Do Challenger Sales Reps Do Demos?

Product Demos | Challenger SaleInspired by a very good question in the CEB Challenger Sale forum, I decided to write an article on the topic of product demonstrations relative to the Challenger Sale, addressing some of the questions around this particular subject.

The question posed to the group, was in essence, “What conditions would need to be in evidence before a good Challenger sales rep would initiate a product demonstration?” Excellent question!

Derivatives of the question throughout the forum discussion evolved into whether or not Challengers should conduct product demonstrations at all. Equally good questions! Following is my take on the two questions — Do Challengers do product demonstrations, and if so, where in the sales process would be the appropriate time to do so.

Do Challenger’s Demo?

The short answer to whether or not a Challenger Rep does product demonstrations is a qualified “Yes,” but with some caveats. Let’s look at a couple of them.

  1. Demos don’t define Challengers. Challengers define demos. Not all products require demonstrations, which you already understand. When they are pertinent as part of the sales process, the Challenger conducts at the appropriate time, anchoring back to what the customer didn’t understand about their business or industry in the first place. To be clear, the Challenger Rep is not defined by whether s/he does a demo. They are defined by their behaviors throughout the sales process …with or without a demo.
  2. Challengers don’t win the sale with demos. This will be, perhaps the most important point I make here. If the sale were won at the point of product demonstration, something went wrong earlier in the process as this has just become the Features and Benefits sale. True Challengers shape demand before a prospect ever knew they wanted or needed a solution, then continue to expose problems, consequences, etc. through commercial teaching/insight. Challengers effectively win the sale by selling the problem prior to a product demonstration. Furthermore, the effective Challenger rep will have been leading TO their solution throughout the sales process, thereby making the product demonstration merely ‘confirmation’ of the sale.

When Do Challengers Demonstrate Products?

As a quick rehash of the Challenger choreography, following are the key stages:

  1. Warmer – Prospect Response: “S/he knows my industry/business”
  2. Reframe - Prospect Response: “I never thought of it that way before”
  3. Rational Drowning - Prospect Response: “I’m familiar with the story s/he is describing”
  4. Emotional Impact - Prospect Response: “S/he is telling my story”
  5. A New Way - Prospect Response: “What should I do?”
  6. Your Solution - Prospect Response: “Will your product address these problems?”

With my paraphrase of the Challenger choreography above, the answer to when a Challenger rep should do a product demonstration is quite straight-forward…At the end of the choreography.

To add a little bit more color to this though, following are a few key elements of Intentionality that must have taken place with your prospect prior to a product demonstration occurring:

  • You taught them something about their business or industry (commercial teaching/insight), that they didn’t appreciate or anticipate before
  • You effectively led them to the center of their own story (Emotional Impact) and created a compelling need to change
  • You remained disciplined and left product/solution out of the discussion in stages 1 – 5 of the choreography

There is certainly more to it than these three areas, but these tend to be the primary areas where lack of intentionality and discipline show up in a rep’s process. That said, when a rep has effectively met the aforementioned criteria, the prospects are prepared to confirm their selection of you as their supplier once the demo is complete.

As a bit of an exaggerated visual picture for what this looks like, consider what the audience members looked like each time Steve Jobs was unveiling a new product. It was the Jerry McGuire version of, “You had me at ‘Hello’!” as the audience, both physical and virtual, has already said ‘yes,’ and are merely waiting to see what they have said yes to.

Repeatable Success Tip

Intentionality. Staying disciplined to the process, despite the prospect’s tendency to try to remain outside of their own story and talk about product requires tremendous intentionality on the rep’s part. In fact, for a great illustration on commitment to the process, see the following article on Zappos’ CEO, Tony Hsieh.

To practice intentionality in this area, consider doing the following. In your next conversation with a prospect, pay specific attention to how quickly you begin speaking about your own product/solution. It doesn’t matter if the prospect initiates discussion on product. If you engage and proceed to discuss your solution, prior to the other 5 stages of the choreography taking place it counts. Furthermore, it will typically cost you for reasons I will describe in my upcoming article on The Consequences of Introducing Solutions Prematurely.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

10 Principles of Personal Leadership

Starbucks Coffee and Leadership

Image courtesy of Todd Clarke

I was recently working with some of my retail clients on ‘showrooming’ and leadership, and was reminded of some of the great principles Howard Behar spoke of in his 2009 book, “It’s Not About the Coffee.

