Situation: The CEO of a consulting company is frustrated by lumpy revenue and profits. From quarter to quarter it has been difficult to predict either number. Unpredictability reduces options in valuation and exit exercises, as banks and acquirers favor predictability. How do you generate a predictable P&L?
Advice from the CEOs:
The objective is to construct a revenue base built on predictability, even if this is at lower margins. Given a predictable base, the company can complement predictable revenue and profits with higher dollar and margin opportunities as they arise.
Analyze the projects that the company contracts for both revenue and profitability. Some projects will be bread and butter situations which are more common and predictable, but which generate less revenue and profit per project. Others will be customer crisis driven. These latter projects will have higher revenue and profit, particularly if the company is the vendor of choice; the tradeoff is that the frequency of these contracts is unpredictable.
If the objective is predictability, the company’s base should be built on bread and butter projects. As the company grows, focus on this base. Customer crisis projects can then be added as they arise to bump both revenue and profit.
The objective will be to become one of the top 2-3 outside vendors of the choicest clients. Target projects may be ongoing maintenance of older projects in the client companies’ portfolios.
How would this model be pursued?
Focus on the company’s top 5 customers. Reduce risk by optimizing customer leverage as a proven entity and offer them strategic deals.
The focus is long-term project based with guaranteed delivery at lower cost.
Identify the fear or insecurity that exists within the customer and provide sleep insurance.
This model works well in the new economy – get lean, manage infrastructure size and cost, and grow with the economy.
Alternately, identify an area where the customer may not have enough resources and provide a solution that allows them to address this without adding additional personnel or by using existing personnel more efficiently.
Another option is to develop a virtual office model. Provide resources for $X per month, with an evergreen provision.
Situation: The President of a professional service company and his team are considering adjustments to their business model. The alternatives under consideration are a client-centered model and a service delivery model. What’s the right model for a service company?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the client-centered model, the emphasis is on maintenance of the customer relationship by the responsible manager, with support from the group to optimize service delivery.
Consider the service being provided and the client’s expectations. Does the client want to have a principal point of contact – a client manager – to address their needs?
This model centers on the key manager creating and maintaining an ongoing relationship with the customer, including rapid response to inquiries from the customer.
In the service delivery model, the emphasis is on a developing and maintaining a high standard of service delivery so that multiple individuals can deliver the service rapidly and reliably.
As in the client-centered model, consider the service being provided and the client’s expectations. Is the customer’s principle concern functionally rather than personally oriented – for example keeping a system up and running in the fastest time with a manageable expense? In this case, the individual technician is not as important as speed of response and assurance of a quality outcome.
The service delivery model centers on standardized and predictable delivery of a defined service, with high responsiveness to the client’s needs. Those who deliver the service are paid variably based on their skills and assigned to deliver service consistent with their abilities. A benefit of this model is that business maintenance is not as dependent on individual service providers as the client-centered model.
In choosing between these models, it is important to speak with your clients and to understand their needs and priorities. Is your model a direct business to customer relationship or a business to business relationship? Is your offering perceived by the customer as a service or a product with tangible results? Is your customer more interested in meeting short-term needs or developing a long-term relationship?
As an example, is the customer expecting a personal, customized service and desirous of maintaining a long-term relationship? For this, a Nordstrom-like model may make the most sense – a highly personalized level of service where the relationship managers on the sales floor keep detailed records of individual customer’s tastes and past purchases and will even have items pre-selected prior to the customer’s arrival at the store.
This model implies that the most important assets to client development and retention will be your account managers. A business development manager may bring in a new client and then hand off that client to “one of my best managers” who will develop the long-term client relationship. The account manager will become the principal point of contact for the client; however, they will bring in other expertise or assistance to handle specific client needs. When a customer calls in, depending on the immediate need, that customer may be triaged directly to their manager or to an individual who could, for example, perform a transaction for them. Responsiveness by the manager within a defined time frame will be an important metric to monitor.
