the grim reality. In volatile markets, forecasts are meaningless. Instead of
fretting over forecast accuracy, focus on increasing billable rates and
generate additional revenue per project, add a flat percentage charge for
project management on top of time and materials. This is often treated by
clients like a sales tax or a gasoline cost adjustment and may not penalize
it possible to build a sustainable revenue source to resolve profit lumpiness? There
maintenance projects. After building a box add a provision for maintenance/upgrades
as new capabilities and technologies are developed. This can cost-effectively
extend the life of the box and long-term profitability of the product that the
box supports, while gaining an annuity revenue stream.
a maintenance add-on service to leverage the company’s core competence on an
ongoing basis. Provide technology upgrades through a maintenance subscription similar
to software companies adding optional access to all new releases over the
course of a year for a fixed subscription cost. The cost to the company for upgrade
downloads is essentially nothing, but it gains an annual annuity revenue
a help desk service to sell via subscription to small companies. Most clients use
less than they anticipate; however, they prefer the security of a flat price
additional info can be gathered through sales to better drive sales forecasts metrics?
Look at the past several years: is there any seasonality in a multi-year
analysis. It may not occur every year, but if you there’s a pattern it may
enable the company to proactively reduce costs where there’s a predictable dip
in project demand.
sales people responsible for both maintaining client relationships and creating
new business? Most companies split these
functions because maintenance is like farming while new business development is
hunting – few sales people excel at both.
in development, the company develops IP, can this be used? When there’s
down-time can capacity be leveraged to develop the company’s IP portfolio? Look
at IP licensing opportunities. This provides an additional potential source of
it is important to figure out an annuity revenue stream, the principal lesson
from the discussion is that most CEOs say that margins are better on fixed
price projects than on time and materials. The key is to control to client
requests for add-ins or adjustments and to include provision for these in
Situation: The CEO of a product and service company has seen her company struggle for several years. While the overall market has turned around, her company has not. She is tired of barely staying afloat and not making the kind of money that she a decade ago. Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
Advice from the CEOs:
What keeps you from hitting the numbers? Creating a forecast, budget and objectives allows you to establish a reward system for meeting and exceeding objectives. Once there is an upside, then not hitting the numbers means that a manager misses the upside and the financial rewards that accompany this achievement. This is often consequence enough, particularly if others are hitting their numbers and getting performance bonuses.
The glass is half-full. The past few years have been difficult. Review what the company accomplished during an extended recession. Look at how the company fares versus local competitors. Review positive changes that have been made and take credit for these. This will provide energy to move forward.
Given the company’s successes, sit down with the management and show them what the company has accomplished. Celebrate. Use this opportunity to set goals for next year. A good place to start is to set a bottom line profitability objective before taxes.
To be a great manager requires more than just a revenue and profitability target. People rally around a vision and a culture that they aspire to and want to enjoy. The role of the leader is to create this vision and culture. Do this, and revenue and profitability will take care of themselves.
Two more thoughts on whether the glass is half full or half empty to check your bearings:
What is your passion? If you love what you’re doing, what else would you do?
If you were doing something else, would you be making more money or enjoying more success?
Situation: A company is developing new forecasting metrics for both sales and revenue. The immediate future does not look robust, and they are concerned about mid-term future revenue. Ideally they want to extend a 3 month forecast window out to 6 months. What is an effective methodology for forecasting revenue out 6 months? How do you forecast sales and revenue?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get your team together and gather impressions on the direction of business through the end of year. How many see sales going up, staying the same or declining through the end of the year. Discuss the rationale behind each member’s estimate so that you fully understand their thinking and what metrics each sees as important to their forecast. Work to make the estimates and metrics as rigorous as possible.
Based on the metrics discussed, develop an algorithm that you can monitor on a monthly or quarterly basis, depending upon your needs.
As you develop your algorithm, test it against past sales forecasts and history. Can it accurately plot past performance based on the metrics that you had at the time. If not, what needs to be adjusted or better understood.
Do you ask clients for forecasts of their purchase needs and do you track the accuracy of their forecasts? Weigh their responses by the quality of their past predictions.
As an alternative to trying to predict demand, assemble your resources to fit the needs of your market and customers and arrange your resources for flexibility.
Look at industry resources. How far out do experts in your industry claim to be able to forecast demand and sales or purchases? How reliable are these forecasts? What can you learn from this exercise that will improve your own forecasts?
