Situation: The CEO of a specialty service company is curious about whether they have the right internal focus to drive their business. Their internal focus statement is to the most competitive, most responsive company in their market with high profit per job. One school of thought calls this focus the Main Thing driving the company. Does your company have the right Main Thing or focus?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at the tie between your Main Thing and your financials.
Determine an appropriate measure of efficiency – for example, billable hours per field worker per day.
Look at cost per field worker versus efficiency.
Ask what will generate the profit to grow to the level that the company has established as the revenue target.
If you can boost the gross margin on services, this provides far more benefit than merely cutting expenses.
Look for market niches that support higher prices without a parallel rise in either expense or risk exposure.
Do leadership and staff have the right skills and talents to support growth objectives? What can be done to enhance skills and talents?
Consider the following – By increasing efficiency and margins from 16% to 20% on $10 million of job revenue, the company can increase the operating margin by $400,000. If certain staff cannot work within a more efficient structure, you may want to move them to jobs that are less critical to the business. Having the right staff in the right seats is critically important to bottom line results.
Look at the company’s customer selection criteria. Using the 80/20 rule – 20% of customers generate 80% of revenue and/or profits. How do you improve customer selection?
Rank all customers on measures of profitability of their business, payment time, and most importantly future business potential. Focus on customers with the highest scores, and “fire” low scoring customers.
Focus on cash flow: Look at early pay options or discounts to speed payment from large customers.
Incorporate a schedule of values in all contracts as an addendum to prompt earlier payment.
In proposals, include a payment schedule and finance the receivables through a factoring company – particularly in the case of slower paying or less desirable customers.
Situation: A company is concerned about increased energy expense as prices rise, and the impact on the bottom line. Pricing in their market is competitive. What’s the best way to recover these costs? Can you pass higher expenses on to customers?
Advice from the CEOs:
Businesses regularly pass on their increased gas and transportation costs to both commercial and retail customers as these costs rise.
This isn’t just true for gas and transportation expenses. As other expenses rise, companies regularly increase their pricing to account for increased costs.
Is it necessary to send out an announcement letter about the company’s intent to do this?
Some companies do. Others just start adding a line with a gas surcharge to their invoices. This is happening frequently enough so that most customers just pay it without question.
What do you do if someone objects?
If a customer objects, you always have the option to credit them the charge.
Again, most customers are so accustomed to seeing and tolerating these costs that they don’t object.
Look at the company accounting system. Are costs and performance trackable by business segment? Performance numbers show both the impact and magnitude of energy cost and improve the ability to manage the business.
If the talent is not present to either improve the current accounting system or to shift to better software, bring in part time accounting help. A good source is Robert Half International/AccountTemps. The cost of adjusting the current system will be recovered as the company gains more control over expenses by segment.
Situation: A component company is struggling to set financial goals. Its sales are dependent upon purchases by large customers whose orders are influenced by the economy and demand for their products. How do you set goals in a volatile economy?
Advice from the CEOs:
What are the principal drivers that define the market? Have they changed? If so, how? Focusing on principal drivers creates more clarity in a volatile economy.
Rather than looking at the company as a producer of components, focus on the critical value add that the company’s products provide to customers. By focusing beyond the product, strive to become a key partner to customers. This can allow you to develop retainer contracts with key customers rather than working solely on a project basis.
The Holy Grail is predictable recurring revenue, for example on a service contract basis. The establishment of retainer contracts can help the company move in this direction.
The company’s customers have increasingly placed rush orders because they have been hesitant to commit to steady production. This, in turn, increases the costs to the company because they are being asked to alter their production schedule to accommodate rush orders. It’s fair to publicize and charge expedite fees for rush orders, just as delivery companies increase their charges for expedited delivery. Expedite fees will cover the cost of altering production schedules and can also add cushion to company profits.
A portion of the company’s business is supplying consumable parts that the OEM marks up and distributes to end users for their equipment.
