Selling

The Downside of Easy (or, the Upside of a Good Challenge)

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Picture of a Suzuki motorcycle

As a young boy, I was “that kid” who would take everything apart, often leaving a formerly functional alarm clock in a hundred pieces in a shoe box. I loved figuring out how things worked, and how components worked together as a system. When I was 10, I spent one winter completely disassembling and reassembling my Suzuki TM75 motorcycle in my bedroom (my parents must have had so much more patience and understanding than I do as a parent). It was rebuilt by spring and ran like a champ. Beginners luck?

By then I was hooked – I enjoyed working with my hands and fixing things. That was a great skill to have while growing up as it provided income and led to the first company I started at age 18. There was always a fair degree of trial and error involved with learning, but experience and experimentation led to simplification and standardization. That became the hallmark to the programs I wrote, and later the application systems that I designed and developed. It is a trait that has served me well over the years.

Today I still enjoy doing many things myself, especially if I can spend a little bit of time and save hundreds of dollars (which I usually invest in more tools). Finding examples and tutorials on YouTube is usually pretty easy, and after watching a few videos for reference the task is generally easy. There is also a sense of satisfaction to a job well done. And most of all, it is a great distraction to everything else going on that keeps your mind racing at 100 mph.

My wife’s 2011 Nissan Maxima needed a Cabin Air Filter, and instead of paying $80 again to have this done I decided to do it myself. I purchased the filter for $15 and was ready to go. This shouldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes. I went to YouTube to find a video but no luck. Then, I started searching various forums for guidance. There were a lot of posts complaining about the cost of replacement, but not much about how to do the work. I finally found a post that showed where the filter door was. I could already feel that sense of accomplishment that I was expecting to have in the next few minutes.

Picture of a folded cabin air filter for a Nissan Maxima

But fate, and apparently a few sadistic Nissan Engineers had other ideas. First, you needed to be a contortionist in order to reach the filter once the door was removed. Then, the old filter was nearly impossible to remove. And then once the old filter was removed I realized that the length of the filter entry slot was approximately 50% of the length of the filter. Man, what a horrible design!

A few fruitless Google searches later I was more intent than ever on making this work. I tried several things and ultimately found a way to fold the filter where it was small enough to get through the door and would fully open once released. A few minutes later I was finally savoring my victory over that hellish filter.

This experience made me recall “the old days.” Back in 1989 I was working for a marketing company as a Systems Analyst and was given the project to create the “Mitsubishi Bucks” salesperson incentive program. Salespeople would earn points for sales, and could later redeem those points on Mitsubishi Electronics products. It was a very popular and successful incentive program.

Creating the forms and reports was straight forward enough, but tracking the points presented a problem. I finally thought about how a banking system would work (remember, no Internet and few books on the topic, so this was reinventing the wheel) and designed my own. It was very exciting and rock solid. Statements could be reproduced at any point in time, and there was an audit trail for all activity.

Next, I needed to create validation processes and a fraud detection system for incoming data. That was rock solid as well, but instead of being a good thing it turned out to be a real headache and cause of frustration.

Salespeople would not always provide complete information, might have sloppy penmanship, or would do other things that were odd but legitimate. Despite that, they expected immediate rewards and having their submissions rejected apparently created more frustration than incentive.

So, I was instructed to turn the dial way back. I let everyone know that while this would minimize rejections it would also increase the potential for fraud, and created a few reports to identify potentially fraudulent activity. It was amazing how creative people could be when trying to cheat the system, as well as how you could identify patterns to more quickly identify that type of activity. By the third month the system was trouble free.

It was a great learning experience from beginning to end. Best of all, it ran for several years once I left – something I know because every month I was still receiving the sample mailing with the new sales promotions and “Spiffs” (sales incentives). This reflection also made me wonder how many things are not being created or improved today because it is too easy to follow an existing template.

We used to align fields and columns in byte order to minimize record size, overload operators, etc. in order to maximize space utilization and maximize performance. Code was optimized for maximum efficiency because memory was scarce and processors slow. Profiling and benchmarking programs brought you to the next level of performance. In a nutshell, you were forced to really understand and become proficient with the technology used out of necessity. Today those concepts have become somewhat of a lost art.

There are many upsides to easy.

  • My team sells more and closes deals faster because we make it easy for our customers to buy, implement, and start receiving value on the software we sell.
  • Hobbyists like myself are able to accomplish many tasks after watching a short video or two.
  • People are willing to try things that they may not have if getting started would not have been so easy.

But, there may also be downsides relative to innovation and continuous improvement simply because easy is often good enough.

What will the impact be to human behavior once Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes a reality and is in everyday use? It would be great to look ahead 25, 50, or 100 years and see the full impact of emerging technologies, but my guess is that I will see many of the effects in my own lifetime.

