Could a New Channel Model Lead to Sales Amplification?
Over the years I have helped both successful companies and start-ups improve and strengthen their Channel and Strategic Alliances programs. Those companies do a great job closing deals but usually have concerns about not generating or receiving enough new business leads. Or, they develop strong relationships with one or two vendors, only to find later that a key vendor has been sending deals to a competitor. You may not have experienced this yourself, but if you have please read on.
Most traditional channel models support Distributors, Resellers, OEMs, and ISVs. Business mainly flows upwards to the main vendor. If that vendor has popular and widely used products then business can be good because there is sufficient demand. But when that is not the case your sales pipeline usually suffers.
Doing something the same way as everyone else may not be a bad approach when there is enough business for everyone and your growth goals and aspirations are aligned with your competition.
Sales Channel business is usually not the main source of revenue for most companies, but it does have the potential to become the largest and most scalable revenue source for nearly any business. Just think about the money that is being left on the table by not adopting a growth mindset and executing a new and better strategy.
In the summer of 2016 I attended the “Sage Summit” in Chicago. It was impressive to see the Sage Group’s efforts to build, strengthen, and protect their community of Customers and Channel Partners. They made the effort to foster higher levels of collaboration between the various types of partners – implementation services, consulting and staff augmentation services, complementary product vendors, etc. They had created their own highly successful Business Ecosystem, which is an excellent proof point.
When designing a channel partner program my personal focus has always been on finding the balance between promoting and protecting the business of partners with helping ensure that the end customers have the best experience possible (and have some recourse when things do not work out as expected). There are a variety of methods I have used to accomplish those goals, but the missing component has always been the inclusion of a systematic approach to seed relationships between those partners and facilitate an even greater amount of business activity.
Nearly a year ago I began working with a management consultancy run by Robert Kim Wilson, which has a business vision based on his book, “They Will Be Giants.” I will provide links at the bottom of the post for this book and other relevant resources. Kim asserts that Entrepreneurs with a Purpose-Driven Business Ecosystem (PDBE) are more successful than those without one and provides examples to prove his point. Having experienced Kim’s own PDBE I see how purpose fosters trust and collaboration.
As I did more research I have found that, especially over the past two years, there has been a lot of focus placed on Business Ecosystems and Business Ecosystem Organizers (such as Sage in the earlier example). Those findings reinforced the PDBE approach, and external validation is always a good thing.
Just as important from my perspective is that this concept applies to businesses of any size, and it is especially helpful to small to midsize businesses. The fun part for me is exploring a specific business, analyzing what they do today, and quantifying the benefits of adopting this new strategy.
So, how does this new type of Business Ecosystem work?
- The Business Ecosystem Organizer expands the overall network, vets new “Business Ecopartners,” and provides a framework or infrastructure for the various Business Ecopartners to get to know one another, exchange ideas, and discuss opportunities.
- This can become an incredible source of sustainable revenue for companies willing to invest in the necessary components to grow and support their own Business Ecosystem.
- Business Ecopartners will have access to trusted resources that can augment existing business and take-on new, bigger projects by leveraging the available expertise.
- Suppose that you have products or services that work with commercial CRM (Customer Relationship Management), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), or SCM (Supply Chain Management).
- You have seen a growing demand for functionality that relies on highly specialized technologies like:
- Cryptocurrency support.
- Blockchain for both financial transactions and things like traceability in your supply chain or IoT data.
- AI (artificial intelligence), ML (machine learning) to detect patterns and anomalies – such as with fraud detection, Deep Learning/Neural Networks for image recognition or other complex pattern recognition.
- Graph databases to better understand a business and infer new ways to improve it.
- Knowledge Graph/Semantic databases to assist with Transfer Learning and deeper understanding.
- It would not be practical or cost-effective for most businesses to build these practices in-house so partnering becomes very attractive to your company.
- This type of business can also be very attractive to a Business Ecopartner because someone else is handling sales, billings, account management, etc.
- Other Business Ecopartners could leverage your products or services for their projects and engagements, thus becoming another source of revenue.
- By leveraging this network your business can essentially compete on imagination and innovation – something that could become a huge source of differentiation from your competition.
Value realized from this New Business Ecosystem model:
- These new sources of business and talent can become a real competitive advantages for your business.
- This becomes the source for Sales Amplification because your business is extending its reach and expanding its growth potential – directly and indirectly.
