When customers want you to replace their heating and air conditioning systems, you usually follow a specific process, whether it's written down or not.

It might go something like this: A salesperson looks at the job, determines the best system for the customer and gets his or her approval on the contract. Then another person gathers the necessary materials and explains the job to the installation crew. The crew installs the system and someone collects. Finally, someone else follows up with the customer.

There is a procedure to accomplish this. The better your procedure, the more efficient you are and the more profit you make. You don't install a system without a plan, even if it is just in your head. If you do, you run the risk of putting in the wrong equipment, not doing what you promised the customer, needing to run to the supply house to pick up forgotten parts or performing a poor installation that takes longer than the budgeted hours.

Having an "idea" rather than a concrete plan is a sure-fire formula for losing money on a job.

If you plan your jobs, you can easily plan your business. Most contractors think that business plans contain many pages. They don't have to. The simple plan is a list of goals, a marketing chart and budget, a cash-flow budget, and a sales and income projection statement.

That's it. It's just five pieces of paper. It does not take much time to do it. However, it is a lot better to have a plan. As a wise person once said, "If you don't plan, you'll get somewhere, but probably not where you want to go."

I believe that every year you should look at a planning process and this is one of the best ways to do it.

Evaluate the present

What is really happening with your business? Many times, I hear that the owner of the business is the last to know when something is happening. Maybe a key employee is unhappy and looking for a job, or a project is not meeting budget, or another issue is being kept from the boss.

So, when you start looking for what you want to accomplish in 2004, make sure that you get out of your office, into service trucks and on jobsites. Talk to customers yourself. Find out what is really happening so that you can make reasonable plans for 2004.

Your goals should include margin, sales and business objectives, customer goals, residential and commercial service-agreement targets and personal income goals (which you don't have to share with your employees).

Here are some questions to ask when determining the goals:

· What went right in 2003?

· What went wrong and what did you learn from it so that you don't do it again?

· How many customers do you have? An active customer is one who has done business with you in the past 18 months.

· What did your competition do this year? Were there any new entrants with a desire to run a profitable business? Are current competitors getting better? Stronger? Taking sales away from you? Disappearing?

· Are you happy with the personnel who work with you? If not, what are you planning to do about the situation?

Once you and your employees have determined the goals, put them where everyone can see them. If the goal is at the top of the stairs, you have to determine the stair steps, or objectives, to achieve them. Break the goals down into monthly objectives. Put the objectives somewhere you can see them and review them each month. Check off each objective as you complete it.

Writing the goals is easy. Accomplishing them is more difficult because the actions require discipline and usually a change in behavior.

The experts say that it takes 21 days to change a habit. Even after you change the habit for more than 21 days, you can go back to your old ways. Think about how many people quit smoking for years and then start again one day when the stress gets too bad. You require discipline and a commitment for the long term.