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Smart Business Essentials

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Practical Business Skills

Tactical Planning

When faced with a challenge, business owners can approach the situation in various ways. Making a quick decision is sometimes necessary. However, if you have the time, creating a tactical plan and carefully thinking through your next steps is often a better approach.

A tactical plan is a written outline of the specific actions you’re going to take to address a problem or achieve a goal. It could list the tasks that you’ll do yourself, and the tasks you’ll assign to employees. Ideally, you can set a goal, identify strategies for how you could achieve the goal and then create a tactical plan to implement those strategies.

When to create a tactical plan

Generally, business owners will create and use a tactical plan to address a short-term goal that they want to reach within a year or less. However, completing the tactical plan should also help the business achieve its medium- or long-term goals.

It can be helpful to start by creating SMART goals for your short-, medium- and long-term business objectives. SMART goals meet the following criteria:

  • Specific goals inspire. Set a clear goal that has specific outcomes.
  • Measurable goals can be achieved, and you’ll know when you reach the goal. Measurable goals can also be tracked along the way.
  • Attainable goals can be reached. While you may want to build a business empire, start by setting goals that you can realistically achieve.
  • Relevant goals make sense for your business. They’ll help you achieve other goals at the same time.
  • Time-bound goals have a deadline. Setting a time frame could help you stay motivated and focused.

For example, you may have a long-term goal of opening a second business location within the next five years.

There are multiple steps involved with reaching your five-year goal, such as increasing your profits, building your savings and finding the best location for the second store. You can create SMART goals and tactical plans for each of these steps.

Start with the first step, increasing business profits, which is too broad to be a SMART goal. Instead, you could set a goal of doubling your business’s profit within one year. It’s specific, you can measure how much money you make, it may be attainable, it’s relevant to saving up money for the second location and you have a one-year time frame.

You can then identify different ways your business could make more money and create a tactical plan to turn those options into actions.

SWOT analysis — a helpful planning tool

Tactical plans are all about action, but how do you know what actions to take? A SWOT analysis could help you identify different strategies, which you can then compare to figure out what to do next.

A SWOT analysis identifies:

  • STRENGTHS that your business has, which help it stand out from the competition.
  • WEAKNESSES within your business that could make it difficult to achieve your goal.
  • OPPORTUNITIES that are outside of your business that could help you, or that you can use to achieve your goal.
  • THREATS that are external to your business and could impact your progress.

The strengths and weaknesses are internal factors that are directly related to your business. You affect your strengths or weaknesses by taking action.

The opportunities and threats tend to be external factors. Even though you still have to plan for them and deal with their effects, they could be more difficult to influence.

You can use a table like the one below to list each of these elements. Sometimes, asking questions such as the ones listed in the table can help you identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Here are some examples:

  • What does your business already do well?
  • Which products or services are most profitable?
  • Do you offer any unique products or services?
  • Why do your best customers continue buying from you?
  • How do new customers find you?
  • Do you have good relationships with your suppliers?
  • Why do customers stop buying from your business?
  • Why don’t customers come into the store?
  • What types of complaints do you receive?
  • Do you have trouble repaying your debts?
  • Do you have trouble finding or keeping suppliers?
  • Have you had to turn down work due to a lack of money or employees?
  • Have you identified potential ways to make more money from current customers or attract new customers, but haven’t acted yet?
  • Are there any nearby areas with lots of potential customers and no competing businesses?
  • How are customers’ preferences changing and how could your business take advantage of those changes?
  • Do you compete with a large company that could open a location near yours?
  • Do competitors offer a similar product or service at a lower price?
  • Is the demand for what you sell decreasing?
  • Could a change in the law impact your business?

If you’re looking for more prompts, there’s a checklist from SCORE, a nonprofit, small business mentoring organization, with 48 questions that you could ask yourself. You could also do a SWOT analysis as a team, asking each of your business partners or employees to fill in the matrix and then compare their results.

The SWOT analysis can help you learn more about your business, your competitors and the environment, but it won’t tell you exactly how to reach your goal. Next, use your SWOT analysis to identify a few strategies based on your analysis.

The strategies can focus on how the internal factors (strengths and weaknesses) could help address the external factors (opportunities and threats):

  • Strengths and Opportunities (SO): Which strengths could help you maximize an opportunity’s potential?
  • Strengths and Threats (ST): Which strengths could help you avoid or overcome threats?
  • Weaknesses and Opportunities (WO): Can an opportunity help you address one of your weaknesses?
  • Weaknesses and Threats (WT): Which threats could you avoid by addressing one of your weaknesses?

