Situation: Every CEO needs an exit strategy, if only for the good of the business because the future is uncertain. In this case, the Founder CEO wants to reduce her involvement in the business over the next 3-5 years. Her company has an offering that addresses domestic and international concerns about global warming. The CEO seeks help evaluating options. What is your exit strategy?
Advice from the CEOs:
The CEO sees several strategic options. Which option is more likely to yield results in a timeline that fits a 3-5 year exit strategy – a major international push, a partnering strategy, or leveraging current business to gain additional sales and market share by tweaking the current product line?
The company needs international partners, not just a sales presence. This will require substantial time and upfront commitment from the CEO, not just a salesperson.
Where and who are the predominant businesses in the international markets under consideration?
Can an international strategy be executed and produce fruit in time to complement the exit strategy?
Partner with a hardware company to increase visibility and usage.
Partner with some of the top prospects for an exit strategy.
Focusing on the Product Line.
Employ customer shadowing to better understand how customers currently use the software and what challenges they encounter or opportunities they see – involve marketing, and R&D, not just the sales team.
Reposition the current offering to take advantage of opportunities.
Simplify installation and implementation.
Look at the product development strategy. Can revenue be bumped or upgraded from renewal customers? Are there options for “deluxe” versions with a premium price for upgrades, that become the following year’s standard upgrades?
Gather the company’s team and work through the scenarios for these options. Once this is done, prioritize them based of timeliness and potential impact on the bottom line and company valuation.
Also look at the Board structure – are there gaps in regulatory or sales and marketing expertise. What about adding someone who has connections to a key customer base?
Situation: A service company has been debating internally about which metrics they should use to evaluate company performance. This is important because it ties both to strategy, marketing, and bonus compensation. The CEO seeks advice based on the experience of others. What are good metrics for a service company?
Advice from the CEOs:
For a service company the key goal is delivery of a consistent quality product/service to the customer – as a company rather than as individual performers.
Instituting regular activities or meetings to infuse the company’s “special sauce” to projects will help assure consistent quality of service delivery.
To generate support and consensus within the company, ask employees what they would do to develop metrics to assure delivery of quality.
Have a clear view in mind of what the metrics should achieve – the result rather than the fully detailed process – before initiating this exercise and articulate this result as the desired objective.
Remain open to ideas from the group.
Use the exercise to establish a shared vision and to generate the best possible set of metrics to support the desired result.
Once both the metrics and a methodology for delivering the result have been selected – for example, weekly performance review meetings if this is the answer – then institutionalize these. It may be best to start with a “trial process” to refine details of the process.
An efficient regular process review meeting may save the company more than the 3 hours that it takes (preparation + travel + meeting) for this process.
If there are many “islands” of employees working at different company locations, consider organizing meetings into geographically convenient archipelagos.
Establish, within the service review process a “patented” company process that focuses on quality delivery. Publicize the existence of this process (not the details) when speaking with existing or potential clients. This is a key part of the company’s essential differentiation and “value add”.
Establish a definition of quality for the company.
Develop this as the company’s vision.
Develop the methodologies to consistently deliver this quality.
Long-term, drive this to professional training systems to consistently produce this quality.
Situation: A company currently has inside and outside sales teams, and coordinates efforts with SalesForce.com software. Their strategic initiatives are to double inbound leads, create a triage approach to new leads and to lower the cost of sales. How do you optimize your sales organization?
Advice from the CEOs:
When outside sales claims that they have limited band width, it is necessary to find how they are spending their time.
If they are not spending most of their time developing and closing sales, adjust the system so that they are concentrating their efforts in these two areas.
Decide what the sales teams are selling – set up the organization so that it complements the sales goals and objectives. Below are alternatives used by others.
One company has evolved “product managers” who are like sales engineers but more experienced. They are highly paid and highly skilled. They are business oriented, with good communication skills, well rounded, and have successfully closed sales.
In contrast, the role of this company’s “salespeople” is to follow up. Lower level salespeople are tasked with generating leads for the product managers
Another CEO observed that what the company has done up until now all has worked well. The question now is how to mature their system?
This company’s solution has been to use outsourced Inside Sales Support (ISS) based abroad to find prospects.
ISS personnel are teamed with and managed by the company’s salespeople. Salespeople develop their own system. The ratio is 1/1, but outside personnel are ½ time for each salesperson.
This allows the company to reduce services quickly if they become overwhelmed.
A third company uses a 3-tier system:
Inside sales for lead evaluation.
Outside sales – get hot leads from inside sales, develop, close.
Consider this alternative: instead of a shotgun approach, target three accounts – Elephants. One company did this with an intense 6-month focus. The President and CEO drive these sales. The result: they have closed one, one is pending, and a third is likely to close.
Another CEO observed that the essential issue appears to be an efficiency problem.
Too much of the outside sales time adds limited value to marketing or the company.
Redirect their efforts to hunting.
Once an account is closed, sales is out of the picture. The customer transitions to the customer service organization for additional sales and service.
