How Do You Succeed in Turbulent Markets? Seven Suggestions

A CEO is concerned about a possible downturn in the company’s market. They have survived the Great Recession and want to assure that they continue to survive future downturns. How do you succeed in turbulent markets?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • In turbulent markets, companies do everything that they can to reduce costs. This includes just-in-time ordering – regardless of lead times which they view as the supplier’s problem, delaying orders until they have confidence that they can sell what they order and produce, being miserly with cash, and demanding lower prices – even if supplier costs are rising. Dealing with each of these requires a steady head and creative solutions.
  • Spend as much time as possible meeting with important vendors and clients. Maintain the dialogue. They need you as much as you need them – without your products and services, their business is compromised, too. Spend time finding and cultivating the right relationships in client companies. Most of the time, this will NOT be the purchasing departments, but higher ups within the business units who are being pressed by their superiors to generate sales and revenue.
  • Pushing harder does not work in turbulent markets. Too many others are doing this.
  • Change your message – what used to work does not work now. Adjust your message to the times and adapt your message to your customer’s needs.
    • People want choice, and to do business with those whom they can trust to deliver.
    • Develop good case studies and testimonials – stories that your customer can share with others in their company.
  • Adjust your sales approach – look at SPIN Selling (Status, Pain, Implication, Needs-Payoff).
  • Don’t cut sales and marketing – focus it on the sectors that have cash and who are using the current market to grow. These people will continue to buy.
  • Look at what worked for you in the last five years – this situation is similar.
  • Look at your communications through the eChannels – if your competition is there, you should be too. For example, explore LinkedIn.

Special thanks to Jennifer Vessels of NextStep for her contribution to this discussion.

Can Bonus Plans Differ Between Departments? Four Thoughts

Situation: A CEO wants to build a new bonus program for the company’s professional services team. He wants to include a customer satisfaction component, because the group is historically weak in this area. Does it make sense to have a different bonus plan for professional services personnel and managers than for product development personnel and managers? Can bonus plans differ between departments?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Many companies have different bonus structures for different departments. This is natural because different departments have different functions. For example, Sales may evaluated for bonuses based on a combination of revenue and gross margin achievement, while Finance is evaluated on profitability and Product Development is evaluated on hitting product launch schedules and new product sales.
  • Changing bonus structures can be a sensitive matter. If the team impacted is not included in the process of drafting the new plan, changes may be perceived as negative. If this is the case, it’s better to frame the new program so that you limit your commitment to it to just one year, and let the team know that this may change this next year.
  • How do you go about including customer satisfaction surveys as a component of bonus calculation?
    • If you want to use customer satisfaction as part of the plan, benchmark customer service satisfaction before you launch the plan. If you don’t benchmark, how do you know whether performance improves?
    • Survey response rates will be an issue – you won’t get 100% and may get a survey response rate of 10% or worse. Be prepared for this and make sure that data with a low response rate will support your objectives.
    • A survey is a lagging metric. If you can find a measurable leading metric to use as well this is better.
    • Be careful of how the survey is drafted and who conducts it. Both can bias results.
  • As an alternative to making customer satisfaction part of a bonus plan, consider starting a customer satisfaction or loyalty program. The most important question to ask will be: would you recommend us to your peers?  Any low response guarantees a follow-up call from the company.

How Do You Tell Hunter from Farmer Sales People? Four Tips

Situation: A company hired a sales person who looked during the interview process like a hunter, but turned out to be a farmer. The company’s product-service mix is new to the market and requires a sales person who excels at landing new accounts. How do you tell hunter from farmer sales candidates?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The hunter sales person is naturally more aggressive and loves the thrill of landing new accounts. The farmer excels at follow-up sales and cultivating existing accounts for new purchasing potential. Neither is particularly good at the others’ job, and it is rare to find individuals who excel in both roles.
  • To differentiate between these two personalities, behavioral interviewing is better than tests.
    • Screen resumes for past sales success in companies in a similar size range as yours to select a group for further evaluation.
    • Behavioral interviews are very different from traditional interviews. They the focus on specific skills and requirements associated with the job and require candidates to give concrete examples of when and how they have demonstrated the skills needed for the job. The interviewer then follows up with probing questions to elicit more details. Responses can be verified in follow-up with references provided by the candidate.
    • During the questioning process, the interviewer may interrupt the candidate with a question like “what are you thinking right now?” These questions provide more insight into the interviewee’s personality and also help to filter out B.S.
    • You are seeking someone who’s “been there done that” in a company which resembles yours and who can convincingly demonstrate what they’ve done.
  • Thoroughly check references – not just those provided by the candidate, but dig and talk to others in the same companies.
  • Strongly align the pay and incentives for a hunter. Hunters prefer a comp package that is heavily commission-based and this will scare away farmers. If they don’t sell, they get paid little.
  • Offer an extended trial period with burden of proof on performance by the sales person.

