Situation: A company wants to up its game by focusing on service. They are evaluating different options to provide customized services to gain a sustainable differentiating advantage over their competition. How do you enhance your customer service model?
from the CEOs:
the gaming industry one CEO sees an effective model focusing on higher level customer
service. The top games have allowed user customization using generic
customization tools. This allows the provider of the tool kit to serve a larger
number of users using a single tool kit to provide a wide variety of gaming
example from the gaming industry focuses on middleware developers. These
developers create an interactive knowledge base for customer self-service. The
knowledge base is monitored by the host company, and misleading or potentially
harmful input is excluded. The benefit is that this enlists clients to provide
their input on customer service as well as product development.
CEO sees this as a useful way to drive down customer service costs by providing
more tools and fewer bodies to perform the customer service task. The model’s
objective is for the customer not to need personalized service, but to be able
to develop solutions on their own using a flexible took kit. The host company
gains additional advantage because their user agreement allows them to take the
best models used by clients to spark their own product development.
fourth CEO sees lasting value in developing close relationships with customers.
They have developed tools that allow the customer to solve simple customer
service tasks but require company assistance for the more sophisticated
solutions. The company, in exchange for this added expense, learns from the
Situation: A company wants to expand to new sites. It’s business model relies on high levels of customer service, with high customer retention and efficiency. The challenge is that the model is low margin, because only a few employees are billable. How do you finance site expansion?
Advice from the CEOs:
To evaluate profitability and start-up time create a low-cost prototype site to test the model and collect data.
Develop a template with a high likelihood of survival over the first 6-12 months when investment will outweigh income.
Consider a SWAT resource team to accelerate early success for new sites.
Key areas of focus:
Understand the value of the business. For example, is it:
Improving client operational efficiency?
Building the team?
Response time to client needs?
From experience define the most important variables for success:
What is front office, what is back office?
How important are the dynamics between key people? Is it better to hire key people as the number of sites expands or grow them internally.
Determine what is being sold, with a reasonable prospect of return – methodology or services?
Consider a franchise model. The model must show a reasonable return to the prospective owner, including the cost of franchise purchase and start-up costs.
As franchisor, it is important to know what this model looks like to a prospective franchisee; however, take care not to create a representation to which would be bind the franchisor as a promise.
A successful franchise should have a branded presence.
Offer potential franchisees a guarantee: if after one year the net costs to establish and maintain the site are below a certain level, the franchisor will credit the difference between their estimate and the actual net costs in Year 2.
MacDonald’s does not allow franchisees to choose store locations. Similarly, the franchisor can choose locations, determine the availability of key talent, select anchor clients, and develop a reasonable estimate of the value of a new franchise before selling it. This increase the value for the franchise sale and creates a more predictable ROI for new franchisees.
Situation: A component company is struggling to set financial goals. Its sales are dependent upon purchases by large customers whose orders are influenced by the economy and demand for their products. How do you set goals in a volatile economy?
Advice from the CEOs:
What are the principal drivers that define the market? Have they changed? If so, how? Focusing on principal drivers creates more clarity in a volatile economy.
Rather than looking at the company as a producer of components, focus on the critical value add that the company’s products provide to customers. By focusing beyond the product, strive to become a key partner to customers. This can allow you to develop retainer contracts with key customers rather than working solely on a project basis.
The Holy Grail is predictable recurring revenue, for example on a service contract basis. The establishment of retainer contracts can help the company move in this direction.
The company’s customers have increasingly placed rush orders because they have been hesitant to commit to steady production. This, in turn, increases the costs to the company because they are being asked to alter their production schedule to accommodate rush orders. It’s fair to publicize and charge expedite fees for rush orders, just as delivery companies increase their charges for expedited delivery. Expedite fees will cover the cost of altering production schedules and can also add cushion to company profits.
A portion of the company’s business is supplying consumable parts that the OEM marks up and distributes to end users for their equipment.
As an alternative look at parts manufacturing/sourcing, storage and distribution direct to the customer as a separate business opportunity and take this over from the OEM – it may be a nit to the OEM that they would be willing to give up for a reliable service alternative.
Situation: The CEO of a privately held company wants to share company success with employees. An option that she is exploring is phantom stock. The objective is to engage employees in company success. Does a phantom stock plan make sense?
Advice from the CEOs:
Why would you use phantom stock options instead of real stock?
Phantom stock options are popular in the tech sector. Phantom stock confers the right to receive cash at a future point in time, typically a share of the proceeds received upon the sale of a company.
The principal difference between phantom stock and real stock, is that real stock must be issued in exchange for cash, property or past services. There is also a tax consequence to the receipt of real shares. When shares are issued in exchange for past services the employee must recognize taxable income, just like wage compensation. Employees may be disappointed to learn that they may face taxable income based on the fair market value of their shares received without compensating cash to pay the tax.
Let’s assume that the objective is to increase employee engagement as they observe the value of the shares increasing with company success over time.
Under phantom stock programs the value of the company is pegged on a periodic basis, based on a pre-set formula developed by the company.
In some cases, employees can “sell” their phantom stock back to the company for the differential between the price when they were awarded the stock and the current pegged price.
