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Going Portfolio

July 1st, 2014

Reinvent your work and career before someone else does

In his book “Great Work, Great Career,” Stephen Covey describes Charles Handy, the Irish oil executive-turned-academic-turned-social and organizational philosopher and author, waking  up one morning and deciding to Go Portfolio. That pivotal morning marked the moment when Handy’s full-time professional attention was no longer devoted to one prescribed job using one defined set of skills in one organization. That day, Handy himself became the professional he describes in his books and lectures: the portfolio careerist.

Consultants are arguably the ultimate portfolio professionals. The best adapt broad experience and deep skills to a wide range of companies, business situations and buyer communities. They are not alone. From consultants and entrepreneurs to corporate managers and functional specialists, all professionals are part of an increasingly portfolio-based business environment. Going Portfolio is not a luxury or an option. It’s a requirement for thriving in any business, whether it’s a business of one or a global corporation of one million.

Deciding to Go Portfolio is only the first step. The greatest gains come from managing your portfolio once you’ve gone there. When a business unit identifies a previously undefined niche market, it’s on the path to Going Portfolio. The sales team who understands that they need to reinvent their business development strategy and their sales skills is beginning to manage its portfolio. When you take a chance to develop new skills or apply your skills in new situations, you are Going Portfolio. When you learn to adapt your skills and experience in response to your business environment, you are actively managing your portfolio for both business results and personal satisfaction.

Intentionally or not, we are all going portfolio because our world demands it. The companies, customers and communities we serve with them are constantly fluctuating, and so it the value they seek from each of us. You have to be willing to continually adapt the skills you use and the experience you rely on to add value, right here and right now.

That’s Going Portfolio.  What’s in yours?

Elizabeth Usovicz is principal of WhiteSpace Consulting®, specializing in top-line revenue and business strategies for high-growth companies, new ventures and business units within established companies; keynote speaking and strategy session facilitation. She can be reached at elizabeth@whitespacerevenue.com or (913) 638-8693.


Slow, The New Fast

June 10th, 2014

What happened to that white-hot prospect?

Every business owner and sales person has asked this question. You had their attention and mobile number. They had a need; your product or service practically sold itself. You had rapport, and then –


You replay the conversations in your mind and retrace your steps from your notes. Did you miss something?

Perhaps. But maybe it’s not what you think you missed.

Maybe what your prospect took was a break. Some time away from a business pace and information intake that is increasingly head-spinning and demands an increasingly rapid response.  

A business owner I know unplugs once a month, reserving a day to think through all of his pending business decisions and related information. Many executives can’t or don’t schedule intentional “think time,” and they temporarily escape by postponing decisions. Your prospect’s balancing-act response to an overload of information, decision-making and the need for speed? Slow, the new fast. 

Before the next hot prospect turns into a whiff of smoke, consider your prospect’s capacity for information, rapid change and rapid response. Integrate the following questions into your interactions with them:

  • What are you getting from me that is most helpful?
  • What am I doing that is not helpful to you?
  • What could I be doing to be more helpful?  How does that help?

Information overload affects all business professionals and their activities, including you and  your prospects. Think through your sales cycle and build in time for your prospect to gain perspective on their future use of your product or service. It’s one of the routes to yes in slow, the new fast.

Watch Your Language

April 1st, 2014

Three Signs that Your Sales Process Needs a Rethink

“Watch your thoughts,” wrote Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu, “for they become words.  Watch your words, for they become actions.” 

It’s good advice if your sales have plateaued. If you hear yourself or others making statements like these, it’s time to refine your sales process.

Who’s our target?  Any company that/ anyone who…

A few years ago I met the owner of multiple small businesses. He gave me his business card, printed with a deer’s head and the initials A.F.A.B. I asked what the initials stood for, and he answered with a smile, “Anything for a Buck.” I don’t remember his name or the services he provided. All I remember is his card, and that it did not inspire a business dialogue between us.

The A.F.A.B. approach won’t build brand awareness, your pipeline or a sustainable reputation for your company. It doesn’t allow you to play to your strengths and worse, prospects sense your lack of focus and interpret it as desperation. If your description of your target customer begins with “any,” take the time to review your best customers and frame your target profile.

Where’s the low hanging fruit?

A variation on this question is, “What can we do in the next 30 days?” If you’re looking for low-hanging fruit, you’re looking for an easy, short-term fix.  In most cases the results are scattershot execution and wasted efforts. The sales you close are often are not a good fit; your new customers have skewed expectations of your product, service and brand. Your time is better spent examining and refining your prospect qualification process.  

That prospect is still in process – it’s about 50% toward close.

