One of the first things that I look at when designing a strategic conversation is the horizon in which our decisions will have to produce results.
Sometimes (remember 2008…), the horizon is as short as 3 months.
Sometimes (remember the times before 2008…), the horizon is as long as 5 years.
WHAT DETERMINES YOUR STRATEGIC HORIZON
How do you tell what your strategic horizon should be? I look at 2 factors
- How substantial and dependable are the resources we’ll have? The more of a war chest we have to work with, the less we need to worry about short-term needs, and the more we can focus on long-term goals. If we don’t have a war chest, then how confident are we that we’ll be profitable into the future.
- How healthy is the business model? Are we generating a good profit? If not, that’s a sign that we may not be delivering what the market values, or something internally is not working as needed. And it suggests that we’ll need to use resources to fix things before we can use them for building things.
WHAT DIFFERENT STRATEGIC HORIZONS LOOK LIKE
Once I’ve done that assessment, I know whether we need a short-term, medium-term, or long-term discussion.
- Short-term = 0-6 month horizon: tactical initiatives that can capitalize on existing assets, or address existing problems, with the goal of generating revenue or cutting costs. For example, cross-selling to existing customers, or consolidating 2 internal departments whose work has changed.
- Medium-term = 6-18 month horizon: evolutionary initiatives that capitalize on adjacent opportunities and needs – things that are new but close to what we’re already doing. For example, selling an existing product into a new (similar) market, or upgrading an antiquated order-management system.
- Long-term = 18-36 month horizon: transformational initiatives driven by a strong internal or external driver but with major work to be done. For example, launching a new product that needs technical development, or expanding the strategic role of a department (we’re seeing this a lot in IT departments that are being asked to drive digital transformation).
For most small businesses, most of the time, the strategic horizon is 1-2 years. But the horizon can vary from quarter to quarter. So, as you prepare to talk with your leadership team, take into account the resources you have and the health of your business as you outline the agenda for your strategy meeting.
One of the precepts of the EOS program is, “The answer is in the room.” It’s a phrase that’s used to emphasize the importance of discussion in addressing important issues, and I am a full supporter of that idea.
The problem is, the phrase itself is not quite right.
WELL…SOME KIND OF ANSWER IS IN THE ROOM
A more accurate phrase would be, “An answer is in the room.”
And it’s the job of the CEO to know whether it’s the answer or an answer that is in the room – whether your team has the right stuff to understand and evaluate the issue and the options for solving it…or not. Because if they don’t, but they think they do, then you are wading into dangerous territory.
It’s not that dangerous if the issue is minor. But if it’s a major strategic decision…having the wrong answer is a big problem.
EVALUATING THE QUALITY OF YOUR TEAM’S ANSWER
So, how do you gauge whether you are getting an answer (a poor or bad decision) or the answer (a good decision)? Here are some questions you can ask:
- Have we seen this situation before? Or something similar? Or has someone on our team?
- Can we come up with a list of risks that would make our banker (or some other knowledgeable skeptic) proud for how pessimistic the list makes us appear?
- Can we come up with 3 strong options for handling the situation?
- Is there more than one person who is worried that the answer may not be in the room?
A CAUTIONARY TALE
Let me talk more about that last one. The biggest business mistake that I have witnessed was when a client decided that the answer was not in the room for them. They hired me to write a plan for a new initiative, discussed and agreed to the plan as a team…and then 2 weeks later the CEO came up with an alternative “short cut” approach.
That short cut ended up costing the company between $2MM and $10MM, depending on how much you count the indirect impact that decision had. At the time the leadership team was discussing the short cut, there were 3 members of the team who said, “We just paid for a plan, and we all said we liked the plan – why are we not following the plan? Why do we think we have a better answer than the plan now?” (Which is another way of saying, “The answer is not in the room.”)
HOW THEY GOT IT WRONG
Why did most of the team change their minds? Because the CEO had a long history of running and building the business, and the majority of the leadership team said, “If you think this is the right thing to do, we trust you.” What they missed was that the CEO had not pursued a strategy like this before – it was a new area for him, and it was more complicated than anything he’d worked on before.
The team needed to listen to the skeptics more – and there’s a lesson there for you, dear CEO, if you find yourself in a similar situation.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
If you’re a CEO listening to your team debate a topic, you have another role you need to play – you need to raise yourself above the discussion, and look down on it, and critique whether the sophistication of the discussion matches the complexity of the issue and the quantity of the resources you’re going to commit to the answer.
In my work as a fractional CMO, I am often helping small businesses navigate the transition from sales-driven revenue to marketing-driven revenue. This is no small feat, because of the time and investment it takes.
