Situation: A CEO senses that employees don’t have his sense of urgency regarding the business. A case in point is responding quickly to new customer inquiries in a competitive market. Too often, he takes over to assure that bids are submitted quickly. How do you get comfortable delegating to staff?
Advice from the CEOs:
Prepare for a meeting with staff by defining the key desired standards in advance.
Initiate the meeting with this message: “We have a company image. This is how we define it.” Work with staff to create standards that define this image.
Agree on standards with the team.
Discuss standards with the team but have them make the decision. Guide the conversation – through questions – to focus on the desired standards. Be open to using the language developed by staff to enhance ownership.
Examples of standards that may apply:
Response time to incoming calls, maximum number of rings before response.
Time to return telephone messages.
Time to return emails.
Invoices completed the day or the order, or whatever is appropriate.
Establish a response regimen – assure that response is professional.
Train all people who pick up the phone.
Assign rotating office days for salespeople with responsibility to answer the phones.
Emphasize the importance of speedy response with an explanation that everyone will understand.
When a customer calls, assume that they are also calling 2-3 other suppliers. The first responder can shape the conversation in favor of their company and offering – for example the company can offer both a solution plus design and logistics assistance.
As first responded, assure that the focus is on the company’s strengths – this puts the competition at an immediate disadvantage.
Enforce and maintain the standards
Once standards are set, make review and updates of performance against standards part of weekly sales meetings. Use large charts to track this.
Create friendly internal competition. Who got the most business last week? Who did the best with incoming calls? Have the team develop competitive goals.
Recognize top performers with $50 – $100 cash award, restaurant certificate, etc. Make it fun!
If “everyone” is supposed to pick up the phone this becomes “nobody” because nobody is responsible for picking up the phone!
Situation: The CEO of a service company is focused on growth, which is driven by new contracts. This, in turn is driven by new sales contacts per week. Sales staff are paid on commission. The CEO wants to assure that quarterly objectives are met to grow the company. How do you maintain focus on quarterly objectives?
Advice from the CEOs:
Track and publish progress against weekly, monthly, quarterly metric objectives and key drivers.
Post charts around the office to maintain staff focus on objectives.
Put up whiteboards that show individual metrics as well as daily “top 3” focus items.
Identify key market sectors where focus will pay off for the company.
It’s OK to take a generalist approach as the company develops a new market sector. This helps to learn the dynamics of that sector.
As sector market penetration grows, develop functional or sector specialties.
Identify and focus on the gaps to company success.
Monitor and generate incentives to increase sales activity. The more fun that is involved in this, the faster the company will close the gaps.
Focus marketing on developing more prospects. Brainstorm creative marketing approaches that will generate prospects. Create a competition to develop the best new ideas with incentives or prizes to celebrate the most successful ideas.
If additional resources are required, currently beyond the company’s budget, investigate adding commission-driven contract resources with strong incentives for identifying new prospects and landing new clients.
A company is moving from sole focus on servicing a market to a split focus
including developing and marketing their own products. This is a significant
transition for the team. What is the best way to organize this effort? How do
you manage a business transition?
from the CEOs:
the company’s financials are great for their market, cashflow may be
insufficient to fully fund a development company.
development of new products can create conflicts if it creates competition for
resources between internal and external projects.
avoid this, create an independent company or entity – in a separate location.
Seek outside funding whether bank, angel or partner financing. The independent
entity can then buy resources from the primary entity at competitive rates.
years ago, another CEO utilized the strategy just described. The important
that venture is properly resourced.
that there is a balance between proven structure and creative application
best resources available at same rates that key customers pay.
free guidance but not free services – peer reviews are key.
third CEO had an opportunity to open a new business using the spin-off model.
allowed infrastructure sharing – with proper compensation and incentives
both entities were successful.
Properly implemented, this model works.
are four aspects to the challenge.
business plan for the new venture must address all four.
internally (vs. externally) creates natural conflict. Workers will tolerate change
in direction from clients better than they do from insiders.
Situation: Revenue for a product and craft business has been slipping. At the same time, their competition has been disappearing. It is clear to the CEO that demand is and will continue to be present because of the market that the company serves. The question is how to maintain the profitability to survive long-term. How do you build in a declining market?
Advice from the CEOs:
The keys to recovery in a business like this will be in two areas: improving sales and increasing margins.