Whether you have read the book or have yet to read it, I would highly recommend picking up a copy. Following are just a few reasons I found to be highly beneficial:

•  It’s practical, not just theoretical
•  It’s actionable, not just anecdotal
•  The focus is on People, not Product
•  The principles are timeless
•  Those you lead will benefit

Following is an excerpt from his book on the 10 Principles of Personal Leadership that I thought would benefit those looking to improve their own leadership.

10 Principles of Personal Leadership

1. Know Who You Are: Wear One Hat
2. Know Why You’re Here: Do It Because It’s Right, Not Because It’s Right for Your Resume
3. Think Independently: The Person Who Sweeps the Floor Should Choose the Broom
4. Build Trust: Care, like You Really Mean It
5. Listen for the Truth: The Walls Talk
6. Be Accountable: Only the Truth Sounds like the Truth
7. Take Action: Think Like a Person of Action, and Act like a Person of Thought
8. Face Challenge: We Are Human Beings First
9. Practice Leadership: The Big Noise and the Still, Small Voice
10. Dare to Dream: Say “Yes,” the Most Powerful Word in the World

[Download printable PDF versions of The 10 Principles of Personal Leadership (annotated) and the Checklist for Individuals, Leaders, and Coaches].

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Challenger Sale: Change Your Trajectory

Challenger Sale Choreography

Sales growth begins at the root and is unseen

Have you ever experienced planting your lawn by seed rather than laying sod?

If so, you are likely familiar with the concern you feel after seeing no growth nor signs of life after the first week. This leads to subsequent doubts, which come to you in the form of questions such as, “Is this working?” or “Did I do it right?”

Without visible signs of growth, you are left with doubt…that is, unless you know what to expect!

We have become more of a ‘sod culture’ in which one minute we have dirt, the next, green grass. We love the simplicity of processes like ‘First, lay sod with green-side up, then water daily until lawn is established.’ Easy!

No Root, No Fruit!
For the experienced lawn professional, whether laying sod or seeding, they understand that the most important step is in the preparation of the soil. Once seeds have been appropriately planted, the lawn pro is not distracted nor deterred by lack of initial growth above the soil. That is not expected at this stage.

The professional recognizes the most critical growth is that which is unseen…below the surface. Therefore, they are committed to the right process and follow a certain choreography, which allows the roots to be established and eventually leads to a beautiful, lush lawn.

For growth to happen above the soil, it must first happen below the soil

When it comes to sales professionals, there often times is a lack of commitment to follow the choreography, which intentionally penetrates the surface to establish roots, resulting in break-through growth. The Challenger Sale choreography aims squarely at doing this, getting well beneath the surface from the Reframe straight down through Emotional Impact.

Not so for the Relationship Seller as their interpretation of the Challenger choreography treats the Warmer as bonding and rapport, which leads to their Solution as the rapport builds. For these reps, their natural tendency will be to keep conversations at or above the surface as if to maintain a conversational stasis or equilibrium.

The problem?
If they never get to the root, there will most certainly be no fruit yielded from the conversation. Instead, count on a long, fruitless, sales cycle and a rep that mistakenly believes that, “It’s just a matter of time before they are ready to buy. After all, our conversation went very well.”

Conversation Choreography

“I have the solution to your problem! By the way, what is your problem?”
Another common [but highly ineffective] approach reps use to maintain this pleasant equilibrium is to introduce the product or solution immediately into the conversation. Prospects are often quick to get to product as well, especially when the reason for your call to them stemmed from a lead.

A couple of years ago, I was brought in to improve a team’s ineffectiveness with conversions. I did a time study to evaluate how soon  into the call they brought up their own solution. 83% of their calls introduced their solution within a minute or less of the prospect answering the phone. 14% of the calls had solutions introduced within 2 minutes of answer. The remaining 3% were generally customer service calls.

While the problem above may seem severe, it is not unique to this team. In fact, a cursory review of some of today’s most popular sales forums reinforces how often this does happen.

Therefore, to help sales and marketing teams better understand the problem, I created the visual above based upon CEB’s framework for The Challenger Sale Choreography. This visually illustrates the foolishness of expecting the growth seen at the Solution stage, despite skipping over the Reframe through Emotional Impact where the seeds are just beginning their growth.  By overshooting this and going straight to solution, the rep has significantly lowered [if not eliminated] their chance of conversion apart from luck.

