A Quality Decision Process vs. a Sales Process

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Jeff Thull’s book “Exceptional Selling” on the art of conducting High Stakes Sales continues to provide superior value. He has written several articles for management consultants that I have found particularly useful.

In a prior post, I mentioned that I have been doing some work to customize my own approach, based in part on this book.

He makes the point that a high quality sales approach is basically a high quality decision process, just mis-named.

He also advocates the production of a Cost of Problem Analysis (COPA) that describes the cost of the problem that exists. Once that is done, he describes a Solutions Report that is used to defines the Gains to be made from the solution, as well as the Solution Cost. The difference is the Solution’s Financial Impact. All these computations are described in a Solutions Report.

As I am learning more about this approach I am seeing that it takes some skill to devise these reports for the kind of work that I do — after all I am selling interventions, not machines.

This is where my industrial engineering background has been helping.

He says:

Next, explore the six major focus areas required to arrive at a quality decision process. They include: thoroughly diagnosing the problem; determining the financial impact of the solution; establishing measurable outcomes; understanding solution alternatives; defining investment parameters; and establishing the decision criteria. In each of these areas ask the following questions to help prevent decision mistakes:

  1. What types of mistakes do clients tend to make regarding this kind of decision?
  2. What do clients most frequently overlook or not consider?
    Make sure the decision process brings these elements into consideration.
  3. What are the most difficult things for a client to understand?
    Determine ways to communicate these elements precisely.
  4. What must a client understand to reach a fully informed decision?
    Make sure the decision process brings these to the client in an orderly fashion.
  5. What level of professional education or experience is required to understand each specialty area of the decision?

Make sure you engage people in the decision process that have the required experience or professional background.

In the article I read, he talks about helping the client to improve the way they make complex decisions, and preventing them from making mistakes. The same also applies to the sales professional.

Phew… this is going to take some thought!

HR Consultant Networking

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At different times in the past I have been able to land projects but not been able to adequately staff them with the kind of people I really would like to have.

In fact, the problem has been so acute, that I have sometimes have felt as if I could not bid on larger projects because I could not find the right team to execute it.

Partly motivated by that problem, I recently started up a message board for HR Consultants.

This discussion list will hopefully become a home for those of us who are working in this area.

Click below to be taken to the message board:

Why Framework Sells the Way It Does

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I recently had the opportunity to solidify the way Framework does its selling.

Most of what passes for “selling skills” focuses on making the quick sale, which involves convincing a single person that they need to make a buying decision.

Unfortunately, this approach does not work for complex projects, products and services that involve more than a single buyer, or a significant dollar amount. Here in the Caribbean, I consider a “significant” sale to be more than US$10,000.

It all usually starts with a call initiated by either a prospective client or ourselves in which we discuss a potential problem. At this point, we only have an inking that a potential collaboration might exist.

The next step is to validate the problem through a round of informal interviews, in which we ask those impacted by the problem if they agree an issue exists, and whether or not it is worth putting time, effort and money into a solution. We try to get at the nature of the problem — the cost of its continued existence, and also whether or not it is a priority item, or should be a priority for the company.

Once these interviews are done, and we agree with the company that the issue is real, we sit down with them to co-design a solution, and issue a discussion document describing the solution.

After the discussion document has been validated, the following three questions are asked:

  1. What is the problem costing the company?
  2. What return can the customer expect?
  3. How much should the customer invest to achieve the desired result?

Once these have been discussed, a proposal is written to capture in writing what usually has already been decided.

In an earlier post, I shared why I run from RFP’s, but that was before I read Exceptional Selling by Jeff Thull, which put my years of experience selling projects in perspective in a powerful way. He shares the same point of view, and urges a salesperson of complex products to walk away if their standard process cannot be accommodated.

The problem I have had in the past is that I have been too willing to write a proposal based on a single conversation, with one person. The results of these proposals are usually problematic for both Framework and the prospective client — in short, no-one wins.

There just is no short-cut to the trust that is built when a process like this one is used.

Framework’s Strategic Plans

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I am toying with the idea of sharing the content of Framework’s strategic plan — and basically making it open source.

Why do that?

I have a hunch that I would gain more from sharing it than keeping, and while there might be some loss of “competitive advantage” of some kind, I believe that it would be minimal, and even be minuscule.