The structure of the program is determined by management based on company objectives.
Employees frequently don’t have the cash to purchase real stock or options at a fair price given the value of the company. Using a phantom stock plan, a company can offer the rewards of stock ownerships without a purchase requirement or tax implications at the time of award. Employees can be apprised of the value of their phantom stock based on a periodic internal accounting exercise.
Situation: A B2B company has historically negotiated pricing with customers individually. While there are similarities between customers, each receives a product customized to their needs. The CEO is considering creating a “full disclosure” pricing model including their costs and seeks feedback from others. Do you share company costs with customers?
Advice from the CEOs:
With only two exceptions, the CEOs did not agree with the concept of fully disclosing their cost structure to the customer.
The industry exceptions were public construction and government work. Some cities and the federal government require cost breakdowns and mark-ups by regulation.
The difficulty with the profit or license line, however it’s labeled, is that it becomes obvious that this is the company’s profit ‘nut.” This may be shared with a CEO that you respect; however, if the CEO shares this information with others in the organization your cost breakdown may become the basis for future line-by -line negotiations for cost reduction. Those with whom your company negotiates will be acting in their company’s interests, not yours.
The key is to optimizing pricing is to identify and sell a solution to the customer’s pain. If you do your homework well, and the customer is the right prospect, the price that you charge will pale in comparison to the costs that the customer seeks to avoid.
In your first negotiation, make sure that you have identified the customer’s pain and are presenting a value that addresses this pain. Only after you set expectations and have assured balance of effort do you go into more detail about your cost structure. Even here, only share detailed cost information if you deem this critical to the sale.
Look at it this way – price is not the key issue. The key issue is whether you can solve the customer’s problem and do so while providing an appropriate return on investment for the customer.
Situation: An early stage company has assembled an impressive team and has a solid service offering. The immediate challenge is bringing in clients to fuel growth. The team has the capacity but needs some creative ideas on where they should focus their efforts. How do you fuel early stage growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
Fully utilize the team’s talents. Team members with established expertise can offer clinics featuring the company’s service offering at local colleges, business organizations and other venues to target audiences. Think about business organizations with members who would benefit from the company’s services. Also reach out to venture capitalists and the entrepreneurial market.
Develop a strong value proposition:
Eyeballs on the market
Links to highly qualified resources
Demonstrated expertise in your space
Claims tied to the top priorities of target clients
For start-up and entrepreneur client targets:
Offer a packaged set of services for a fixed fee. Be open to creative payment options to fit the financial needs of entrepreneurs.
Start developing a full suite of services. Start by assessing the need and developing a target list of early clients. VC portfolio companies can be a great target.
Build a good web-based communications interface for client use. Think of what is needed to create an attractive menu and let this drive service development.
Develop a separate brand for ancillary services that will complement the current offering, but which is outside of the current offering. Look at markets which would benefit from the service, including medical and nursing providers.
Situation: A CEO is in the process of rebuilding the firm following a period of inactivity. Historically their marketing was word-of-mouth. How do you reestablishing a network which has been dormant for a period, find new clients and communicate an updated value proposition? How do you rebuild a company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Track down and visit old customers and contacts. Let them know that you are rebuilding the company and ask for their advice and help.
Use LinkedIn to find and reconnect with old contacts. Have breakfast or lunch with them, even those who are retired. Reestablish old connections and ask for an update on their companies and activities.
Focus on your knowledge base and the results that you’ve produced historically. There are more technology choices available now than there were in the past. Help old and prospective new clients to navigate the array of choices.
Development assessments to show your prospects where they are and where they need to focus their effort.
Many have built companies on their own – without professional assistance. The results often look good on the surface but lack a solid foundation. You have the perspective and expertise to bring it all together in a coherent and cohesive strategy.
Rejoin professional associations and networks that you may have dropped.
Go virtual – use virtual assistants to manage expenses while you rebuild.
Do webinars, and give talks on developing and executing a successful plan.
Create some pro-bono or low-cost programs for charities. Your target is the Board Members who may become future clients.
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 founding CEO is evaluating a purchase offer for his company. The buyer wants the CEO to retain some ownership interest to assure a smooth transition post sale, and ongoing assistance from the CEO so that the company continues to succeed post-sale. Should the CEO retain a minority share of the company? How do you structure an earn-out?
Advice from the CEOs:
The ideal option is full payment up-front. However, if the CEO is perceived by the buyer as critical to the company the buyer will want to have some assurance of continued services for some period.
An earn-out of fixed payments over time is acceptable provided that the language of the agreement is acceptable. However, performance-based earn-outs make no sense if the CEO no longer has control over the decisions that will impact performance. Don’t structure the payment as an earn-out, but as a retention bonus and assure that the terms are favorable.
Post-sale a minority share of your old company holds no value if you can’t monetize it. Holding a small share of a non-traded company has the same challenges.
It is all about liquidity.
If the other party offers this, ask what is the value is to you of the retained share.
Minimize the earn-out if one is demanded, but don’t count on it.
If there isn’t a strategic fit between the buyer and the company, the value of the company in a sale will be lower.
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.