Situation: A CEO is faced with three strategic options that the company could pursue. He seeks guidance on how the company should evaluate the three options. What signs should they be watching for in their marketplace? Are there steps that they should take while completing their evaluation? How do you decide between strategic options?
Advice from the CEOs:
Go with what sells! Listen to the market, and your key customers. Make sure that you have ears out there that will give you early signals.
Until there is a clear indication from the market place as to which is the stronger strategy, keep your options open. A hybrid strategy – maintaining your current strategy while evaluating the strongest strategic option – will allow you to do this and continue to drive revenue from your existing base while the market determines dominance among the new platforms.
Look at the cash flow from your current strategy and each of the new options that you are considering.
What difference is there in upfront payments versus ongoing residuals?
Look closely at your cash flow needs compared to the timing of receipts from each option.
Are there ways that you can strengthen your cash flow depending upon which strategy you select? How will you bridge the gap between current and future cash flows from each strategic option?
Consider hiring a full-time manager in business development.
This will help you to learn more about your customers and what they will buy.
Select someone who has relationships with the key people in your target markets, and who knows what the insiders are doing at important existing or target customers.
Select someone who can give you access to new opportunities and help steer your strategic development.
Consider a long-term strategic partnership with a leader in your market.
Situation: A CEO wants to establish baseline metrics to evaluate company performance, and guide both planning and operations. Without baseline metrics it is difficult to compare the impact of options that the company faces. What are the most important areas to analyze, and what do other companies measure? How do you establish performance metrics?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start with the basic divisions of the business. As an example, take a company which has three arms to its business – products that it represents for other companies, products that it distributes, and custom products that it manufactures to customer specifications.
For each of these lines track gross revenue, profit net of direct costs, FTEs necessary to support the business, number of customers, net profit percent, net profit per employee and net profit per customer.
Calculate these metrics on at least a quarterly basis for the past 2-3 years to set a baseline and a chart of historic trends.
Once you establish a baseline, chart current performance on at least a quarterly basis and look for trends and patterns.
Where is your greatest growth and greatest profitability – not just on a global basis but in terms of profit per customer and profit per employee?
If you’ve included your full costs including the costs of the FTEs to support each business, then the analysis should show you where you want to invest and what it will cost you to support additional investment.
Do a similar analysis of costs per line to further support investment analysis.
This analysis will help to evaluate whether it is better to purchase another rep line, or whether you would be better off investing the same funds to grow custom business.
Similarly, it will demonstrate on what kinds of customers and products you want your sales force to focus to grow profitable business and will help you to establish objectives based on anticipated revenue or profit per new customer that sales closes.
Finally, it will highlight potential vulnerabilities such as the impact of the loss of a key customer in one portion of the business.
Situation: A small but very profitable business was founded and has been run for two generations as a family-owned and operated business. To boost performance, the CEO hired a general manager with a good background who is not a family member. The general manager has told the CEO that he feels that there are too many family members in the business. The CEO likes hiring people she trusts, particularly friends and family that she has known for a long time. Is it wrong to hire family members?
Advice from the CEOs:
Don’t try to change what you’ve already done – plan for the future.
Acknowledge the GM’s idea. Tell him that you appreciate his suggestions. Suggest that he test hiring more non-family members to cover one of your low risk market segments. Measure the performance of this team versus the other teams within the business.
The challenge with family members is accountability and objectivity. The question for the family owners is whether they have the freedom to act in the interests of the company. Can they put family ties aside when someone is not serving the interests of the company?
The essential question for the family that owns the business is – what do you want to maximize? If it’s loyalty and longevity – keeping the family together, employed and in harmony – they can be good. If it’s profits and performance – family and friends can be difficult if emotional ties cloud business objectivity.
The upside to family is loyalty and trust. That said, family and extended family friends are different. The latter don’t have the same ties or sense of loyalty.
Can you keep employees for too long? Yes. Make sure that you evaluate all employees every year. Establish job and performance standards and make sure that all employees – family and non-family – are held to the same performance expectations.
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: An SMB CEO has sold his business and seeks a new opportunity. Options range from a mid-level position in a large company to various options in existing or start-up smaller companies. How do you evaluate your career choices?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important factors are to determine what you want to do and what will make you, and your family, happy. Start with a Pro/Con analysis of each type of opportunity compared with your short and long-term desires. Which among the following choices are more important?
o Financial stability and some level of job security vs. higher risk and potential reward with lower security.
o Desire to be a player or to be the person in charge vs. being happy with a staff position.
o Ability to create your own path or willingness to adapt to the priorities of others.
Given these choices, here is what you may find:
o In a large or established company the most likely opportunity will be a staff position. The trade-off is stability for authority, but be aware that large company organizational politics may be severe.
o In a small existing company it is possible to be a player in a key position. The trade-off is lower stability and viability for more authority.
o In a new company there is the chance to be the CEO, bringing business experience to a group with technology expertise. The trade-off is high risk, long hours and low stability for a high level of authority.
Other factors to consider are how critical your personal situation is and the depth of your resources. If you have time and flexibility, take the time to find a situation that best meets your needs.