It sounds like just another throwaway motivational mantra, but Tom Shuster and his staff take the phrase “Can do, will do, done!” seriously and have followed it to become the little service company that could. With only six technicians on staff, Shuster's Your Electrical Connection finished second among electrical, plumbing, and HVAC service contractors in a 2005 nationwide customer satisfaction survey — less than four years after his fleet of service trucks first hit the streets of Kalamazoo, Mich.

And Shuster believes it was his employee handbook that helped him do so much with so few employees. “It made me stop and think about my company,” he says. “It made me organize myself and commit to standards that would help us be the type of company I wanted to have.”

Put it in writing. Before he put his company's policies down on paper, Shuster constantly found himself repeating the rules for everything from compensation to termination. And with 18 employees — 12 of whom work for Tom Shuster Electrical, his commercial construction and maintenance company — fielding questions was a time-consuming task. But not only did the lack of written company commandments waste time, it gave his employees the wrong impression. “[Without a handbook] it appears that you're responding to things as they happen,” he says. “Even if you're not thinking about it off the top of your head, it still looks like you are.”

So he gave himself and his office manager a six-month deadline, and he stuck to it (for the most part). He worked on it a little each day, reminding himself that even though it took away from the time needed to run the business, it was an investment that would ultimately eliminate those unnecessary and redundant questions.

Having never written a handbook before, Shuster started by gathering all the resources he could find. He consulted several generic templates he found on the Internet and then moved on to real-life handbooks written for other companies. (He studied more than just electrical service company handbooks — manufacturing and retail manuals were fair game as well.) Once he'd amassed enough reference material, he got to work reviewing it all, taking note of the things he liked and tossing the things he didn't.

The common denominator to all of them? State and federal employment laws that all employers must communicate to their teams. Equal opportunity statements and sexual harassment statutes don't make for page-turning reading material, but they're at the top of the list of “gotta-haves.” “A handbook is the perfect place to put those,” Shuster says. “Otherwise, you end up with a wall full of pieces of paper with these employment laws.”

With the legal obligations out of the way, he moved on to the rules that would build the foundation for the kind of business he wanted to run. He approached every requirement or guideline in his handbook as a method for carrying out the company's mission statement (“Treat every customer in such a way that when the transaction is complete, the customer tells someone else how great it was”). No subject was overlooked — from grooming to dealing with unhappy customers — but Shuster was careful to steer clear of specifics. While some of the handbooks he reviewed were detail-heavy and weighed in at 300 pages, his had a tight focus and ended up one-fifth as long (Sidebar). “It's comprehensive because it has the things it needs to set the guidelines for the company, but we tried to write it so people could use it,” he says.

That reader-friendly quality was partly the result of Shuster's willingness to accept employee input. In fact, instead of worrying that it might undermine his authority, he often went looking for it. The popularity of cell phones and push-to-talk phones forced him to address their effects on jobsite efficiency, but instead of handing out a my-way-or-the-highway decree, he used a by-the-techs-for-the-techs approach to draft the rules for acceptable use. Because they had the chance to weigh in, they had less to complain about once it went into effect. “They're the people who have to put it to use outside the office, so you want it to be something they're comfortable with — something that speaks to them but also speaks from them,” he says.

Even at 59 pages, Your Electrical Connection's handbook took Shuster and his office manager seven months to write (he missed his deadline — it happens), and it's still evolving. Just like any growing company, Shuster says a good handbook is never complete. It's a good idea to build in flexibility, but you'll have to update it occasionally, too. And every time you do, it's another chance to look at your company and decide if it represents your core values. “I think a lot of small businesses are afraid that if they write down their rules, they're stuck with them,” he says. “But things change, and in the long run it's a good thing because you and your employees know what your company stands for.”

Sidebar: Three Mistakes That Will Hurt Your Handbook

  • Looks can kill — The most important part of the handbook is what it says, so if you get caught up in making it pretty, you'll miss the point. “Graphics and formatting and beautiful stuff just clutter it up and get you away from what it's really about,” Shuster says.

  • Get to the point — You want to set the ground rules, but don't drown yourself in the details. A dense handbook is intimidating and less likely to be read, and specifics make it hard to adapt to change. “It's not a document that needs to dot every I and cross every T,” Shuster says.

  • Legal aid — Policies that deal with state and federal employment statutes make up a large piece of any handbook, but they can put you on the wrong side of the law if your wording isn't just right. Have a lawyer review your requirements to make sure you didn't misinterpret the rules when you translated the legalese.