A company is revising sales forecasts for 2016 and seeks the advice of others. A combination of low energy prices and shaky financial markets sparked by the Chinese decline has left many questioning whether they should revise their plans to account for an economic contraction. How is the economy impacting your sales plan?
Advice from the CEOs:
Niche Software Company – we are coming off of a good year. Our industry has seen low impact so far. Going forward we are cautiously optimistic. A couple of clients have delayed projects but didn’t cancel.
Services Company – hiring has been frozen. Adjustments to staff count have already been made. Clients are asking us to contact them again early in the second quarter. Opportunities exist in the health care area.
Hardware Company – we are running scared. We have cut business and personnel expenses to assure survival. A large customer just announced new plant construction earlier this week – this may help to turn things around. We are assuming this will be mean a longer term rather than a short-term opportunity.
Niche Software Company – cutting personal/business expenses. Long term things look favorable, but we have to survive the short term. Attendance at a large trade show this month was a little above last year but we don’t know whether this will yield a significant increase in sales.
Trades – Projects with big bank backing are on hold. We see large scale bidding wars for projects. Where there used to be 3-5 bids there are now 15 or more. Looking for consolidation of competition – especially union–based shops.
Situation: A company wants to open a satellite office in a lower cost geography where they can provide current services at a reduced cost to improve margins. In doing this, the company wants to maintain the same culture and controls on quality of work that they enjoy in their home office. They also need to accurately forecast revenue for the new office. How do you maintain company culture as you expand, and how would you forecast revenue for the new office?
Advice from the CEOs:
Maintaining company culture is tricky as a company expands geographically. Assign one of your current managers, someone who buys into the company culture, to head the new office. Also maintain the same hiring and personnel management policies that you have at the home office.
As the biggest concern is cost efficiency, make sure that the office manager has clear objectives to realize anticipated savings.
Look for an incubator that can handle all the peripheral office details so your staff can focus on their work instead of managing facilities.
When it comes to revenue forecasting:
Given the lower costs associated with the new geography, look for opportunities to trade margin for longer contract commitment windows to improve revenue forecasting.
Both margin and delivery can be lumpy when opening a new location. Obtain a credit line to help you smooth the rough spots in your revenue stream.
Investigate deferred revenue options to spread revenue risk – right of first refusal on next generation projects in exchange for a lower cost per project to the customer.
Situation: A company has been approached by a customer with a proposal that the two companies combine. The customer believes that the combined companies will represent a greater market presence than either presents alone. This may make it easier for the combined entity to gain business from larger customers. How do you merge two firms under one umbrella?
Advice from the CEOs:
For a company to merge with a customer is a tricky process, assuming that the company has more than one customer. The merger places the company in competition with its other customers who may respond by seeking alternate providers. If this happens it will create a short term hit to revenue. This possibility has to be modeled into merger financial forecasts.
Different companies have different cultures. This fact is often ignored in merger discussions because culture is difficult to quantify or measure objectively. However if you ask those who have been through mergers, culture conflict between merging entities is most often the reason for their failure.
It may make more sense for the company to focus on ongoing sales to the customer than to entertain a combination that would result in the current owners losing control. In declining the proposal, it is important to emphasize your interest in maintaining a healthy ongoing relationship with the customer.
If the customer offers terms that are appealing, an alternative to a merger is a limited scope joint venture as a trial project to test the viability of collaboration.
Establish with your co-owners a price at which you are willing to give up control. This will help you to refuse offers that are below this price.
Situation: The Board of a company has asked the CEO to generate to forecast of revenue for this year. Their primary technology is new and the company has just started receiving orders. An achievable revenue forecast my not please the Board. However, the company may lack manufacturing capacity to meet a higher level of demand. How do you forecast revenue for a new technology?
Be realistic in your forecast. While the Board may not like your number, the impact of setting the goal too far out of reach is potentially significant, including discouraging the team, and impairing credibility with the Board. However, if you aim realistically and significantly exceed the target you will be heroes.
How is it best to approach this in discussions with the leadership team?
Create a set of objectives and revenue targets and put probabilities around each. Also look at the obstacles to hitting the higher numbers, including manufacturing capacity and the cost of increasing capacity.
For examples if your most likely forecast is $X, then put probabilities around achievement of multiples of this number:
$X – 95%
.75X – 99%
1.5X – 75%
2X – 60%
Once your determine the objective, think through everything that must be covered to meet that goal, from sales to production, and start developing plans and contingencies to address these.
Share your probabilities with the board, as well as your plans and contingencies that may increase likelihood of reaching the higher targets. Ask for their input and assistance hitting the higher targets.