I just had lunch with the managing partner of a $5MM services firm. He was telling me how hard it was to ask his partners to spend money on marketing – and he was talking about $20K, which was a fraction of what they would need to really become a marketing-driven company. Why were his partners dubious? Because the ROI was not going to be fast or definite enough.
Compare that with a strategy meeting I was in last week for a $10MM services firm in which a partner – who was one of the biggest skeptics of marketing 2 years ago – said, “If we hadn’t invested in marketing over the last 2 years, I’m not sure we’d still be here today.” (To his credit, he was a skeptic, but an open-minded one.)
Let me tell you something that marketing agencies have a hard time telling you: the ROI of marketing almost assuredly looks terrible for the first 12 months you’re doing it. And may look terrible the second 12 months.
But if you’ve made the right investments in that time, you almost assuredly will be reaping the rewards of your marketing machine by your third year. And they are rewards that are beyond the scope of anything you could have generated with a sales-driven strategy. In other words, marketing can get your business to the next level – but it’s going to cost you.
It’s not easy for leaders to invest in something that is unproven and takes 12-24 months to start paying off – especially given the “black art” nature of marketing, which means that you can never really “arrive” at a marketing strategy that you can lock in and forget about. Each company’s marketing recipe is different. There are generalizations you can start from, but at least 1/3 of those generalizations will be wrong.
Why “waste” all that money marketing, then? Because building a marketing machine is like driving a car instead of pedaling a bike. If you’re happy biking and it takes you where you want to go…great. Stick with your sales-driven approach, and don’t bother building a marketing machine. But if your market is getting more competitive, or your customers are more price sensitive, or your buying cycle is getting longer…that bike probably isn’t going to be enough anymore.
It’s Valentine’s Day – a day when we celebrate the role that marketing and sales plays in our personal lives. And in honor of Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at a new trend in marketing and sales.
Many of my clients love sales and hate marketing. Sales is short-term, tangible, clear – what’s not to like about sales?! On the other hand, marketing is long-term, more subtle and intangible, and much less clear. Unfortunately, many business owners never get past that black/white dynamic to see that marketing is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle to grow a business.
Good marketing – at the small/mid-sized business level – has always been about driving revenue – getting more people to buy more, sooner, at higher margins. But that’s often overlooked when marketing focuses on tweets and clicks and likes and pretty graphics.
Fortunately, there’s a new trend that focuses more on the good kind of marketing – that trend is Sales Enablement.
Sales Enablement is how marketing helps sales – it’s the tools, systems, content, and support that salespeople use to engage prospects efficiently. Because there is more competition today than there used to be, businesses cannot afford the inefficiency in the sales process that used to be OK. Marketing brings scale, consistency, and clarity that brings down the costs of making the sale.
At a recent marketing and sales retreat I led, we reviewed a Hubspot video on Sales Enablement. It said that 70% of the buyer’s decision is made before they even talk to a salesperson. In other words, most of “sales” actually happens during the phase that is usually handled by marketing.
What does the trend toward Sales Enablement mean for you?
- Most small businesses are overinvesting in salespeople and underinvesting in their marketing.
- Sales needs to describe to marketing what it’s hearing from prospects and customers, and what it needs to address buyer concerns.
- Marketing needs to create for sales standardized tools and strong, consistent messages to make the sales process more efficient.
- You need to appreciate what a strong connection there is between educating prospects about their needs, and making sales. Buyers are making their decisions while they’re learning…in fact, because of what they are learning.
Sales Enablement can help you generate more revenue more efficiently. If you think your sales and marketing are not keeping up with the times, you should use the topic of Sales Enablement to open a discussion among your leadership team about how your approach could change.
I’m going to be talking about sales process on my webinar this month, and I want to focus in on the most interesting part of the sales process for this article – creating a “mash-up” of assertiveness and empathy to engage a prospect about the needs they have.
But before I do that, I first have to talk about an important part of the sales process. If you want to get paid the value you deserve for the expertise you have, you have to make sure that your discussions with prospects start with a collaborative dialogue about their needs. If they’ve already defined their needs, and they’re just talking to you about a solution, then you will not get the value you deserve.
The problem is, though, that most prospects think that they’ve already defined their need.
So, how do your salespeople provoke prospects enough to change their thinking – to throw them off the path they’re already on for a solution, and get them to think more about their needs? To do that, your salespeople need to be assertive – they need to prove that they know as much about the prospect’s situation as the prospect does, and it will pay off for the prospect to listen to the salesperson. But your salespeople need to do that carefully – if they’re too assertive, then they’ll probably be dismissed. So they also need to be empathetic.
And that’s the hardest challenge your salespeople have today – how do you be assertive enough to get people to talk with you, and empathetic enough that they want to talk with you? That’s the sales process mash-up that every growth business needs to figure out.