As an alternative look at parts manufacturing/sourcing, storage and distribution direct to the customer as a separate business opportunity and take this over from the OEM – it may be a nit to the OEM that they would be willing to give up for a reliable service alternative.
Situation: A company’s goal is to replace an old, established market with new technology and, by owning the technology, to reinvent the industry. Given this aggressive goal, there is a temptation to go into volume production before establishing the cost advantages to make the technology profitable. The challenge is to establish disciplined, stable, qualified, scalable and profitable manufacturing. To accomplish this, the company must decide between alternatives as they cultivate new customers. How do you optimize your pipeline?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are two sides of the market:
Mega-markets dominated by large corporations which have long lead-times and potentially huge payoffs; however, these markets present long payoff delays for the company.
Smaller, quicker markets with limited volume but which will offer rapid PO acquisition and proof of concept.
The question is how much effort to devote to which market.
Look for early customers who are cast in your own light – disruptors who can help to catapult you into the marketplace
The trade-offs are strategic vs. tactical opportunities.
The immediate tactical need is to generate cash to show that you can. This is the steak.
The strategic need is to seed a foothold in a mega opportunity – to show the potential to revolutionize the market. This is the sizzle.
Identify a killer app that will gain tactical advantage and cash and help prompt maturation of a strategic opportunity.
Another CEO shared experience landing a large client.
They used a short, low cost pilot project to prove the concept to skeptical client staff. The client was surprised and delighted by the success of the pilot project. The pilot project was then articulated into larger projects.
Over time the company used incremental steps to gain a broad presence within the large company.
Focus business development on selling killer apps.
Find low hanging fruit for quick proof of salability and to show a revenue ramp.
Small design wins exercise the machine.
Is it possible to conserve cash to raise the impact of early wins to the bottom line?
Are all current staff during the next 12 months?
Early on, the game is business development – gaining key contracts and agreements with lead customers. Sales follows, with focus on the larger market. This may be 6 months to 2 years out. How many people are needed to focus on business development?
Situation: A CEO is considering a new revenue model for his company. The existing model is profitable and stable, but not scalable. A new model, and perhaps additional locations may be needed to add scalability. How do you assess the risks of the model? What steps can be taken to reduce these risks. How to you evaluate a new revenue model?
Advice from the CEOs:
Project both the current and new models on a spreadsheet. What do profitability and return look like over time based on current trends?
Include assumptions about adding new customers within the model. Consider capacity constraints at the present location. Add start-up investment needed for the new model. Does overall profitability increase in the projections and will this adequately cover new customer acquisition costs?
Are performance standards for the current and new models different? Would it make sense to have different teams managing the models? What kind of experience will be required in the people who will build the new business? Account for personnel additions and start-up costs in the financial projections.
Critically evaluate the upfront financial exposure as new clients are signed up for the new model. Consider hybrid options which can be added to customer contracts. Examples include:
A variable flat fee model. Customers contracted under the new model will receive services up to X hours per month for the flat fee, with hours over this billed separately.
How do current time and materials rates compare with industry averages? If they are high, it is not necessary to quote existing rates to new model customers. Create a new rate schedule just for new model customers. Taking a lower rate under the flat fee model will not cover all costs and profit; however, it will at least partially cover utilization exposure and a higher rate for additional hours can make up the difference.
During the ramp up period of a new operating unit, client choice is critical. If, based on observations and responses in client questionnaires, heavy early work is anticipated, charge an initial set-up fee. Alternatively, ask for a deposit of 3-4 months to cover set-up exposure. If either at the end of the service contract or after a burn-in period some or all these funds have not been used, the client is refunded the unused deposit. This can both cover early exposure and make it easier to sign new customers for the new unit.
Draft contracts under the new model to include one-time fees in the case of certain events – e.g., a server crashes in the first 9 months of the contract, or an unplanned move within the first X months of the contract. These resemble the exceptions written into standard insurance policies. They can be explained as necessary because standard contract pricing is competitive and does not anticipate these events within the first X months of the contract. Most companies will bet against this risk. Those who do not may know something about their situation that they are not revealing. In the latter case you will be alerted to potential exposure.