I’ll start out by sharing the broad themes and then give more detail as time goes on.

Here are the”statements” that Framework’s 2007 strategy is built around:

Marketing Tagline: “High-Stake Interventions”

Vision 2030: FWC is a world-class Caribbean-wide consulting firm, with a core of partners, excellent support staff and a virtual, cohesive network of independents.

Mission Statement: In partnerships with our clients, FWC intervenes in Caribbean companies to provide unique, practical solutions to difficult people problems. We use the best ideas in the world combined with the latest technology to produce both results and experiences that are unattainable without us.

Audio Logo: Working with Caribbean executives on their most difficult/pressing/top of mind people issues relating to service, motivation, culture and productivity.

Who We Are: Framework Consultant: Great minds, Great hearts. Lovers of life, excitement, fun and a challenge in every assignment.

Values/2007: The Tao, Perfection, Giving, Truth to Power

Brand Promise/Attributes: Bring sunshine, Newest thinking/innovation, relentless, speak truth to power

An Approach to Doing Research

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Recently, our firm had the opportunity to strengthen its approach to performing business research. Given the fact that we are committed to documenting the way we do business (a la “The eMyth”) and in sharing as much of it as possible for others to use, I thought that I should start to do it in this blog.

The end result of doing this revamp was that we created a method that gave us a surprising set of insights and understanding.

At the outset, I should say that I have found business research to be boring as hell. And I say this from experience – I teach the damned subject in the University of Phoenix business school.

 

To be honest, my students usually don’t find it boring. Instead, they are usually found complaining about how difficult the material is! Fear of not doing well overcomes ennui any day.

With that in mind, I took the lead in designing an approach that seemed to make sense for the kind of research that our firm is called on to do here in the region. Given that we focus exclusively on solving difficult people problems that impact the bottom line, it seems fitting that research studies that involve people would be a natural part of what we do.

Furthermore, our firm’s tagline is “High Stake Interventions” which means that we should be doing the kind of research that makes an unforgettable impact, whether it is actually implemented as we recommend or not. It definitely should not produce a run-of-the mill set of outputs.

Furthermore, given our focus on people, our approach should account for the relatively low levels of education found in parts of the region, and some of the cultural nuances we have come across. In some companies, employees are not functionally literate, let alone computer literate. Also, many are wary of completing surveys, no matter what the guarantee is of anonymity.

The Opening Bias

It might be fair to say that most business research takes place in the form of employee surveys.

The research firm tackles the assignment with no biases or predispositions, with no pre-set agenda.

Our research is quite different.

It starts with a focused question, concern or issue. It ends with a clear answer, new mental models and a framework designed for action.

In this respect, it is an important part of what we deliver – High Stake Interventions – and quite different from opinion surveys (although survey instruments might be included.) The difference begins with the need to decisively answer a Single Question that is of concern. Diving into the Single Question may lead to the raising of others, but they are incidental to the main point.

Coming up with Single Question sometimes involves several clarifying as the client management itself is often not clear on what it wants.

Example questions might include:

  •  what is the source of low employee motivation?
  •  why is the CEO disliked?
  •  Is the foreign ownership of the company a major problem?
  •  Why are employees not referring our company’s products and services to others?
  •  Why is there no evidence of the culture we want to create?

These questions are not easy ones to answer, and when they must still be answered the wise executive can sometimes see the need to bring in outside help to give an objective point of view.

 Yet, at the same time this is not about discovering some scientific truth. Instead, in our research we bring along our prior understanding and experience, and fully understand that that the very process of asking probing questions by itself changes the answers that are given. Ultimately, the kind of research we do is about attitudes and perceptions, and they are not amenable to perfect scientific measurement.

Mind Mapping

Once the Single Question is defined, a Mind Map is constructed to bring together all of the related issues into a single place. This act of “emptying the mind” is a powerful, nonlinear way to brainstorm. The result is a diagram showing how issues and sub-issues are woven together and linked to each other. Click here for a link to mind mapping.

Early Answer

From the gestalt of connected pieces of information on the Mind Map, the team can develop an initial hypothesis, or early answer. This is given in the form of a complete solution or answer to the Single Question, as if the data that is known at this point were all the information that could be known.

This initial hypothesis is held in the background as a possible solution, and is only discarded when there is clear evidence that it is incorrect. At that point, a new early answer is developed to replace the old, and that one is treated in the same manner until the project comes to a close, and the final hypothesis is the one that the final recommendations are built around.