In Summary…

For the Sales Leaders or Reps that are already familiar with The Challenger Sale, this is a reminder to stay committed and disciplined to the well-defined choreography that CEB’s research turned up.

For those unfamiliar with the specifics of The Challenger Sale, but have merely heard about the research, I highly recommend you buy the book to better understand how to create intentional, predictable and repeatable results.”

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

1 Minute Leadership Test…Will You Pass?

The role of the leader is a difficult one, to be certain. Done well, it is one of the most rewarding professional and personal experiences for the leader and those they lead. Done poorly, and at best, your team may achieve incidental success from time to time…despite their leader.

After two decades of working in leadership and developing leaders, I continually see one common area in which leaders often fall short. This one minute video clip sums it up as King Leonidas asks Daxos’ men one simple question. After playing the clip, see how quickly you can spot the problem?

Leadership Test: If those you lead are asked about the organization’s or team’s top priority, would your team answer like the Spartans or more like the Arcadians?

If your team is lacking a “WAR! WAR! WAR!” response, time for the mirror test. How they respond is your responsibility. For additional tips on how to create more intentional, predictable and repeatable results, see this post on Vision.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Does anyone remember your corporate vision?

Corporate VisionAfter laboring with your leadership team to set a compelling vision for 2013, the chances are, your staff won’t even remember it only 30 days into the new year.

Don’t believe me? Take this simple test:

Ask 3 staff members about your current vision.

Be prepared for the results you will likely find.

For those that found that all three remembered the vision with clarity, you are part of a rare few. This would suggest that you already know the success was not due to a catchy, compelling headline, nor was it because you were so engaging in your delivery of the vision. Both may have been true, but were not the reason.

Most, on the other hand, fell into the broader category of the ‘forgotten vision.’ Following are a few steps to take before it’s too late and your staff forgets you even spoke about the vision. Before doing so, let’s make sure the reasons are clear for why this is often forgotten so soon after being delivered.

The Forgotten Vision

Last October, I was invited to conduct a Vision & Strategic Planning workshop at a conference in Chicago for leaders from all over the country. The preliminary surveys of the audience members showed that most had led and/or participated in vision setting exercises with an even larger number showing the vision had no measurable impact on their year-end results. Here are a few of the most common reasons cited for the vision failing to make an impact:

 From leader’s perspective:

  • Nobody remembered the vision
  • They didn’t buy into the vision

 From staff’s perspective:

  • The vision failed to connect with staff
  • The vision is an exercise leaders do

Do any of those reasons look or sound familiar to you? What is interesting is that both, in the workshop and in working with other leaders in this area, is that most believe they need help with vision casting, believing that they just needed a better story or a better way to tell the story. While I do give some guidance and attention to that part in my workshops, my primary emphasis is on vision execution.

Two Steps to a Vision Remembered

When you reflect upon the vision setting exercises you have been engaged with, you are likely to remember the sense of relief you had when you finally completed the vision. Most see this process as putting in the hard work up front whereas all that is left is to deliver the vision to the team and expect the results. I have significantly oversimplified how most actually go about this, but the truth of the matter is that people too often place inappropriate emphasis on the front end of vision casting and little to no work in executing the vision.

The truth is that the vision casting is the easiest part of the process. The harder part is in distilling the vision down into executable actions that connect directly to each team member’s behaviors. The second part is in having specific, measurable evidence of where the vision is being carried out for each staff member to call and reinforce further behaviors. Here is a closer look at these two steps.

Step 1: Connect vision to behaviors. As a leader, credibility is one of the most important attributes you have, and should not be taken lightly. When it comes to making your vision a reality, failure to work through your leadership team to connect specific behaviors to the vision not only sets the vision on a course to fail, but erodes your credibility altogether. Therefore, make the time and make the connections. I recommend each leader meets with their direct reports one-on-one to maximize impact. The task itself is not difficult, but rather the difficulty is in committing to the time investment necessary to make this step effective. Don’t bail out on this one. The stakes are too high.

Step 2: Reinforce contributing behaviors. While Step 1 is a great start towards your aligning your staff to the overall vision, assuming it meets standard vision protocol and resonates with staff members, that alone will not be enough. To keep the team on track and to change behaviors leading to a successful progression towards the vision, they will need consistent feedback and reinforcement of how their actions are contributing. Therefore, after having invested the time to connect the vision to individual behaviors, the second critical step is to reinforce behaviors daily, weekly and monthly as you see evidence of the behaviors that lead to success.