Consider a variable declining rate for the new model. The contract price is X for the first year, and, assuming there are no hiccups, will be reduced by some percent in following years. This resembles auto insurance discounts for long term policy holders with good driver records.
Adding hybrid options may make it easier to sign new clients while covering cost exposure. The view of the CEOs is that most clients will underestimate their IT labor needs and will bet against their true level of risk. Provided that the new model delivers the same service that supports the company’s reputation, once clients experience the company’s service, they will be hooked.
An additional benefit to hybrid options may be faster client acquisition ramps within new satellite units and faster attainment of positive ROI.
Situation: A company has strong technology and good top customers. However, the CEO is concerned that the company is too dependent on a few large clients. She wants to increase business among mid-tier clients. How do you expand the sales funnel?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get very crisp in identifying who your core customer is and focus on them near term. Look at what you offer that your competition can’t match and create appealing offers for new clients.
Simplify and clearly define your market position.
Here’s an example: First to market with the best, smallest, fastest solution.
This clearly defines who you are. Focus the company on delivering this.
In each high potential market find one company to whom you can offer a significant advantage.
Their current market position might be number 2, 3 or 4. Offer them a solution to gain an advantage on #1 and shift the playing field. This is a win-win for both you and them.
Horizontal business expansion could be the best near-term strategy. This lets each vertical market solve their own problems of technology direction, logistics, etc. Seek customers who have the resources to manage this in their respective market places.
Tailor contract minimums and pricing according to customer order commitments. Be willing to sacrifice price and some margin for committed purchases that match your timelines and resources.
Buyers often overstate their anticipated needs because they don’t want to be caught with short supply.
You can meet and promise lower prices for higher volumes because they rarely order them. However, combine this commitment with higher prices for the lower volumes that they are more likely to order.
Look across markets and focus on promising targets.
Use a call center to queue up prospecting telephone calls.
Have sales people conduct scripted qualification calls with prospects by telephone.
Only send sales people out to talk to qualified prospects. This saves travel expense and increases the productivity of in-person sales calls.
Situation: A CEO wants to establish baseline metrics to evaluate company performance, and guide both planning and operations. Without baseline metrics it is difficult to compare the impact of options that the company faces. What are the most important areas to analyze, and what do other companies measure? How do you establish performance metrics?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start with the basic divisions of the business. As an example, take a company which has three arms to its business – products that it represents for other companies, products that it distributes, and custom products that it manufactures to customer specifications.
For each of these lines track gross revenue, profit net of direct costs, FTEs necessary to support the business, number of customers, net profit percent, net profit per employee and net profit per customer.
Calculate these metrics on at least a quarterly basis for the past 2-3 years to set a baseline and a chart of historic trends.
Once you establish a baseline, chart current performance on at least a quarterly basis and look for trends and patterns.
Where is your greatest growth and greatest profitability – not just on a global basis but in terms of profit per customer and profit per employee?
If you’ve included your full costs including the costs of the FTEs to support each business, then the analysis should show you where you want to invest and what it will cost you to support additional investment.
Do a similar analysis of costs per line to further support investment analysis.
This analysis will help to evaluate whether it is better to purchase another rep line, or whether you would be better off investing the same funds to grow custom business.
Similarly, it will demonstrate on what kinds of customers and products you want your sales force to focus to grow profitable business and will help you to establish objectives based on anticipated revenue or profit per new customer that sales closes.
Finally, it will highlight potential vulnerabilities such as the impact of the loss of a key customer in one portion of the business.
Situation: A tech company has grown to twenty people. The CEO is concerned that if they grow much beyond this their culture will start to change. The principal question is whether team leadership structure will remain tight and focused, while teams will continue to be flexible and have fun. How do you manage culture as you grow?
Advice from the CEOs:
Other companies have grown to twice this size and continue to increase their number of employees.
