How to Write a Highly Effective SOP
Today I’m going to teach you how to write a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)… and not just any SOP. Today, we are going to examine the process that my team and I use to create truly epic SOPs.
But first we are going to talk about Bob and his floundering eCommerce business…
Bob owns an eCommerce business that does $3M a year with a 4% net profit margin.
Bob is frustrated that his revenue has plateaued, his employee turnover is too high, and his profits are too low.
Each day, Bob is involved in virtually every decision. He considers his employees to be a liability and wonders why they don’t just step up to the plate.
Most days, Bob loathes going to work because he knows that is going to be yet another day of putting out fires, dealing with employee drama, managing unhappy customers, and receiving not nearly enough profits to justify all the BS he has to put up with.
For the last two years Bob’s business has been in a rut, his staff is unhappy, and Bob is starting to think about selling his company because he now hates his job.
No matter what Bob tries, nothing changes and he’s ready to throw in the towel.
Sadly, what Bob doesn’t realize is that he is the architect of this entire mess.
What is Bob Missing?
The reason that Bob’s business is such a poor performer is that now that it is large enough to need a team of people to do the work, Bob has become the bottleneck.
Bob is the bottleneck because he’s never taken the time to document any of the processes for all the things that need to be done every day – day in, and day out. This fact, combined with the high employee turnover that is the byproduct of Bob’s approach, means that Bob is the only person on his team who knows how to do everything.
Sure, Bob can train his employees to do the work and hope they remember it correctly, but as soon as one leaves, he’s got to start all over again and invest heaps of his own time in training the new person.
Bob’s business has become a never ending hamster wheel of mediocrity and Bob wants it to end!
What Bob doesn’t realize is that if he had documented processes for product sourcing, advertising, shipping, product prep, etc… his company would completely transform itself into a highly efficient, more profitable enterprise that would then continue to prosper without Bob having to be involved in absolutely everything, all the time.
With documented processes in place, Bob wouldn’t have to be involved in every decision and most every task on a daily basis, and that would free up Bob to invest time in working on his business, instead of drowning working in his business every single day.
Why SOPs Are So Critical
Thankfully, in my own career as an entrepreneur, I was never Bob.
Fortunately for me, many years ago, shortly after starting my first company, someone told me about a book called the eMyth and reading that book completely changed my idea of how to run a company.
Now, each time I have started a new company, the first thing I do is begin to document our business processes and the results have been nothing short of amazing.
Thanks to having documented processes in place, I was able to spend all my time working on (not in) my first company – which made it much more valuable to another owner – and I was able to sell that business for 7 figures.
More recently, my obsession with SOPs allowed my Amazon wholesale business to grow from zero to over $100,000 per month – and if that wasn’t enough, I was also able to completely delegate myself out of that business’ day to day operations in under a year. Today, it continues to flourish without any of my day to day involvement.
As a business owner, you should be obsessed with SOPs for the following reasons:
- Having them in place increases the value of your company to the next owner because it doesn’t rely on you
- SOPs help to increase growth and profits
- SOPs makes team building far easier and reduces turnover
- Having SOPs ensures consistent execution and reduces errors
- Having SOPs makes outsourcing to virtual assistants far easier and that saves big money (vs hiring US based employees)
- With SOPs in place, you will spend far less time working in your business fighting fires
- With SOPs in place, you will attain a level of freedom that you never though possible
How Many SOPs Do You Need?
In my company, we have SOPs for everything. In fact, the going joke around the office is that if you are going to fart, you’d better have an SOP for it.
But what if you are just starting out? How many SOPs do you need?
The answer is that you need only one. The first one.
After that, you can create another, and another, and another.
Over time, you will end up having them for every process on which your company relies. But the thought of that is probably overwhelming (I don’t have time for this!) so I suggest you start with just one.
In my company, I started with product sourcing because in the very beginning that was the most important activity – and it was the thing that I needed the most help with. Oddly enough, product sourcing is still our most important activity because it is the thing that causes growth – and if you aren’t growing, you are dying – simple as that.
What Format Should You Use for SOPs?
When it comes to creating SOPs there are two popular methods.
The first method is to simply shoot a screencast video with you explaining how to do the thing you are doing. The advantage of the method is that SOPs can be created quickly.
Unfortunately, video-based SOPs come with some serious drawbacks, and that is the reason we don’t use them.
For example, over time, as your library of SOPs grows (which it will), you are going to have an every increasing volume of out of date SOPs and you will need to invest significant time in re-shooting or editing your videos. As a result, you are most likely going to let things slip – which defeats the purpose entirely.
The second major drawback of video is that they can’t be turned into a workflow (a checklist) and as a result, you will not be able to turn portions of the workflow into semi-automations that will save your employees time and reduce errors. More on this later.
So now that I’ve pooped on video-based SOPs, let me introduce you to the only other obvious method: text + images.
In my company, all our SOPs are documents that consist of text, images, checkboxes, and so forth.
Here’s an example. In the image below is a screenshot of just one of the ten steps that make up our podcast production SOP.
As you can see in the screenshot above, there is text, and image, and a checkbox. Hopefully you noticed that there is also to buttons at the top to assign this step to someone else, as well as give it a due date.
The only drawback of text + image SOPs like ours is that they take longer to create. However, the major benefits of our approach far outweigh this one drawback.
