How to Control Chaos AND Wow Your Customers with One Simple Tool

Ever disappoint a client or customer because you failed to do one super simple thing?

One little step that’s so easy, so routine you’re stunned you forgot?

Let me tell you - it feels devastating.

In my tax software, the difference between getting a refund now or applying it to next year - a single mouse click.


All I have to do is click a checkbox. I’ve done it hundreds of times.

Click, done, no problem - until the one time I didn’t.

Now my client doesn’t give a rip about all the other details I did get right.

All they know is they’re not getting their money on time.

It doesn’t matter how much effort and skill went into preparing their return. My client is thinking about only one thing - when will I get my money.

I’m crossing my fingers hoping like crazy that they don’t start thinking,. . .

. . .”if she can’t remember simple stuff will she remember the hard stuff?”

Now I’ve totally failed to wow my client, and I’ve created extra work for myself fixing the mistake.

Frustration and embarrassment all because of one damn checkbox.

Never again!

I knew what the problem was. . .

. . .the arch enemy of small business owners everywhere - DISTRACTION

All the phone calls, all the emails, and the #goat. . .

. . . the City jackhammering directly in front of my office window - the last week of tax season!

Distractions aren’t going anywhere.

Job description for a small business owner: I do all the things.

Unfortunately “all the things” never happen at conveniently scheduled times.

Some days I go from consulting work, to tax preparation, to IT services, and take out the trash. I feel like a bouncy-ball.

I started looking for solutions to keep this madness from sabotaging the quality of my work.

And, found a distracting amount of tips and techniques out there telling me how. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself)

Many were spot on advice, except they’re not doable in the here and now for a small business like mine.

Things like delegating more and batching tasks.

Great goals, but I need help today.

And then I found it. . .

May I present to you the humble but mighty checklist.

Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled by checklists in the beginning, but I’m a total fan-girl now.

Financial audits gave me a jaded view of checklists. . .

. . .I had to fill out hundreds of pages of them. Every task of every step had to be initialed, dated, cross-referenced to the work paper, and reviewed twice for completeness.

It was a nightmare.

Then I stumbled upon “The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right,” by Atul Gawande. This book gave me a whole new attitude.

His approach to checklists is exactly opposite to the paperwork nightmare I so hated.

Specifically, a checklist is not a detailed how-to manual.

“. . . a checklist cannot fly a plane.”

It’s a tool to quickly make sure routine but critical tasks are done - not dictate how you do your work.

This got my attention. I absolutely wasn’t looking to add more work to my plate.

I decided to take Mr. Gawande at his word and give checklists another go. It’s been a lifesaver in my business.

More efficiency, more accuracy - even with constant distractions.

If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend you do (unless you’re about to have surgery.) He tells some fascinating stories about airplanes, skyscrapers, and operating rooms.

Even with the frenzy of a bouncy-ball kind of day - no worries - I get back on track without skipping a step (or checkbox.)

Want one of these life changing checklists for yourself?

Let me show you how I took Mr Gawande’s expertise and applied it to my life - the overwhelmed business owner:

The Golden Rule: Keep it simple!

I can’t stress this enough. Nobody wants another time consuming project. And, we’re definitely not creating another distraction.

If creating or using your checklist ever becomes a chore you know what will happen. . .

. . .filed away never and never used again.

Choose Paper or digital

There’s no right or wrong choice - just go with the one you’ll actually use.

I started with paper - it was easiest for me. I kept a sheet of copy paper nearby and jotted down items as I did my work.

I created my checklist with very little effort this way. And, I was able to stay focused on creating my checklist - not learning a new app.

Nowadays my checklists are built in to the way I work. So I’m ready to merge them with my note taking system (the topic of an upcoming blog.)

This means I will convert to a digital system. Digital’s “anywhere access” will make it easier to have what I need when I need it.

I’ve used checklists for years, but only now am I ready to add a couple of “bells and whistles.”

This is how I coach my clients to approach any change in their businesses - take baby steps at your own pace. Try to take on too much too soon and you’re doomed.

Choose “As-you-go” or “Review-when-done” type of checklist

I’m a cheerleader for the “as-you-go” checklist.

It can be a major time saver when you’re dealing with distractions - one quick glance and I pick up right where I left off.

It’s also a great choice if the order you do things is important. For example - you can’t add the eggs after the cake is in the oven.

A ‘review-when-done” checklist is exactly that - a last look before you deliver your work to the customer. It’s the easiest to start using, but still a powerful tool.

It’s a great choice for smaller projects that have just a few steps where you want to review your work once it’s finished.

A final thought on the which type of checklist to choose:

Ask yourself - will it spot errors or oversights in time to correct them? Remember the point is to support excellence in your work.

