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 closely-held, non-public company is in negotiation for a possible sale. The CEO seeks guidance on when and how to communicate this to employees. What event would demand communication? The CEO is concerned that if the sale falls through this may significantly damage employee morale. How do you communicate a company sale?
Advice from the CEOs:
The trigger point for any employee communication will be due diligence. At this point, you may have a serious buyer.
Going into due diligence, limit updates to those who will be involved in the process.
Most acquisitions do not go through, so a broader communication risks disrupting the company – unless you are very confident that the sale will proceed.
Prior to due diligence, there is no benefit to communicating any possible sale to employees.
What message do you deliver to those who will be involved in due diligence?
We are entering a due diligence. This is an exercise that we’re doing for our own education so that we understand the value of the company. This is just a drill.
Keep your eye on the business and don’t be distracted by the offer.
Have a good idea of an acceptable sale price.
For a company with intellectual property or significant assets, three to five times EBITDA is a good starting point – unless the sale is a strategic buy to the buyer.
A possible deal is often spoiled by terms and conditions that the buyer attaches to the deal.
One buyer (at any one time) is the same as no buyer. When owners get serious about selling the company they will need a broker to develop multiple buyers, to advise them through the sale process and to defend their interests.
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.
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: A company’s customer base is experiencing market softness and uncertainty. Customers are tightening budgets and delaying purchase decisions. How do you boost sales in an uncertain environment?
Advice from the CEOs:
Offer incentives to prompt customers to buy now instead of waiting. Two potential options:
A limited time discount – Sign by <date> and save X%.
Pre-announce a price increase. Follow this with a promotion – buy now, before the price increase.
If you are selling a service, package your service options in smaller chunks while pricing them so as not to erode your margins.
Consider 30 day trials for $X, or discounted pricing for large or committed long term purchase contracts.
Examine your sales process. Are your sales people speaking to the right people? Try to move the sales process up a level if this gets you to the decision maker.
If some of your sales people are significantly outperforming others, give them incentives to share their sales techniques with other members of the sales team.
If the issue is sales productivity, leverage someone else’s sales team through a partnership. The partner incurs the sales cost while you focus on implementation.
Look for opportunities where a partner can sell your product on top of theirs to boost value of the overall offering and increase their own top line.
A company manufactures components for an important large customer. That customer now specifies that all components need to be manufactured under clean room conditions. The company can’t afford to lose this customer but is at a loss as to how they should respond. How do respond to demands for expensive process upgrades?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start with a discussion. Ask them exactly how clean production must be, and what their concerns are. You can also offer to perform destructive testing (at the customer’s expense) to demonstrate that your current processes meet their specs.
Look at the overall cost of the clean room conversion versus your anticipated profits on the job. Make sure that your profits justify the conversion.
Increase your prices to the customer based on the new requirement, and make sure that the increased price pays for your conversion at a minimum. If they ask why your prices have increased, explain that the process that they now demand is more expensive because of the costs of operating under clean room conditions.
If the customer is a very large player and is doing this because of demands placed on them by their customers or regulators you may have little bargaining room other than complying and adjusting your prices accordingly.
Consider a prefab clean room. Especially in high tech areas like Silicon Valley you may be able to find older rooms at a bargain rate. If you don’t have space in your current location or upgrades will be very expensive consider leasing new space for this job.
Situation: A company has just learned that a new, much larger competitor is moving into their market. They are concerned that this may severely impact their growth and even their existence. How do you respond to new competition in your market niche from a much larger new entrant, particularly if the new player comes in with a low pricing strategy to buy market share?
Advice from the CEOs:
Take a lesson from those who survive a move by Walmart into their territory:
Boutiques and high service specialty stores survive Walmart – especially those that focus on personal service. Walmart does not provide the level of service that you find in one of these stores and doesn’t know their customers as individuals. Boutiques may lose some price conscious customers, but these are not the customers that provide good margin to them.
Use your personal knowledge of the marketplace and your long term relationships to your advantage – including your reputation with existing customers when going after new customers.
You may remain more profitable than the larger company, especially on a per transaction basis, based on your knowledge of the territory or business niche. Walmart can’t tell you the best product to perform a home repair.
Focus on your strengths in the market, and don’t assume that all large companies are Walmarts. Walmart has a unique set of talents and a tightly controlled process. This may not translate to other markets – especially services which are very personal.
Research the reputation and business practices of the new entrant in their other territories. What are they known for, and what are their weaknesses? You may be able to learn this by networking with their current competitors and customers.
If you are a multi-generation family business, consider promoting your “old world skill” and established reputation and expertise.