One uses component owners as leads, with people under them. Leads are more technical than managers and aren’t expected to be superb managers.
They grow middle managers organically instead of hiring from outside.
If an individual’s plate is full, give them the ability to delegate work to an up and comer.
Active communication has number limits.
The optimal functioning group is 7-12; higher functioning teams are even smaller with 7-8 members.
Create flexible teams that maintain communication pathways and culture.
Consider using reconfigurable space.
When one company grew from 25 to 60, they noticed that at 30 people it became difficult to track people; they needed to develop systems and internal management tools.
Much more attention was needed on sales forecasting and expense elasticity. The solution was to study peaks and valleys and built a model that could function within historic peak /valley limits.
How do you maintain the contractor pool?
Keep a list and actively communicate with them about current and anticipated needs.
One company’s rule: consultants are 100% billable – functionally they are only able to realize 98%, but the rule keeps this number high.
Use contractor pools to supplement project tasks. If your primary differentiating focus is on successfully closing projects, focus contractors on ramping new projects.
Hire people who embody you and your culture. Hire in your own image.
Situation: A company is at a crossroads. They are no longer growing as they have in past years. The CEO is assessing alternatives including a merger, selling the company or restructuring. What are the essential questions to determine whether you merge, sell or revive a business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Do you really have the information to determine whether it makes sense to merge, sell or revive the business? The questions to ask are:
Is your core competency important?
Do you have the talent required to revive the business?
How much of your business is from repeat customers?
Is your platform still being used by a significant number of companies, and are they likely to shift their software soon?
If the answers are favorable, then the only remaining question is whether you have the energy and inclination to continue.
Having developed a profitable business model, why would you give up control or ownership?
Tighten up the business by focusing on the basics and turn the company around.
Identify where you can make money, and
Determine which portions of the business need to be restructured or eliminated.
Essential questions are:
Do you have a clear picture of where the profitability lies within the business?
Do you have a clear statement of your key competitive advantage – your “Main Thing”?
Can you establish a pricing strategy that pays you fairly for the value you provide?
Look at bench time among current employees.
Identify, and fully utilize the most important contributors, perhaps by giving them additional responsibilities in other areas.
See that all retained employees are fully utilized.
Eliminate those who are on the bench the most, or transform them into contractors so that you only pay for active time.
Utilize contractors to fill the “full service” slots that are important to your service offering but which do not contribute significantly to your bottom line.
Most importantly, reformat your role so that you are doing that which you truly enjoy. Your own enthusiasm and passion are the most important long-term drivers for your business, and will be the most important motivators to your staff.
Situation: A professional services company wants to grow while maintaining the small company atmosphere that has been the key to its success. There is a limit to how many clients a manager can manage, and with this the reality that if the firm is to grow they will have to bring on more client managers and support personnel. How do you maintain your culture as you grow?
Advice from the CEOs:
To maintain your boutique atmosphere, consider hiring to fit your needs rather than to maintain a culture. Use team meetings to direct team members while communicating and instilling the culture that you wish to maintain.
Don’t risk diluting the strength of your client relationships. A $250K client who is fully committed to your service may have more demands than a $1M client for whom you only represent 10% of their business.
Service companies with the highest profit ratios rotate customer contact among several qualified people. What matters is the level of service provided, not the individual providing the service.
Grow by adding locations. Instead of growing vertically in the same office, grow modularly by spawning additional offices.
Create an optimally sized model for the level of service that you wish to deliver.
Design the organizational structure for this model and identify the order in which slots will be filled as business grows through each office.
Develop a service and organizational template with standard operating procedures, metrics, technology, and reporting.
Once the model is created, spawn it.
Focus your business. Define a niche that you can serve better than your competitors. Focus on this niche and develop a sustainable advantage over your competition.
Assure that your service delivery is seamless to the client and make sure that it remains seamless.
Offer a menu of service options and price options by the level of service delivered. Some will want to buy a Mercedes, and some will be happy with a reliable lower priced sedan.