Are the majority of your sales activities estimated at 50-65% toward close? It’s a sign that you need to take a closer look at defining the steps in the purchase process.

Percentage-to-close can be a helpful metric for projecting the likelihood of future sales and gauging their financial impact on your company. Whether you use sales management software to track lead-to-close progress or have an internal system, make sure that you are tying specific prospect activities to a spcific stage in the buying process. It’s easy to approximate percentage-to-close based on sales activities, such as sending a proposal or meeting with a prospect. Fifty percent toward close is only meaningful based on the behaviors of your prospect, and their answers to specific, probing questions that move the purchase process forward.

By the way, Lao Tsu didn’t stop with a caution about thoughts becoming words and words becoming actions. Here’s the rest of his advice: “Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”

Take control of your business destiny and your sales process.  It starts with watching your language.

Lesson from the Olympics: Make the Most of A Penguin Slide

February 13th, 2014

I am part of the bi-annual social tribe that can’t get enough of the sporting triumphs and letdowns called the Olympics. Like every Olympics, the news from Sochi covers not only the competitive events, but also the lifestyle sacrifices that athletes have made in dedication to their sport.

Olympic coverage and commentary is filed with metaphors, secrets and lessons for business from the back stories of Olympians, and this column isn’t one of them.

The incident that caught my eye was a real-time penguin slide.

Devin Logan had a solid first run in the women’s ski slopestyle event. The effort was enough for a medal, but not enough for gold. What looked like a strong second run might have changed the medal standings for Logan, until her final jump. Logan landed off-balance, fell forward, and raced to the finish line on her stomach, skis uplifted and crossed behind her. Logan did a penguin slide – the skiing equivalent to a belly flop.

It wasn’t this dramatic setback that impressed me. It was Logan’s attitude after her penguin slide finish. Even through a helmet, goggles and a face full of snow, she stood up laughing, raised her arms and hopped like a gymnast sticking the landing of a pommel horse dismount. She laughed, and the world laughed along with her. 

British philosopher James Allen noted that “circumstances do not make a man; they reveal him.” That penguin slide revealed volumes about Devin Logan.

No coulda-shoulda-woulda blaming about a run gone awry and the loss of a gold medal. Just good-humored, total acceptance of her best effort at that point in time. Logan may be remembered for her very human connection with Olympic viewers long after her silver medal accomplishments have been celebrated. 

Whether you’re in sales, leading a business or managing a project, that penguin slide is an Olympic-sized take-away. Savor those preparation-backed, medal-worthy moments when you deliver a product, service or outcome that exceeds expectations. If your effort turns into a penguin slide, remember that it’s one point in time. And that circumstances don’t make you; they reveal you. 

Looking for Opportunity? Look Where it Isn’t

February 3rd, 2014

“Look where it is not, as well as where it is.”

 So says a centuries-old French proverb, and there’s truth in that saying where strategic partnerships are concerned.

My client, the president of a technology company, wanted to target new customers in a highly regulated industry and needed an entry strategy. He believed that a partnership with a large, global provider of information technology (IT) security hardware that had a track record in the industry was the way to go. To find out, I went to the source – the CEOs of 10 companies in the industry – and requested a brief conversation with each of them.

Figuring out which companies or experts these CEOs relied on for IT and regulatory-related services was the key objective for my conversations.  

Looking Where it Isn’t

I went back to my client with the name of a small law firm in the Southwest. My client was skeptical – a law firm? That’s it? According to several CEOs I spoke with, this small law firm  was one they relied on for guidance.

My client and I researched the law firm. The off-the-shelf website template did not impress my tech-savvy client. We dug deeper. One page on the website included information on the law firm’s hard-copy regulatory guides, which it provided along with highly specialized legal consulting. Aha. Instead of assuming that the law firm and its low-tech approach were not a fit, my client began to see the potential opportunity in a partnership based on complementary expertise and interests.

Taking Cues from the Clues

We contacted the law firm, taking our low-tech cues from the website: we wrote a hard copy letter and sent it postal mail.  A few days later, we got a call from the firm’s principals and an invitation to meet. It turned out that the law firm had a client base of more than 1,000 companies in the industry that my client wanted to target, and was looking for an alliance to address the technology-based regulatory needs of its clients. That meeting was the start of a mutually productive partnership and a steady pipeline of prospects for my client.

What would your company do with 1,000 new prospects?

Maybe it’s time to drop your assumptions and look where it isn’t. Not every high-tech/low tech or other seemingly contrarian pairing develops into a high-yield relationship.  But sometimes, looking where you think opportunity isn’t, as well as where you think it is, can reveal an unexpected path to profitable growth.