Issue Tree

The completion of the map makes it possible to begin the linear process of analyzing the issues and sub-issues.

The initial question is broken down into a possible set of answers, and sub-answers.

For example, the question: Is the machine functioning? Can be answered with the following answers and sub-answers:

Is the machine functioning?

– Yes

– No

It needs lubrication

It must be overhauled

The power source is corrupt

Furthermore, each answer can be broken down into several sub-answers. For example, “It needs lubrication” can be further broken down into other options such as “Use grease on joints” and “Use a light oil on pressure points.”

The questions and answers are brought together into a single diagram to create an Issue Tree that shows the important lines of inquiry to be explored. If a team is to be involved in the project, then the issue tree is divided up among the team members who each are accountable for ensuring that the correct data is gathered to answer their assigned issue. In this way, they are the “experts” on the project with respect to that issue. See a link here to a description to Issue Trees.

Questionnaires and Surveys

The next step in our methodology is to convert the branches of the tree into questions that can be asked in interviews, surveys and focus groups. At this point, it is important that the questions be worded in a way that the responses precisely match the data requirements of the issue tree. At this step, regional differences need to be brought into play, as standard English plus local dialect are used to convey the exact meaning and sentiment.

If a team is involved in gathering the data, then each member must be “trained” in seeking out the right kind of data required to meet the needs of the research team.

We use a multi-faceted approach to gather the information required. There are cultural and logistical limits to using any single approach to the exclusion of others, and a combination of approaches helps to balance out the quality of information gathered.

Sharing Data

Given the fact that the interviews are usually not conducted by the full research team, then the data must somehow be shared among team-members. Our firm’s practice is to electronically scan and share notes through a wiki web-site. In this way, each team member can have at their finger-tips all the written notes taken from each interview. In the future, we hope to expand the data sharing options to include voice-based files.

Secondary Data

Once the primary data is gathered using the methods described above, we perform secondary data searches using sources in libraries and the internet. Knowledge of how to conduct searches on Google, in the blogosphere and through human networks of regional contacts are all critical to finding information that is timely and relevant, but also credible.

Analysis

Each team member uses the data gathered to help answer the questions in the branch of the issue tree for which they are responsible. They also use pertinent data from secondary research if possible to “prove” the final answer to the team.

This ”proving” conversation marks the start of the portion of the project that is probably the most creative.

The basic evidence that is gathered is presented, and the team starts to assemble a framework that can hold both new data being gathered on the project, and data from past experience. This creative process is a unique one that pushes the team in a search for more and more effective ways to answer the single question, and address the contents of the issue tree.

The method ensures that the framework developed is one that the company can use if the situation is ever repeated under similar circumstances.

Report Writing

The final report is, at its heart, a teaching document meant to persuade the reader that the recommended course of action is the one that will yield the greatest results. In this sense, it does not follow the academic method of report writing that I teach in my classes. Our reports would not get an A in a research methods class, and that is because we are not trying to meet academic requirements.

In our approach, however, the real value lies in the frameworks that we create. They are designed along the following guidelines:

n they must be memorable, and easy to pass on

n they must be simple

n they must be based on the data that has been collected

n they must pass the test of common-sense

The frameworks we build also have a heavy intuitive component, and rely on a blend of experience and insight for their creation. New phrases, distinctions and terms are freely created to avoid the concepts being presented to fall into old mental models that prevent our clients from seeing the problem and solutions in a new way.

For example, we created the term “emotional workplace maturity” to explain why the behaviour of a foreign owned company was so different from the behaviour found in the home country. This new definition helped to drive home the need for new and different ways of preparing managers from the home country to cope, and also helped the owners to see why programs they had used with great effect back home were not working.

Summary

Our method is designed to be a form of intervention, rather than an example of business research. Given the fact that we are looking at opinions, culture and attitudes in order to help solve business problems, our focus is on what will make a difference when the recommendations are implemented, and the new frameworks have begun to be used.

Notes: our approach is built in part on the method described in “The McKinsey Way” by Ethan Rasiel.

A great summary of the book is found here.

 

Tough People Problems – part 6

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Recently, I did a powerful exercise in defining what Robert Middleton, of InfoGuru fame, calls an AudioLogo.

