Situation: A company has remote employees who are on a wide variety of schedules. Retaining great employees is a challenge, and with this consistent service due to turn-over. How do they improve the relationships that they have with remote employees? How do you assure consistent reliable service?
Advice from the CEOs:
Guarantee employee income for a period after they lose a client and as you seek another assignment for them. Limit your exposure by setting hurdles – an employee must have served the company for X time to qualify for this benefit.
Create your own “down time” bank. Say you pay an employee $10. Give them $9 and put $1 into a bank so that you can pay them once they lose their current client. The fact that their bank is limited to the amount of these contributions creates an incentive not to draw down the bank.
Offer a paid day off per month of service.
How do you shift your business from commodity to specialty, as a value add business?
What Peace of Mind features could you provide to your clients to create added value and stickiness? For example, can you provide a portal into your system so that clients can access information on the services that you’ve provided, or enhance their ability to communicate with their own clients? What about access to time schedules, account notes, etc.
Look for a solution that will shift the industry.
Look at menu driven packaging and pricing options. Examples include discount pricing for purchase volume commitments or iPads for a significant level of investment.
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: A company has determined that market shifts off-shore have neutralized their strategy for the past two years. They need to find new markets that offer growth potential. How do you find and evaluate new markets?
Advice from the CEOs:
This is a classic competitive strategy challenge any time a company wants to expand within or beyond its core business. Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School is a top expert on competitive strategy. You can find talks that he has given on TED Talks and elsewhere on the Internet that can help guide your efforts.
Do a SWOT analysis. First, figure out your vision and analyze the strengths that you possess that will fulfill that vision. At the same time analyze your weaknesses to provide a counterpoint on what should not attempt to do. Then consider both threats and opportunities. Have these analyses in place before you expend major effort responding to or developing new opportunities. There are more opportunities out there that will end up as dead ends than there are profitable opportunities.
Don’t discount the expertise that you have developed over the years in your specialty. This is the area of your greatest profits both now and historically. It is likely to remain so in the future.
If you need additional resources to meet existing or new client demand – particularly if these involve activities that are less profitable to you – explore partnerships to access this expertise instead of trying to do everything yourself.
Situation: A company has developed a disrupting technology that will allow OEMs to produce high-end circuits at a fraction of their current cost. A non-exclusive OEM partner is using this technology but doesn’t have a channel to high-end users, and the company is too small to reach these customers themselves. How do you reach high-end users?
Advice from the CEOs:
Your dilemma is having a disrupting technology in a market with a strong division between OEMs servicing the low/medium-end market and those servicing the high-end market.
Your technology collapses the division between the low/medium and the high-end markets and OEMs and proposes a full-scale technical shift.
This shift disrupts the current business models of either group of OEMs, as well as their technology development plans. This is why you are finding resistance.
Therefore, you need a channel partner that is either:
A low/medium-end OEM who is just as much a disrupter as you are – highly promising but not yet well-established – and who is capability of developing a high-end sales and marketing effort; or
A high-end OEM that knows the market but is collapsing under their current strategy and needs an entirely different solution to revive their prospects.
Your near-term task is to simply gain market capability – both manufacturing and marketing/sales – and to use this capability to gain early market acceptance.
Your investors want to see early “Blue Chip” partners, but given market realities, this may not be the wisest strategy.
If, over the next 12 months, you can begin to impact the market shares of the high-end OEMs, this is the surest way to gain their attention. Once you start to gain share, a likely outcome is that one of the high-end OEMs will buy you to lock up your IP.
Another company recently used a similar strategy entering a new market by collaborating with a high-visibility partner.
In one year, they took 30% market share from the market leader.
The next year the market leader bought them because “it was less expensive to buy you than to spend the marketing dollars that we would have had to spend to compete against you.”
Situation: An early stage company needs to move from an engineering/R&D focus to a production focus. Cash availability and business plans dictate that this must happen very rapidly – within 4 months. How do you coordinate a rapid cultural shift from R&D to production?
Advice from the CEOs:
You will need an experienced VP of Operations.
Operations and production engineers are a different personality type than R&D engineers. The latter are creative and seek new and more effective ways to solve problems, while production engineers thrive on perfecting a process and getting it right every time. You will likely have to adjust the team to assure that you have both types.
Reorganize the current engineering team into R&D and Production engineering teams.
A core R&D team reports to the CTO.
