Category Archives: Upturn

Small Customers – A Neglected Resource

The efficiency focus of the past 18 months may well have added substantially to the risk profile of companies, while simultaneously reducing their profitability.

After all, efficiency for most means focusing on the largest customers – allowing one to reduce headcount (less people, managing fewer customers), reduce transaction costs (fewer, larger transactions) and, in many eyes, reduce risk (bigger customers are more trustworthy).

However, aren’t your biggest customers the ones that demand, and generally get, the best prices? Do your biggest customers not get the longer payment terms they request? Are your biggest customers really less work than others?

And what about the impact on your business of the failure to pay of one of your biggest customers? As we’ve seen, they’re far from invincible.

Conversely, most businesses will find that their smaller customers:
• Deliver better margins;
• Will pay more promptly (if for no other reason than you have more leverage);
• Are no more work than the larger ones, and often less so as they are less demanding;

On top of this, the impact of a failure on your business is far less severe, and you substantially reduce your overall business risk by spreading a given value across a number of customers, instead of concentrating it in one place.

What’s more, as business starts to pick up, the companies likely to grow most quickly will be the small ones – a 20% growth on $1 Million revenue is generally a good deal easier to find than a 20% growth on $1 Billion revenue. So having a good number of smaller customers will improve your growth prospects, too.

Analyse the true profitability (return on working capital, including all costs) by customer segment: you’ll find it a very interesting exercise.

I’m not for a moment advocating that you fire all your biggest customers, but rather that you not just focus on larger customers at the expense of smaller ones. As with all things in life, you need to achieve a balance.

Small customers should be embraced as much as large ones – after all, if you have a ready resource that will help you grow faster than the market average while improving your profitability and simultaneously reducing your risk, shouldn’t you make the best use of it?

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Leadership for the New Business World

The worst economic recession for generations has caused a re-evaluation of business practices in many areas, and a call for greater corporate governance and oversight. Now that we’re officially reaching the end of the recession with many countries in Asia and the whole of the Eurozone, amongst others, officially out of it, it’s also time to look closely at leadership practices in business.

One thing’s certain – many changes need to be made, and recent surveys showing a significant majority of employees are planning to change jobs as soon as hiring picks up make this an urgent necessity if companies are to avoid the upheaval and cost increases associated with high staff turnover.

There are many reasons for this level of unhappiness, among them:

  • Severe stress at work – as companies cut costs and staff, those that remained found their workloads growing, often to a point of near-unsustainability;
  • Severe stress at home – really an extension of the added stress at work, compounded by longer working hours, and often less pay;
  • Lack of appreciation – many, if not most, companies overlooked the stress factors and showed no appreciation for the additional efforts of their staff, a situation worsened by cost-cutting which impacted the staff “welfare” programmes already in place;
  • Do as I say, not as I do – as the recession bit ever deeper, many executives seemed oblivious, continuing with executive perks, parties and benefits even as they were making deep cuts in employment and other areas (look at the scandals surrounding many of the bailed-out businesses for example);
  • Lack of direction – as companies cut, often in several waves, many seemed to have lost their direction. Although, as I pointed out in an earlier article, 93% of companies had updated their strategies and priorities to address the slowdown, the fact is that much of this work was done well into the recession and they were floundering for a good time (only half have a strategy in place for the upturn!).

As a result of these and other issues many have lost faith in their business leadership and this is the reason for the potential dramatic increase in staff turnover.

A recent survey by McKinsey, “Leadership through the crisis and after” points to the way forward. What’s interesting is that the top criteria for leadership during the crisis are the same as those for after it, with only minor changes to relative importance. In essence, leaders are expected to be:

  • Inspiring, creating a vision for all to see and aim for, and doing so convincingly and clearly;
  • Unambiguous, defining expectations and rewarding people appropriately for this;
  • Challenging, through encouraging people to challenge assumptions and take risks;
  • Participative, involving others in the decision-making process;
  • Above Reproach, acting as a role model, mentoring and teaching;

These are very much in line with what’s being said elsewhere and with what executives perceive as the most important criteria for organisations going forward: Leadership, Innovation, Clear Direction and an External (Customer, Supplier, etc.,) Orientation being seen as the top success factors.

It may not be too late. Employment typically lags an upturn by several months, so leaders still have a little time to restore the faith of their workforce. However, they cannot afford to delay any longer to address these issues of concern and need to clearly demonstrate that they understand the way forward for success. Failure to do so will almost certainly cost companies dearly.

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Postscript: Was pointed to an excellent presentation by Dr Tommy Weir on CEO Shift demonstrating how leaders will need to shift their thinking in 5 key areas related to talent. Well worth watching! See it at http://tommyweir.com/Video.aspx

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Will your business survive the upswing?

An article I saw today in SmartPlanet.com confirmed what I’ve been feeling for some time: businesses have over-done the cost-cutting and are poorly placed for the economic upswing.

The fact that leading economists and business leaders around the world have declared an end to the recession is great news. However, even though nobody is talking about a ‘V-shaped recovery’ or quick upswing, the Forbes study of 200 large companies cited in the article showed that leading executives believe the level of cost cutting undertaken will severely restrict their future growth prospects.

As I posted a few weeks ago, short-term business thinking has done enormous damage – and unfortunately this thinking carried through the recession with companies cutting costs as hard and fast as they could with little thought for the future.

While I don’t have the statistics to hand that the Forbes study has, my own observations indicate that perhaps the report is conservative: it showed 22% of executives believing their recruiting/retention policies were not aligned with their strategic goals, while a quarter indicated their training and development programs were similarly misaligned. My observations indicate this figure to be significantly higher – here in the Middle East, training and recruitment all but ground to a complete halt for the first 3 quarters of this year, right at the time when forward-looking companies should have been upskilling and upgrading their staff.

This really points to the core of the issue – the study showing that nearly all (93%) companies had updated their strategies and priorities to address the slowdown, but only 51% admitted to having a plan in place to guide strategy once the economy turns. Granted, the almost all rest said they were working on a plan, but is it not too late?

Certainly it seems that companies around the globe have missed great opportunities to position themselves strongly for the upturn and this is sure to lead to many failures as those that have done so take new leadership positions – as has been the case following every previous recession. The difference this time being, of course, that the recession was far deeper than any we’ve seen in a couple of generations, so the post-recession fall-out is likely to be worse, too.

Perhaps some companies can still save themselves by moving quickly to position for the upswing – taking on top-performing staff, embarking on aggressive training and taking advantage of the opportunities for mergers and acquisitions – but they can’t afford to wait any longer. Investors, too, are likely to severely punish those companies they see as being unprepared for the upswing.

The question now is whether your company will be one of the new leaders or will fail to survive?

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