I know it’s tough to build a business and keep it growing through the years, because I’ve done it. Don’t forget that good business planning can help a growing business stay focused and efficient, even as you manage the daily routine and changing markets. Here are my three favorite easy ways to get back on track with business planning. These are all things I’ve done myself.
Listen actively to a few of your customers
I mean this as exactly what it says. I’m not saying you do a market survey or a focus group. I’m saying you really talk to a few (aim for 10 or 15) customers. Get on the phone, tell them you’re the owner or manager, make an appointment, and talk to them about what they think about your business. Make it interesting for them. Ask them interesting questions. Ask them what you do well and what you do poorly. Ask them what else you could be doing. Ask them about other businesses they like and don’t like, even if not related. Ask them what they think about trends, social media, organic food, green technology … make it a real conversation.
And the talk isn’t what’s important here – it’s the listening that matters. You spark conversation, and then you shut up and listen. And have the good sense to listen well to criticism, not block it out, and learn from it. And do it as the owner of the business, or trusted top managers only. Don’t pay somebody else to do it. You need to see people’s faces, or at least (if you’re on the phone) hear voice inflection. You need to do the listening. The goal is to refresh your sense of what your business is really doing for whom, and why they care.
We always hear about doing customer surveys or focus groups, which can be valuable when done right, or if they are taken with healthy skepticism. Unfortunately, they are rarely done right and are almost always given too much importance.
Retell and refresh your core story
Do some creative thinking to break up the cobwebs to tell a believable story about what happens when your ideal customer decides to buy from your business. Start the story with describing as much as you can about that ideal customer – how old, what gender, likes and dislikes, media use, car, job, family, vacations- all of it. Then create the detailed story of how your business comes to mind and why they go to you to solve some problem or get something they need.
Don’t settle for generalities. Tell a real but imagined story about a real but imagined ideal transaction.
And in some cases you’ll have more than one core story. Maybe a restaurant serves college students for dates and baby boomers whose kids have left the nest, so that one has two core stories.
The goal is to revise and review your vision of your market and your marketing, with fresh stories that reflect what’s really going on and how it’s changed since the last time you did it (if you ever did it before). Keep your business vision fresh.
Do a SWOT analysis
SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. I love the SWOT, especially in groups, because it almost automatically kick starts strategic thinking. Even if you’re alone it helps, and with a small group, it’s very powerful. Come up with bullet-point lists for each of these four categories, and you can’t help but be thinking about strategy.
Strengths and weaknesses are internal. You gain lots of vision just recognizing what they are, and then, with long-term efforts, you can capitalize on the strengths and minimize the weaknesses.
Opportunities and threats are external. You try to see them before they hit full force, and adjust your strategy to take advantage of opportunities and avoid threats.
The goal is good, and possibly refreshed strategy, as you pull yourself away from the details and look at the bigger picture.
Good management is steering your business correctly over the long term, managing constant change, setting goals, and taking meaningful steps towards achieving them. These three suggestions can help you get going with the kind of planning that can make that happen.
Originally posted on SBA Community Blog 
Tim Berry, President and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of bplans.com, co-founder of Borland International, author of books including 'the Plan-as-You-Go Business Plan' and '3 Weeks to Startup'