How Does a Professional Services Firm Get Known? Seven Ideas

Situation: A professional services firm has opened a new office in Silicon Valley. Their immediate priority is building clientele in their new market. They have an excellent reputation in their other markets, but are as yet unknown in in either Silicon Valley or Northern California. What can they do to create buzz and local awareness? How does a professional services firm get known?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Hire a part time PR person who is familiar with the local community. For example, this may be an experienced Mommy Tracker – a woman who puts priority on being a mother, but who is also interested in working part-time with a flexible schedule. The role will be to schedule speaking engagements with local organizations, groups or companies.
  • Think about publishing a book, whether yourself or with a professional writer. Tweak it to include a section on start-ups and do a book speaking tour in Silicon Valley.
  • Consider sponsorship of prominent local organizations. In Silicon Valley this could include incubators or entrepreneur groups. These are companies who could benefit from professional services.
  • Offer seminars to target clients, or those that invest in target clients – for example venture capitalists or angel investment groups.
  • Write articles for Red Herring (redherring.com)
  • Get to know the WI Harper Group (wiharper.com) – connected with Walden International. This is a San Francisco venture capital group with limited partners from China, and with a focus on US/Asia technology transfer.
  • Highlight past success in helping clients to gain funding.
  • The suggestions outlined here can be applied to opening a new office in any new location.

How Do You Create The Best Buzz? Five Suggestions

Situation: A company has an opportunity to use equipment supplied by a partner to create a demonstration project that will highlight their capabilities. They want to create the best buzz possible through this effort. One idea is to work with local service agencies to create a demonstration that will be highly appealing to news outlets. How do you create the best buzz?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • In addition to working with local agencies in your target localities to create publicity and awareness, work with the local newspaper reporters who write about the areas served by these agencies. City reporters are always looking for fresh stories, and will help you to generate instant news that may be picked up by other local and possibly national media. This form of building awareness virally is much more effective than traditional advertising campaigns.
  • Use industry trade shows of potential partners as demo venues by collaborating with the trade show organizers for a live demonstration that benefits the organizers. Let technical trade publications know about your demos. Stories that catch the attention of technical publications can also get the attention of national media and give you visibility far beyond the trade shows.
  • Use YouTube to highlight use and the impact of your service. Assure that your YouTube videos are interesting and attention gathering. This will help generate viral awareness.
  • Look at how Google helped to make Mountain View, CA a wireless city. They worked with the city and created great excitement both locally and nationally.
  • Consider using actors to stage demonstrations, followed by actual demonstrations.

Is It Time to Raise Prices? Six Suggestions

Situation: A company will be losing a client in the near future. However, the client is still buying from the company as sole source supplier while they develop alternate suppliers. Should the company raise prices, and if so by how much? Is it timely to raise prices?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • A factor in this decision will be your history of raising prices in the past. If you have increased prices to keep pace with inflation and your costs, look at the frequency and magnitude of these increases. Provided that the increase that you are considering is not out of line with past practice, it should not come as a surprise to your client. If you have not raises prices in the past, be prepared for push-back.
  • However you decide, be sure to maintain the relationship. You have a long relationship with this client and you never know what their future needs will be. As to the amount of the price increase, if they are reducing the volume of their purchases, you can raise your prices by 10-20% based on the loss of volume to cover your overhead.
  • Be prepared with logical arguments to explain the price increase to the client.
  • If your discussions with the client’s representative have become tense, it may be better to have someone else within your company lead this discussion. It’s OK to tie the emotional component – having to lay-off employees, etc, – into your story.
  • If you have an advocate within the client company, involve them in the discussion and give your advocate the ammunition that they need to support your case.
  • Adjust your staff and costs to fit the new reality.

