Situation: A boutique software company with superior expertise in their market competes against a large corporation that provides similar software for “free.” The competitor sells systems with their software pre-installed; however, these systems are known to work better with the boutique company’s software. How do you compete against free software?
Advice from the CEOs:
Create an alternate message that rings consistently through your advertising, speaking, and media. The core of this message is that if you want a successful experience with the competitor’s installation, the only clear choice is your software. Feature data from your case studies showing improvements in performance, savings of time and resources, etc.
Your best target is customers who are in the proof of concept stage. Here they are learning about the system and dealing with the early challenges with the software installed by the competitor. They not only have to pay for the system, but they must pay for installation services. If you can demonstrate both cost savings and smoother operation they will be open to your pitch.
Keep a list of the competitor’s trial sites and approach them three months after they try the pre-installed software. Have case studies in hand that demonstrate the clear superiority of your software. At this point they will have experienced enough during the trial that they will be open to your sales message.
Focus on the regional rales organizations of your competitor – the people who sell the competitor’s equipment. The RSOs are driven purely by sales performance. Show them that it is easier to sell their systems, and that trials go more smoothly when they recommend your software as part of the sale.
Your message: with our software your trial installations go more smoothly; without our software, the entire system sale is at risk.
Continue to refine your search engine optimization so that you appear in the first five hits when anybody asks about the competitor’s systems or software.
Find an independent Blogger who cares and wants to spread the message that your software is the only way to go with the competitor’s system. Continually feed this blogger with fresh material from your field sales experience.
Situation: A CEO wants to push project ownership down to lower levels of the company. This is not happening unless the CEO pushes. How do you delegate yet stay informed as you push authority down the organization chart?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company needs systems and guidelines to clarify on what and when the CEO wants to either have input or hear back, and what can happen without the CEO’s knowledge.
Set levels of approval – dollar impact or decision type – and clarify what decisions can made at what level, what decisions need higher level approval and at what level, where they must inform you, and where you must sign off.
Similarly, establish regular reporting and meeting schedules, along with guidelines as to what is to be reported – again by budgetary impact or decision type – and assure that this reporting takes place.
“The Great Game of Business” by Jack Stack describes a company which has implemented these systems with astounding results. It provides a template and describes in detail how the system is implemented and what bumps they encountered along the way.
Invest more time in setting roles and responsibilities for your direct reports.
Keep reporting systems aligned across the company.
Expect over time to adjust levels of authority as individuals grow in responsibility and accountability.
Most importantly, lead by example. If a team member comes to the CEO for guidance on a project, refer them back to the proper manager for advice.
2015 Top ranked software systems to manage projects and processes from selected searches:
Capterra: Microsoft Project, Basecamp, Atlassian, Wrike, Podio
Situation: A company plans to implement a new CRM system. They have a project road map and have assigned a manager for the implementation. However, the CEO has concerns because this is the most significant software roll-out that the company has ever attempted. She wants to assure that the roll-out proceeds smoothly, and that and that sales, marketing and customer service functions are not hampered. How do you simplify a firm-wide software roll-out?
Advice from the CEOs:
Focus on company business objectives as you plan and implement the roll-out. Optimize the system to company business objectives, not just what the team wants.
Scope this out as a project management exercise.
Build and test.
Roll the system out to preliminary production and collect feedback on functionality.
Rebuild and test.
Plan and conduct system orientation training.
Set a date for the roll-out.
Don’t immediately roll the new system out company-wide. Conduct an initial implementation with a small scale test team. Make sure that everything works as planned and that day-to-day function is not compromised. From the information that you gather during initial implementation, tweak orientation training so that everyone is comfortable with the new system.
During initial planning sessions to set system objectives, meet first with managers whose teams will be impacted by the roll-out. Managers may not speak freely if their support staff are present.
Have a roll-out celebration and be generous complimenting personnel who have been involved in planning and roll-out.
Situation: A company has experienced delays in closing their annual books for years. Inability to complete final inventory is the critical factor. In recent years it has taken four months or more to get final numbers for the year. How do you close the books on time?
Advice from the CEOs:
It is important to put a system into place well in advance of fiscal year end. A key part of this is to conduct final inventory so that it is done smoothly and accurately either immediately prior to or following the end of the fiscal year. Retail or wholesale operations normally complete final inventory within 30 days of fiscal year end.
If your inventory includes both large and small value items, ask whether you have to count everything. Based on past inventory it may be that small items that do not substantially impact final inventory can either be eliminated from the count or handled on an exception basis.
Consider a system of doing monthly or rotating monthly inventory smaller sets of items that make up perhaps 60% of sales, and quarterly inventory on an additional larger set of items that together with the first groups make up perhaps 80% of sales. By completing inventory of these items more frequently, the company will not only have a better handle on total inventory, but is also likely to be more accurate at the end of the year. At year-end inventory add those items that make up the final 20% of sales to the inventory count.
Again, depending upon the nature of the inventory, it may not be necessary to count items that, as groups, are valued under $500 per group. Seek expert advice from your accountant on this point.
Situation: A small company has no formal human resources, pay scale or performance review systems. The CEO wants to create a structure to address these gaps, as well as to encourage employee feedback. How do you build an HR function for a company with under 20 employees?
Advice from the CEOs:
Many small companies outsource HR services. There are a number of firms who provide outsourced HR services, and through them much of the HR activity can be conducted online. Examples include ADP, Administaff, Express Employment Professionals and PayChex.
These systems cover all of the mechanics of HR, and help to assure that the company is in step with changing regulatory requirements.
There are also a host of individual consultants who put together HR systems for smaller companies. These are most easily found using locally-focused Internet searches.
