow clear expression of your thoughts without resorting to the use of words that are beyond the understanding of all but college professors.

To be sure, effective communications can be an elusive target. But managers who make a sincere effort to improve their skill in expressing themselves and their ability to understand others will gain an important advantage on the road to business success by inoculating themselves against the foggy instruction virus.

Banning these six killer viruses from your distributorship won’t be a magic bullet to cure all of your business ills, but it will be a big help in your efforts to build further on your existing business success.

Lynott is a veteran freelance writer who specializes in business management and personal and business finance. Reach him at or

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