Tribute

It’s two months since my father passed away, and nearly a year to the day since he went into hospital for scheduled heart surgery. Sadly, although the operation itself appears to have been a success, the ordeal seemed to trigger a whole series of complications and underlying conditions: within 6 months he was admitted to a dementia ward, and by late last year, he was in a nursing home undergoing palliative care. Less than three months later, he passed away, the shadow of his former self.

I was able to spend several weeks back in the UK over Christmas and New Year, visiting him up to three times a day. Most of the time, he was living in his own little world, and I would simply sit with him and listen to some of his favourite music, mainly baroque and opera. But in his lucid moments there were flashbacks to the distant past, and some recollections of more recent memories. On one occasion, even though he had lost most of his capacity for speech, he did manage a sage piece of advice: “Don’t play with fire”.

More recently, I was in the UK again to scatter his ashes and help sort out his study and his workshop. Memories of impromptu DIY lessons came flooding back. There were also several quirks and surprises in his personal archive: photos of him at management conferences in the 1970s and 1980s, a scrapbook of his time in Germany in the late 1950s during National Service (including some chilling images of Belsen), and a spreadsheet showing his annual income and income tax right up to his retirement.

Although he was fortunate in being able to take early retirement in his late 50s, he spent the next 25 years volunteering, building a portfolio of interests and serving on multiple committees for the arts, small business, veteran affairs, U3A and other community projects. My mother likes to joke that he’d rather chair a committee than mow the lawn. He also continued to learn, and I found recent certificates of proficiency for speaking German, and for formatting Word documents (very handy for writing up agendas and minutes).

He was the product of a classic liberal education, not a polymath, but possessing a solid knowledge about lots of different things: the arts, politics, language and history as well as science and technology. All the things you need to solve The Times crossword.

There are probably three key things that my father taught me:

  • Think for yourself
  • Don’t follow the herd
  • And of course, being an engineer, don’t take something apart unless you know how to put it back together again.

The latter is particularly useful when working with clients on their business reviews!

Next week: Music Streaming Comes of Age

Putting a Price on Value

In the course of my consulting work, I often work with clients (who are themselves consultants and service providers) to review their pricing models. The goal is to help my clients clarify what they are charging for, to ensure that both they and their own customers are comfortable with the price. What often emerges is that on its own, “time-based” pricing is becoming harder to justify, unless there is a clear understanding of the resulting value created and transferred.

adding-valueAmong some of the major consulting and professional service firms, there is a growing awareness that pricing based on billable hours alone is no longer sustainable. This in turn is forcing firms to review how they put a price on their work. They recognise the need to shift from billing clients for “time and materials”, to generating license fees and royalties for the use of proprietary IP, and to offering “XaaS” models that comprise a blend of “always on” retainer and actual service delivery, neither of which is wholly based on time or effort spent.

At the same time, many input costs are actually decreasing:

  • Reduced staff overheads via offshoring and outsourcing
  • Cheaper technology (although we consume more of it)
  • More open source tools and freeware available
  • Ubiquity of BYOD
  • Greater use of remote working, telecommuting and hot desks

What this means for the clients I work with is that they need to have a better grasp of the amount of effort applied and the level of expertise they deliver to their customers. If there are significant parts of the project costs that have to be measured by actual time spent, then it is important to make sure that the customer understands the effort required.

How else can consultants and professional service firms demonstrate value, other than by billable hours alone?

To begin with, clarify exactly what the customer thinks they are paying for. There can be nothing worse than consultants spending most of their time and effort on tasks or activities where the customer does not see a material benefit, or which the customer does not value.

Clearly, if there are measurable and quantifiable outcomes for the customer, then that is a good basis for demonstrating value. For example, direct cost savings to the customer, or reduced opportunity costs in terms of time to market or other factors. However, it may be harder to demonstrate the direct benefit of some qualitative outcomes, at least in the short term.

Some pricing models include a consultant “success fee” coupled to a share of revenue, profit or costs savings (which can be high-risk for consultants if they have no control over the implementation and execution). Other consultants are working with their clients to co-create products and services, which can generate standalone revenue streams from the shared IP. Others are adopting more collaborative approaches to consulting which build long-term value through the quality and nature of the relationships which are more like partnerships than transactions. This can remove the customer’s anxiety that the “meter is always running”, although such arrangements still require expectations to be managed through agreed boundaries and clear rules of engagement.