With text-based SOPs, you will realize the following significant benefits:
- Keeping all your SOPs up to date requires dramatically less time than if they were video based because you can easily change any small portion of the SOP (vs re-shooting the entire video)
- You can turn your SOPs into workflows where your staff can literally check off each step as they go through the SOP; thereby ensuring that nothing is skipped
- You can easily delegate the entire SOP, or just portions of it, to whoever on your team you like, and then give them a due date
- You can easily create semi-automations where a adding a check or completing a step of the SOP automatically causes something to happen in another one of the applications you use (which saves you mouse clicks and reduces errors)
How to Create Your First SOP
Creating SOPs this way is actually far simpler that you might think.
All we do is this: we perform the task in question, and as we are doing that, we are taking screenshots and simultaneously creating the SOP.
In other words, just perform the task and document it as you go. That way, you will ensure that you haven’t missed anything.
Mistakes to Avoid
While creating SOPs is a pretty simple process, there are still some mistakes to avoid.
Not enough detail: This is by far the biggest mistake. Just because you have done this task a zillion times, doesn’t mean the next person has, and as such, you need to ensure that your SOPs leaves nothing to chance.
Every step must include absolutely every last detail. If you include a screenshot, it should have red arrows and text on it that make it totally obvious what the click path is.
Too few screenshots: People are visual creatures and screenshots are free. We use a lot of screenshots in our SOPs and I strongly recommend you use as many as you can.
Non-binary decisions: A binary decision is a decision that is either a yes or a no and making that decision requires as little prior experience (judgement) as possible. Ideally, making that decision requires zero prior experience.
If a process requires the person doing the job to have extensive experience and then rely on that experience to decide what to do, in my experience, that makes for a less-effective SOP.
When it comes to creating SOPs for a virtual assistant, we focus on making them as binary as possible. If a process requires more non-binary decisions, our SOP will reflect that, and it will mostly likely never be assigned to a VA.
No due date: This one isn’t as obvious in the beginning, but take my word for it. As the size of your team grows, and the volume of processes increases, being able to assign a due date that will trigger an email alert to you and whoever you assigned the task to is going to be absolutely critical to your ability to maintain a smooth operation.
Creating SOPs in a Google doc: While better than nothing, creating your SOPs in a google doc actually comes with all sorts of limitations.
For example, how do you assign a due date? You could use Trello, which would be better than nothing, but wouldn’t it be better to put them in an app that is specifically designed to house SOPs instead of using yet another app?
As your SOPs get longer, being able to assign various sub-steps of the SOPs to various people on your team using Trello would become something of a nightmare to manage.
If you put your SOPs in a Google doc, how are you going to trigger actions in the other apps you use? How are you going to upload files and images that are required for the specific instance of that workflow?
For example, each time we produce a podcast episode, the guest bio and headshot change and our SOP software easily allows us to upload these items to the workflow as we are running it.
If you put your SOPs in a Google doc, your ability to create semi-automated workflows is going to be zero and zero is bad. Stay away from zero. :)
The Benefits of Using Dedicated SOP Software
Unlike a static Google doc, dedicated SOP software will allow provide a set of features that will allow you to realize some pretty significant benefits.
Semi-Automation – Whenever I build an SOP, I’m constantly looking for ways to eliminate extra mouse clicks as doing so not only saves me time, but it will also reduce errors.
For example, if a given step of a process requires that the user switch over to Hubspot or Trello to either update a field on a contact record or create a new Trello card, instead of simply adding a static checkbox in the SOP that tells them to do that, I prefer to use Zapier to make a zap that connects my SOP software to these applications so that when the user puts a check in the check box, the desired action is automatically completed (all thanks to the zap), and voila, my SOP just became semi-automated!
Data Collection – In my businesses, certain SOPs require data to be entered by the person who is executing the SOP. An example of this is the SOP for my podcast. Each time we execute this SOP, the associated data (guest’s email address, phone number, headshot, bio, link to website, show notes, etc…) changes and we need a way to store all this data right within the SOP.
This is yet another way that the SOP software we use has significantly streamlined our operations because it allows a user to create data entry fields right within the SOP template and then determine if these fields are mandatory or optional. That way the person executing the SOP can’t forget to enter the data!
Embed Video – Often times, embedding a short video in an SOP template makes it far easier to provide instructions to the people who are going to use the SOP on an ongoing basis and while it is definitely possible to insert a link to a video into a Google doc, with the SOP software we use, we can now easily embed the video file direction into the SOP so that the user doesn’t have to leave the app in order to view the video.
Delegation – In my books, the primary reason to have SOPs is so that I can delegate my work to someone else on my team as well as to ensure that they perform the task in the exact way that I want it done.
Whenever I delegate a task, two important questions must be answered: who am I delegating this to, and when is it due? Back when we used to keep our SOPs in Google docs, I relied on Trello to manage this process so that both myself and the person I delegated the task to would receive an email reminder when the task was due.
The problem with this approach is that it required the use of another app. These days, the SOP software we use provides this functionality right in the app so there is no need to take the extra step of creating a Trello card. Not only that, with the app that we use, users can @mention each other in the comments section as well as upload any files (such as screenshots) that might be required to facilitate the discussion.
Team Management – Once you start to delegate tasks to your team, you will soon realize that you need a way to keep on top of all the tasks that have been delegated to all the various people on your team. When we used Google docs, this was very challenging. Now, thanks to the SOP software that we use, I can easily see all the tasks I’ve assigned to my team, their various due dates, as well as how close they are to completion; all in a nice visual dashboard. Suffice to say, this makes it far easier for me to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks.
Now that you’ve read about how we create an SOP and all the benefits of using them in your business, you might be thinking that you’d like to get started using them.
If that is the case, the app that we created for our internal operations is now ready for customers to sign up.
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