You could also use a table to organize and write down your answers:

Opportunities SO WO
Threats ST WT

Step-by-step: using a SWOT analysis to create a tactical plan

Some business owners make a practice of doing a SWOT analysis of their entire business every few years. If you compare the results, you may notice trends or find new ways to grow your business.

You can also use a SWOT analysis to address a specific problem or goal, which is how it relates to a tactical plan.

Let’s conduct a SWOT analysis using a SMART goal example: doubling a business’s profits within one year.

Imagine the business is a small restaurant in a medium-sized city. It’s primarily a lunch destination for the many office workers in the area, although the restaurant also serves dinner. It’s already been open for a year and has some regular customers, but the owner isn’t sure what to do to increase profits.

Here are the results of her SWOT analysis:

  • There’s a regular crowd at lunch.
  • Customers give the food good reviews and especially like one of the hot sauces.
  • We sell out of a few dishes almost every day.
  • The employees like working here.
  • We have a good location near local businesses that support us.
  • There are no social media pages or website.
  • Some customers complain about slow or rude service.
  • We don’t know exactly how much money we’re making or spending each day.
  • We’re making a profit, but not enough to build our savings.
  • Find ways to serve more customers during lunch.
  • Offer after-work deals to attract customers during the otherwise slow period.
  • Sell merchandise, such as T-shirts or bottled hot sauce.
  • Start keeping detailed records of our sales and expenses.
  • Create an online presence.
  • Improve employee training.
  • A competing restaurant could open and take our customers.
  • If one of the nearby offices closes, we won’t have as many potential customers.
  • Our suppliers could increase prices.
  • The landlord could increase the rent.
  • Negative reviews could keep new customers from visiting our restaurant.

Next, she reviews the results to come up with several strategies:

Strengths and Opportunities (SO): We could create an after-work deal menu that’s different than the lunch menu to help get our regular customers to return later in the day. We should make sure the staff is trained to remind lunch customers about the deals.

We could also offer catering directly to the nearby companies, which will increase our lunch sales and introduce our food to more office workers in the area. The catering could be a second source of income. Then, if we can bottle and sell the hot sauce, which is already popular, that could be a third way to make money.

Additionally, building a website and social media presence could help us advertise our deals, catering and hot sauce.

Strengths and Threats (ST): We could start a rewards program that allows customers to get a free meal after 10 purchases. The program could help us keep our regular customers even if a competitor opens a restaurant nearby.

Since we’re selling out of a few items every day, we should try to figure out how many more ingredients we should order — a recordkeeping system could help. Maybe we can use our larger order to negotiate lower prices with our suppliers.

Weaknesses and Opportunities (WO): The after-work specials opportunity could increase our sales and allow us to hire additional staff, which could help address the negative reviews about slow service. However, we also need to focus on the staff’s initial training to address the complaints about rude service.

Using a recordkeeping system could help us track exactly how many ingredients we’re ordering and what food and drinks we’re selling. Knowing this information could help us plan future orders from suppliers, making sure we always have enough ingredients — particularly for the most popular items on the menu — and keeping excess ingredients from going bad. This could help us save money, which we can then put into savings.

Weaknesses and Threats (WT): Improving our overall reviews will limit the threat from competitors because we’ll grow our regular customer base.

Building our recordkeeping system and savings could also help us negotiate with suppliers, helping us compare suppliers and ask for better deals. If we can save enough money, we may be able to buy our store, which will help us avoid the threat of the landlord increasing the rent.

The business owner now has a list of strategies and actions she could take to improve her business and sales. They’re all based on the business’s current strengths and weaknesses, and the surrounding opportunities and threats.

A tactical plan will turn the strategies into actions. The plan could list the different projects based on how much they will help you reach your goal, and assign responsibilities for each project.

The restaurant owner may take on some of the work herself and start reaching out to local businesses to ask if they’re interested in catering. She could also assign some of the work, perhaps by asking one of her tech-savvy employees to start researching recordkeeping options, and asking one of the most well-liked servers to prepare a training presentation for the other servers.

Growing your business with tactical plans

Setting SMART goals and identifying strategies or opportunities can be important parts of growing a business. However, you need to turn your ideas into actions if you want to achieve your goals.

A tactical plan builds on your knowledge and research to let you make educated decisions about your business. With a tactical plan to review, you’ll know which tasks you can assign to your employees and what you need to do to reach your goals.

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