How Do You Manage in Crisis Situations? Four Foci

Situation: From time to time companies face crisis situations. A company, planning ahead, wants to establish a culture that can deal with crises effectively. What are the most important elements that should be part of this culture?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Everything starts with a brutally honest SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) of your company and operations. Identify where you are Strong, where you are Viable, where Urgent Care is Necessary, and where you have No Reason to Be. Based on this assessment, cut your losses – for example, eliminate exposure to the No Reason to Be activities and efforts – and focus resources on your strengths and what is necessary to assure your future.
  • Support all efforts or activities that you will keep or pursue with a Bottoms-Up Financial Analysis. This will include a P&L, Balance Sheet, Cash Flow Analysis, assumptions, variables, and best, most likely and worst case scenarios. This Financial Analysis is an essential part of facing up to the Brutal Facts of your business and environment. From this exercise you will gain clarity on where to focus first.
  • The greater the potential crisis, the more frequent this exercise must be.
  • When dealing with creditors, remember their priorities: honesty, eventual payment, fair treatment and long-term customers. Present them with a credible plan, don’t make commitments you can’t keep, keep all commitments that you make, keep in touch monthly, and pay what you can. The development of trust makes it possible to negotiate incredible terms.

Special thanks to Tom Spanier of Spanier & Associates for his contribution to this discussion.

How Do You Move from Manager to Strategist? Four Suggestions

Situation: The CEO of a small-to-medium business wants to reduce day-to-day management activities and spend more time focusing on new opportunities. How do you shift focus from management to strategy and how do you identify the right person to take on the management role?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • As CEO your primary focus needs to be on the future more than the day-to-day. As a smaller company, the management role needs to be filled by an individual with broad multidisciplinary experience. To replace yourself, you need a Renaissance person – someone with industry knowledge and experience who buys into your business model.
  • As you evaluate candidates, look for attitude, not resume.
    • Analytical skills are critical – mental capacity.
    • These need to be complimented by guts – emotional intelligence.
  • Your current business is not the business that you and your co-founders started. It is a larger entity, more solid, and you need to bring in people who can take it to higher stages of growth. Finding the right person to fill your role is a long-term process.
    • Bring in 3 to 4 solid candidates as employees in important roles. Test them with challenges to see who can grow into the larger role of company manager.
    • Look for people who can grow your downstream businesses as candidates to manage the full business.
  • In the current market you have time on your side. While hiring is improving in some regions, there are still many more candidates out there than available jobs. This is unlikely to change soon.

How Can You Accelerate Offshore Learning Curves? Four Thoughts

Situation: A company has an offshore operation with 10 engineers and a good General Manager. They will hire five more engineers in the next month. Their target billing rate is projected to be profitable when they reach 15 engineers. Their challenge is that they need to bear the investment loss to have an offshore capability, but are not sure that they’ll see a pay-off. How can you accelerate the offshore learning curve?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Given the current situation, give yourself a window of 60 to 90 days. Create a go/no go decision point and let the General Manager know this. It will provide motivation for the off-shore operation to come up to speed faster.
  • Another company projected a 2 year break-even based on others’ experience in the geographic location.
    • They are nearing the 2-year point with the office up and running, on target with schedule, under a General Manager with proven experience.
    • They see payback on their initial investment at the 2.5 to 3 year point, and thereafter duplicating their payback every 6-12 months or better.
  • It is important not to undercharge for off-shore work.
    • One company charges $125 for work done in India that they would have charged at $180 if done in the US – a 29% discount. This is for high billing rates, with spreads even better for lower billing rate work.
    • If a client pushes for offshore rates, bargain for a lower initial discount for off-shore work compared with US-based work, but combine this with an offer to generously share additional discounts as the offshore location improves productivity.
  • Bottom Line: Stay the course. Long-term this investment will pay off.

How Do You Recruit Outside Board Members? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A company wants to recruit outside members to its Board of Directors. Currently, all Board members are founders except for a single early investor. How do you recruit outside Board members?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Board Member selection is a strategic matter. You want to have people on your Board who have done what you want to do strategically with the company.
  • A Board does not run the company. Board Members provide input and perspective to help the CEO make better choices while running the company.
  • Board Members have fiduciary responsibility – to the Shareholders, the government (to assure that the company is being run legally), to customers, to employees, and to vendors. Their role is to assure that the company does what it says it plans to do.
  • How affordable are Board Members?
    • Stock options are very feasible if you have little cash to pay salaries. Much will have to do with the prospective member’s buying into your vision.
    • You will need to secure Directors and Officers Insurance for Board Members – $3K+ per year per member.
    • The rationale behind payment in stock is for Board Members to have the same incentives for company success as shareholders.
  • Target remuneration of Board Members is, for a pre-IPO company $100K per year if the company is successful, but if not then $100K over 5 years. Members of the Audit Committee are generally paid about double what other Board Members receive.
  • Is there a downside of having numerous minor shareholders?
    • Not really, except perhaps nuisance. You run the company. As long as you retain majority share ownership, Board members can only advise.
  • Sitting on another Board is one of the best ways to improve your own abilities as CEO. Advising another CEO on how to run their company is a learning experience.

