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Competing effectively

Channel choices

 

 

This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in June 2016 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

Which channel will achieve the best returns for your business?

 

 

You face many choices of how best to get your products and services sold. The most common channels include a field or counter direct sales force, various models of reseller from freelance agents to sub distributors with their own resellers. E-Commerce is becoming a significant channel and self-service in stores has been around for years. Inbound and outbound telesales offers very wide reach; exhibition and catalogue sales work in many sectors like spare parts and curios. Then there are many mixed models; telemarketing followed up by salespeople is one example. For some the best or only channel may be defined by the product. High end cars need a network of showrooms and salespeople so branches or resellers are required, but music is distributed primarily over the internet. For most entrepreneurs making the right choice is difficult and may come with some risk; many companies stay with traditional methods even if that is not the best model for them.

Generally there is a trade-off between cost and control so if you want tight control be prepared to pay for it. Continue reading

Plan for a better year ahead

This year has been a bad year for many companies – here is how to make sure 2017 is better

 

 

The past 12 months have not been a great time for many businesses. It started with the economy struggling to recover from the effects of the double change in finance ministers, was threatened by potential downgrades to sub investment grade by the rating agencies and characterised by shocks like Brexit, the Trump victory in America, local government elections, the #feesmustfall movement and the State Capture report. The serious drought saw food prices rocket and water restrictions added to the difficulty of doing business. All these issues make buyers nervous, and nervous buyers will delay all but essential purchases.

On top of all this the South African national pastime of sharing bad news brought a mood of pessimism and resignation. We know that water restrictions and high food prices will continue well into 2017 and the ruling party will have an elective conference which could be abrasive in the coming year. What, you may ask will make this year any better than the previous one? One of the answer to that question is you. There are many things you can do to shield your business from negative external events, and to seek the opportunities that any adverse event brings. Continue reading

Strategic competitive positioning

 

 

This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in April 2016 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

Attack, defend, innovate or do nothing

 

 

We know that 2016 will continue to be a difficult year. Entrepreneurs I speak to believe competitive pressures are increasing as businesses chase shrinking markets. Price cutting is common as competitors do anything they can to get a slice of the limited business available. Some entrepreneurs may respond to this situation by assuming there will be less income and cutting costs to remain at least marginally profitable. Others will look for new markets or slash prices, and some will simply hope things do not become catastrophic. The problem with all these plans is that almost all competitors will to do similar things, so competitive pressures will be unchanged.

This is a good time to think strategically about positioning your business to get through bad times while increasing your competitive advantage. I suggest you take a deliberate competitive position and I have listed three possible strategies for your consideration, and a fourth which you could fall into if you do nothing. Continue reading

The power of focus

 

This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in October 2015 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Concentrate your resources on the target to improve performance

 

 

It seems logical to spread your net as wide as possible, to develop all available sales opportunities and markets if you want to grow. This makes sense if you are the dominant player in the market with an abundance of resources, one who can afford to waste resources on loss making sales simply to deny them to competitors. For everyone else it is a bad idea. Military strategist von Clausewitz wrote “Where absolute superiority is not obtainable, you must produce a relative one at the decisive point by making skilful use of what you have”, echoing the much earlier Sun Tzu maxim of concentrating your forces where the enemy is weak.

This military strategy applies equally to business. If you concentrate your resources and focus on a particular target, you gain many advantages: Sales costs reduce, sales become easier through customer referrals. Salespeople become expert in the area and competitors recognise your expertise and go elsewhere, so your strike rate increases. Customer support and administration costs fall and service levels increase. Your company becomes the go to company in that market.

Alternative choices

By contrast trying to hit everything that moves is costly; implementation and procurement complexity increases, as does the risk of cancelled sales. Your people become frustrated because they continually need to learn new industries and seldom re-use their expertise. Poor customer service is frequently an outcome and you lose the power of relevant reference customers. Continue reading

Your sales machine

2015-august

 

This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in August 2015 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Turn your whole company into an enthusiastic unit that aids and promotes your sales

 

 

 

It is in the interests of any employee to do anything they can to ensure the business makes sales, or at least not put sales at risk. Aside from loyalty to their employer, a healthy and growing business means everyone is better off and has improved prospects for promotion. Strangely there are employees, and some managers too, who damage the company through carelessness, incompetence or deliberate obstruction. They are hurting themselves as much as their employer.

Contrast that situation with companies where everyone is customer centric, and frequently attract praise from customers they have been in contact with. There are typically no unresolved complaints on consumer forums, and every employee seems to know why customers should buy.