One model I use with clients is to figure out the nature (as well as the amount) of the value they are being asked to deliver, based on why the customer is buying, as much as what they are paying for. Some of the factors to consider include:

  • Risk mitigation – is the customer in effect buying an insurance policy, transferring their own risk, or reducing their exposure to risk?
  • Must have – is the customer having to meet a regulatory or compliance obligation?
  • Best practice – does the customer aspire to be among the best in their industry?
  • Competitive advantage – is the customer getting something unique or hard to replicate?
  • Peer pressure – does the customer need to meet a recognised standard or level of competence?
  • Situational – does the customer need to build or acquire appropriate skills and capabilities?
  • Urgency – is the customer willing to pay more for a speedier service? (This is one area where time-based pricing can still be relevant!)

It’s also important to understand how customers are funding their purchase. For example:

  • which cost centre is paying for the service?
  • what is the purchasing criteria?
  • what cost/benefit analysis has been done?
  • is there a specific budget allocation, or is it coming out of existing operating costs?

Of course, consultants are frequently hired to bring an alternative (and sometimes critical) perspective to their clients’ problems. In which case, getting an external opinion has value in itself, and the customer should accept there is a cost associated with having access to someone else’s brain – even if it is only for a few hours.

Finally, for an alternative perspective, I would refer to recent comments made by Ash Maurya (author of “Running Lean”, and creator of Lean Canvas) when he was in Melbourne. Talking about how to scale startups, he made the observation that, “selling time [as a consultant] is not scalable … There’s only 24 hours in a day.”

Next week: Food for thought at #StartupVic’s #pitch night

“I’m reframing, the situation….”

As a break from my consulting and business development work, I have been taking lessons on picture framing. My significant other is an artist, and she has commissioned me to mount and frame a number of her works for a forthcoming exhibition. Things got off to an interesting start, when I inadvertently framed the first print the “wrong” way round (see the image below). Because there wasn’t an obvious top or bottom, I didn’t realise that I hadn’t placed the image in the way she intended. But, luckily, this “error” created a fresh perspective, and I realised that I was simply doing what I do all with the time with my clients when I reframe the information, problems or situations they present.

"Eclipse" (© Margaret Manchee)

“Eclipse” (© Margaret Manchee)

Some recent examples of where I have helped my various clients to reframe a situation and make a breakthrough when they have become stuck or blocked in their own thinking include:

  • shifting from a “retail” sales model to a “wholesale” strategy that focuses on aggregators and distributors;
  • treating an employer as just one part of a mixed portfolio of clients, rather than thinking that the regular job was a barrier to acquiring more direct clients;
  • refining the sales process to avoid giving away too much proprietary information during the RFP process, but still demonstrating value by delivering the best solution in terms of quality and technical capabilities;
  • repositioning the business to leverage proprietary data and analytics to build long-term revenue streams via commercial relationships and partnerships, rather than competing for increasingly price-sensitive, commoditized and transactional work;
  • adopting a more client-centred approach when designing a new on-line product that hitherto had been viewed internally as simply a technology-driven service extension;
  • using a service-design model for developing and delivering a communication strategy that needs to engage multiple stakeholders who simply want to know “what’s in it for me?”

Another useful insight that my picture framing has given me is the use of complementary and contrasting mount boards and mouldings to emphasise certain colours, to bring out highlights, to add depth and perspective, or to the give the illusion of infinite space and/or possibilities. Again, all things which I bring to the discussions I have with my clients.

Next week: FinTech Melbourne’s latest pitch event

Getting Stuck – and how to deal with it

We’ve all witnessed (or even experienced) those moments when a speaker or presenter gets stuck. They stumble over their material, they offer an inappropriate response to a tricky question, or they simply go off topic and stray into verbal quicksand. And although they realise they are in difficulty, they carry on regardless, only to wade deeper and deeper into the mire. Some of our current political leaders know exactly how that feels…

Photo by Mark Roy - Licensed under Creative Commons

Photo by Mark Roy – Licensed under Creative Commons

In my experience, many small business owners do the same thing when they get stuck. They carry on doing the same as they’ve always done, even though they know they need to change course, take another approach, or try a different tactic. Which is where someone like me comes to the rescue. As a consultant, I can bring an objective, external and independent perspective that can help clients navigate away from the problem, and steer them back onto the right track.

