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 is in the process of shifting their business model to better address customer needs. They have three different models under consideration. Management is split between these models, but must arrive at a consensus. How do you optimize your business model?
Advice from the CEOs:
Right now, you are considering three different potential models:
Tools – your old model
Data – produced by your old model
Service – your new model
These are different models with different prospects.
The money makers in marketing focus on data, not tools. Data is information, and this is what is valuable to clients. If you want to focus on the data component of your offering.
Currently, you are scraping data from social media and matching this to your client’s database on a real-time basis. There’s a model and value here because you are enhancing your client’s current database by making it more useful and actionable to them.
You have tools to enable and add value to existing client databases by allowing them to better segment their database. Again, there is value here.
Your core IP is the ability to correlate diverse data sources. Have you protected this IP? If not, this needs to be a top priority.
How much information that you scrape from social media sources can you share without violating privacy? This is something to think about because people are becoming increasingly sensitive about companies collecting their private information.
Situation: Edgar Allen Poe’s “Surviving the Maelström,” is a tale is of three brothers whose fishing boat is caught in a monstrous whirlpool, and how the reaction of each brother determines his fate. Similarly, in times of uncertainty, our ability to react with either panic or a rational, reasoned response determines our fate. How do you survive a maelström?
Advice of the CEOs:
Based on Poe’s story, you need to replace fear with assurance, uncertainty with boldness, and doubt with conviction.
There are several potential financial bubbles forming including student loans and negative interest rate loans to sovereign governments. Both, in their own way, pose a threat to the international and domestic financial systems and could rapidly impact borrowing costs for companies. The solutions are to stay in ongoing contact with customers, and to stay light and flexible as companies so that you can adapt to market changes.
For Internet companies, the shift to Freemium offerings (a base product for free with pay as you go functional add-ons) makes it more difficult to design viable business models, and means new competition for established companies in low capital cost businesses. Again, a solution is to stay in ongoing contact with customers, constantly reinforcing your value proposition and the reality of switching costs.
Creative Destruction – particularly the emergence of new companies that threaten large customers and can change the value perception of suppliers’ core competencies. Solutions include ongoing communication with customers seeing what they see as “the next big thing,” focusing on continually improving our own core competencies, and possibly teaming with the more promising emerging companies.
The illusion that advertising will pay for everything – in reality, advertising dollars are a scarce resource like all other resources. Solutions include testing our own value-adds as an ongoing process, and creating fast-fail models to cost-effectively test our own promotions.
Definitions of value and productivity are no longer stable; all depends on the method of measurement. A solution is to remain aware of the innovator’s dilemma and to continually renew our value propositions.
A workforce in flux where young people don’t want to work for what they perceive as “old line” companies, as well as early-retiring baby boomers who may learn in 3-5 years that they can’t afford retirement. Solutions include focusing on employee engagement, building more flexible and “liberating” business models, and teaming younger with more experienced workers to cross-train each other.
Situation: A small company has always used guerilla marketing as its marketing modus operandi – trade shows, etc. Their VP Sales recently left. They feel a need for a marketing plan and hired a company to assist them in understanding how they are perceived by their customers. Should they continue to outsource, or is it preferable to bring marketing expertise in-house? Is it time to hire a marketing manager?
Advice from the CEOs:
How well do you understand your customer profiles? It is important to characterize, segment and understand your customers before you can understand your marketing.
What is the company size of your typical customer? Small companies don’t spend a lot on big trade shows, other than perhaps sending a couple of people as attendees. Event marketing may be a more effective way to reach small customers.
The company that you hired should be answering these questions for you.
Marketing is about creating an environment in which people are aware of you and find you versus your having to go out and find them. Social media have fundamentally changed the marketing challenge, emphasizing pull versus push marketing – commercials, ads, billboards, etc.
An important role of marketing is perception management so that when a lead or need arises, your company is a natural answer.
Whether or not you hire a person, you need a marketing plan. Once you have a plan, you need a marketing budget.
The company is now at 35+ employees. Fischer’s growth curve research indicates that at this size you need a professional in the marketing position – someone with experience who knows the ropes. This person could be inside or outside.
Situation: A company’s current directors are all insiders. The CEO wants to bring in an outside director for greater perspective, someone who can help the company grow to the next level. What should they look for? How do you recruit an outside director?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look for an individual at a company in a similar market segment that is the revenue size that you want to be and which is selling to the same customers that you do. You want their sales process to be similar in type and complexity of sale but non-competitive with your company.
