Situation: A CEO faces challenges with clients. The first is vague customer specs because they don’t understand the product. Second is misunderstandings as to timelines. Third is insistence on strict timelines while simultaneously demanding revisions to previous work. How do you add more discipline to quotes and pricing?
Advice from the CEOs:
Is the company’s technology strategy aligned with its capabilities? Currently the company is trying to build advanced solutions in multiple international markets with a small staff. There does not seem to be the technology or development discipline to convert current capabilities into a sustainable market advantage.
For near term focus, because of commitments and milestone payments due from the key customers, focus resources on finishing the last piece of these projects. Once this is done, step back. Look at options and determine the company’s technology strategy moving forward.
The key challenge is to define ONE beachhead on which the company will focus and which they can dominate. The objective is to leverage existing engineering creativity to create a sustainable competitive advantage.
As this exercise is designed, start with a clean slate. Don’t burden the process with a lot of restrictive assumptions. Consider using an outside facilitator to help facilitate this process.
Until this exercise is completed does it really make sense to seek additional work or to commit the company to the next phases with current customers?
Once the company has selected and committed to a technology strategy, the decision process becomes different.
The objective is to develop laser-like focus on the technology. Minimize distracting the team with other opportunities.
It may be OK to lose money on development projects if this work will significantly impact or accelerate the development of the company’s core technology.
How does the company justify asking for payment for development for future projects?
First, determine and clearly state the company’s technology strategy. Evaluate all future development projects and decisions in terms of their alignment with this strategy.
Second, if a particular project is completely aligned with the technology strategy, the company may waive the requirement of payment for development. This, ideally, will be the only exception.
Ask for a limited time/scope project to jump start and define new projects. This provides proof of company capabilities and establishes its credibility.
If is it necessary to negotiate or bid, start high and bargain down to but not below the best estimate of the cost of development.
Remember that deciding what NOT to do or quote is often harder, but just as critical, as deciding what to quote.
Situation: The CEO of a specialty company that is a leader in their market asked the group to review the company presentation. The members of the group were asked to put themselves in the place of a potential customer or investor. How do you improve your company presentation?
Advice from the CEOs:
Don’t assume that the audience has a sophisticated understanding either of the company’s market or its technology. In any pitch either to a new prospect or for funding there will be individuals in the audience who are not experts. The pitch needs to deliver a message that any listener can easily translate to any colleague.
Give brief examples from the experience of current customers to make the technology and its advantages concrete.
What is the problem that the company solves?
State up front: What is the pain – why is it there? How does the company’s solution address this pain? What’s the impact?
Show market potential and explain why the company’s solution will be a home run.
What makes the company’s solution unique and gives it a sustainable advantage?
Assume Ignorance – KISS – Keep It Simple Silly!
The presentation should be high level, easy to understand, and crystal clear in 5 minutes.
Establish credibility by summarizing current success and list the names of current customers.
For presentations to investors have ready answers for the following questions:
How the funding sought accelerate development, and what is the expected return that this will produce?
Assure that timelines are realistic, particularly for a ground-breaking technology.
Do not be vague in answers to questions like “what is your market share?” Answers must be crisp and believable. If additional documentation is required to validate company estimates have a back-up slide in the presentation to address this. Keep the explanation in the back-up slide simple, even if the analysis is complex.
Add an expectation of return on investment. What equity will the company give for an investment of $X. State the company’s pre-money valuation as a believable number. Then give an estimated 3-year post money valuation with $X investment. Investors will discount anything number given but will not want a range.
Situation: A CEO wants to increase brand awareness for her company and its primary service. The objective is to increase the client base and drive revenue growth. They have identified their primary growth opportunity and differentiating advantage. What else should they do? How do you increase brand awareness?
Advice from the CEOs:
What is lacking is a clear vision, path, and marketing plan. These are prerequisites to deciding either the solution or hiring a high caliber individual to execute the plan.
What steps are involved?
Survey 20% of current clients. Ask “why did you choose us?”
Develop the tools to track and show clients service performance online.
Use these same tools to show company performance online.
Tune messaging to potential clients to highlight demonstrated service performance.
Play elite – as the company’s name and reputation grow, clients should aspire to being accepted as clients.
What is unique about the company’s ability to manage and extend the longevity of clients’ key assets?
How well prepared are potential clients to manage this on their own?
How does the company help potential clients to manage and extend the life of those assets?
Once there is a clear plan, fine-tune the internal focus of the company to align with the plan.
Increase involvement in communities where potential clients are found.
Host seminars and webinars on relevant topics.
Evening seminars in locations that potential customers congregate – existing clients attend and bring a friend.