Review yourself

To build a company like them, some introspection may be a good idea. Do you really deliver goods and services that meet customer expectations, or have customers had to lower their expectations to your standards? Think of the grudge purchases you make, or the times you have been distressed but did not change supplier after a bad experience. You cannot expect your employees to be champions if your company supplies shoddy products, uses untrained technicians and seldom delivers on its promises. Fix the real problems and you will be pleasantly surprised by the change in your staff. Continue reading

When you fight with customers

2015 July

 

This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in July 2015 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Sensible outcomes from disputes

 

 

“The customer is always right” was originally coined in 1909 as a way of differentiating Selfridges Department Store from competitors. It was revolutionary at the time, when misrepresentation by retailers was common and “caveat emptor’ (let the buyer beware) was the usual response to customer complaints.

Customer disputes happen in any business. Unresolved disputes may result in loss of customers or groups of customers, refusal to pay, widespread and often biased bad publicity, loss of repute, legal action, and even damage to property and public protest. Minor disputes can quickly escalate into anger, recriminations, threats and violence. Staff complaints about abusive and unreasonable customers is another source of dispute.

Where does it start?

Customer perceptions of broken promises or products not living up to expectations are at the heart of many disputes. Rude, uncaring or incompetent service from employees is another frequent cause. You may initiate a dispute relating to slow or non-payment, unreasonable or bullying customers or continual changes to requirements but unwillingness to pay for changes.

Arguments will escalate quickly if either party feels they are not being listened to by the other. A simple request can grow to a blazing row when either party ignores the other or scorns their view. Many serious disputes could have been resolved easily if they were attended to sensibly, courteously and early. Continue reading

The one giant deal

2015 April cover

 

This article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in April 2015 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Opportunities and risks of getting the biggest deal ever

 

 

What do you do if you get the opportunity of a huge sale, one bigger than anything you have done so far, maybe bigger than your entire business? This is a potential game changer, the opportunity to grow spectacularly. At the same time it is scary. Will you be able to continue to supply regular customers? How will you finance this deal, what will happen if you do not get paid? Can you deliver? The opportunity opens up dreams; all the wished for things you will be able to afford for the business and your family, security for you and your workers…

Best and worst

The best things that can happen are really good. If you make reasonable margins on the huge turnover increase the extra cash can be used to increase competitiveness with additional resources, creative marketing, better buying terms and the best information systems. Once you have executed a large deal successfully, you attract other large deals. Big organisations like to deal with suppliers who other big organisations use, so your business may be at the start of an incredible growth curve.

The worst things that could happen are very bad indeed. Many suppliers have gone insolvent because large customers persisted with unreasonable demands or did not pay. You may not be able to deliver to specification or on time and have penalty or cancellation clauses invoked. If you have personal guarantees to any supplier your lifestyle can be at risk too. Continue reading

Breakout

2015 FebruaryThis article was written by Ed Hatton for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in February 2015 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

 

Planning and executing real growth strategies

 

 

The year 2015 stretches ahead, and many entrepreneurs I speak to are still cautious. This is understandable, 2014 was a horror year of violent strikes, power cuts, limited postal service, slow economic growth and uncertainty. The temptation to proceed with caution into 2015 is very strong.

Beware though, caution can become a habit, business plans showing a modest growth on last year can become the norm. The company does not invest in new products, markets or channels, research, marketing and training are put on hold and the company develops a culture where innovation becomes too risky “for now”.

Breaking out from the limited growth habit can be a challenge, but a very worthwhile challenge, if only as a defensive move to stop competitors getting bigger and threatening you. Continue reading

A better year

A Good year Last year was a bad year for many companies – here is how to make sure 2015 is better

 

A variant of this article was published as the Sanlam Business Tips for Business Owners January 2015 edition. This publication is a great resource for entrepreneurs, well worth subscribing.

 

 

Last year was one of the most difficult for businesses in recent times. The strike in the platinum mining sector started in January and was only settled in June. Losses to the mines and their workers were enormous, but the trickle-down effect of the mines not buying meant suppliers were badly affected. That in turn affected their supply chains, down to tax consultants of managers of third tier suppliers. Only a week after platinum strike settlement the metalworkers strike paralysed industry for a month. The post office did not deliver mail for months in some areas, new power stations again experienced construction delays, the radical EFF appeared on the stage and the e-toll saga developed in Gauteng.

On top of all this the South African national pastime of sharing bad news brought a mood of pessimism and resignation. Already in 2015 we have seen threatened strikes, load shedding xenophobic violence. What, you may ask will make this year any better than the previous one? One of the answer to that question is you. There are many things you can do to shield your business from negative external events, and to seek the opportunities that any adverse event brings. Continue reading

Need a quick profit boost?

increased-profitsFive ideas you can implement quickly and inexpensively

 

All businesses need an occasional profit boost and very few would have the luxury of saying they were already making more than they dreamed of. Here are five relatively painless and inexpensive strategies to improve your business.