Situation: A CEO is evaluating a horizontal market development opportunity to markets related to their current market. There may be branding implications. The new opportunity focused on a different sector and can add business unrelated to current customers. However, the new opportunity will stretch current resources and potentially impact current business and service delivery. How do you expand into new markets?
Advice from the CEOs:
Because the new opportunity utilizes known capabilities the company should be able to segue into the new market relatively easily.
Because the company is already familiar with security and other issues relevant to the new market, compliance should present no challenge.
Consider the impact on company time and resources. Building any new business will challenge current priorities and will require a careful balancing of efforts to assure that both current and new customers’ needs are being met.
Build workload and service schedules for both existing customers and the effort that it will take to develop the new opportunity including the time needed to create and build new customer relationships. Take your best estimate of resource utilization for the new effort and double it, then ask whether your current staff and capacity can handle both markets. If the answer is positive, then you can be more comfortable with the decision to expand into new markets.
As you evaluate the new market opportunity, look at both anticipated and unanticipated but predictable challenges that customers may face over the next five years.
For example, is there misalignment between future challenges likely to be faced and the current expertise and skill sets of managers who will be tasked with addressing these challenges? If so, tailor the sales pitch for new capacities to address these challenges.
Are there existing mismatches between products and services currently offered in the new markets, and do proposed solutions help to address these mismatches? If so, there may be significant opportunities in addressing these mismatches across multiple customers within the affected markets.
Situation: A tech company is having difficulty with a customer. Given three options – high quality, low cost and rapid delivery – the company can deliver any combination of two, but the customer wants all three. When the company asks which two are most important, the customer responds that they want all three. How do you respond to unrealistic demands?
Advice from the CEOs:
The Devil’s Advocate response to this question is to look at your processes. Is it possible to do all three, and if so under what circumstances?
Think from the perspective of the customer:
What will you need and when?
Integrate the customer into the decision process as much as possible.
Demonstrate where trade-offs exist, and work through these in binary fashion until you reach agreement on the scope of work, delivery timeline and price.
The challenges change depending upon who within the customer company you are working. For example, the engineers understand the challenges and complexity of the product in question. However, the purchasing agents do not necessarily understand the product, its complexity, or how critical it is to their final product.
In this case try bargaining with the purchasing agent – if the purchasing agent goes back to the engineers and gets their agreement that your company can change the quality or delivery spec, perhaps you can be flexible in your pricing. Put the ball in the PA’s court – but make sure that the PA knows that he/she will be responsible for any project delays for not giving you the order today
Use stories to set expectations – better yet, use stories, combined with metrics about the costs associated with attempting short-cuts to develop authoritative arguments in support of your position.
Create a User Guide for your customers – paper and web formats – to sell your story. Sell fear, uncertainty and doubt; for example, if the PA wants to go another route here are the potential costs in terms of time, market share and profits lost.
In particularly difficult negotiations, use the real estate mantra: Some Will, Some Won’t, So What, Who’s Next?
Situation: A company buys several important components from a single US supplier. They are considering an offshore source for one of these components which makes up a large portion of what they purchase from the supplier. Does off-shoring make sense in this case, and how do they mitigate the risk? How do you change suppliers for a key product?
Advice from the CEOs:
The key consideration is the off-shore partner’s ability to reliably make the component at the price promised. If they can, why not outsource offshore?
The decision depends upon two additional factors: the amount that you stand to save by off-shoring your source, and the potential cost to you of inconsistent or unreliable components from the off-shore supplier.
If the cost of failure is high, a modest savings is less valuable. You may want to wait until you have higher volume and higher potential savings before looking at off-shore sources.
In the US, we assume – with some security – that a pilot run predicts a large run. Historically this has not been shown to consistently apply to offshore suppliers.
Can you afford to invest and potentially lose the amount that it would cost you to secure your first production order from the off-shore source?