When the Status Quo is Your Biggest Competitor

January 16th, 2014

Whether your company is the market leader or a new entrant, sometimes your biggest competition isn’t the 800-pound gorilla or the new kid on the block. It’s a prospect’s decision to do nothing – to maintain the status quo.

Signs of the status quo can surface at any time in the sales process. In the initial stages of engaging a prospect, the status quo is often expressed as “Thanks, we’re all set.” Those repeated requests for more information, long after you thought the prospect was purchase-ready?  Your foe, the status quo again.

The reason that the status quo is such a fierce competitor is the same reason that change management is so challenging for both individuals and organizations. It’s fear of the unknown. Your product or service represents change. And people don’t have an emotional connection to change in the same way that they have an emotional connection to what they know.

“We’re all set” can mean “I know what I have, even if I don’t always like it or it doesn’t work the way I wish it would.”  Repeated requests for more information can mean, “I’m not the (only) decision maker and I don’t know what will happen if I risk addressing this with the decision maker.”

When the status quo is your competitor, it’s up to you to think like a change manager and replace fear with trust. Here are a few questions to challenge the status quo.

Replacement, complement, option or upgrade?

When a prospect says “we’re all set,” it’s an opportunity to manage change by adding to the status quo. Think beyond replacing what is currently in play. Consider positioning your product or service as a complement to the status quo, an option for contingencies and overcapacity or an enhancement for a specific functional area or department.   

What’s in it for your prospect?

If you are running into repeated requests for information or justification for your product or service, it’s often a sign that the resistance is emotional and personal, not factual. The logical, dollarized benefits of using your product or service may be clear, but chances are your prospect isn’t clear on the impact your product or service will have on him or her personally. Explore the positive outcomes that your product or service can have on your prospect’s role, job satisfaction and relationships with peers, employees and boss. 

Why don’t we do it together?

A version of this question can be one of the most effective ways to dislodge the status quo. When your prospect repeatedly drops the ball on a task required to take the next step toward a purchase decision, asking this question will build trust or reveal an underlying objection to moving forward – or both.

You can’t reason a prospect out of resistance to changing the status quo. You can think like a change manager by building trust and creating an emotional connection to the positive outcomes of change.

You Made My Day: Enhancing Business Relationships in 2014

January 2nd, 2014

“Go ahead, make my day.”

 More threat than invitation, Clint Eastwood’s line is the ultimate relationship dare. Making Inspector Harry Callahan’s day in the film “Sudden Impact” was a challenge that included a robbery and shoot-out in a diner where the waitress put too much sugar in Harry’s coffee. 

 My role model for early rising, Benjamin Franklin, approached the idea of making someone’s day a bit differently than Dirty Harry. In the margins of his daily calendar, Franklin wrote the question he pondered throughout each 24-hour cycle: “What good shall I do this day?”

 Most of us don’t get up in the morning thinking about how we can make someone’s day as Dirty Harry did. Most of us also don’t wake up thinking that we have the ability to make someone’s day better, easier or more pleasant. Making someone’s day is one of our greatest opportunities to connect with friends, colleagues, clients and prospects. It’s also the opportunity we most frequently miss.

 A few years ago on January 1, I committed to making at least one person’s day every day. Finding prospects for this activity wasn’t hard; I only had to look as far as my inbox and voicemail.

When I receive a message that compliments or thanks me, I respond to tell the sender that he/she has made my day. It never ceases to surprise me that telling people that they have made my day almost always makes their day, too. When someone does something beneficial for me, or I recognize someone’s influence on a project or activity that is going well for me, I send them a note or email, or call them to thank them for their specific impact on my success. Sending an unexpected email early in the morning is especially appreciated, since it can impact the recipient’s outlook for the whole day. 

The opportunities are endless and surface everywhere. Call a customer service help line and reach a rep who has great communication skills? Meet with a client and interact with an administrative assistant who is especially gracious and efficient? Tell them. 

Both Harry Callahan and Benjamin Franklin were right: our relationships are heightened when we dare to make a conscious impact on other people’s experience. If you dared yourself to make someone’s day every day, what kind of impact would it have on your business in 2014?  That’s a question worth pondering every morning.

So go ahead – make someone’s day.

Want to Close Sales Faster? Stop “Frequesting”

December 5th, 2013

No one has better perspective on the contradictions of human behavior than a salesperson.

In the morning, your prospect has an urgent need for your product or service, and by afternoon, all of your calls are forwarding to voicemail. That enthusiastic first meeting you thought went so well? Your prospect’s next steps are canceling meetings and declining requests to reschedule. That is, until your prospect makes the buy decision and wants your product or service up and running immediately. Then you’re frantically rearranging your schedule to accommodate.

