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 company targets mid-sized clients with pricing that is similar to its competitors. They believe that their principal differentiation is their relationship with their clients. The problem is that this is also what all of their competitors claim. They are considering testing a new pricing concept – a monthly fixed fee that will provide a pre-negotiated set of services at a favorable discount, with a weekly presence in their clients’ offices. How to you test a new service delivery model?
Advice from the CEOs:
This looks like an appealing concept. With this arrangement there is no clock ticking and the client may view your various services as a more open menu of options available to them.
Another company has a similar relationship with their CPA firm and have both enjoyed this and are using more services from this firm.
Just a regular presence in the office is worth the retainer.
Another appeal is that this allows regular participation in management and Board meetings.
Another CEO offers a similar program for her professional service company’s clients and have found it successful.
Since there appears to be strong support for this model within the group, what is the best way to implement this new offer?
Negotiate an initial monthly rate for a set level of services as a retainer without a clock.
Agree to a periodic review and adjustment of services and pricing – perhaps quarterly – based on the time and services that have been provided during the preceding period.
How do you sell this program to those within your own company who are skeptical?
Try the program with three clients on a limited trial basis and measure it.
Situation: A company has developed a number of initiatives and priorities which are important to the success of the company. All of the initiatives are daunting. What do they need to do to get all of these accomplished? How do you manage multiple priorities?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start with corporate level objectives and set these independently from your initiatives. Pick your top corporate goals and objectives – financial, performance, and so on. Once this is in place, rate your initiatives in terms of how they help to meet your company objectives.
Create an initiative list. Measure the upside and risk for each initiative. Based on the results of your analysis classify each initiative: critical, important, or nice to have. This, plus alignment between initiatives your corporate objectives will indicate which initiatives are most critical to company success.
Every company needs long and short term goals. Use these to align and prioritize initiatives. Only and your team you can tell what is important and importance is a matter of your strategic focus and objectives.
They key to accomplishing multiple objectives is focus. Focus on your top 2-3 initiatives first – if you can reasonably handle this many. Once these are accomplished, focus on the next 2-3, and so forth.
Look at your competitors – where are the opportunities in the marketplace. How will your initiatives make you more competitive?
What does your leadership development plan look like? If you plan to add new leadership, include in your thinking a transition plan to new leadership, taking into account your multi-year timeline.
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 CEO is concerned that his company’s sales and marketing efforts are not effective. Too often the sales team finds a good prospect, but fails to convert them to the company’s offering. How can the company improve its sales conversion rate? How do you optimize your buy/sell funnels?
Advice from the CEOs:
To improve both your marketing and sales functions, it is essential to move the company’s perspective from the Sales side of the Seller’s Funnel to the Marketing side of the Buyer’s Funnel. Only by understanding your customers can you:
Create awareness of their needs,
Acknowledge interest in a solution to their needs,
Consider options and develop preferences among the possible solutions, and
Determine how to effectively communicate with them through your marketing and sales efforts.
In today’s world, a quality web site is essential to your business. The objective of the web site is to convince the customer that they want to talk to or do business with you. Your web site must tell them:
Who you are.
What your values are.
Why you are special.
And it must include a “call to action” – a convincing reason for them to call you.
To better qualify your prospective clients:
Develop a scripted telephone interview that can be conducted by your sales people or less expensive inside sales/marketing people to qualify prospects before you spend the time and effort for an in-person sales call.
Use targeted marketing programs to leverage references to prospective customers.
Have lots of conversations with potential customers to understand their needs. Tailor your value creation process to address these needs.
Special Thanks to Craig Olson of MXL Partners for his contribution to this discussion.
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 an offshore operation with 10 engineers and a good General Manager. They will hire five more engineers in the next month. Their target billing rate is projected to be profitable when they reach 15 engineers. Their challenge is that they need to bear the investment loss to have an offshore capability, but are not sure that they’ll see a pay-off. How can you accelerate the offshore learning curve?
Advice from the CEOs:
Given the current situation, give yourself a window of 60 to 90 days. Create a go/no go decision point and let the General Manager know this. It will provide motivation for the off-shore operation to come up to speed faster.
Another company projected a 2 year break-even based on others’ experience in the geographic location.
They are nearing the 2-year point with the office up and running, on target with schedule, under a General Manager with proven experience.
They see payback on their initial investment at the 2.5 to 3 year point, and thereafter duplicating their payback every 6-12 months or better.
It is important not to undercharge for off-shore work.
One company charges $125 for work done in India that they would have charged at $180 if done in the US – a 29% discount. This is for high billing rates, with spreads even better for lower billing rate work.
If a client pushes for offshore rates, bargain for a lower initial discount for off-shore work compared with US-based work, but combine this with an offer to generously share additional discounts as the offshore location improves productivity.
Bottom Line: Stay the course. Long-term this investment will pay off.