We find the answer to this challenge in the playbook of a Trusted Advisor. Trusted Advisors have independent perspective that the person values (that’s the Advisor part) and the connection and understanding that reassures the person (that’s the Trusted part).
I’ve worked with several clients recently to create “Trusted Advisor Tools” for their people to use in sales discussions to build trust and provoke prospects to question how they’re thinking. I think every business needs these tools.
The salespeople usually see immediately how valuable these tools are and are enthusiastic to start using them. And many are actually relieved because they haven’t known how to push back against prospects in a supportive way.
We’ll develop some sample Trusted Advisor Tools on my webinar – please join us if you want to see these in action.
Stage 2 companies must already have a clear and compelling value proposition if they’re successful enough to have grown out of start-up, right?
Well, yes and no. They do have enough traction in the marketplace to show that they have a value proposition that works. But it’s actually unlikely that the company has a systematic way to communicate the value proposition. And if that is the case, it will find that revenue growth is harder and harder to achieve – and in a competitive market, the company may start to lose ground to other companies who are communicating their message better.
What should a value proposition look like? When I started out in marketing, I worked with an excellent marketing agency, who explained that the “brand positioning statement” should follow a classic formula of, “For [market segment], Our Brand is the [product category] that [customer benefits] by [points of differentiation].”
So, for a clear and compelling value proposition, you need:
– A clearly defined target market segment or customer profile – is it marketing directors who work with global brands, or owners small businesses in cities, or…
– A definition of the product category – the marketing agency I worked with explained that orange juice could be defined as a breakfast drink or as a health drink, so picking the product category has a big impact on how the product itself is perceived
– A description of the customer benefits – what are the pains you alleviate (lost revenue, production downtime, etc.) and gains you enable (new revenue sources, talent retention, etc.)
– The points of differentiation – choosing from all the ways that your product works or the ways you deliver your service, what are the ways that set it apart from the competition?
Once you have your value proposition, make sure you reinforce it with everyone in your company, and you use it to focus your marketing and sales messages.
Many of you reading this post are 10%ers. And there’s something in the back of your mind eating away at your conscience. You know there’s something not quite right about it, but you tell yourself that 10% has always served you well.
And you might be right. You’ve probably gotten along well enough with your 10%. Then again, you may feel like it no longer has the same effect that it used to. So let’s take a look at your 10% and see if it’s still serving you.
I’m inspired to write about 10% because I met with a guy last week who said, “It’s just what I’ve always done. I don’t really have a reason for it, and sometimes I wonder if it’s what I should be doing. But I’ve never known how else to do it.”
Later on, after our discussion, he said, “Yes, that’s what I want – that would help me, and it would help my team. They’ve always been a bit confused and defensive about the 10%.”
What am I talking about? Let me use his words, “We did a strategic plan back in 2008, but we’ve never updated it. It was helpful and we did some things because of it. But for the last 5 years, I’ve just said that we should grow by 10% next year. And that’s what I say at the start of each year. I kind of know that I could or should have more to my goal, but we’ve been OK just trying for that 10%.”
It’s something I’ve heard many times before. So, let’s look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of the “Let’s grow 10% next year” approach to strategic planning.
The good is that it’s an easy way to communicate that you want to grow, but not too much. It says, “Let’s get better at what we’re doing.” It’s also quick – most leaders who use 10% as a goal (I just can’t bring myself to call it a strategy!) need about 1 second to access their intuition and come up with that number. And it’s also good that most leaders who use 10% don’t enforce it – some years they’ll decline 1%, and others they’ll grow 20%, and both are received equally.
The bad is that 10% doesn’t tell anyone how to achieve 10% growth, and, since the person who used it likes a planning process that only takes 1 second, they usually won’t commit the time to strategy and planning to figure out how to get the 10%. And so, they just react to whatever the marketplace offers. That’s not good, but often times 10%ers are bailed out by a strong market, and so reacting is bad but OK.
Which brings us to the ugly, which arrives when a 10%er is managing a business in a market that is seeing substantial change. If that’s the situation, 10% is of no use, and in fact may be counter-productive. Because at the heart of 10% is “let’s change, but not more than we’re comfortable with.” And that can breed complacency that appears to be fine…until it’s too late for any small adjustments to work. And if the only goal you’ve ever had is 10% growth, you and your team are not going to be prepared when you need to lead your company outside your comfort zone.
So, if you’re a 10%er, you have a choice – to be passive or active. Either keep enjoying that comfortable feeling until you’re forced to do more…or lead your team to have a new set of discussions that develop your company’s ability to identify opportunities a little outside your comfort zone, go after them in smart ways, and stay ahead of the market.