 

 

  1. Sell more to your existing customers by cross selling. Cross selling means you sell products in your range to customers who now only buy other products in your range. They may be buying products which you carry from your competitors and this is often because they do not know the extent of your product range. It does not matter that you have explicitly told them about other products in newsletters or advertising, they may not have noticed. Do this by listing your known customers, and then making a matrix of what they buy. You should have this information in your sales analysis. If there are too many customers, take a selection of maybe 50 or 100. Assuming you are sure they could use your other products, make a series of individual direct approaches by e-mail, messaging or in person. Offer trial periods, initial order discounts or anything to get their attention
  2. Stop throwing things away. Unless your organisation operates on very lean principles, chances are that you are throwing a lot of valuable stuff away. This will include packaging material scrap, damaged, stolen or obsolete goods, operational time, space, managerial time and a whole lot of other stuff. Start a ruthless campaign to cut down on waste. Pay particular attention to wasted time like idle time waiting for some needed thing to happen, wasted time making things which will have to be remade and wasted time in inefficient processes. Also pay attention to scrap and rework whether you are a manufacturer or distributor. Check the scrap bins and figure out ways to stop throwing away stuff you paid for. If you don’t have the right systems or training to manage that then buy them, it’s cheaper in the long term.
  3. Target a competitor. Pick your weakest competitor (you do have up to date competitor analysis, right?) and attack yheir weaknesses and cash cow customers with special offers, top rate service, better technology or whatever your business has which makes it different from and better than your competitors. (You do have a clear and distinct statement of your differentiation and advantages, right?). If you cannot do this chances are you either do not know what your competitors are doing or you have no clue why your customers buy from you. In which case fix that quickly before your competitor reads this and you become the victim of this strategy.
  4. Adjust prices up or down. Do this only on products where a small price change can mean a large change in demand (price elastic products). Often these are small items, consumables, service contracts, add-ons, some fashion items and minor luxury goods. The ideal is to identify a number of high volume price elastic products. Make a guess what would happen to sales at a couple of price points above and below the current price. Then draw a spreadsheet to show what the total gross profit will be at each price point. You will often find the best strategy is to increase the price rather than cut prices. The total margin may be higher and the costs lower because there are less deliveries and other unit sale related costs. If the cost to you is likely to change with volume then factor this in. Test the theory by changing the price on a few items and make sure sales follow your projections before making mass changes. Try to increase some items and reduce others so you don’t look greedy or desperate.
  5. Get rid of the junk. You probably have customers and products which are not profitable and suppliers and staff you support because of loyalty despite the fact they cost you money. Supporting loyal people and suppliers is a wonderful thing to do but then view this as charitable bequests, do not hide it in the mainstream of your business. You don’t need to be cruel in offering money instead of work, but helping suppliers to become competitive and finding more suitable employment for people who have outlived their usefulness in your company restores their pride and gives them new opportunities. You can now monitor the cost of your kindness. Then kill or replace the unprofitable products, even if it hurts (Keep thinking of Kodak, at one time the world’s second best known brand, which could never tear themselves away from film and make the switch to digital). Politely discourage the bad customers or sharply increase prices of the stuff they buy so at least you make some money from them.

Continue reading

Don’t slow down

2014_NovemberThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in November 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

November and December offer many opportunities for alert entrepreneurs

 

 

You will all have experienced it – the dreaded November slowdown, with many anticipating the year-end holidays before South Africa shuts down sometime in December. Entrepreneurs complain that it is impossible to sell at this time of the year. Many can’t wait for the start of the holidays.

How much are you contributing to this business slowdown? Are you demotivated by decisions being deferred to next year? Have you gone into pre-holiday slowdown mode, and repeated that this is an impossible time of year for marketing or sales? If you have then you are part of the problem, and this is a self-inflicted limitation on doing business.

Can you really afford to have one quarter of the year, from the beginning on November to the end of January as a time of minimal sales? Is it really true that nobody buys at this time of the year? The truth is there is an enormous volume of business available at this time, but it will not come to you if you ignore the opportunity.

Opportunities

There is an old saying that “everything comes to him (or her) who hustles while they wait”. Many successful entrepreneurs have had great successes during the slowdown by catching competitors napping in preparation for the holiday, or being the only bidder for profitable business. Tenders are published now to limit the number of bidders – really awake entrepreneurs take advantage. To get a slice of the millions spent in the next couple of months you must be alert, work hard and look for opportunities. You should also plan and execute an assertive sales campaign. Continue reading

Selling to big business

2014_OctoberThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in October 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

 

Sales to huge organisations can be wonderful, but there are risks

 

 

Making a breakthrough into a giant corporate or a part of government is like finding the pot of gold for many entrepreneurs. If you have secured a contract rather than a single sale the excitement is even greater; the long-term profit generated allows the business to fund growth and regulates the cash flow. Beware though, this kind of business comes with some risks, and entrepreneurs should be aware that such contracts have destroyed businesses, and cost entrepreneurs everything they owned.