How Is The Economy Impacting Your Sales Plan? Five Views

A company is revising sales forecasts for 2016 and seeks the advice of others. A combination of low energy prices and shaky financial markets sparked by the Chinese decline has left many questioning whether they should revise their plans to account for an economic contraction. How is the economy impacting your sales plan?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Niche Software Company – we are coming off of a good year. Our industry has seen low impact so far. Going forward we are cautiously optimistic. A couple of clients have delayed projects but didn’t cancel.
  • Services Company – hiring has been frozen. Adjustments to staff count have already been made. Clients are asking us to contact them again early in the second quarter. Opportunities exist in the health care area.
  • Hardware Company – we are running scared. We have cut business and personnel expenses to assure survival. A large customer just announced new plant construction earlier this week – this may help to turn things around. We are assuming this will be mean a longer term rather than a short-term opportunity.
  • Niche Software Company – cutting personal/business expenses. Long term things look favorable, but we have to survive the short term. Attendance at a large trade show this month was a little above last year but we don’t know whether this will yield a significant increase in sales.
  • Trades – Projects with big bank backing are on hold. We see large scale bidding wars for projects. Where there used to be 3-5 bids there are now 15 or more. Looking for consolidation of competition – especially union–based shops.

How Do You Create Clarity About the Future? A Simple Method

Situation: A company finds that new opportunities are coming in more slowly than they had planned. They have work now, but no confidence that this will continue long term. This is frustrating because they are in the middle of a transition in their business model. How do you create clarity about the future?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • There is a lot of uncertainty in the business world. Low oil prices are depressing investment in the energy sector. Global political and economic uncertainty are not conducive to bold expansion plans. This uncertainty may last for some time. Companies have to adapt.
  • A mapping solution is a used by some companies use to create clarity between alternatives:
    • Start with box representing where you are now.
    • Draw boxes representing each of the alternatives that you are considering.
    • Map the paths that will get from where you are now to each alternative. Draw them out, including what you have to accomplish and what resources you have or must acquire to get to each.
    • Do a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) for each alternative.
    • This will help you to think through each of the options and identify the benefits and pitfalls of each.
    • This is a great exercise to do with your management team, as others will add their own perspective and insights.
  • Tools: use Post-it notes – either easel pads or larger (5” x 8”) Post-it notes. Put these on the wall, and start sketching out your ideas with boxes and paths. Revisit the charts for at least a few minutes a day for the next 3-5 days. You will be amazed at both the number of new options you generate and how the obvious options rise to the top.
  • This is much easier and more productive than it may sound. Don’t fear the process.

How Important Is It to Protect Your IP? Five Points

Situation: A company sells specialized components to a large manufacturer. The manufacturer is building a new product and, for this product, is requiring that all suppliers be approved suppliers. The company sells other products to this manufacturer and is in process of becoming an approved supplier, but the manufacturer wants to start using the company’s components for their new product now. As a work-around, they have asked the company to teach someone else their IP until they are approved. Would you share your IP with another company? How important is it to protect your IP?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • This is a creative request from a large company to a smaller supplier. Absent a legal requirement that suppliers must be approved – not the case here – they are simply trying a bureaucratic ploy to get you to release your IP. Your component is necessary to them and they can’t get an equivalent component from anyone else. If they want your component for their new product, and want to release the new product on their internal timeline, insist on a waiver for the new policy until you have become an approved supplier.
  • Stand on principal. This is your IP and it is proprietary. If another supplier, a potential competitor, has the IP to do what you do, you don’t need to train them. If they need your IP to make the components you need to protect it.
  • Ask the manufacturer to put you on the fast track to approval supplier status. This is faster than teaching someone else your process.
  • Escalate this within the customer company until you find an audience.
  • Bottom Line – don’t give away your secret sauce. This request is unreasonable. Unless, of course, the other company is willing to give you satisfactory compensation for your IP.

How Do You Set Expectations for an Employee? Six Suggestions

Situation: A company hired an employee one year ago. The employee is competent but slow. Even after a year on the job, other employees with similar skills and experience are able to complete the same job three times faster. What is the best way to handle this? How do you set expectations for an employee?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The most important principle governing situations like this is clarity of communications. You must clearly express your expectations, and you must assure that the employee clearly understands your expectations.
  • Assure that expectations are clearly expressed. This means what you expect in terms of performance, and firm timelines for achieving minimum requirements. You also must assure that the employee understands the consequences for failing to meet minimum requirements. The best assurance is written confirmation that the employee understands what is expected.
  • Don’t be vague or nice about your expectations, performance requirements or the consequences for failing to meet minimum requirements. This risks sending the wrong message to the employee.
  • Put the employee on a performance improvement plan to meet minimum job requirements. Monitor and document for 30-60 days and then handle according to how the employee responds.
  • If the individual can’t meet the objective, but has potential value to the company, offer the person an appropriate position at the level that the new position pays.
  • Have a second person in the room when you deliver the message. If you determine that you have to terminate the employee and the employee elects to sue, this will help your case in a judicial action.