As the leader, you know the pressures you experience to get things done with fewer resources. Your staff feels these same pressures, just in differing degrees. Therefore, if you feel that you don’t have time to take these steps to carry out the vision, how likely is it that your staff will naturally commit to carrying out the vision along with their other responsibilities? They won’t! Without you taking these aforementioned steps, they will simply see the vision as an interruption to getting their regular work done. Their everyday responsibilities [as they define them] will win out every time. That is, unless you define and connect the two, then consistently reinforce those behaviors. Is your vision worth the investment?

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Leadership Lesson from X Games

Tucker HibbertTalent Alone is not Enough

January 27, 2013 marks the first time an athlete has ever achieved a six-peat…six consecutive gold medal performances…in the winter X Games. Tucker Hibbert did so in remarkable fashion in the Snowmobile Sno-Cross event Sunday afternoon. It wasn’t his talent alone that won the finals for him. The X Game analysts were quick to point out that this was one of the most experienced and capable field of champions they have ever seen.

What they did point to as the differentiator, rightfully so, was his preparation. You see, in between the semi-finals and finals, Tucker chose to spend his time walking the course to evaluate how the snow conditions had changed. He also spent time evaluating where the shadows were falling on the course along with identifying the intended lines he would take. It turns out that he was the only competitor that did so.

Assimilating all of that information resulted in his selection of starting lane (afforded to him because of his semi-final finish), which was counter-intuitive to where most others wanted to start from. By the time they all completed the first lap, Tucker was in the lead and on his game plan. More than half way through the race, conditions continued to change as the shadows continued to shift and the snow conditions on the track worsened.

Lap 9, Tucker was jolted by hitting a rough patch in his originally chosen line. He adjusted his line to his plan B approach by the time he reached that same rough section on lap 10 and continued to put distance between himself and the second place competitor. Six laps later, he had finished the race creating a phenomenal 13 seconds of distance between his next closest competitor.

The Mark of Effective Leadership is Reflected in Their Preparation

Tucker prepared in a way that his competitors failed to do. In fact, all things being equal, each of the competitors had the opportunity to win with similar experience, equipment and conditions. Yet, it came down to Tucker’s preparation that enabled him to respond asymmetrically to an otherwise, equal playing field. Tucker clearly had an advantage over his competition. An advantage also available to each of his competitors, but they declined, instead relying upon their own experience to see them through.

For leaders, you can certainly attest to the pressure to perform while leading your team to do the same. With the level of responsibilities a leader typically carries, the tendency can be to approach business as just another day. merely showing up and reacting to whatever the next day has in store. This is certainly no way to lead, and definitely not a recipe for intentional, predictable and repeatable success.

So how can you tell if you have fallen into this trap? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What do today’s actions reflect about your preparation to lead your team to success?
  • Specifically, what have you done today to ensure your team’s success?
  • Does your to-do list focus more on tasks than it does in leading your team to success?

If these questions have exposed some vulnerabilities in your daily approach, you are not alone. Be encouraged as you have taken the first step to acknowledge complacency. Complacency threatens all of us if we don’t intentionally disrupt our own status quo. Here are three steps to help you prepare differently, much like Tucker had done for his record performance. After all, wouldn’t we all like to succeed in intentional, predictable, repeatable ways as Tucker did?

3 Ways Effective Leaders Prepare Differently

  • Intentionality. Evaluating ever-changing conditions in the business environment requires being prepared for anything. This includes anticipating problems before they happen, and even planning how you will respond to the unanticipated. To have this ability, the leader will need to take intentional steps and set aside time to address these areas. Action: Schedule this into your calendar to address consistently and frequently. This needs to become an habitual routine.
  • Predictability. After you begin intentionally looking for ways to be better prepared, you will begin to see patterns. These patterns often come in the forms of team member behavior that leads to lesser performance, complacent reactions of competitors, or even economic rhythms that you can predict and address now that you see them. Action: Practice predicting outcomes privately. Start developing this capability and pay attention to predictions and what surprised you along the way before you go public.
  • Repeatability. When you have devoted the time to be intentional, others begin to notice your seemingly innate ability to predict outcomes and that you are well-prepared, you will find that repeatable successes happen with much greater frequency. This makes you an invaluable asset and resource to your team and your organization. Action: Look for ways to repeat your success without relying on repeating the same exact actions. Life usually doesn’t work that way. But for the effective leader that knows how to succeed repeatedly, do as Babe Ruth did and call your shots before they happen. Then make good on it by developing your intentionality and predictability muscles.