To increase sales the choices are more aggressive marketing and selling to existing customers or creating new markets like previous generations did when they started the business. Consider services that you could bundle with your products to augment the ways that customers use them. It will be the responsibility of your sales and marketing teams to demonstrate these product/service bundles to increase sales both to new and existing customers. This will help to solve the revenue slippage.
The other side is ongoing efforts to reduce cost which will, in turn, improve your margins. Costs can be reduced in creative ways that are not obvious. These include improvements in purchasing, reduction of waste, recycling of component materials, and inventory controls. It will be the responsibility of your production, purchasing and inventory management teams to develop these solutions. Assure that these teams are recognized and rewarded for their solutions.
Look at the segments of your product offering. Are they declining at the same rate or are there differences? This will help you to focus your efforts, as a company, to grow market share even if the overall market is declining.
Other suggestions for increasing sales:
Take advantage of the craft trends. Do this with NEW talent – not tired talent.
Consider partnerships and collaborations.
Set up contests and craft classes.
Look at how other industries promote to the craft industry and follow their lead.
Situation: A company’s sales are bumpy. The CEO thinks that this may be due to a mismatch between products that they offer and their customers’ needs. They currently use online surveys to capture customer needs and input. How do you determine customer needs? How do you find your sweet spot?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important first step for a smaller and growing company is to clearly identify the customer niche that they serve. This must be a niche where the company can out-serve their competition.
There are two types of niches to consider:
A product/service niche focused on a specific set of products and services – one where you can offer a differential advantage over your competition and become known for this, or
A customer niche – a specific set of customers that you dedicate yourself to serve in a way that provides a differential advantage.
An example of the product model is an individual who started an e-commerce site for lacrosse equipment – products not commonly stocked in sports stores. They offered a wide range of lacrosse products, built an online community, shared articles, etc. and became THE place for lacrosse players to get their equipment.
An example of the customer niche model is to focus on a population and build a concierge or member-only service. The niche here is the buying group. This can be employees of specific companies or government workers as examples. Costco grew using this model.
For an early-stage company, survival is about single pointed focus on that niche where you can provide better products/services or better serve your customers than anyone else. As you grow you can diversify based on the reputation and loyalty that you gained early on.
Look at competitors – how are they gathering customer preference information?
Look at your passion – is it products or people? Choose a niche that fits your passion.
Situation: A company has lost six people since the beginning of year – about 7% of employees. Currently the company doesn’t pay bonuses but increases salaries annually. The CEO has been considering creating a bonus pool, distributed based on performance points earned during the year, and including a component for employee longevity. How does your company award bonuses?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is fierce completion for good software engineers. You will lose people unless you focus on culture and pay bonuses of some sort.
Based on reasons that people left you need to start developing and enhancing your company culture.
Don’t kid yourself. You already have a company culture. Hire a consultant to help you identify it so that you are developing it along lines that you desire instead of by accident.
Make it clear that bonuses are not entitlements but are earned. There should be clear guidance as to bonus criteria.
Check out the following YouTube – “RSA Animate – The surprising truth about what motivates us” to see what motivates knowledge workers who are expected to develop creative solutions. The bottom line is that it is more than money!
An effective bonus program must have a bias toward performance – the metric is key. Be careful about the way you create metrics and incentives and be wary of unintended consequences.
Pay special attention to the quality and skills of your 1st and 2nd line managers.
Besides bonus, equity and culture – plan for 10% attrition. In your industry, this may be the norm.
Situation: A company’s accountants advise them to make distributions for tax purposes. Simultaneously, the company’s future is based on technology and staying ahead of the competition. This requires ongoing investment. Do you focus on taxes or investment?
Advice from the CEOs:
The focus of the answer is distributions and company morale, not tax planning. Think about the impact on the team. Are there considerable differentials in compensation within the company? If so, this may be impacting morale.
Differentiate bonuses from variable compensation. Make bonuses special. This starts at the top. The attitude should be that if someone works hard, they will be compensated. Once bonuses become assumed, they are just regarded as part of the overall compensation package.
Smaller geographical units can help retain a small company atmosphere and drive. As a company grows, similar results can be achieved with Tiger Team projects.
If the organizational structure enables this, foster friendly competition metrics between offices – and publish the results.