How Do You Evaluate Distribution Alternatives? Four Thoughts

Situation: A software company is evaluating its distribution network. Historically they have worked with resellers who aggregate software services into packages for larger customers. Recently they were approached by a reputable distributor seeking a master distribution agreement with favorable payment terms. Is this an option that they should pursue? How do you evaluate distribution alternatives?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • There are at least three objectives to consider: market coverage, margin to the producer, and market risk.
  • For market coverage, evaluate the alternatives in terms of their ability and commitment not only to serve your current market but to expand into adjacent markets.
  • Regarding price and margin, there are two alternatives:
    • Decide what price you want, and don’t worry about the reseller or distributor’s final price to the customer, or
    • Establish a floor price for your product and ask for a percentage commission on sales.
    • Run models on each and decide which will provide the best return on sales.
  • Market risk is more complex. These are different approaches to the market.
    • In evaluating the reseller option, insist on terms in reseller agreements that the reseller disclose the terms of their sales.
    • Sharing of customer databases is another factor. Siemens, for example, considers their customer database as IP and only releases portions of their customer database selectively to resellers.
    • A master distribution agreement has different risks. It puts all of your eggs in one basket. If the distributor adjusts focus away from your software during the term of the agreement your sales and revenue will suffer.
  • Are there conditions where a master distribution agreement may make sense?
    • If the distributor is willing to sign a multi-year agreement with sales guarantees at favorable pricing this mitigates the risk.
    • The central issue is risk and guarantees. If you see the option as a low risk – high return proposition, it may be worth considering.

How Do You Recognize Employee Performance? Four Points

Situation: A company instituted employee awards two years ago. These include an annual President’s Award, at choice of the President, and a Peer Award which is awarded monthly by peers for outstanding achievement.  Recently, management recognized a team within the company with an award for a significant team contribution – a company-paid trip to Las Vegas. This caused resentment among some of the other employees.  How do you recognize employee performance?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • There are two benefits to employee awards – the award itself, and, more significantly, the employee being recognized among his or her peers. Transparency within any award system is important.
  • There does not appear to be anything wrong with the award to the team. However, it is important to communicate to the company that awards are proportional to the benefit that the employee or team has created for the company.
  • Since there has been a mixed response, a message to the company is appropriate. The best way to do this is a brief company meeting, with telephone access to those who are remote. Here are some key points to cover:
    • Make the theme of the meeting employee awards.
    • Recognize the team that received the Las Vegas award and use the meeting to update the company on your rewards policy. Detail the policy, how awards are recognized, and that rewards are commensurate with the level of benefit gained for the company.
    • Deliver the full message in a positive tone.
    • Schedule 1-on-1 telephone conferences with individual remote employees who are not able to participate in the meeting.
    • Optional – follow-up with an email detailing the awards policy.
  • The complaints that you heard meant that the company did the right thing. A little jealousy isn’t bad if it shows that the company will reward hard, productive work.

How Do You Respond to Delivery Delay Requests? Four Points

Situation: A company negotiated a contract with a customer giving them a significant price break in exchange for a large committed order with extended delivery. The customer has now come back and requests additional time for delivery and payment on the order. The company has already procured extra material to produce the large order. How do you respond to requests for delivery delays?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Response will depend on the company’s history with customer. In the case of a long term customer who pays bills it is best to work with them. Explore solutions to meet them half-way.
    • Ask for a new commitment to take delivery by a date certain. Request consideration in return. For example, request partial payment up-front to help cover the cost of managing the delivery delay.
    • Keep the conversation going. Don’t get to point where you alienate a good customer.
  • If the customer is newer with less history but good potential for future growth, also respond flexibly but ask for additional consideration in good faith to cover your additional costs. As in the case above, request partial upfront payment to cover carrying costs – maybe a larger payment than for an established customer.
  • If the customer has been difficult in the past, or has been late with payments then the situation is different. There is no assurance that the customer isn’t just gaming the situation. Because the company has already committed resources to deliver the large order, demand an adjustment on price and terms in exchange for the delivery delay.
  • Whatever the history and situation, it is important to emphasize that you want to work with the customer.