The most meaningful things in life take time to develop. Effective leadership is one of those meaningful areas worthy of pursuing. But it’s up to you. What will you choose? What will you do differently today, that will make a noticeable difference in what you and your teams do tomorrow?

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

3 Steps to Cultivating Confidence

Keys to ConfidenceAfter two decades of working with individuals, managers and leaders at various levels, I have observed and identified 3 behaviors that lead to intentional, predictable and repeatable results.  Practicing these three simple behaviors will put you on the fast track to cultivating confidence.

The three behaviors are as follows:

1. Self-Reflection – We can all get caught up in the activities that our jobs and personal responsibilities require. The tendency during the busyness can be to ‘act’ or ‘react’ without paying attention to whether that was the best course of action to take. Furthermore, because the focus tends to be on the task at hand, one can fail to assess if the action taken is achieving the results originally intended. For this reason, setting some time for intentional, self-reflection can shift your focus back from results, to behaviors that create the results.

When a person is more intentional about changing their behaviors to best achieve the results, and evaluates their intention in comparison to the outcome, significant learning takes place that guides your future steps.

Self-Reflection = Intentionality. I call this ‘succeeding on purpose.’ When a person intentionally reflects upon behaviors that contributes to the result, and achieves their expected result, the byproduct is greater confidence.

2. Write it down. Documenting your observations…even in the briefest of forms…is the least fun, but most rewarding when you start to see patterns. For example, consider a recent example of a person on a new diet.

Everyday, around 2:30 pm, Steve eats a candy bar out of habit. Before documenting his eating habits, Steve was aware that he had a candy bar on many days, but not sure exactly when in the day, how often, or even why he ate candy for that matter. After reflecting on his behaviors and documenting his observations, he recognized that he snacks in between two meetings as a sort of distraction from the next meeting. It wasn’t that he was necessarily hungry after lunch, craving sweets or needing an afternoon pick-me-up. He simply needed a non-work related distraction before his next meeting.

Once the pattern was observed, he recognized steps he could take to improve his eating habits by keeping granola bars on hand at that time of day. Even better, he later realized that taking a 10-minute walk outside provided a more healthy distraction before stepping in to his next meeting.

You can improve or change that in which you are aware. Without awareness, you are just guessing, which is the number one killer of confidence. Self-reflection of your behaviors, followed by documenting your observations, allows you to start seeing patterns, which creates predictability.

Documenting = Predictability. Similar to the infrequent golfer who never knows where the ball is going with each swing, so it is with the manager that can’t predict outcomes based on their actions. Just as Babe Ruth used to do in pointing to where he would hit the ball, we too have the ability to accurately predict outcomes. Predictability contributes to confidence.

3. Debrief your actions. An important, and often over-looked, activity that benefits all who do so is to debrief each action taken. The Army refers to this as an After-Action Review (AAR). This process of debriefing includes all members of the team and asks questions such as:

  • What was supposed to happen?
  • What actually happened?
  • What can be learned?
  • What should be done differently?
  • Who else could benefit from what was learned?

A thorough and proper debrief directly contributes to continuous learning and improved results, which enables a leader, individual and/or team to have, and repeat, success in the future.

Debriefing = Repeatability. Those that know how to repeat their successes are invaluable to organizations and to others. The ability to intentionally and predictably achieve a successful outcome at will…or repeatably…is an asset every organization would love to have.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

1 Easy Step to Shorter Meetings

Shorter MeetingsProblem: Habitual Thinking About Time
Think about a meeting you typically schedule for your team. How long do you schedule for the meeting? For sake of discussion, let’s assume it is an hour-long meeting. Is an hour really needed, or is scheduling an hour just a habit in thinking about time in 30-60 minute increments?

We have become accustomed to increments of time that are rounded off…and most often, rounded up to greater increments of time. For example, consider human behavior with New Year’s resolutions.

What is normally considered a goal, becomes a resolution because it was set on or around January 1. Then most people stick with it for as long as they can…typically a couple weeks…then say to themselves, “I will try harder next year.”

While we are accustomed to think habitually in terms of year-long resolutions, when what is really needed are week-long or even day-long resolutions. Why wait a whole year to make adjustments to what didn’t work after a few weeks.