The Inflexion Point

The typical scenario is that the business is faltering. Most often it’s about sales and business development – either not enough new customers, or too few of the “right” customers (and too many of the “wrong” ones). Sometimes it’s about an aspect of their strategy that isn’t working. It could be a problem with their operations, such as workflow, resourcing or IT systems. Or it might be that they have lost their way and are facing some sort of external challenge. Or maybe there is a disconnect between the products and services that they offer, and what their customers actually need. Or it could be a need to recast their financial information to get a better idea of how the business is really tracking.

Whatever the issue, the common feature is a point of inflexion – the business is either stuck, has hit a plateau, or come to a fork in the road.

So, how do they get help?

The 3-Step Recovery Program

First, the client has to realise that doing the same thing won’t work, doing nothing is not an option, and they have to be open to the idea of change. They recognise that bringing in some external help will relieve the log jam (even though at this stage, they don’t know what form that help will take, or where it will come from).

Second, they do some basic research, or get a referral from their networks, on where they can get help. Much of my work comes via word-of-mouth and personal contacts, and in large part this is due to the need for trust in any consulting relationship. Sometimes, a prospective client has liked something they read in my blog, or heard something in our conversation that has clicked with their own needs. There has to be a connection or match with what the business needs, and what someone like me can offer. It’s a bit like finding a GP, financial planner or personal trainer – there has to be a fit.

Third, they are able to define a specific problem that needs addressing, or at least prioritize the issues. This requires some reflection, self-awareness, and willingness to have their assumptions challenged. There is a need for honesty, and even vulnerability, if the intervention is going to succeed.

Helping clients get back on track

I will say upfront that my services are not suited to everyone. If your business is running like a well-oiled machine, I probably can’t add much value, unless you are looking to improve an area of your operations, or embark on a new initiative where you need help in getting it off the ground. Alternatively, I may be able to help if you simply want to tap into some external perspectives to challenge your current thinking, or if you require some specific expertise that draws on my knowledge and experience. Otherwise, my role is to help clients get free of what is bogging them down.

One of my clients recently said that working with me felt like “keyhole” surgery, rather than undergoing open heart surgery. I think I know what he means, and that he meant it as a compliment….. In my experience tackling “the whole” is not always practical. Rather, zooming in on a particular aspect of the business allows for incremental change, that if applied appropriately, can have a multiplier effect. Such an approach is hopefully less disruptive, and therefore less threatening, to the existing business.

As part of my consulting work, I tend to break the business down into its component parts, look at the business model, review the revenue streams, and analyse the workflow, both internal operations and customer-facing services. For example, clients often have a slightly misplaced perception of where/how they add customer value – so, if they spend a lot of time on a particular task or activity, they naturally assume that this should form the greater part of what their customers pay for. Whereas in reality, the customers may value something else the business does, but the business has not realised that value.

It’s always important to encourage clients to develop an action plan, with specific goals, responsibilities and timelines. I’m not talking about a 50-page business plan, but a more manageable working document for the next 6, 12 or 18 months (depending on their circumstances). A key outcome of this is a list of priorities, plus agreement on which activities to wind-down or discontinue. Despite limited resources, businesses often make the mistake of trying to continue doing everything they’ve always done, plus all the new stuff – the law of physics suggests that something has to give, so they need to stop doing things that are no longer relevant, or are no longer working.

Making a Difference

When it comes to more direct business coaching, I know from the client feedback I receive that the insights I offer and the way I reframe their situation are as valuable as a re-engineered business plan. By analysing the problem, taking it apart and putting it back together again, it allows me to share my observations and offer fresh thinking – which is sometimes all the client may need to get back on track.

If you feel your own business could use some external assistance in getting back on track, or if you think you may be stuck as to what to do next, please get in touch via this blog.

Next week: The David and Goliath of #Startup #Pitching