Special thanks for input on this topic to Bill Rusher, founder of Rusher, Loscavio and LoPresto.

How Do You Motivate Hourly Employees? Five Suggestions

Situation: A company pays employees based on skill level. Raises are given as an employee learns additional skills. In some cases, when they give an employee a raise, productivity drops. The company has tried other approaches including bonus systems and profit sharing but did not find these effective. How do you effectively motivate hourly employees?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Before trying a new motivation scheme, find out what matters to your employees. It may not be either bonuses or profit sharing.
    • Develop and send out a questionnaire listing different factors – revenue sharing, bonuses, creativity, doing quality work – ask what matters to you? Get their feedback.
    • People work for respect – many studies have shown that as long as the payment offered is fair, salary is secondary.
  • Hire an advocate for your employees – a part-time HR person. An important role for this individual will be to determine what motivates employees, what they want from their jobs, and how improvements in both processes and the working environment can boost productivity.
  • What is the real issue: employee motivation, employee productivity or cost reduction?
    • If material waste is more expensive that labor – create metrics and rewards to reduce waste.
      • At companies that use the Toyota Production System employees receive points for process improvements. At the end of the year they receive a cash payout based on the points earned during the year.
      • Employees are rewarded publicly. The incentives are cash, recognition and respect. These companies find that recognition and respect trumps cash.
    • Depending upon your cost structure, it may be more productive to focus on scrap reduction. Bring in someone with experience who can find the sources of scrap. The effort will pay for itself rapidly.
  • During the hiring process, require educational attainment as evidence of the individual’s commitment.
    • Look for skills experience – machinist, etc. Match skills and experience to your needs. This will lead to faster learning curves and will help to reduce waste.

How Do You Focus Managers on Process? Five Factors

Situation: A company has goals and objectives in place for the whole company. The challenge is that they need to focus top managers on effective processes and not just on their team’s objectives. In particular they want to increase focus on cross-functional processes. How do you focus managers on process?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Start by identifying all critical processes. Once this is done, build an in-house system to track these.
    • Make contingency decisions dependent upon sticking with the processes.
    • Consistent follow-through is essential – talk through the blocks as they arise.
    • Don’t become a slave to your own system. Stay flexible and allow appropriate non-prescriptive behavior/solutions where it makes sense. This helps to feed creativity in the organization.
  • Be an advocate/cheerleader for the new culture. Employees need ongoing encouragement as they shift focus to the new regime.
  • Build an underlying culture to support your processes. This takes time and persistence.
  • If you are growing, as you hire new people, select new employees who fit the new culture. This helps to create lead models for the rest of the group.
  • By definition, growth means increasing infrastructure, which in turn means more restrictions and rules. Keep it fun. For example, create a wine penalty for missing deadlines.
    • If you’re late on your deliverable you have to contribute a good bottle of wine, with your name and the month that you were late on a tag attached to the bottle.
    • Contributed bottles of wine are shared at the company Christmas or holiday party.

How Do You Test for New Product Appeal? Three Suggestions

Situation:  A company was challenged by a client to design a product to demonstrate the capabilities of the client’s processor.  The result was a wonderful success, and has received very positive press. The client does not care about the product, only about their processor. How does the company test the appeal and potential marketability of the new product?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Go to a local arcade, for example one operated by Golfland USA or a multiplex theater. Show them your product and ask whether you can test it for appeal with their customers. This will enable you to measure coin-drop numbers and generate demand and market appeal data. With these data you can assess the value of either selling or licensing the product.  The objective is to see whether the product generates sustainable demand, or whether it is just a short-lived curiosity.
    • The big issue with a product like this is very simple – is it addictive?
  • If your initial tests show that the product generates sustained interest and revenue it is similar to a console game. There are a number of avenues to pursue, including:
    • Early exclusives use agreements with casino or theater chains – it will have value if it helps them to drive traffic to their venues.
    • Novelty markets – corporate events, etc.
  • Other options:
    • Evaluate a lease model for target venues.
    • Consider selling the product to air table companies as a demo unit.