Shorten your time increments. Similarly, when we schedule meetings, we tend to look in 60 minute blocks of time, when what really may be needed is 45 minutes or perhaps even 20.

Solution: Plan for Less

To Meeting Organizers – Reduce meeting time by 25% or more.Before scheduling your next meeting, first be a responsible organizer and do the following:

  • Ensure there are clear decision points
  • Communicate to all necessary attendees in advance of meeting
  • Determine how much time you think will be needed for the meeting
  • Then recognize you are thinking about time in traditional ways and reduce the time by at least 25%

This is counter-intuitive, but you will be amazed at how properly prepared attendees that know the meeting time is short, will focus in on the essential decision points. Longer meeting times suggest to the participants, that there is plenty of time, so settle in and pace yourself.

To meeting participants – Plan to leave early.
For your next scheduled meeting, let the meeting organizer know that you will have to step out [25% of the meeting] early (i.e., leave 45 minutes into an hour-long meeting).

  • Ask the meeting organizer to cover the key points while you are there
  • Identify a colleague to get a recap for the last 15 minutes missed
  • Congratulate yourself for taking intentional steps to reinvest valuable time
  • Recognize this is a short-term solution, so address it at the root by sharing these tips with others

I understand this is not possible for all meetings, particularly meetings that your supervisor called. In those instances, what you can do is share the concept you read here. Let them know these methods have increased staff productivity levels in excess of 25%. What supervisor would not be a fan of that?

“Less talking, more doing!”

This really works and puts valuable time back in your day, especially when you attend or hold multiple meetings each day. The result? Spend less time talking about what you will do and more time actually doing it.

Please share your successes in employing this technique. Also, if you have a favorite way to reduce meeting times…or meetings altogether, we’d love to hear about them.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Reorganization or Turnaround? (Part 2): Top-Line Temptation

Top Line TemptationLast week, I wrote about common mistakes made with an underperforming Division or Business Unit in my post titled Reorganization or Turnaround? (Part 1). Most notably, I spoke of the tendency to prescribe a reorganization to situations when a turnaround was really needed, by failing to recognize issues that are below the “waterline.”

If you are the leader of a struggling division, business unit or team that has solid sales, but have continued to underperform the profitability expectations for multiple periods, this post is for you.

The Top-Line Temptation
There is no doubt that top-line revenue covers a multitude of sins. The problem is that too often this is seen as a good thing…or at least acceptable. These ‘sins’ in business, so to speak, that detract from profitability are analogous to the roots of a young tree that later grows to disrupt the foundation. The foundation, in this case, represents the whole organization. Addressing the root of these problems is always better done earlier, for obvious reasons, as the picture of the tree below perfectly illustrates the implications of letting problems persist.

Unfortunately, what happens all too often is that with solid revenue comes the belief that things will correct themselves over time. That increasing the sales will begin to create economies of scale, eventually leading to profitability. Question – When was the last time you saw a profitability issue like this work itself out over time?

Getting at the Root of the Problem
There are a variety of reasons why a leader may be experiencing solid sales with poor profitability, but I want to address one of the more common reasons I see. This is the ‘sales at any cost’ approach. When this is the case, the inappropriate pursuit of revenue tends to come in one of two forms.

Root Cause

The Root of the Problem

The first way revenue is inappropriately pursued comes in the form of aggressive discounts, incentives, and promotions. Unprofitable discounting creates an inflated sense of demand, which bursts the minute the discounts stop. The more inherent problems with this approach, other than increased costs and false demand, is the longer term impact of discounts and incentives lowering the perceived value in your customer’s eyes.

The second way that revenue is inappropriately pursued is through disproportionate costs of acquisition and retention, beyond that which is profitable. In these situations, typical strategies include increased marketing campaigns, sales blitzes, additional staff or even the introduction of new products or services on top of an overly burdened cost structure.

In some cases, a division may inappropriately pursue both, discount strategies and increased activities. The compounded effect of having lower revenue at higher costs puts the business area on a fast track to what I call ‘divisional bankruptcy.’ Not only is this unsustainable, it is a terrible strategy in general for leading a division to profitability.

5 Questions to Determine if You Have a Profitability Problem
Now that we have a good handle on some of the problems and why they occur, it is important to determine whether these are your problems are somebody else’s problems. Also important to note is that the conditions described above are not the sole list, but rather representative of the type of conditions that lead to solid sales with poor profitability. Therefore, the following questions will help in determining if you are in a situation requiring a reorganization or turnaround.

