Thursday, 23 April 2009

Cost Savings Actions in Isolation

I read a recent snippet by an academic, Mitchell Lee Marks of the San Francisco State University, who said of the vogue policy by US CEOs in the face of the recession to enforce pay cuts rather than redundancies on staff that, 'Initially, this sounds good to people because we're all chipping in. There's a sense of loyalty. But what if you don't win the war?'

It's a great point. It was illustrated recently by US giant, FedEx, who, in December, asked senior Executives to take a 7.5% pay reduction and US based salaried workers a 5% cut in salaries. It affected 36,000 staff in all and CEO, Fred Smith, promised that it would see them through the bad times. By April, things had got worse and sure enough, FedEx let go 1,000 staff this month.

Fred Smith was dutifully trying to save jobs by avoiding making redundancies. He stripped out a good portion of the payroll cost and still it was not enough to save the jobs. In fact, Mitchell Lee Marks would argue that this actually has a bigger destabilising and demoralising effect on the company. It leaves staff with the rightful feeling, 'Why did we make that sacrifice? What did it achieve? Do management know what they are doing?' Further, studies have shown that while salary cuts are termed as short term measures, too often the money is not given back at a later date.

Cost Cutting in Isolation

It's a noble thing to join staff into the problems that business face particularly in the recession. It is also a noble thing to avoid redundancies if at all possible and asking or even forcing staff to take a pay cut is better than losing jobs.
Or is it?

The problem here is what is trying to be achieved. When executives abdicate responsibility for their actions to accountants and cost-cutters, then only numbers hold any credence. The role of the cost cutter is to 'cut the cloth to fit' and that's exactly what they do. But there is a problem here. If all that you do is cut cost and do not adjust or re-align your business then you are only risking prolonging the inevitable - either you sink or you have to make bigger cost reductions or the dreaded 'death by a thousand cuts'.

What I mean is, if you do not change the goals of your business, then all you are doing is reducing your capabilities which becomes a self-fulfilling spiral downwards in terms of the business. There is a real risk that you bring on more bad news rather than avoid it.

Aligning Your Business in a Recession

There is a risk of repeating myself from past blogs but there is a lesson to be learned even from a clever giant like FedEx of how to do things poorly.

The very first step you need to make before you make decisions on costs is to know your business thoroughly and that means to have a handle on every deal, every customer and to properly understand how your market is performing, what the salespeople are doing, what the marketing effort is achieving and where it is targeting, and how the business is set up to support it. You need to be clearly aware of what your Value Proposition is to every client in a recession and why they should buy form you.

The biggest competitor to any sale in a recession is NO DECISION and this arrives when either your Value Proposition is weak or the way you articulate it is.

There is zero point in having a salesperson selling into a batch of clients where, say, over 50% of them are struggling in the face of recession and the Value Proposition does not deliver instant impact to their business, preferably to the bottom line. Think about it - if you are asking someone to pay incrementally for something it has to have a positive and instant impact to the business.

You would not try to sell a Ferrari to person laying off staff.

The very first thing that will come out of a detailed analysis of your business is that you can instantly see if the current forecast pipeline of customers are going to buy from you or not - you will see if they are open to the Value Proposition - talk to them personally to reassure yourself. You need to understand who is buying from you and when, then clone that success in more clients who match their profile. Make sure your salespeople are ACTIVELY changing their focus away from clients you have identified will not buy and refocus their efforts on the profile you know that will.

Make sure that your marketing effort is 100% aligned to the goal of the salespeople. The PR, collateral and lead generation engines need to be targeting the customers you believe are open to your Value Proposition so that there is a ready supply of warm leads - and shut down all ancillary marketing efforts which do not support these goals.

Changing Strategy

Sometimes a recession will smack you straight in the face and your realise that the good times are over.
'What we are selling is simply not what the market wants'.

I remember back in the late 90's a company that had made a fortune on the back of detecting issues relating to the mythed 'Millennium Bug' issue of embedded dates in software. They did extremely well. But after the date changed, they simply did not have a business. It seemed pretty obvious to me but they honestly thought that major problems would still exist and their clever software would continue to sell in the same volumes. The senior executives were really surprised when it didn't.

Kudos to them. They recalled all their key executive staff from all over the globe, they shut down their marketing machines and kept a skeleton salesforce and then sat in a building and quite literally re-invented the company with a new set of products, a new set of problems they could solve and an entirely new strategy. They had accrued enough reserves to get by while they did this but then they took their new plan to their VCs and because they had delivered previously, they got more money and started again. Utilising pretty much the same people with a few attritions from those not used to having to sacrifice commissions because of no sales, they not only started sales up again but they actually became a profitably, fast growing company again.

It's an extreme example but when markets change, there is no point in trying to keep doing what you have always done if it is no longer as compelling to clients. It's why many old businesses who fail to adapt to changing markets quite literally Hit the Wall and whither or get bought, if they are lucky.

As I blogged yesterday, recessions can be rewarding in that they can force change, make people think, cause innovation and creativity and can set a business on a new, more lucrative and sustainable pathway. That takes courage and determination and what many businesses will find in such times is that their management are simply not capable of thinking that way and taking those sorts of risks.

For them, cost cutting is simply the only option - batten down the hatches, survive the storm and all will be ok.

New Recession, New Opportunities

It comes as no surprise that many clever start ups arise in the middle of a recession - Facebook, Cisco and my own client, Theorem Inc, did so. Jay Kulkarni, CEO at Theorem, will tell you that the Value Proposition he trades on was honed during a recession. His business supports online marketing and guess what, it is one of the few areas of the Hi Tech market enjoying real growth during this recession. Theorem, because they were born with a recession in mind, are thriving because their Value Proposition resonates with every major business in their market right now.

There are plenty of examples of how companies have re-invented themselves in the rocky grounds of downturns and you do not have to look for to see Apple. Here was a company stuck in a war with Microsoft and Intel and had only a clique of marketshare at around 9% for arguably the best computers in the world. But they were addressing specific needs best and not the broad market where harmony of applications and cost were the vital selling factors. Steve Jobs, on his return to the company, set a new course and looked at how the whole market for mobile media was going to change and bet everything on it. The iPod and iPhone are now almost history but Apple could not be doing better as their strategy has changed to support the whole market.

Strong Message

So the message is clear - do not cut costs just for the sake of it whether that is just switching off lights to salary cuts to jobs. Make sure you are addressing your customers and that your Value Proposition stands the test with clients before you go down that path. If nothing else, you owe it to your employees.

If you do not have the internal creativity, innovation, skills, courage or appetite to do this then it should be your management that suffers first but get help in fast. All that I blog about depends on your understanding of your customers - how and why they buy, how they have changed and their new needs - then aligning your resources to servicing these needs or to find new clients where your products and services resonate.

For those with the courage and energy to do this, cuts will be the last resort while re-aligning your strategy and resources will set you fair for the future. Further, for those with the strength to do this, there is more than enough cash in the market to support you. You just have to know where to look.

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