- The weighted (based on capabilities, capacity, responsiveness, and Ecopartner feedback) Business Ecopartner network model could lead to exponential business growth over time – and that is a winning strategy for any business.
One Successful Approach to Innovation that worked for an SMB
When I owned a consulting company we viewed innovation as an imperative. It was the main thing that created differentiation, credibility, and opportunity. We had an innovation budget, solicited ideas from the team, and evaluated those ideas quarterly.
Almost as important to me was that this was fun. It gave everyone on the team the chance to suggest ideas and participate in the process. That was meaningful and supported the collaborative, high-performance culture that had developed. The team was inspired and empowered to make a difference, and that led to an ever-increasing sense of ownership for each employee.
The team also had a vested interest in having the process work, as quarterly bonuses were paid based on their contributions to the company’s profitability. There was a direct cause and effect correlation with tangible benefits for every member of the team.
We developed the following 10 questions qualify & quantify the potential of new ideas:
- What will this new thing do?
- It is important to be very detailed as this was used to create a common vision of success based on the idea being presented.
- What problem(s) does this solve and how so?
- This seems obvious, but if you are not solving a problem (which could be something like “lack of organic expansion”) or addressing a pain point then selling this new product will be an uphill challenge.
- What type of organizations have those problems and why?
- This was fundamental to understanding if a fix was possible from a practical perspective, what the value of that fix might be for the target buyer, and how much market potential existed to scale this new offering.
- What other companies have created solutions or are working on solutions to this problem?
- The lack of competition today does not mean that you are the first one to attack this problem. Due diligence can help avoid repeating the failure of others, and potentially provide lessons learned by others and help you avoid similar pitfalls.
- Will this expand our existing business, or does it have the potential to open up a new market for us?
- There are upsides and downsides to each answer, but breaking into a new market can take more time and be more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to achieve.
- Is this Strategic, Tactical, or Opportunistic?
- An idea may fall into multiple categories. When Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act became law we viewed a new service offering as both a tactical means to protect our managed services business as well as an opportunistic means to acquire new customers and grow the business.
- What are the Cost, Time, and Skill estimates for developing a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) or Service?
- What are the Financial Projections for the first year?
- Cost to develop and go-to-market.
- Target selling price, factoring-in early adopter discounts.
- Estimated Contribution Margin Ratio (for comparison with other ideas being considered).
- Break-even point.
- Would we be able to get an existing customer to pre-purchase this?
- A company that is willing to provide a PO that commits to making a purchase of that MVP within a specific timeframe increased our confidence in the viability of the idea.
- What are the specific Critical Success Factors to be used for evaluation purposes?
- This was an important lesson learned over time that helped minimize emotional attachment to the idea or project, as well as providing objective milestones for critical go / no-go decision making.
This process was purposeful, agile, lean, and somewhat aggressive. We believed it gave our company a competitive advantage over larger companies that tended to respond slower to new opportunities and smaller competitors that did not want to venture outside their wheelhouse.
With each project, we learned and became more efficient and effective, and made better investment decisions that positively impacted our success. We monitored progress on an ongoing basis relative to our defined success criteria, and adjusted or sunset an offering if it stopped providing the required value.
The process was not perfect…
For example, we passed on a couple of leading-edge ideas such as a “Support Robot” in 2003 that was essentially an interactive program that used a machine-learning algorithm. It was to be trained using historical log files, could quickly and safely be tested in a production environment, refined as needed and ultimately validated.
This automation could have been used with our existing managed services and Remote DBA customers to further mitigate the risk of unplanned outages. Most importantly, it would have provided leverage to take-on new business without jeopardizing quality or adding staff – thereby increasing revenue and profit margin.
At the time we believed this would be too difficult to sell to prospective customers (“pipe dream” and “snake oil” were some of the adjectives we envisioned), so it appeared to lack a few items required by the process. Live and learn.
In summary, having a defined approach for something as important as business needs innovation to grow and prosper, as best demonstrated by market leaders like Amazon and Google (read the 10-K Annual Reports to gain a better understanding of their competitive growth strategies that are largely based on innovation).
Implementing this type of approach within a larger organization requires additional steps, such as getting the buy-in from a variety of stakeholders and aligning with existing product roadmaps, but is still the key to scalable growth for most businesses.
The Importance of Proper Pricing
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!
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.”
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.