Focus on referrals from existing clients – with a reward – a free consultation.
Look for non-competing service providers who can be good referral sources.
Make it easy for potential clients to switch. Use mass-marketing to spread the word with a multi-tiered approach to different segments of the target market.
Situation: A CEO senses that employees don’t have his sense of urgency regarding the business. A case in point is responding quickly to new customer inquiries in a competitive market. Too often, he takes over to assure that bids are submitted quickly. How do you get comfortable delegating to staff?
Advice from the CEOs:
Prepare for a meeting with staff by defining the key desired standards in advance.
Initiate the meeting with this message: “We have a company image. This is how we define it.” Work with staff to create standards that define this image.
Agree on standards with the team.
Discuss standards with the team but have them make the decision. Guide the conversation – through questions – to focus on the desired standards. Be open to using the language developed by staff to enhance ownership.
Examples of standards that may apply:
Response time to incoming calls, maximum number of rings before response.
Time to return telephone messages.
Time to return emails.
Invoices completed the day or the order, or whatever is appropriate.
Establish a response regimen – assure that response is professional.
Train all people who pick up the phone.
Assign rotating office days for salespeople with responsibility to answer the phones.
Emphasize the importance of speedy response with an explanation that everyone will understand.
When a customer calls, assume that they are also calling 2-3 other suppliers. The first responder can shape the conversation in favor of their company and offering – for example the company can offer both a solution plus design and logistics assistance.
As first responded, assure that the focus is on the company’s strengths – this puts the competition at an immediate disadvantage.
Enforce and maintain the standards
Once standards are set, make review and updates of performance against standards part of weekly sales meetings. Use large charts to track this.
Create friendly internal competition. Who got the most business last week? Who did the best with incoming calls? Have the team develop competitive goals.
Recognize top performers with $50 – $100 cash award, restaurant certificate, etc. Make it fun!
If “everyone” is supposed to pick up the phone this becomes “nobody” because nobody is responsible for picking up the phone!
A company is looking at options to fund growth. These include selling a stake
in the company, bank financing, organic growth. or partnering with another
company. There are trade-offs to each option. How do you fund business growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is a question that should be answered before talking about funding: what is the vision for the business?
Think about building the business that the founders want to run. What size company feels comfortable from an operational perspective? What does it look like?
Does the company have the right people and infrastructure to support planned growth? Are current direct reports capable of taking on additional projects and monitoring both current facilities and additional sites?
As the company grows, can the bottom line be increased as fast as the top line?
Commit the 5-year plan to paper. Before deciding how the company will grow, determine the vision, the growth rate to support that vision, the organization required, and the strategic plan to get there.
The funding decision is an investment decision. What’s the return for a multi-million-dollar investment? What incremental revenue and earnings will it produce?
Estimate how much revenue the investment will generate in 5 years. At the current gross margin, what is the incremental gross margin per year.
Given this estimate, what is the projected EBITDA? Does the annual EBITDA represent a reasonable rate of return on the investment?
The investment ROI must be known – both from the company’s perspective and for any lender or partner who invests in the planned expansion.
How high do the company’s relationships extend in key client companies? Do client upper management realize how critical the company is to them?
If the answer is not high enough, develop these relationships. This could open new funding opportunities.
For example, if the CEO knows the right people at a key customer, let them know that the company may want to build a facility near them. The customer may be interested in partnering with the company to finance the facility.
A multi-million-dollar joint venture plant investment is a modest investment to a large customer if it gains them a strategic advantage.
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 founder CEO established her company with a significant personal loan, which is being repaid. To compensate herself for the original investment, she is considering several options including an employee stock option plan (ESOP) through which employees would be able to establish ownership of a certain percent of the company. What is appropriate compensation for a founder CEO?
Advice from the CEOs:
The critical question is: what is the CEO’s goal? The next question is – what options best serve to achieve goal?
If the goal is long-term goal is maintaining or increasing current income combined with long-term security – like a Trust Fund – seek the counsel of a financial advisor who can help model how the options under consideration will satisfy the goal.
This individual can also evaluate the tax advantages associated with various options.
Is there a clear exit strategy in place?
Every company needs a written exit strategy, as well as a plan to put this strategy into action.
The simple existence of a strategy and a plan does not preclude adjusting either the strategy or the plan as conditions or opportunities change.
There are two important corollary points:
Having a strategy and plan is the only way to build a structure of accountability within the company; and
Recalling a lesson from Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, the successful companies selected a solid strategy and stuck with it; the less successful comparators continually changed strategy and never allowed momentum to build.