Details that will make your checklist the superstar you’re looking for:

Make it easy to read

You want your eyes to quickly find what you need. If you can’t the checklist becomes a nuisance.

  • Use a basic easy to read font

I started by hand writing potential checklist items as I worked. But, the actual checklist I use is definitely typed so I can print that bad boy out each time I need it.

If you open a Google Doc you’re automatically gonna get Arial as your font - use it. It’s designed to be easy to read. (It’s the whole sans serif vs serif type fonts for us nerds)

  • Use mixed case

Our eyes expect to see text this way. Besides, WHO WANTS THEIR CHECKLIST YELLING AT THEM?

  • Avoid clutter, color, and graphics

I’m all about self expression, but. . .

. . . your checklist is a tool to get stuff done. Clean and plain wins the day.

  • Keep it on one page

You want to see everything at a glance - what you’ve done, where you are, what’s left to do. Besides flipping pages is just annoying.

Make it easy to understand

You want to immediately know what needs doing. If you have to try and remember what an item means the checklist won’t be helpful.

  • Start each item with a verb

Each item is a task. A verb keeps the language action oriented.

  • Use basic words

Big words are a form of visual clutter. They take longer for your eyes to read and your brain to process.

  • Use short simple sentences

Each item is only a quick reminder - not step-by-step set of directions.

  • List the items to mirror your workflow

This is why I started by jotting down items as I worked. The list naturally flowed step-by-step with how I did my work.

Make it easy to use

I’ve already described a checklist run amok as a paperwork nightmare. I wasn’t kidding. Never forget the golden rule - keep it simple.

  • Have ten or fewer items per section

Complex work can have many details you want to put on a checklist. But, before you know it you’ll have a scary long list to work through.

In this situation, break it into sections. There’s usually different stages in a task or project. These make natural points to divide up your checklist.

Sections help you focus on the items useful to what you’re currently doing

For example, I use these sections in my tax prep checklist:


data entry

review and

record keeping

  • Make sure each section takes less than a minute

If it takes longer than a minute you’ll start taking short-cuts, and. . .

. . .that totally defeats the purpose.

  • Keep it easy to find

Out of sight, out of mind.

No one is going to take ten minutes to hunt down a checklist before they start working. I don’t know about you, but I just don’t have that kind of time.

  • Test and revise as needed

Taxes change every year. Using my checklist from two years ago would be pointless. Each season I revise my checklist so it stays helpful.

The few minutes I spend updating saves me countless hours during tax season.

  • Mark off the items you’ve taken care of

I usually add a checkbox before each item to check off as a go through the list.

But I also love using a highlighter. I find it very satisfying to physically mark off an item (I can’t be the only one that feels this way.)

The point is to see quickly where you stopped working. That way you get back on track quicker - so use whatever works best for you.

There’s one last thing — but it just might be the best.

If you really want to wow your clients and customers. . .

  • Add communication reminder items to your checklist

Take any opportunity you can to reach out to your clients and customers:

a progress update

confirm information or

discuss a plan of action.

Your clients and customers can find plug-and-play services anywhere. Technology provides DIY solutions even for things you never thought possible. YouTube is free and available 24/7.

Your clients and customers come to you to be treated as an individual. They want to know their specific needs are getting attention. They want you to have their back.

In my practice, two different business owners can be in the same situation, but. . .

. . .how I coach them will be drastically depending on their personality and five year goals.

Talking to your clients is a golden opportunity to build a relationship. It's a chance to wow customers in ways that YouTube or any other competitor can’t touch.

Put it on your checklist so you never get so you never forget your clients and customers want to hear from you.

Relationships are so important in your business. Don't let the relentless daily distractions keep you from building them.

A checklist makes it easier to provide services that feel like a trip to Disney World. (It's where dreams come true after all.)

I can’t say there’s a foolproof way to end distractions interrupting your work, but. . .

. . .a checklist can immediately slash the impact distractions have on your day and your work.

That’s why I call myself a fan-girl.

A well-designed checklist isn’t a chore or a nightmare. . .

. . . it actually makes your work less stressful.

It will save you time when you have to start and stop your work because something unplanned happens.

It will free your mind from the simple routine tasks. And, put more focus on the unique or customer specific parts of your work.

At the end of the day, checklists are inexpensive and easy to create, so give it a shot. I did and I never looked back.

Are you ready to reduce the chaos and stress of distractions in your business?

Has there been a time when a checklist would’ve caught a mistake before the client did?

What’s one service you provide where a checklist could help you wow your clients?

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

There’s even more chaos controlling strategies in, “5 Steps to Take Back Control of Your Business and Life.” Get your copy here:

Susan BrownComment