Situation: A company experiences high revenue volatility from month to month, making it difficult to forecast expenses and personnel needs. The company has about 300 clients. Fifty percent of annual revenue is repeat business, with about 10 client projects ongoing at any one time. How do you boost revenue consistency and decrease month-to-month volatility?
Advice from the CEOs:
What you describe is the norm in a service business. Averages across service industries are for 70%-80% of revenue to be from repeat business – more than you have currently. Boosting repeat business reduces your volatility by smoothing revenue across months and quarters.
Ask how you got to this point in the first place. Here are some important questions:
Look at your account development process. Are your account managers cross-selling to other potential customers within a given client to increase service penetration within the client?
Are you talking to the right people within your client accounts? To whom do these people report – what are their most important needs?
Similarly, look at your clients’ major customers and suppliers – is additional business available here?
Do you have an account development plan for each of your major customers? Are there time and performance metrics to assure that the plan is implemented and monitored:
Plan creation by the account manager
Number of new business development meetings with client
Prospective pipeline of business within the account
Are you using the right incentives? Adjust your incentive pay package to encourage business development within existing clients.
How have your organized sales and service delivery? Consider two areas – delivery on existing business and gaining new business from existing customers vs. developing new customers. These require different skills and most likely different people
As an example, one company initially combined key account management and prospecting as a single job. Under this scenario, new customer development was dismal. As soon as the company split the effort into existing account maintenance/expansion, and new account prospecting, new customer development jumped 10x. There was an investment up-front but it quickly paid off.
Situation: A company had several huge orders last year but ended the year with a low backlog. Sales forecasts are rosy, but acceptance of proposals and initiation of work is hard to predict because the company’s products are just a piece of much larger projects with variable timelines. How do you plan spending in this environment – conservatively to backlog or more aggressively to the sales forecast?
Advice from the CEOs:
It is important to understand the magnitude of difference between spending under the two scenarios. For example, if a conservative spending plan means major cuts to product lines or business compared to the more aggressive plan, then analysis and what if scenarios are more complex,
What are the company’s cash-flow and debt situations. If you are cash-flow positive with little debt, this increases flexibility. Another consideration is the company’s attitude on debt.
Be wary of the healthiness of an unused credit line. Companies have seen unused credit lines cut and accounts cleared when they have started using the lines after a long dormant period.
Exercising the credit line may increase flexibility.
Look at your approach to forecasting and spending. How far out do you forecast? How effective have past outgoing forecasts for several quarters been, and what confidence can do you have for the next quarter, the quarter after, and the quarter after that? If you are reasonably confident one quarter out, you can plan spending on this. If you can adjust spending relatively quickly this gives you more leeway.
Establish leading indicators to improve future forecasts.
What is your win/loss record on proposals, and a conservative estimate of what this ratio means for revenue?
Other examples include sales calls to new customers versus new key customers won, and similar sales metrics. These metrics can help to govern expectations based on sales forecasts.
If your sales team is not performing, look at changes to sales management. This may wake the team up and prompt them to go the extra mile for contacts and contracts.
Situation: A company has experienced rapid growth. This is creating stress for the staff and CEO, who finds it difficult to break away from the day to day to focus on strategy. Employees are not keeping pace with the evolving needs of the company and turnover has increased. What have you done to manage rapid growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
The first task is to improve forecasting of business growth, and the infrastructure needed to support this growth. This includes:
Regularly updating your sales and production forecasts.
Updating staff and training plans to meet growth forecasts.
Updating infrastructure and support plans.
Without these, the organization will whipsaw in response to market demands.
Take a critical look at your staff development plans and staff training.
Look at those areas that are most impacted by business growth. Determine whether you have the right managers and support in place.
Evaluate whether you have the right people and whether they have the skills to handle new demands of their positions.
Critically evaluate each now job that you take on. Assure that you have the staff and infrastructure to meet client demands.
Always assure that you deliver on your company’s integrity, reputation and core values.
In addition to addressing immediate needs, look at long-term plans strategically. Ask where you will be in 10 years. Articulate this vision in detail, and drive plans down through the organization. Make sure that everyone is on the same page, aligned with the same values, aiming at the same targets.
Also differentiate your vision from your mission:
You vision is a 10 year time frame, not one year.
Your mission is what you will be doing this year and in 5 years – the activities you will undertake to realize your longer term vision.
Fine tune your vision and mission and drive these through the organization. This will give you clarity on how you wish to do business and will help you to make hard choices as you handle rapid growth.