Profitability through Operational Efficiency

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In my last post, I discussed the importance of proper pricing for profitability and success. As most people know, you increase profitability by increasing revenue and/or decreasing costs. But, cost reduction does not necessarily mean slashing headcount, wages, benefits, or other factors that often negatively affect morale and cascade negatively on quality and customer satisfaction. There is often a better way.

Picture of a hand holding several twenty dollar bills

The best businesses generally focus on repeatability, realizing that the more that you do something – anything, the better you should get at doing it. You develop a compelling selling story based on past successes, develop a solid reference base, and have identified the sweet spot from a pricing perspective. People keep buying what you are selling, and if your pricing is right there is money available at the end of the month to fund organic growth and operational efficiency efforts.

Finding ways to increase operational efficiency is the ideal way to reduce costs, but it does take time and effort to accomplish. Sometimes this is realized through increases in experience and skill. But, often optimization occurs through standardization and automation. Developing a system that works well, consistently applying it, measuring and analyzing the results, and then making changes to improve the process. An added benefit is that this approach increases quality as well, making your offering even more attractive.

Metrics should be collected at a “work package” level or lower (e.g., task level), which means they are related tasks at the lowest level that produce a discrete deliverable. This is a project management concept, and it works whether you are manufacturing something (although Bill of Materials may be a better analogy in this segment), building something, or creating something. This allows you to accurately create and validate cost and time estimates. And, when you are analyzing work at this level of detail it becomes easier to identify ways to simplify or automate the process.

When I had my company we leveraged this approach to win more business with competitive fixed price project bids that provided healthy profit margins for us while minimizing risk for our clients. Bigger profit margins allowed us to invest in our own growth and success by funding ongoing employee training and education, innovation efforts, international expansion, as well as experiment with new things (products, technology, methodology, etc.) that were fun and often taught us something valuable.

Those growth activities were only possible because of our focus on doing everything as efficiently and effectively as possible, learning from everything we did– good and bad, and having a tangible way to measure and prove that we were constantly improving.

Think like a CEO, act like a COO, and measure like a CFO. Do this and make a real difference in your own business!

The Importance of Proper Pricing

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picture showing several bundles of money

Pricing is one of those things that can make or break a company. Doing it right takes an understanding of your business (cost structure and growth / profitability goals), the market, your competition, and more. Doing it wrong can mean the death of your business (fast or slow), the inability to attract and retain the best talent, as well as creating a situation where you will no longer have the opportunity to reach your full potential.

These problems apply to companies of all sizes – although large organizations are often in a better position to absorb the impact of bad pricing decisions or sustain an unprofitable business unit. Understanding all possible outcomes is an important aspect of pricing as it related to risk and risk tolerance.

When I started my consulting company in 1999 the plan was to win business by pricing our services 10%-15% lower than the competition. It was a bad plan that didn’t work. Unfortunately, this approach is something you see all too often in businesses today.

In our case we only began to grow once we increased our prices (about 10% more than the competition) and focused on justifying that with our expertise and the value provided. We were (correctly) perceived as being a premium alternative, and that positioning helped us grow.

Several years ago I had a management consulting engagement with a small software company. The business owner told me that they were, “an overnight success that was 10 years in the making.” His concern was that they might not be able to capitalize on recent success so he was looking for an outside opinion.

I analyzed his business, product, customers, and competition. His largest competitor is the industry leader in this space, and products from both companies were evenly matched from a feature perspective. My client’s product even had a few key features that better for management and compliance in Healthcare and Union environments that his larger and more popular competitor lacked. So, why weren’t they growing faster?

What I found is that competition was priced 400% higher for the base product. When I asked the owner, he told me their goal was to be priced 75% – 80% less than the competition. He could not explain why he did this, other than to state that he believed that his customers would be unwilling to pay any more than that. His lack of confidence with his own product became evident to companies interested in his solution.

In many cases he lost head-to-head competition against that competitor, but almost never on features. Areas of concern were generally on the size and profitability of the company, and the risk created by each for prospects considering his product.

I shared the graph (below) with this person, explaining how proper pricing would increase their profitability and annual revenue, and how both of those items would help provide customers and prospects with confidence. Moreover, this would allow the company to grow, eliminate single points of failure in key areas (Engineering and Customer Support), add features, and even spend money on marketing. Success breeds success!

Graph showing revenue relative to the life cycle stages of a successful business venture
Source: Entrepreneurial Finance by Leach and Melicher (3rd Ed.)

In another example I worked with the Product Manager of a large software company who was responsible for producing quarterly product package distributions. This work was outsourced and each build cost approximately $50K. I asked a simple question, “What is the break-even point for each distribution?” That person replied, “There really isn’t a good way to tell.”