This can be an inactive founder or past employee who has been in GM role with P&L responsibility.
Write a list of the needs that you want this person to fulfill. Use this to evaluate prospective candidates.
Is it OK to hire a stranger?
Before you speak with a candidate, research their background and reputation.
You want someone who can provide information and a perspective that you don’t have now. During the selection process you will get to know the person.
Consider a high level individual from a company that has been a top customer. This individual can help you understand how you are viewed in the market, and how you can enhance your positioning and competitiveness.
Have lunch with a local recruiter who regularly recruits directors for companies. Get their perspective on how to select an outside director and what to look for in a candidate.
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 has customers scattered around world. When the company was small, the CEO was very involved at all levels of sales and customer relations. Now that the company is larger, the CEO is more strategic but misses client contact, particularly for gathering market intelligence and understanding. The CEO does go on regular sales calls with reps but is getting push-back from the Sales VP. What is the CEO’s role in sales?
Advice from the CEOs:
Make an effort to understand the push-back coming from the Sales VP. Probe – where is the resistance coming from? What is the basis of the resistance? Is it personal or functional? Keep probing until the roots of resistance are clear, and then deal with these.
As CEO, insist on continuing customer contact. This is essential to your role and your understanding of your market.
Sit down and discuss this with the Executive Team. Go over your travel schedule and your objective in meeting with customers. Where appropriate meeting opportunities exist, let them know that you want to be included. Follow-up and repeat the message if they do not schedule you for calls.
How does the sales rep position this with a client? Let the customer know that the CEO will be visiting the area and would like to meet you. Here are the broad objectives and the benefit to you. Knowing that the CEO is interested in meeting with the client can be a powerful way to deepen the relationship with the client.
Having the CEO accompany the local representative on the first meeting with a customer sends the wrong message. Let the representative establish the relationship first. Then bring in the CEO to deepen and strengthen the relationship when the opportunity is right.
Situation: A company offers a service that can potentially boost clients’ revenues by 50% or more. However, the CEO has found it difficult to communicate this value proposition to potential clients. While some clients understand and have bought the company’s service, too many others have not. How do you communicate your value proposition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Not everybody will buy any service, no matter what advantages it offers. Here are steps to take:
Make a list of clients that you have closed, and those that you have not.
Identify whether there is a difference in the profile of the clients that you’ve closed and those that you didn’t.
From the commonalities among those clients that have accepted your value proposition, create an ideal customer profile.
Use this profile to pre-qualify potential new clients and assure that they meet this profile before investing in sales efforts.
By focusing sales efforts on those clients that you are most likely to close, you will improve your close rate and also reduce your sales cost to revenue ratio.
As you cultivate a new prospect, identify those individuals within the client company who can block your sale. Make these individuals heroes for supporting your offering. Offer them appealing learning retreats. Offer augmentations that appeal to the unique needs of the client. Raise your prices to fund these augmentations, but more than cover these costs with boosted revenues to the client.
Focus on the key WIIFM – “What’s in it for me” – that will appeal to key purchase influencers. Enlist these people as your evangelists within the client.
Emphasize not just financial benefits, but quality of life benefits that will accrue to clients through your service. Back this with a guarantee that you feel comfortable making.
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.
Situation: A Company has a key customer that wants to upgrade the Company’s status as an approved supplier. This comes with a catch – the customer demands that the Company reduce the amount of its total revenue represented by its business with the customer. The customer doesn’t want the Company to be overly dependent upon them or their business. One option that the Company may explore is purchasing another business. When does it make sense to buy a company?
Advice from the CEOs:
The Company may be working under a false premise.
If the Company is truly a critical supplier, the customer is not likely to go away just because they don’t like a single ratio on how the Company runs its business.
The risk that the Company takes on buying another business is that this distracts the Company and ends up jeopardizing current business both from thus customer and others.
It makes more sense to explore acquiring another company if the Company’s broader goal is to become more diversified, or if new business commitments are forthcoming from this or other current customers.
What about this strategy makes sense?
Provided that the purchase of another company makes strategic sense, it may be feasible to finance the purchase of that company through a leveraged buy-out.
Be sure to build an earn-out with incentives contingent upon the seller staying on and helping to maximize long-term value of business.
As an alternative to buying another business, it may be possible to build a new lower cost/price version of the Company’s current product or service and build a new customer base for the lower cost version. This is how automobile companies use the same or similar frames, engines and many of the same components to create different cars for different markets.