Interview with Kelly Masood, President, Intilop, Inc.
Situation: An emerging company is gaining traction as it moves from early adopters to mainstream. They need to continue to develop new technologies, while bringing down the cost of existing products. This is a delicate balancing act for a small company. How do you grow without losing control?
Advice from Kelly Masood:
It’s important to maintain momentum and continuous improvement. From a practical standpoint, we do this by applying common sense to our technical discipline. Common sense, here, is a relative term. It isn’t really taught in school at any level, but is gained through experience. This is the true expertise of the CEO.
The delicate part of the balancing act is the mix between developing new technologies and building an effective business model. An effective business model is built on innovative and cost effective products and sustainable profitability. Since new technologies go through development stages, it is important to create break points where you transition from development to productization to marketing and sales. Continuous improvement in existing products based upon customer feedback and new product ideas for future developments are crucial aspects of a successful business model.
If you want to minimize outside funding and investment you have to watch cash flow and development expenses. Revenue from existing products is the key. When you don’t have resources, you become resourceful. If the team is dedicated to producing innovative and good products that make business sense, they figure out how to accomplish it without cutting corners.
To mature your team over time you must keep them motivated, occupied and adequately compensated today while inspiring them to make it big in the future.
You maintain interest through the pursuit of new technology and the learning associated with it. Engineers like to see their designs work and turned into a product that creates value, is used and is appreciated.
Keeping the team occupied and challenged starts with choosing the right talent in the first place and then getting them to focus on building great products.
Compensating them with a fair salary means locally competitive rates, sweetened with stock options to provide great upside potential.
For us, retaining great employees is about enabling them to innovate products that will find broad market acceptance.
Key Words: Early Adopter, Mainstream, Develop, Cost, Continuous, Improvement, Common Sense, Business Model, Cash Flow, Expense, Price, Retain, Employees, Off-shoring
Situation: A company lost money last year, but turned the corner with a profitable final quarter. One of the company’s divisions continues to lose money, though the losses are small compared to the total picture. The CEO is considering cutting this business. What factors should the CEO consider in making this decision?
Advice from the CEOs:
What expense factors contributed to the loss?
The biggest factor was allocation of vehicle and space expense. This division has seasonal revenue but carries the allocated expenses for the full year.
Make sure that your allocated expenses are fair to the business. Do overhead allocations reflect utilization? Unless closing the business eliminates vehicles or space, if you terminate this business these expenses will be borne by the rest of the company.
Study your allocations by shifting the allocation made to this business to other businesses. What is the impact on their profitability?
If you find that the current allocation does not reflect utilization and adjust accordingly, does the business still lose money?
If this division covers its direct expenses along with most of its allocated expenses, a small loss in this division may be preferable to a reduction in profitability of other businesses from closing the division.
How strategic is this division to the overall business mix?
Is this business essential to your product/service mix or just a customer convenience? If you terminated the business will customers be upset?
Do competitors offer this service, and would you be disadvantaged by discontinuing it?
What are the alternatives?
Can you raise prices to increase profitability and refuse business that does not meet this pricing?
Can you restrict the offering to less price sensitive customers?
Can you refer customers to other vendors or sub out this business?
Can you reduce the scope of the offering while adjusting pricing to enhance profitability?
Can you source other labor alternatives to reduce cost?
Situation: A company is negotiating an agreement to resell another company’s software. In due diligence the company encountered a customer who was offered a single user license for the same software at one-third the price that they have been asked to pay upfront. What is the best way to approach the vendor for additional information without divulging the source of his intelligence? Does this change the negotiation?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is no need to divulge your information source. Just say that you have done some research and quote the price that you found. Ask them to explain this to you. See how they respond. This may tell you a lot about how they operate.
What rights do you receive under the arrangement that has been offered by the firm? What exclusivity and guarantees will they offer? Will they write these into the agreement? How will they handle direct inquiries?
Perform a careful financial analysis of the opportunity. Model the market and the full cost of sales that you will encounter. What is customer purchase behavior? Is it changing?
Counter the vendor’s offer to you with a pay-down option that pays the vendor more over time, but allows you access to the software without a substantial up-front payment. This limits your exposure if sales do not ramp as you anticipate.
Visit the vendor and sit down with the President. See how this individual responds to your questions. You may get a much better deal through this approach than through the sales team. You also may develop other partnership options that can benefit you long-term.
Key Words: Reseller, Agreement, Price, Software, Due Diligence, Negotiation, Research, Exclusivity, Guarantees, Direct Inquiry, Analysis, Customer, Behavior, Counter, Visit