As we begin 2015 more people are feeling upbeat about the economy than they have through most of the last six years. The dollar is at new highs against global currencies. The US is approaching energy self-sufficiency. However, some still see regulatory headwinds and downsides. What do you see and what will you do differently in 2015?
Advice from the CEOs:
Over the last six years, software companies have seen large increases in outstanding credit to clients, combined with restrictions on clients’ credit lines available and fewer new purchases. We hope for a better year in 2015, and will focus on reducing outstanding credit to improve cash flow.
Cash continues to be king. B2B business sectors with good cash positions are solid.
If your product/service saves clients money and makes financial sense, you’re in good shape.
Raising money will continue to be a challenge. Investors have been focusing on accelerating deliverables, creating a difficult environment for entrepreneurs. The Wall Street Journal says that the share of people under 30 who own businesses has reached a 24-year low, referring to young entrepreneurs as an endangered species,.
What is your current planning horizon?
We continue to plan quarter to quarter. There are too many variables for a longer horizon. We pay up our credit lines, and cover multiple payrolls with safe bank deposits.
We are watching headcount and dollars in the bank.
We are communicating more with our best employees and bringing them into more decisions so that they won’t be looking elsewhere.
Situation: A company is a C Corp with several owners. As it is the end of the year, there is an active debate on owners’ compensation. The CEO has looked at a number of options, but would like the advice of others in a similar situation before making a decision. What do you see as the pros and cons of various options for end of year owners’ compensation?
Advice from the CEOs:
In one company, profits are split among owners according to stock ownership. This is similar to a public corporation where dividends accrue according to stock ownership. The pro is that it is equitable; the con is that smaller owners who may have made significant contributions during the year don’t necessarily receive the recognition that they may believe they deserve.
Another CEO varies owners’ compensation according to company performance. In good years, there is the option to be generous through enhanced bonuses, etc. In slim years it is more important to conserve cash, and quite frankly company performance didn’t justify significant bonuses. The pro is that this offers the CEO more flexibility than the first option to recognize significant contributions; the con is that the recognition of some may seem arbitrary to others.
In response to the latter observation, a third CEO sees this as acting like a good father – sometimes you just have to declare your prerogative if employees squabble about your decisions or push too hard for unreasonable requests.
The CEO who originally asked the question followed with an additional question – how do you present your compensation decisions to owners or staff who may think that they deserve more than their stock position or company performance over the year allows?
This is a facts of life situation – once the final determination is made it is not negotiable.
Situation: A company’s clients are demanding increasingly faster response times, particularly in areas that historically have not been considered mission critical. Clients also want faster answers to technical questions. Is this a common occurrence, and would you adjust pricing in response? How do you handle demands for faster delivery?
Advice from the CEOs:
If clients are demanding faster delivery, it’s entirely reasonable to tier your rates for different levels of service and delivery. Create cost / ROI breakdowns for different options, and let your clients make a business decision about the level of responsiveness that they need.
When brining on new clients, do a worst case down time analysis for the prospect as part of your evaluation process, then provide price options and let the prospect evaluate what is important to them. This is similar to different price / deductible levels with health or car insurance.
You will need to educate your current client base on what you are doing for them, and when they are reaching the upper levels of service provision under their current contract.
When you provide remote service, communicate what you have done.
Email individualized update reports to client contacts.
When you meet clients face to face, have a printout of service provided and toot your own horn about your service and delivery.
Be aware of the needs of clients who have distributed locations across time zones. A two-hour response time on the West Coast at 8:00 in the morning, translates to a half day for an East Coast location because they can’t call you until 11:00am Eastern time.
Situation: A company wants to execute a strategic shift in direction – taking it into a new business which will diversify its offering to customers. The CEO needs to assure that everyone is on-board to both speed the shift and minimize cost. What are the keys to successful strategic change?
Advice from the CEOs:
Be front and center with your vision. State the vision clearly, in terms that everyone will understand. Focus on the benefits of the change for the company and employees and be realistic about the challenges involved.
Be enthusiastic. This is critical to all change efforts. Be cheerleader as well as leader.
Plan ahead and begin to communicate well in advance of the anticipated change. Plant seeds and encourage the team to generate options or solutions. Give all levels of the organization the opportunity to become involved and participate in both design and implementation of the change.
Be consistent in messaging and support across the team. Don’t vacillate or promise what you can’t deliver. Employees will watch for the presence or absence of consistency. If it’s absent, they won’t join in.
Conduct scenario analyses. This enables you to try out different futures and implementation options.