Making the sale

Large organisations, from government departments to mines are required to buy from small businesses, especially black empowered ones. We expect them to seek out entrepreneurial companies as suppliers, but it does not work that way. Little businesses have to fight hard to become suppliers. Large organisations are driven by budgets and the key performance objectives (KPIs) of the business unit which needs the product or service, so they will buy the products that fit the specification they prepared to suit those needs. This may not be the best product offered to them. Giants are risk averse and bureaucratic.

To win their trust you need to be aware of their style and needs and prepare your company and products to meet those. Pitch your sale in a way that will help the end users to do their job better. If there is ever a case of selling to the customer needs then this is it – you want to stand out from competitors and show why your company should become the supplier. Once you make the sale you must execute flawlessly all the time, and be instantly available to them at all hours. Continue reading

Competitive strategy

2014_AugustThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in August 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

Is this only for the big corporates?

 

 

Large IT companies spend millions on market research to see how they stack up against their competitors and use this information to figure out how to be different and better than them. Automotive manufacturers and importers watch every move competitors make, being first-to-market with a new fashion trend can mean the difference between a clothing brand outselling its competitors or disappearing. Even cities position themselves against other cities to attract tourists and businesses. Why should competitive strategy, a vital part of marketing strategy only be relevant to very large organisations? Why not your business?

Being competitive is a core requirement for all businesses irrespective of size. Not-for-profit organisations like charities, schools and religious organisations compete for funds, members and media attention. Very small business and start-ups must wrench business away from competitors or alternatives just to survive. Without a compelling message about what advantages they offer over others many of these organisations will fail as consumers take the easy route of buying the most popular, the most accessible or the most familiar.

Competitive

More than 30 years ago Michael Porter defined competitive strategy as “The plan for how a firm will compete, formulated after evaluating how its strengths and weaknesses compare to those of its competitors”. This plan should be focused on getting a sustainable advantage over competitors so it is much more than simply reducing price or having a special offer. Continue reading

Getting better margins

2014_AugustThis article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in July 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

Are you paying enough attention to this profit generator?

 

 

The difference between turnover and cost of sales is the starting point of profitability. Entrepreneurs drive their sales aggressively and manage operational costs tightly, but seldom pay as much attention to the crucial issue of margin. This is missing an opportunity to increase profit substantially with a little additional work.

Margin (or gross profit) is the difference between turnover and cost of sales, and it often comes from a simple percentage mark-up on all cost prices. This is a lazy way of setting the amount of gross profit your business will secure, and ultimately the net profit. You can do a lot better than that.

There are at least four opportunities to increase the total gross profit: More sales, higher prices, lower cost of sales and changing the product mix to increase the percentage of high margin products or services sold. Naturally this last one only works if you do not have a one-margin-fits-all lazy margin strategy. A tip to sell more is to increase the average number of items sold per order. Even a tiny percentage increase can make a significant difference to total margin. Look at the example of burger franchises which invite you to add a slice of cheese to the burger. If just 10% of all customers buy that very high margin slice of cheese they make significant extra profit with minimal effort, and it is so simple. What can you do to increase the items per order? Extended warranties, service contracts and training all offer opportunities. Continue reading

The dreaded top of the “S” curve

2014_March This article was written by Ed Hatton, the Start Up Coach for Entrepreneur Magazine (South African edition), as the My Mentor column published in March 2014 and is posted here by their kind permission

 

A threat or a real opportunity?

 

 

Successful start-ups normally begin slowly, then grow rapidly. Growth is not usually a straight line, but can be compared to an elongated “s” curve, with a slow start then strong growth until it levels off. Think about a flat topped mountain – the lower slopes are quite gentle then the sides steepen until the plateau on top, where the business becomes static with little or no growth. Arriving there can be a problem where the company depends on growth to pay the bills, and if nothing changes then like the mountain example the only way from there is down. How can you avoid this trap?

Many S curve books focus on large corporates, getting to the plateau when they reach market saturation, but the slowdown can occur in businesses with less than ten employees, and in as little as two years from start-up. This is often attributed to running out of the friends and family the business relied on as customers in the early stages, or running out of working capital.

Running out of time

In my experience a frequent reason for getting to the top of the S curve is the management style of you, the entrepreneur. You often run everything, and do it very well. You learned this when the company launched and you had to manage everything – from sales to logistics. As the business grew you got better at them than anyone else, so there was no sense in delegating to others. One day you run out of capacity to do more work and the business stalls, limited by your available time. Continue reading