One company distributes performance data to top staff – with color-color coded red/yellow/green metrics based on performance. All red and yellow numbers require an explanation. The company has seen a significant reduction in red and yellow metrics since they started this.
At company meetings – publicize and recognize top 10 performers in various areas. Recognition boosts morale.
Company events boost teamwork and morale. These may include company barbeques, in-house cooking shows created and run by staff, and quarterly outings – bocce ball, tubing, sailing on the Bay.
Growth is accompanied by change. When a company starts it’s a mission. After 15 years it’s a job. This is a function of growth, and it takes ongoing creativity to keep individual employees excited about their job and role.
Situation: A company recently changed their BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) to focus on premium customer acquisition, but as a small-to-medium sized company has a 3-year focus instead of the typical 10-20 year focus of a larger company. They want to make this a company-wide effort. How do you make the most of changing your BHAG?
Advice from the CEOs:
First, it is measurable and specific – grow to 10 times your premium current customer base in 3 years. Your marketplace is changing quickly, so a shorter-term BHAG makes sense. Call it your 10/3 Program or 10/3 Challenge.
Is it too shallow? No – this is something that people can rally around. It represents significant company growth.
What happens when you achieve the goal? Celebrate in a big way, and then set the next BHAG.
How do you create excitement? Every time you hit a milestone, bring in pizza, or conduct a special event. Celebrate.
Success = Change. What does that next milestone mean for the company and your capabilities? This isn’t just about new clients, but also includes scaling your delivery systems and customer service. Rally your non-sales staff around these important tasks.
Create milestones not just around sales numbers but also around timelines. Tie incentives to achievement of BHAG milestones.
Conduct a company meeting to announce the BHAG, and announce progress in future company meetings.
Progress against milestones.
Share pipeline data to maintain excitement.
Develop scale-up programs and share progress of non-sales departments as they ramp up services.
Think about building a competition around the goal. As long as this fits your culture it can add excitement to achieving both milestones and the BHAG itself.
Note: The term ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ was proposed by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book entitled Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.
Situation: A company produces a high performance product which is priced modestly higher than competing products. They are finding customers resistant to cost increases, even when they acknowledge the advantages of the higher cost product. The company needs to develop a new way to position their product. How do you introduce a product to new customers?
Advice from the CEOs:
Don’t compete directly with existing technology. Position yourself distinctly, as a new solution to address unmet needs.
Sell your solution “for those times when you need to save time.” Once they start to use your product, they will find it simpler and easier to use than the old product and will convert themselves to your product.
Use the pitch: Book an extra client today because this will save you this much time. This plays to customers’ incremental revenue opportunities to justify the cost.
At conventions, conduct contests among attendees – try our product versus your old product. Those who can use it fastest, or below a set time have their business card placed in a jar for an iPad drawing several times a day.
Sell a lower priced “starter” kit – or provide a free sample with easy to follow directions. Once the customer is sold on the product’s advantages they will be less resistant to the modest cost increase.
Focus on specialty functions within larger target clients – the functions that will benefit the most from your product’s advantages.
Situation: A company provides both contract staff and consulting services. They have a large client for whom they provide staff, but not consulting. The client routinely requests discounted rates on contract staff from the company. The CEO believes that the client requests lower rates because they, in turn, offers consulting to their customers, using the company’s staff, and want to offer these services at a competitive rate. How can the CEO better respond to the next requests for discounted rates? In addition, is there a way for the company to market their consulting services directly to the large client’s customers? How do you balance two businesses?
Advice from the CEOs:
Don’t avoid the conversation on your rates. Make sure that your client knows that they are getting top quality services and that this is reflected in your rates.
Make the issue a price / quality trade-off. If cutting costs is important to the client, offer lower quality options at a lower price and let the client decide what will fill their needs. This positions you as flexible and willing to work with the client, without losing margin.
Offer modest discounts for incremental business, but not current business.
Tell the client sooner, rather than later, that your prices are as low as you can make them. Don’t wait until you are in pain.
How can you promote your own business to end customers via the staff that you provide for this client?
Give them business cards to give out that reflect your business, not your client’s.
Provide them with wear nicely embroidered “Company” shirts to wear at work.
Be aware that your desire to approach the client’s customers directly with your services will be a threat to your client and may result in them firing you as a provider of contract staff.