  1. Were your most recent profit results intended? Comparing performance to plan (PTP) is an important measure. There are times when losses are planned. If so, did you meet the plan? If not, proceed to #2.
  2. If your PTP was not intended, do you know specifically what contributed to this? If you answered “no,” stop reading now. Enlist all necessary resources to figure this out. Without this, remediation is impossible.
  3. What specific steps do you have in place, to correct the problems? Assuming you answered ‘yes’ for #2, specific SMART goals should be in place with key staff that will correct the profitability shortfalls.
  4. How long will the plan take to restore profitability? Remediation should occur within 6 months or less. Be very careful about setting anything longer as too often you are delaying the inevitable. The time to act is now.
  5. What is your track record for accurately forecasting corrections? This is an important gut-check. Be honest. If you tend to be overly optimistic, best to confront that now as people are depending on you.

Reorganize or Turnaround?
After having assessed the cause of the problems and determined next steps, you should have a sense of clarity on whether or not you have a ‘waterline‘ issue or not. If you have diagnosed your problem to be below the waterline, this is a turnaround. You are now in a dead sprint to correct the problem before your CEO steps in on your behalf to correct the problem simultaneous with your exit.

Time to A.C.T.
Now that you have properly diagnosed your predicament and are committed to an expedient correction, it is time to act. I have put the steps in the form of an acronym to serve as a virtuous, or repeatable, cycle to follow throughout the recovery.

  • Assess. Pull out the financials along with your sales and marketing metrics to assess where the key profit detractors lie. Don’t fall for only cutting easy, non-essential areas. The allure is that it looks like you took action without disrupting anything too significantly. The problem is that it won’t disrupt anything too significantly. Cut the small stuff, but cut the big stuff first. Remember the tree picture above…address the root issues!
  • Correct. Having identified where to cut, commit to correction through decisive action. These times aren’t easy, so best to communicate lavishly before, during and after the turnaround. Before lets people know what to expect. During to give updates and demonstrate it’s working. After confirms that your actions were worth it.
  • Target. Cuts are important and necessary, but are not the entirety of your action. Time to target key start and stop activities that contribute more quickly to your division’s profitability. Examples include not pursuing unprofitable customers, or to stopping marketing activity that aims to discount its way to profitable growth.

As described above, this process is intended to be followed and repeated, assessing and adjusting as you go. If you are entering this process of a turnaround, I would like to offer encouragement as you have demonstrated the two characteristics I described last week – Humility in acknowledging your situation and Courage to address the problems head on. Once you successfully turnaround your division or business area, not only will you have the respect and admiration of your staff and CEO, but this will likely serve as one of the largest confidence booster’s in your career that will serve you well in years to come.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.

Reorganization or Turnaround? (Part 1)

Business TurnaroundsAs the end of the year approaches, CEOs all over the country have a laser-like focus on performance to ensure a strong year-end finish. While many organizations will achieve their financial objectives, many others will come up short of the results they expected.

There is yet a third group in which will not only fall short of expectations, but will turn in another consecutive period of underperformance, with no recovery in sight. While this isn’t indicative of the overall organization, but rather a division or business unit struggling to correct performance issues, this still remains problematic for the organization.

For those falling in the unenviable position of this latter group, the CEO’s focus will narrow in on changes that will restore overall organizational health in order to start the New Year off right.

If this describes you, you are likely evaluating your next moves. Assuming this is the case, let’s take a closer look at what to do when you have experienced continued declines and are not seeing a recovery in the results. Is a reorganization of your division needed, or is an all out turnaround in order?

Reorganization or Turnaround?
How you diagnose the problem, and the remedy you prescribe, can either set you on the road to recovery, or lead to further entrenchment in missed results, often worse than before the correction.

Without oversimplifying an otherwise complex problem, there are three general conditions that lead an organization, division or business unit to consider a reorganization or turnaround plan. In the ensuing weeks, I will break down the three scenarios more thoroughly, but my primary aim is to provide an overview of the problem. Following are the three general scenarios most commonly experienced by business areas with ongoing, lackluster results.