If the answer is yes, invest the time and effort to visit the supplier, and secure resources to monitor their production – your own or a trusted partner’s. Your presence and interest are very important.
The principal challenge will be quality and consistency of raw materials, and varying age of production equipment used to produce your components.
Are you concerned that your current supplier might cut you off?
The CEO is not sure, but has identified this as a risk.
If this is the case, start now identifying second sources for other components made by this supplier – if only to keep them honest in price, quality and delivery.
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.
Situation: A company faces a difficult situation. One of their customers placed a substantial order for custom product a year ago. They have taken delivery of some product but the bulk of the order is still in the company’s warehouse. The company negotiated a cancellation fee with the customer, but they haven’t paid. What is the best option for the company? How do you deal with a deadbeat customer?
Advice from the CEOs:
Because the customer is unresponsive, be ready to take legal action. Get an attorney. The initial process to prepare for a suit may cost $5,000-7,000. Therefore be prepared to sue for damages plus legal fees, with the threat that liens will be put on the customer’s business during the settlement process.
Once everything is ready for a suit, talk to the customer – the message is either they pay in full what they owe or you’re ready to file a suit which will cost them much more.
The Uniform Commercial Code may cover you for custom product. Check this out. This is important so that the company won’t be exposed to a countersuit for filing a frivolous suit.
A route which may be less expensive is to hire a lawyer on a contingency basis. Contingency lawyers may want up to 40% of the settlement or judgement to take a case, and the value of the case has to be large enough to attract their attention.
Situation: An early stage manufacturing company has established repeatable operations that produce the desired quality. The CEO now wants to focus on efficiency. Early research suggests a number of areas on which they could focus. Based on your experience, what efficiency metrics are most important in manufacturing?
Advice from the CEOs:
Much depends upon what is being manufactured, and both the complexity and labor intensity of the manufacturing process. Start with the basics: looks for a relevant quality metric, and a time / delivery metric. Test these for relevance to your operations and adjust or change them as necessary over time.
Start with simple metrics and make them more complex over time.
On an ongoing basis, monitor your processes for continuous improvement. If an employee comes up with an improvement that increases efficiency and saves money, recognize and reward that employee.
Be selective. Limit your focus to 2-3 metrics per quarter. Make first period performance the baseline for the next period.
Areas in which to focus:
Statistical process control to monitor:
On time delivery to production schedule.
Quality check at end of production – yield rates versus pre-set targets.
Use Google to see what others are using. Google “Manufacturing Performance Indicators”.
As you develop your efficiency metrics, include your most effective metrics in performance measurement for bonus awards.
Situation: A company’s contracts are based on milestones versus time and materials. This is common for their industry. However, end products are poorly defined at project outset and product requirements frequently evolve and change, making milestones squishy. How do you negotiate milestone contracts and payment schedules?
Advice from the CEOs:
In addition to payment schedule, there are four elements to a project negotiation – specifications, schedule, project flow, and budget. Tell the client that to hit their budget target, they need to give you control of any two of the other three factors. This means that if they want to specify budget and schedule, then they have to yield you control of the specs and project flow. Any change to these means that they have to be willing to change budget and/or delivery date. Finally, to keep the project going on a timely basis, they must make milestone payments on time and on schedule.
Try to transform the project, as much as possible, to time and materials. Here’s your talk line:
To give you 100 hours of effort on a fixed bid basis, we have to budget 110. Time and materials, in the long run is less expensive because you only pay for what we need to deliver your product.
Your credibility to deliver on a time and materials basis will be based on past performance and the relationships that you have developed with your clients.
Milestone contracts are especially difficult in low margin industries because of project variability. One solution is to bid 130 hours cost for 100 hours work. The challenge is that this looks uncompetitive, especially compared with offshore resources. Therefore, an option is to develop offshore capability so that you can deliver your projects using a variety of resources with variable costs. Price everything based on domestic prices, but use offshore resources to improve your margins and your ability to cover project overruns without killing your profits.
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.