Graph showing cost volume profit analysis
Sample cost-volume-profit (CVP) analysis

By the end of the day I provided a Cost-Volume-Profit (CVP) analysis spreadsheet that showed the break-even point. Even more important, it showed the contribution margin and demonstrated there was very little operating leverage provided these products (i.e., they weren’t very profitable even if you sold a lot of them).

My recommendations included increasing prices (which could negatively impact sales), invest in fewer releases per year, or find a more cost-effective way of releasing those products. Without this analysis their “business as usual” approach would have likely continued for several years.

Companies are in business to make money – pure and simple. Everything you do as a business owner or leader needs to be focused on growth. Growth is the result of a combination of factors, such as uniqueness of product or services provided, quality, reputation, efficiency and repeatability. Many of these are the same factors that also drive profitability. Proper pricing can help drive profitability, and having excess profits to invest can significantly impact growth.

Some customers and prospects will do everything possible to whittle your profit margins down to nothing. They are focused on their own short-term gain, and not on the long-term risk created for their suppliers. Those same “frugal” companies expect to make a profit on their own business, so it is unreasonable to expect anything less from own suppliers.

My feeling is that, “Not all business is good business” so it is better to walk away from bad business in order to focus on the business that helps your company grow and be successful.

One of the best books on pricing that I’ve ever found is, “The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing: A Guide to Profitable Decision Making” by Thomas T. Nagle and Reed K. Holden. This is an extremely comprehensive and practical book that I recommend to anyone responsible for pricing or who has P&L responsibility within an organization. It addresses the many complexities of pricing and is truly an invaluable reference.

In a future posts I will write about the metrics that I use to understand efficiency and profitability. Metrics can be your best friend when it comes to finding ways to optimize pricing and maximizing profitability. This can help you create a systematic approach to business that increases efficiency, consistency, and quality.

At my company we developed a system where we know how long common tasks would take to complete, and had efficiency factors for each consultant. This allowed us to create estimates based on the type of work and the people most likely to work on the task, and fix bid the work. Our bids were competitive, and even when we were the highest priced bid we often won because we would be the only (or one of the few) companies to guarantee prices and results. Our level of effort estimates were +/- 4%, and that helped us maintain a 40%+ minimum gross margin for every project. This analytical approach helped our business double in revenue without doubling in size.

There are many causes of poor pricing, including: Lack of understanding of cost structure; Lack of understanding of the value provided by a product or service; Lack of understanding of the level of effort to create, maintain, deliver, and improve a product or service; and Lack of concern for profitability (e.g., salespeople who are paid on the size of the deal, and not on margins or profitability).

But, with a little understanding and effort you can make small adjustments to your pricing approach and models that can have a huge impact to the bottom line of your business.

Doing it like Mike

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My son is playing basketball this year (previously he played football and soccer), and recently we went shopping for new shoes. Each store had pictures of Michael Jordan. I used to love watching MJ play with the Chicago Bulls. He was the epitome of skill and professionalism. To this day he inspires me.

"The Chart" - from Chris Lytle's MAX Sales Training program
“The Chart” – from Chris Lytle’s MAX Sales Training program

Some people are just naturally talented, but even they need to work hard to achieve their full potential. Hard work is an important aspect of being the best of anything, but it takes more than that. It takes doing things in a manner that allows you to continuously improve, as well as a positive mindset and a commitment to success. Once people reach that level of high performance their job begin to look easy, and they may even appear to be “naturals” – just like Mike. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most of my career changes have been unplanned. Opportunities presented themselves, the job seemed interesting, and before I knew it I was fully immersed in something related but different. The potential reward outweighed the real risk.

Many of these things have not come naturally to me. Each time I have focused on understanding the requirements for doing the job well, then looked for examples of exceptional performance, and finally created a systematic approach that allowed me to measure performance and identify areas of improvement on an ongoing basis. From then on it was analyzing my results, thinking daily about even the smallest improvements, and then trying to do even better the next day.

Good enough was never good enough. Introspection can challenging so one thing that I have done is to take time to celebrate wins and intentionally focus on remembering how that feels. In times of stress or frustration those memories can be motivational and help you back on track quickly.

Sales has been a large part of my consulting management jobs since the mid-1990’s, but it wasn’t until I owned my own company that this became a true priority.  I ran across a good book, The Accidental Salesperson by Chris Lytle.  Back then Chris Lytle had “MAX Training,” and a large part of their focus was increasing your “level” with regard to Prospect and Client relationships. The training was good, and was complementary to systems like Miller Heiman.

What each of these systems do is help you prepare, plan, and then execute to the best of your ability. And just like basketball, it takes practice to master. But, with mastery comes success and the illusion that something is easy (or that you happen to be very lucky). The Seneca quote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” is so true.

Regardless of the system used, what is most important is that you are trying to be the best at is to look at both positive and negative examples to see what you can learn from them.  There are lessons to be learned everywhere! Understanding what makes it good or bad helps you improve as part of an ongoing process of improving.