An AudioLogo is a one line description that a business-owner uses in response to the question “What do you do for a living?” The InfoGuru’s short course in defining the best format to use as the response is nothing short of brilliant, and unique.

The result of defining my AudioLogo was that I did some rethinking of my own stock answer to the question, which used to be “I am a management consultant, in the area of strategy and HR.”

As of this month, I am now saying “I help executvies solve really tough people problems that impact their bottom-line.”

Part of this rethinking had me focus on the question of what I do when I design High-Stake Interventions, which happens to be my company’s tag-line.

What separates a High-Stakes Intervention from other possible approaches that can be used to improve a company have mostly to do with the magnitude of difference that is generated. Here is a direct comparison in some specific areas, pulled from my experience working with executives and their teams:

Training
Routine training is delivered off the shelf, meaning that the content is delivered in an inflexible format for a general kind of audience. High-Stakes Interventions, however, are customized for
specific needs pulling from any schools of thought — starting from the ground up with an understanding of the Outcome that is being accomplished. Obviously, this takes more time. The actual design process begins when the designers face the fact that nothing that has been developed will make the difference that it needed.

Coaching
Routine life-coaching involves working with individuals in a long-term relationship, with goals that keep changing as the coachee evolves. High-Stakes coaching tends to be quite blunt and to the point, and relies less on the relationship, than it does on a shared commitment to serve the company’s best interests (usually articulated as a bottom-line concern). It follows no set formula, and involves the willingness to be fired for “speaking truth to power” as some put it. The number of conversations tends to be low, and as little as one or two.

Politics
High-Stakes Interventions always have a political aspect to them, as the intervenors understand that they are engaging the various power interests in the company. New bridges are built as old ones are deliberately forsaken, all in order to improve the odds that the intervention succeeds. Company politics is seen as merely the necessary interplay of powerful people in a company, and an inescapable part of the structure of corporations.

Routine projects either try to ignore the politics behind the scenes, or blame it for all sorts of evils. The team members therefore themselves as victims of the company’s politics, and unable to contribute in anything more than a superficial way.

These are just three ways that I can see clearly at the moment, and while I won’t go into them in meeting someone for the first time, they have helped me look for the kind of work that fits my interests, and my company’s intererst, like a glove.

The EMyth and the myths it dispels

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I was so, so very lucky to happen to run into the newest book from Michael Gerber last December, while browsing in a bookstore, entitled EMyth Mastery.

For anyone who is contemplating starting their own business, any of the EMyth books should be required reading as the author does an excellent job of describing what it takes to start a successful company for the long-term. The irony is that very few people truly understand what it means to be an entrepreneur, or what it is that entrepreneurs actually do on a daily basis.

Essentially, most people think that if you do something well, and enjoy doing it, that starting a business doing that thing is a natural next step that should be encouraged.

Knowing what I know now, after 13 years of running my own firm, I would discourage those who think that that is all that is required. Their ignorance will only hurt them.

What most people do NOT appreciate is that there is a distinction between working IN your company and working ON your company that I am only still grappling to appreciate.

Working IN your company means, in the simple example of a roti shop: making and selling rotis.

Working ON your company means setting up the operations processes, policies and turn-key applications that are basically required to make any company successful, and must be customized to make your own company viable over a period of years. For example, the roti vendor would have to develop a standard process, manual and teaching method to standardize the method of making rotis so that

  1. they are made the same way each time
  2. they can be taught and re-taught the same way
  3. they could one day form the basis for expansion

Case in point: it was Ray Kroc’s genius for building a viable, expandable business that turned the store he bought from the McDonalds’ brothers into a multi-billion dollar empire.

The big myth about starting a business is that, for example, it’s the quality of the rotis that will make the business succeed. While that’s important, it’s just not true. Instead, it’s the quality of the business itself (and how it is run) that is much, much more important.

I’ve spent the last month re-tooling my own company and writing manuals for doing just about everything that I think is important. The areas that I have created for Framework Consulting are:

  • Enterprise Leadership
  • Management
  • Financial Leadership
  • Client Fulfillment
  • Lead Generation
  • Lead Conversion
  • Thought Leadership*
  • Marketing

* this is one that I added to the standard set that Gerber recommends.

I had to do quite a bit of reworking of his original ideas to fit my kind of business, but his basic thinking is still the best advice around for small business owners