Employees in small companies are used to wearing many functional hats. Hire or assign a manager to create an HR system and implement it once it is set-up. This person will be in charge of the personnel review schedule, changes to regulations and contact with outside HR resources.
One company’s HR Manager has a one hour conversation with the company’s lawyers once a year to make sure that the company is up to speed on any regulatory changes.
Hire a Director of Operations and include HR in this individual’s responsibilities. This person can research options for discussion by the leadership team. Empower them to bring in resources that will meet the company’s needs.
Situation: A company has lost the team spirit that they had when the company formed. The CEO has struggled to revitalize this spirit but encounters resistance from some employees. What techniques have you found effective in building or rebuilding a strong team culture and improving team performance?
Advice from the CEOs:
If an individual is resistant to team meetings, work with them one-on-one. Listen to their concerns about meetings and ask questions to focus them on a higher level of concern – individual and team performance and the need to build effective teams to enhance this performance.
If an organization has divided into functional silos, form multidisciplinary teams around initiatives to build inter-team synergy.
Choice of leader is critical in team formation. The best teams have the most effective leaders.
Crisp, clean communication is important. Document verbal commitments in writing.
Select team membership with an eye to team compatibility. Avoid putting individuals with a history of conflict on the same team, particularly if this is a management team.
Engineering product teams – where individuals work independently on distinct aspects of a larger project – may be more tolerant of past conflict as long as team activities do not require collaboration among individuals with a history of conflict.
Look for common value systems and common focus when assembling teams. This helps to build the team as a strong unit.
Recommended Reading: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni.
Situation: A company has used the same accounting system for over 10 years. The current system produces information quickly and easily, and empowers management and sales to make good decisions. However, it doesn’t respond to customer information requests as well as newer packages. What are best practices for updating your accounting system without losing data?
Advice from the CEOs:
One option is to keep your legacy system, but migrate to a user-friendly platform designed to work with a CRM system that can better meet customers’ needs.
Keep both systems up live until you no longer need the old system, except as an archive of your historic data.
Be sure to cross-train other employees so that your current system doesn’t become worthless if your key administrator gets hit by a truck.
Before you decide which direction to pursue, ask what your employees like the current system.
What do they find most useful?
What accounting features do you need to support your growth plans?
What key functions of the current system would you have to emulate?
How expensive is it to maintain your current system?
Is your business so unique that no off the shelf alternatives exist?
Could you adopt an 80-90% solution and customize the rest?
It may be difficult to do this on your own. Look for a consultant with a background in accounting applications to analyze your needs.
If you feel that you must make a change, but are not ready to do so, develop your solution gradually.
Interview with Greg Hartwell, CEO and Managing Director, Homecare California, Inc.
Situation: Fast growing companies find it difficult to manage consistency and reliability of service as they scale to their next level of growth. They need to systematize what works and leverage technology to enjoy the benefits of scale. How do you build consistency and reliability as you scale up?
Advice from Greg Hartwell:
Invest time and effort to build an experienced management team. As a small company building a new service delivery model, it is helpful for the founders to know all roles so that you have a sense of what’s needed for each role.
Be open to hiring people from other industries. This brings a fresh perspective and broadens the pool of talent. There’s value in industry experience, but attitude and cultural fit are key.
The split between tactical and strategic skills is 80 / 20. Basic skills are necessary, but specialized knowledge can be learned.
Institutionalize how you recruit, screen, hire, train and retain. How do you do it like Disney – attracting and hiring the best of the best?
Know your market and the personality of those who will excel. This greatly simplifies the screening process.
Work hard on training. Our customer-focus starts with our employees. We complement natural talent with training that focuses on soft skills, and on consistency and reliability of service.
Find great advisors who can help build a training and retention system that works for you.
Minimize turnover by compensating people well, and treating them even better. Build a culture of recognition and shared experience that emphasizes the importance of the team and its members.
Embrace technology which enhances your ability to scale.
Don’t wait for something bad to happen and then rush to fix it. Anticipate and prevent mishaps.
Leverage communication technologies to tighten the bond between client and provider agency. Provide added services that are valuable and affordable.
Hand-held device technology is developing rapidly. Leverage this to increase consistency and reliability of service, enhance case reporting, reduce human error, reduce the ratio of supervisors to caregivers, and increase productivity. Be at the head of your industry class!
Interview with John Lima, CEO, Coffee Bean Technology
Situation: As with anything new, there are varying adoption rates for social media. Many top executives aren’t sure how social media can improve their sales. How can social media effectively enhance sale efforts?
Advice from John Lima:
Business is about people, and people are increasingly using social media to connect with others and to express themselves. Social media platforms encourage us to be ourselves – to take off the business mask that we normally present to the world. This enables the savvy company to better know their customers.
First, social media enable you to find customers more quickly. Almost everyone is somehow connected to social media. The problem is the inefficiency of searching for them through LinkedIn, Facebook Twitter, etc. Software-assisted search makes this more efficient. Develop a customer Social ID: a profile of what you believe your customers interests and buying behavior to be to serve as your social media connector.
Second, find people who fit this profile and engage with them in social media. Let them bring their conversations and interest to you, and refine your Social ID as you gain additional information. This gives you insight into the person – who they interact with and what interests them – and enables you to approach them as a human being. Envision an open marketplace where people connect first and then tell their stories. This allows salespeople to quickly build empathy and smooths the sales process.
Third, your evolving customer Social ID can help generate new leads. As the Social ID becomes more sophisticated you can develop key words to find similar customers. Software robots use these key words to find relevant conversations in Twitter or Facebook and flag then for a sales person who can then dig deeper to determine whether the individual identified is a competitor or a prospect.
To make this work efficiently, you want to have an integrated system with a set of tools that allows you to cost-effectively sift through the millions of daily entries logged through social media.