Lessons Learned from Small Business Ownership
I learned many valuable lessons over the course of the 8+ years that I owned my consulting business. Many were positive, a few were negative, but all were educational. These lessons shaped my perceptions about and approaches to business, and have served me well. This post will just be the first of many on the topic.
My lessons learned covered many topics: How to structure the business; Business Goals; Risk; Growth Initiatives and Investment; Employees and Benefits; Developing a High-Performance Culture; Marketing and Selling; Hiring and Firing; Bringing in Experts; Partners and Contractors; The need to let go; Exit Strategies and more.
In my case these lessons learned were compounded by efforts to start a franchise for the consulting system we developed, and then our expansion to the UK with all of the challenges associated with international business.
It’s amazing how more significant those lessons are (or at least feel) when the money is coming out of or going into “your own pocket.” Similar decisions at larger companies are generally easier, and (unfortunately) often made without the same degree of due diligence. Having more “skin in the game” does make a difference when it comes to decision making and risk.
Businesses are usually started because someone is presented with a wonderful opportunity, or because they feel they have a great idea that will sell, or because they feel that they can make more money doing the same work on their own. Let me start by telling you that the last reason is usually the worst reason to start a business. There is a lot of work to running a business, a lot of risk, and many expenses that most people never consider.
I started my business because of a great opportunity. There were differences of opinion about growth at the small business I was working for at the time, and this provided me with the opportunity to move in a direction that I was more interested in (shift away from technical consulting and move towards business / management consulting). Luckily I had a customer (and now good friend) who believed in my potential and the value that I could bring to his business. He provided both the launch pad and safety net (via three month initial contract) that I needed to embark on this endeavor. For me the most important lesson learned is to start a business for the right reasons.
More to come. And, if you have questions in the meantime just leave a comment and I will reply. Below are some of the statistics on Entrepreneurship that can be pretty enlightening:
Bureau of Labor Statistics stats on Entrepreneurship in the US
What’s the prize if I win?
In consulting and in business there is a tendency to believe that if you show someone how to find that proverbial “pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” that they will be motivated to do so. Seasoned professionals will tend to ask, “What problem are you trying to solve?” to understand if there is a real opportunity or not. If you are unable to quickly, clearly and concisely articulate both the problem and why this helps solve that problem it is often game over then and there (N.B. It pays to be prepared). But, having the right answer is not a guarantee of moving forward.
Unfortunately, sometimes a mere pot of gold just isn’t enough to motivate. Sometimes it takes something different, and usually something personal. It’s more, “What’s in this for me?” No, I am not talking about bribes, kickbacks or anything illegal or unethical. This is about finding out what is really important to the decision maker and in what priority, and then demonstrating that the proposed solution will bring them closer to achieving their personal goals. What’s in it for them?
Case in point. Several years ago I was trying to sell a packaged Business Intelligence (BI) system developed on our database platform to customers most likely to have a need. Qualification performed – check. Interested – check. Proof of value – check. Quick ROI – check. Close the deal – not so fast…
This application was a set of dashboards with 150-200 predefined KPIs (key performance indicators). The premise was that you could quickly tailor and deploy the new BI system with little risk (finding and validating the data needed was available to support the KPI was the biggest risk, but one that could be identified up-front) and about half the cost of what a similar typical implementation would cost. Who wouldn’t want one?
I spent several days onsite with the prospect, identified areas of concern and opportunity, and used their own data to quantify the potential benefit. Before the end of the week I was able to show the potential to get an 8x ROI in the first year. Remember, this was estimated using their data – not figures that I just created. Being somewhat conservative I suggested that even half that amount would be a big success. Look – we found the pot of gold!
Despite this the deal never closed. This company had a lot of money, and this CIO had a huge budget. Saving $500K+ would be nice but was not essential. What I learned later was that this person was pushing forward an initiative of his own that was highly visible. This new system had the potential to become a distraction and he did not need that. Had I been able to make this determination sooner I could have easily repositioned it to be in alignment with his agenda.
For example, the focus of the system could have shifted from financial savings to project and risk management for his higher priority initiative. The KPIs could be on earned value, scheduling, and deliverables. This probably would have sold as it would have been far more appealing to this CIO and supported what was important to him (i.e., his prize if he wins). The additional financial savings initially identified would just be the icing on the cake, to be applied at a later time.
There were several lessons learned on this effort. In this instance I was focused on my own personal pot of gold (based on logic and common sense), rather than on my customer’s priorities and prize for winning. That mistake cost me this deal, but is one I have not made since – helping me win many other deals.