The Three Business Performance Conditions:

1. Solid sales, but poor profitability

2. Solid profitability, but poor sales

3. Poor sales and poor profitability

A Common Mistake
When one of the aforementioned scenarios is experienced, the mistake most commonly made is to misdiagnose the problem and subsequently prescribe a reorganization to a turnaround situation. This usually has disastrous consequences as the characteristics of a turnaround differ significantly from that of a reorganization. In other words, a division in turnaround mode that has poor top and bottom line performance, operates much differently…much more expediently…than one that has been reorganized to bring greater efficiency and effectiveness to the division. When a leader of a failing business area makes a recommendation to reorganize the division/business unit/department to improve the underperformance, failure to meet expectations is nearly inevitable.

A reorganization done under the pretense described above just doesn’t work, but you already know this. How? Imagine that you came to me and shared that one of your divisions has a consistent history of declining business performance. Now imagine I say to you, “No problem, simply restructure your division, and this will enable greater growth and profitability.” You would be quick to tell me that 1.) It isn’t that simple, and 2.) You may even tell me that you have already tried this approach, and it didn’t work. Of course, you would be right for both reasons.

A Better Approach
When dealing with prolonged performance issues in a business area, two leadership qualities are highly beneficial: Courage and Humility. Courage will be needed to make a decision that inevitably will depart from the status quo that you have grown comfortable with. This isn’t to say that you were comfortable with underperformance. Far from it, in fact. The comfort came more in the activity of feeling that you were doing something about the problems, and the ‘activity’ itself served as justification for not having to make the more difficult decisions you feared would be necessary.

Humility will also be needed, since the potential is high for you as the business area leader, to feel as if you are conceding defeat to the previous failed approach to correct the problems. This is often linked with a belief that your leadership may be questioned if you change directions. The reality is that your staff already knows something different is needed. Your leadership is already in question until you are willing to break from the status quo and make meaningful change.

A Tip from CEOs
Savvy CEOs that have been through this before will be quick to point out that if their division leader approached them with a plan to reorganize in order to solve business performance issues, their confidence in the leader would diminish significantly and likely result in their departure. Why? No matter how reasonable the cost efficiencies and productivity gains may be, this fails to address the root issues of why the division or unit was failing. Therefore, if they cannot accurately assess the root problems, then they are ill-suited to correct them.

When this goes unchallenged by the CEO, the result is that poor performance is excused for a period of time while people settle into the newly structured organization. This is short-lived, however as soon comes the day of reckoning where all patience has run out and results are expected. Most CEOs state that they don’t have the luxury of that kind of time and money to wait for better performance. Additionally, they know that this kind of decision puts other areas of the organization at risk, thus putting undue pressures on the stronger performing divisions.

Therefore, rather than looking to reorganize to address organizational performance deficiencies, look instead at using reorganizations to address better efficiencies. In other words, a reorganization should not be used to address performance problems, but rather to take good performance and make it great through better alignment.

Reorganizations when used appropriately are liberating to the business area as it allows them to achieve their goals more efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately, reorgs have been used irresponsibly over the years for many organizations as cover for reducing headcount and other operating costs. No wonder why staff hate reorganizations.

General Rule of Thumb: The Waterline Principle
I have a general rule of thumb for whether a reorganization or a turnaround is Waterline Principlethe best approach. Every organization has a specific profitability level they need to maintain organizational health. Think of this as the waterline on a cargo ship. The waterline, or the red paint at the bottom of an otherwise black cargo ship, does two things:

  1. It provides a visual indication of the ship’s relative safety in that is not overly loaded down
  2. It also serves as a clear indicator that any damage below the waterline would be perilous to the ship

In either case, whether too much cargo is loaded on the ship, or damage happens below the waterline, the whole ship is put in jeopardy. No matter how healthy other areas of the ship may be, damage below the line risks the whole. For example, the ship can have state of the art electronics and navigational equipment in other parts of the ship, but all will be lost when the threat below the waterline isn’t properly handled. The same is true in business.

Therefore, when determining how to address a situation in a business area and the choice is between a reorganization or a turnaround, consider where the risks are happening – Are they above or below the waterline? This will bring clarity to your thinking in an instant.

Next Week…
Look for Part 2 of the Reorganization or Turnaround series as I address the approach for when a division, business unit or product has solid sales, but poor profitability.

Jeff Michaels | Repeatable SuccessJeff Michaels is a Sales & Marketing Executive that has worked with executives, leaders, & teams for 25 years to create repeatable success regardless of industry, economy or circumstance.