“We have to stop talking about what we want, and start doing what the market is telling us to do,” said a COO in a recent meeting I was leading to talk about changing the way the company serves customers.
10 years ago, the company served its customers start-to-finish, and the profits that it made enabled it to take good care of those customer if anything went wrong in the project.
Now, more customers than ever are contacting them to buy their service, but fewer want the start-to-finish service. This was creating tension within the business, as frontline employees tried to force these new customers into the old model – a model that the new customers don’t want and don’t want to pay for.
We’d started the meeting describing the new way that we’d be working with customers, but the ideas were meeting resistance as people tried to fit the new model into their old mindset.
Until, after growing frustration, the COO stopped the discussion with his emphatic reminder that the answers to strategic questions start with what the market wants.
With that clear, we then set off identifying the questions and issues that would need to be addressed to meet customers on their terms. It involves a lot of new thinking, and it is a 2-3 year project, but the team is well aware of the tensions and problems that it has trying to stay with the old model. So, we’ve targeted a few short-term changes we can make in the short-term so we can create momentum, and we’ve also highlighted some complicated issues that will take prolonged effort.
The lesson for you leaders: when you’re starting in on a strategy, or a strategic discussion, start with what your customers and your markets are telling you they need. And if you haven’t talked with your team about what that is in the past year, include that in your next strategy meeting.
In case you were thinking that some people haven’t had to rethink their business model to the “New Normal,” Taylor Swift provided a reminder that, well, that’s true!
While the rest of the world is gravitating toward streaming music services – which apparently don’t pay what purchased downloads do, let alone what good old fashioned CD sales used to – Taylor Swift pulled her new album from Spotify. If Spotify’s users want to listen to Shake It Off or any other song from her, they’ll have to buy it. (I’m a Spotify subscriber who ponies up the $10/month for the premium service, for the very reason that I want artists to be paid for their work.)
Her leverage in this case is unusual, which gives her the flexibility to take the risk to pull her product from a major distribution channel. Wouldn’t you like to have that leverage in your market?
So, what has Taylor Swift done to put herself in this position:
– Worked hard for a decade to develop her skills, brand, awareness, and business
– Put out a quality product that the market wants
– Was authentic in her product and brand
The various promotional strategies her team has used for each album and tour certainly made a difference – for example, I don’t think it was a fluke that she gave Spotify users access to Shake It Off for a short time, so that they could get hooked on the song. But the core elements of hard work, wanted-product, and authenticity were the start of her success.
What can you do to increase your market leverage by improving these core pieces?
– Do the hard work and tackle the hard issues
– Ask your customers what they want, or look at which of your offerings sell the most and do more of that
– Describe your company’s personality and culture and make sure those come out in your marketing (not just in what you say, but also in what you do)
Congratulations, Ms. Swift. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll be buying your songs or just waiting for them to come back to Spotify (I expect they will come back), but I respect you for forcing me to make that decision.
I like SWOT assessments (you know – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) for getting people’s thinking out of the day-to-day and into a creative, strategic “space.” Unfortunately, I often see SWOT assessments that are just marginally useful.
Here are some tips on how to get more value out of your SWOTs.
If you can take a bullet and put it on someone else’s SWOT without changing it, then you’re not specific enough. One of the favorites to put under Strengths is “Our People”…which is also a good example of a bullet that is not specific enough to be useful in the planning process. What is it about your people? Their experience? Their deep knowledge? Their ability to be generalists? Once I know what’s special about your people, then I can create some possibilities about how to leverage that into a better advantage.
Work hard to look at the future. We live our lives in the day-to-day, so it’s hard to look ahead several years. And that’s why it’s an advantage to do – because most people don’t.
Put “the hard stuff” on the list. Every business has issues that it doesn’t like to talk about. The problem customer. The problem owner. The problem staffer. Without knowing the details, I can tell you that those issues consume a large amount of resources. So they need to be on your SWOT – though it will probably take some diplomatic phrasing. (For example: “Some customers are easier to work with than others,” “Owners are not always aligned on decisions,” and “Spotty follow-through.”)
Make sure you have bullets that cover the whole breadth of the areas you’re involved in. Often, leadership teams focus more on certain areas, and that bias comes through on the SWOT. But the non-focus areas are often the places where there is the most opportunity, especially for companies that are developing from the lean-and-mean start-up to a more complete and sustainable enterprise.
So, here’s the question to ask about your SWOT to see if you’re getting the value out of it: “Does it give us insight into where we should commit significant resources over the next 3 years to improve our chances of success?” If it gives you that, then you’re getting the value you should. If it doesn’t, then you should take steps to upgrade it – which I’ll cover in my next post.