Incorporating new tools and techniques into what has already been proven to work will help you improve your game. Going back to the sports analogy, this could be part of what made Michael Jordon so good. He would see something interesting, improve it, and then make it his own.

For example, I get a lot of really horrible sales calls and email. The people have obviously not done any preparation, do not know anything about me or the company I work for, and often remind me of why I stopped listening to them by referring to the number of times they have tried contacting me. On the other hand, there are some really talented sales professionals who have done their homework, understand their products and the competition, and have an understanding about why what they are selling should matter to meand are able to articulate that quickly and confidently.  I speak with them and occasionally buy from them. And in either case I provide my team with real life examples of both good and bad sales techniques.

So, think of the best example of whatever it is you do, and see what you can do to become more like them. This isn’t about imitation, but rather about uncovering the secrets of their success and learning from them. And, have some fun doing it!

Mind of a Champion – Michael Jordan training for success!

Connecting the Dots Faster

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Picture of bridge with many lights representing dots.

When I started consulting an experienced consultant told me, “The best Consultants are experts at becoming Experts.” I started my consulting career with that goal in mind.  After a few years realized that, “Good consults are people who can learn enough quickly to ask intelligent questions and then connect the dots faster.” This is a great skill for anyone to have regardless of the industry or business.

It’s impossible to be an expert at everything. I believe that it is important to have great depth in a few areas (true expertise), and breadth of knowledge in many areas (enhancing context and insight). Both types of knowledge alone are valuable, but combined they add a dimension that I believe allows a person to be far more effective and potentially much more valuable because it leads to having the ability to pick-up on the dependencies and nuances that others miss.

Just think – How much more effective a salesperson is that understands technology and project management concepts when working to demonstrate fit and create a sense of urgency. Or, an Attorney that understands the complexity of service offerings and delivery – enhancing their ability to construct agreements that are highly protective yet not overly complex or onerous. Or, a programmer that thinks beyond the requirements and looks for ways to improve or simplify the process.  Extra knowledge helps with the big picture understanding, and that often leads to providing more value by “thinking outside the box.” Additional knowledge and skills almost always help us become more effective, regardless of what we may be doing.

Increased knowledge, combined with a desire to do amazing things, creates opportunities to make a huge and immediate impact. Sometimes it is because you are asking the questions that others may be thinking but simply cannot articulate in a clear manner. It helps you see the gaps and holes that others miss. And most importantly, it helps you “connect the dots” before others do (often many months before something obvious to you becomes obvious to others). A large consultancy once used the phrase “seeing around corners” as their attempt to make this concept tangible.

So, if you buy into the concept that knowledge is good, the next question is usually, “What is the best way to learn? People learn in different ways so there really is no one single best way to learn. Understanding how you learn best will help you learn faster.

I’m a fan of reading. A good book may reinforce ideas you already know, may introduce you to a few concepts or ideas that seem like they could help (giving you something to test), and often present many ideas that you know or feel just won’t work. Just don’t become one of those people who changes their beliefs and approach with every book they read (or what I refer to as “The book of the month club manager.“)

I’m also a fan of hands-on learning. The experience of doing something the first time is important. Keeping detailed notes (what works, what doesn’t make sense and what you did to figure it out, work-arounds, etc.) enhances the value of that experience. It’s amazing what you can learn when you “get your hands dirty.”

What about formal education? I’ve never been a fan of the person who wants to get a degree in order to get a promotion. There are certainly some professions where education is critical to success (often through legitimacy as much as anything else). My advice to people is to work towards a specific degree because it is important as a personal goal, and because it could possibly help you get a different or better job in the future. I will never criticize anyone for learning, going to school, or getting another certification or degree.

My personal belief is that the best way to get ahead is to learn the position, innovate, optimize, and then deliver incredible results. You won’t “knock it out of the park” every time, but those “base hits” will help you score and ultimately win.

This is not to say that formal education is bad, because I don’t believe that at all. I was working on my MBA at the same time I was expanding my consulting business from the US to the UK. I had a concentration in International Business, so I could apply many things I was learning right away. This bit of serendipity both enhanced my learning experience and helped me make better decisions that had real implications to my business. The funny thing was that I was actually working on that degree to raise the bar for my own children, so for me this was just a bonus.

There are also other great ways to learn – ways that are only require an investment of your time. There are many good free online courses. If there is something you are interested in learning or need to know more about, there is almost always a place to find free or low cost training. These are great investments in yourself and your future, and may help you learn to connect those dots faster.

Below are links to a few good free learning websites. Do yourself a favor and check them out. And, if you know of others leave a comment and recommend them to others.  Enjoy!

edX

Khan Academy

OpenCulture (directory with content from multiple sources)

Open Education Database (directory with content from multiple sources

Alison