Identify critical issues. Look at possible results – first consider the “most likely”, then “best” and “worst” possible outcomes. Considering best and worst generates new alternatives, and improves the perspective on the most likely outcome.
Conduct visioning exercises. Create a graphic vision of possible futures.
This increases group participation and sparks creativity.
It improves group function, thereby enhancing results.
Visual representation is more memorable than standard bullets and lists.
Special thanks to Jan Richards of J G Richards Consulting – jgrichardsresults.com – for her insight on this topic.
Situation: A company performs service that is primarily locally-based. A competitor is establishing a new site less than two miles from the company’s location, offers a broader array of services and is larger than the company. How can the company protect its business by responding to this new competition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Your most important asset is understanding what you are doing right, and what is most important to your customers. Remember that business is more than just a product or service. It’s a relationship. Your customers depend upon your for more than just what you offer for sale. Reach out to your customers for these answers. Make sure that you respond to their needs. As a benefit you may also find new growth opportunities.
Ask current customers whether you need to expand your service offering, or whether your current offering and lead time is acceptable to them. Ask how their needs are changing and how you can better serve them.
Reestablish the connection to your customer and listen. Preempt new competition by contacting your customer base before the competitor gains a stronghold.
Study your options and avoid knee-jerk reactions. You may be in better shape that you think.
Major retailers and service companies have moved into many locations. Local businesses who survive their presence do so because they are focused on their customers’ needs and are better at serving the customers that the big companies are.
Invest in key components of your business relationships: services, payment terms, responsiveness, your facilities, and so forth.
Situation: A company is doing well, but the CEO is concerned about emerging hurdles that may stall momentum. The key issue from a systems development perspective is changing a “one-off” project based focus towards a modular mindset – essentially shifting a short-term to a long-term view. How do you align expectations across the company and transition to a broader focus?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start by clearly communicating your expectations. Work with your managers so that they communicate a consistent message to developers. Look for organizational changes to better align talents of individuals to roles taking advantage of these talents. You may want to refresh the gene pool by bringing on additional people.
One company with multiple teams creates healthy competition against performance objectives between teams with recognition and rewards to the top team.
If the change involves creating greater alignment between functions, create opportunities for individuals from different functional areas to work together. For example, have an engineer accompany a sales person on a critical call to close a deal. If the deal meets spec objectives, is closed, and the project completed on schedule and on budget, the engineer is bonused on the sale.
One company rents a lake cabin every year. Use of the cabin goes to teams recognized for meeting objectives, deadlines or other outstanding performance. An added benefit is that on the way to and from the cabin as well as while they are there, teams spend time talking about the next performance coup that will get them the next use of the cabin.
Look at your organization – both your Org Chart and the physical space. One CEO found that his engineering organization was stove-piped both in terms of reporting and incentives, and physical barriers prevented groups from easily interacting with one-another. To create better coordination between design engineering and manufacturing engineering, the teams were relocated to a new shared space, without physical barriers. Also, the Org Chart was adjusted to increase incentives for collaboration between the functions.
Situation: A company has an engineering structure which emphasizes function over cost. As a result, there is little collaboration between design and manufacturing, and little design for manufacturability or cost control. This contributes to a last-minute mindset and expensive solutions. How do you shift design engineering and manufacturing from a craft to a lean mindset?
Advice from the CEOs:
Changing how people think and act may also mean changing people. Are you prepared for this? If not, then it may be difficult to achieve the change that you desire.
Let’s use a mindset change in another area – sales compensation – as an example. In this case, the sales team had previously focused primarily on revenue, with no incentive to drive margin. This impact was continuously eroding margins, though the company realized revenue goals. The mindset was changed by introducing a new system with dual incentives: to retain their position, a sales person had to hit at least 85% of their revenue target, however commission was based completely on the gross margin from their sales, with a bump in commissions when they hit 100% of their revenue target. This system drove both revenue and margin targets and was very successful; however, the company lost a few sales reps who couldn’t make the adjustment.
Transferring this lesson to the engineering situation, design an incentive structure that drives both function and low cost manufacturability to achieve both targets simultaneously.
Task your VPs of Operations and Manufacturing – and the key managers of your design and manufacturing teams – to create a dual incentive system that meets both function and manufacturability objectives. Measurements may include:
Actual vs. initial estimated manufacturing costs.
Margin on final product.
Once the parameters are developed, clearly communicate these to all affected employees up front to set clear expectations for the future.
Incentivize your VPs and key managers jointly on collaborative efforts and their ability to develop joint solutions.
Another solution which will speed the process – put design and manufacturing engineering in the same work space instead of separating them. This encourages the teams to work together.