To assist establishing an exit strategy, seek the advice of one or two consultants. There are several highly qualified exit advisors that can be researched through current professional contacts or via the Internet.
Situation: A company is transitioning from a service model to a product model. A major challenge is meeting funding needs during the transition. Funding sources perceive the current service model as heavy on cost of sales vs. implementation and this hinders acquisition of funds. The CEO sees this as a short-term problem as the company will quickly start to generate more cash through the product model. How do you transition from service to product?
Advice from the CEOs:
In a competitive funding environment, it is important that the offering be credible. While others may be offering similar solutions, believability will prove to be a strong differentiator.
Where to focus over the short term?
Create a hybrid model as a transition between the current service offering and the planned product offering. Demonstrate that current customers have responded favorably to the product/hybrid opportunity.
Test this concept with an investor. The story is that the company needs funding to get to a saleable product model.
What is the message to investors?
Helping the company to achieve a short-term and very feasible objective gives the investor the following advantages: purchasing at a lower valuation, getting a larger share of the company for less, and at a low risk.
As the valuation of the company increases, the earliest investors will get the best deal!
During meetings with investors, ask them for advice on the current and following rounds and financing, and what they will find most appealing.
How do you mitigate the risk to the first investor?
Have a solid business plan and projections that have been vetted by others.
Have a list of referenceable clients.
Utilize the current service model and demonstrate the product/hybrid Package. Build a case on the advantages of the hybrid model including the financial case. The company is always there to provide back-up assistance to meet customer needs in the hybrid model.
Demonstrate flexibility – the customer can always choose the service model or convert to this if they wish.
A Key Point: You are selling yourself as the trustable resource, not the product or service.
Reference previous investment including founders’ investments. The founders did not invest to fail!
Situation: A company has strong technology and good top customers. However, the CEO is concerned that the company is too dependent on a few large clients. She wants to increase business among mid-tier clients. How do you expand the sales funnel?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get very crisp in identifying who your core customer is and focus on them near term. Look at what you offer that your competition can’t match and create appealing offers for new clients.
Simplify and clearly define your market position.
Here’s an example: First to market with the best, smallest, fastest solution.
This clearly defines who you are. Focus the company on delivering this.
In each high potential market find one company to whom you can offer a significant advantage.
Their current market position might be number 2, 3 or 4. Offer them a solution to gain an advantage on #1 and shift the playing field. This is a win-win for both you and them.
Horizontal business expansion could be the best near-term strategy. This lets each vertical market solve their own problems of technology direction, logistics, etc. Seek customers who have the resources to manage this in their respective market places.
Tailor contract minimums and pricing according to customer order commitments. Be willing to sacrifice price and some margin for committed purchases that match your timelines and resources.
Buyers often overstate their anticipated needs because they don’t want to be caught with short supply.
You can meet and promise lower prices for higher volumes because they rarely order them. However, combine this commitment with higher prices for the lower volumes that they are more likely to order.
Look across markets and focus on promising targets.
Use a call center to queue up prospecting telephone calls.
Have sales people conduct scripted qualification calls with prospects by telephone.
Only send sales people out to talk to qualified prospects. This saves travel expense and increases the productivity of in-person sales calls.
Situation: A company is at a crossroads. They are no longer growing as they have in past years. The CEO is assessing alternatives including a merger, selling the company or restructuring. What are the essential questions to determine whether you merge, sell or revive a business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Do you really have the information to determine whether it makes sense to merge, sell or revive the business? The questions to ask are:
Is your core competency important?
Do you have the talent required to revive the business?
How much of your business is from repeat customers?
Is your platform still being used by a significant number of companies, and are they likely to shift their software soon?
If the answers are favorable, then the only remaining question is whether you have the energy and inclination to continue.
Having developed a profitable business model, why would you give up control or ownership?
Tighten up the business by focusing on the basics and turn the company around.
Identify where you can make money, and
Determine which portions of the business need to be restructured or eliminated.
Essential questions are:
Do you have a clear picture of where the profitability lies within the business?
Do you have a clear statement of your key competitive advantage – your “Main Thing”?
Can you establish a pricing strategy that pays you fairly for the value you provide?
Look at bench time among current employees.
Identify, and fully utilize the most important contributors, perhaps by giving them additional responsibilities in other areas.
See that all retained employees are fully utilized.
Eliminate those who are on the bench the most, or transform them into contractors so that you only pay for active time.
Utilize contractors to fill the “full service” slots that are important to your service offering but which do not contribute significantly to your bottom line.
Most importantly, reformat your role so that you are doing that which you truly enjoy. Your own enthusiasm and passion are the most important long-term drivers for your business, and will be the most important motivators to your staff.