Another team reports to VP Ops and will cover product manufacturing, process improvement and logistics and QA.
What are the most important steps to take first?
Have a heart-to-heart conversation with the individuals who you have assigned to production responsibilities.
Get back together in small groups or one-on-one with your production group and explain that to meet the company’s objectives – and everyone’s long-term financial objectives – there must be a change. Explain the cost in stark dollars of what the failure to make this change means to the company and to the team. Challenge them to assist you in developing solutions that will allow you to meet your corporate objectives.
Allow some learning opportunities to arise. Let team members make the occasional mistake and use these as coaching opportunities for the group to show what happened, why it happened, and why it can’t be repeated.
Separate standard and special order production into two groups. Each group will have to meet their own performance objectives and metrics – but all objectives and metrics must support the company’s objectives.
Early on you may want to require CEO sign-off on production sheet changes, but within a system that allows you to easily determine material from non-material changes.
Situation: Two employees within a small company are shifting roles. One is shifting from Operations Manager, a higher level position, to an engineering role in charge of production, with no reports. The second has been promoted from Customer Service Supervisor to greater responsibilities for purchasing and production scheduling. How should the CEO adjust the titles and compensation of these individuals?
Advice from the CEOs:
The Operations Manger is really shifting to a staff engineer position. Consider the title Senior Engineer or Senior Staff Engineer if the individual is comfortable with this. It conveys respect for prior experience while delineating this individual’s preferred responsibility. You may want to make adjustments to compensation over time by holding back on salary raises rather than by cutting salary right now.
The Customer Service Supervisor is moving into new responsibilities, and this may take time. In a sense this is a lateral move with potential for growth. Consider retaining the title of supervisor until this individual has demonstrated ability to perform these new duties. Salary adjustments and raises can be added as the individual grows in responsibility.
There is no problem having multiple titles and business cards. Many small companies do this. You can give the second person two titles: Customer Service Supervisor and Production Supervisor. This enables you to elevate this individual to manager of one or both areas as ability is demonstrated to take on additional responsibility and accountability.
Because both employees will be working in production, albeit in different capacities, monitor the situation closely to assure that conflicts don’t develop.
Situation: In a contracted service company, activity gets very busy at predictable intervals due to contract renewals. During these busy periods, either positive or negative surprises can make it difficult to handle the work load. What techniques have you developed to make sure that you find time to do all the right things?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at your renewal process and break it down. There may be some aspects of the process that require top staff attention and other aspects that are routine and can be handled without special training. For the latter tasks, cookbook the details so that you can use either your own or outside staff to complete them. This will start to open up more options.
You may want to stagger your renewal periods so that all of the renewals do not happen at the same time. If this is not possible, rank your current customers in terms of revenue volume and profitability. This enables you to shift focus from less profitable customers during crunch times.
As crunch periods are both periodic and predictable, bring in extra staff on a temporary or contractor basis during these times to help manage the load. You may even be able to work with a staffing agency to plan adding of additional personnel to help handle the load during crunch times.
In the current economy there are a number of highly talented individuals – retirees, spouses who work part time, individuals who are underemployed – who want or need to work but do not necessarily have to or want to work full time. During your slower periods offer training on your products and software to a group of people like this so that during the crunch times they can come in to assist the load.
Situation: Few economists predict a robust recovery. We know from past recessions that in a slow recovery some companies will fail while others rise to the top. What are the three qualities of the companies that will thrive and become the companies of the future?
Advice from Philippe Courtot:
Companies of the future will have three qualities. The first is a keen sense of who your customers are – what characterizes them and their buying and use decisions. You need to see yourself through their eyes. This will give you the ability to shift more easily as their needs shift. Making this shift is easier for a service company than for a manufacturing company because the infrastructure of a service company is more flexible.
Second is an intense focus on operational excellence. Everything is measured with the objective of obtaining the highest levels of productivity as well as the opportunity for ongoing learning and improvement. The companies of the future will have superior systems for gathering and tracking performance data, as well as cultures which allow them to learn from what they track.
Third is a culture of continuous innovation. The company of the future will be the company disrupting itself. Germany provides a wonderful example because of its culture of excellence in small, family owned companies. You may be surprised to learn that it is these small companies who are the true drivers of German innovation, not the big companies like Daimler or BMW. The small companies follow the three rules outlined here. Their success has been aided by the emphasis in German education on math and engineering which means that there is an ongoing supply of domestic talent to feed these jobs.