The importance of consistency in business seems so basic as to not need discussion. Yet many companies -- especially smaller ones -- operate in a day-by-day, case-by-case fashion that is disorganized, undisciplined and certainly inefficient.
The frenetic, never-enough people/time/money reality of small business can make us feel like we're chasing it down rather than leading it along, but if we get in front of it with consistent standards and practices (ideally working hand-in-hand with a strong set of values), every aspect of the business benefits:
Products/services: Being consistent with what you sell seems like an obvious priority, but it's not always the case, again especially with smaller companies. It's not unusual to see avoidable and even sloppy variations in quality, service, packaging and more. Think of shoes: In a perfect world, once you know your size in a certain brand, it should be the correct size for you in every style that brand makes. But we all know that's not always true. Aside from disappointing customers, inconsistency in what you sell can have very tangible costs, including lost business and returns.
Customers: Whether it's a phone system, store personnel, order handling or general attitude and service ethic, with the best companies, customers know what to expect every time they deal with them. And assuming those expectations and experiences are positive, meeting them consistently will keep customers happy and loyal. It will also engender positive word-of-mouth, whereas inconsistency can alienate customers, discourage repeat business and stifle valuable referrals.
Employees: The best companies I know -- certainly the most "enlightened" -- realize that employees are at least as important as customers (and why customers benefit from that philosophy). So employees should expect the same consistency. Policies should be standardized, unambiguous and in writing, and employees should always know what is expected of them and how they will be treated. This is yet another area where a strong company culture makes a huge difference. Secure, content employees make money for a company. Unhappy employees -- and their inevitable turnover -- hurt the business.
Suppliers: The primary manifestation of consistency with suppliers is, of course, payment. Ideally that means paying on time, every time. But most small businesses I know -- even those with the strictest of terms -- are tolerant and philosophical when it comes to small infractions, as long as they are "dependable infractions." In other words, if their terms are net 30 and they have a good customer who always pays 10 days late, but a very consistent 10 days late, most will live with it.
Aside from being the right thing to do, being a consistent, reliable customer when the bills come will pay off for you sooner or later. When pricing discussions come up, terms are being renegotiated, or special favors are needed, payment history weighs heavily in any company's attitude about working with you. All other things being equal, the consistent, dependable customer will get better treatment.
Operations: Inconsistency is inefficient. Whether you are manufacturing, importing, retailing or providing a service, the more you can standardize the basic operations of your business, the better. At one extreme I've seen many small businesses that use too many forms and processes that overcomplicate basic functions. At the other end I've seen companies that "wing it" -- without standard operational guidelines, record-keeping, policies, etc. The goal is not process for process' sake; it's to standardize operations without unnecessary complexity.
Growth: Consistency facilitates replication, and replication is often the key to growth and expansion, whether it's for the owner of a franchise or the massive global scale of companies like McDonald's (MCD) and Starbucks (SBUX). A Big Mac tastes (pretty much) the same wherever you go, and "Venti Latte" is a lingua franca in over 55 countries.
Now this is really important: Consistent does not mean boring or robotic. Put to best use, it is a road map for each area of your business, but it's a road with very wide shoulders. It is possible -- and desirable -- to be extremely consistent without stifling creativity, discouraging individuality, or eliminating personal judgment and responsibility. Consistency and flexibility are not mutually exclusive; a band can perform the same song a hundred different ways while staying true to the distinctive sound that its fans expect.
Michael Hess is founder and CEO of Skooba Design, and also serves as an advisor to other entrepreneurs. He is "obsessed to the point of insanity" with customer service.