In these situations, it’s easy for salespeople to get sucked into reactive behavior—what I call “frequesting.” Instead of backing off, you crank up your outreach and over-communicate, sending even more requests and messages to prospects. You feel like a gerbil in a wheel, running in place with no forward movement in sight.

 Break the Frequesting Habit

Breaking the frequesting habit takes the will to wait. Yes, wait. This applies to “gotta have it now” scenarios as well as to prospect communications that have gone dark. Step away from your smartphone and laptop, resist the urge to react and literally wait a minute. Or five. Or even an hour. 

A few weeks ago, I heard from a prospect I’d been in touch with for more than six months. The company was ready to engage, and had an aggressive timeline for a new project. Setting up meetings was challenging. My contact frequently rescheduled meetings with same-day notice. On one particularly busy day, my contact sent a same-day change that moved a critical meeting to a time that I’d previously indicated was booked. 

My first instinct was to point out that I was already booked and request another date for the meeting. While that seemed reasonable, it wouldn’t solve the problem or enhance my relationship with this contact. So I waited several minutes before responding, and I figured out a way to adjust my commitments to accept the rescheduled meeting.

 Allow Space for a Thoughtful Response

Accepting the meeting request didn’t stop me from feeling that my contact lacked respect for my time. I began considering diplomatic ways to address the issue and set expectations for scheduling meetings. About an hour later, I received a six-word reply to my meeting acceptance:

You are a blessing. Thank You.

It turns out that my contact was juggling a major business issue and a family situation. My agreeing to a scheduling change was a cooperative bright spot among these other challenges and marked the beginning of a positive business relationship.

Sometimes your most powerful sales response is restraint. This doesn’t mean being non-responsive. It means allowing yourself the space for a thoughtful and intentional response. And you just may be pleasantly surprised by what happens in that space.

Success is a Direction

November 5th, 2013

“What can we do in the next 30 days?”

This question is a knee-jerk reaction to a range of business situations – a dip in quarterly sales, a customer or client service issue, supplier cost increases, the big-fish prospect that seems to have gotten away, or a competitor’s traction in the marketplace. Suddenly, the priorities of your company, business unit or sales team take a 180 degree turn, as the clock ticks and stress levels rise.

If you’re asking this question, use it as an opportunity to get clear about your definition of success, and how to achieve it each day, every day. 

Take the case of a scratch bakery, which means that products are baked fresh every day from proprietary recipes. When the business started up, the owners decided that freshness mattered most.  They invested in high-quality ingredients and equipment, committed to baking fresh every day, and decided to donate unsold products to charity at the end of each business day. Every morning, they start from scratch again.

In the early days of the business, this approach meant that a large percentage of the day’s production was donated to charity. It also means an ongoing commitment to very early mornings and very long days for the owners. It would be easy to justify selling day-old products. Why not?  Many bakeries sell products baked one or two days earlier, to reduce operational costs and working hours.  

For this scratch bakery, day-old is not an option. Success is providing customers with the freshest products available. The owners have stayed that course each day, every day. Yes, they have adjusted along the way, testing new products, monitoring sales and production costs and adapting the menu based on customer response. Four years later, the business has a reputation for freshness, a profitable customer base of loyal patrons and solid book of wholesale accounts.

Whether you run a global company, a small business or a tech start-up, you’ve probably been tempted to cut corners on your definition of success. Or maybe you haven’t defined it for yourself and are lured by the hundreds of books that claim to reveal the secrets of success.

The real secret? 

There are many helpful ideas. There is no one-time, sure-fire, stroke-of-luck fix that guarantees success in 30 days, or for all the days that follow.  In business as in life, success is a direction, not a destination.  Success requires being clear about what you and your business stand for and moving steadily in that direction, each day, every day. 

What can you do in the next 30 days? 

Define success, head in that direction, stay the course, and make incremental adjustments along the way.  Each day, every day.



Pulling the Line: Empowering People and Prospects The Toyota Way

September 25th, 2013

Note: for a summary of the Toyota Way and Jeffrey Liker’s book on the subject, check the following link: http://www.panview.nl/en/lean-production/toyota-way-j-liker-summary

I spent last week training the regional managers of a service organization. The week of training began with an offsite session at Toyota Motor Manufacturing-Kentucky, or TMMK, as the award-winning operation is known. To a person (and there are 7,500 of them), TMMK operates on the principles of The Toyota Way, from the General Manager through every person on every team in the plant.

One of the most empowering pillars of the Toyota Way is the ability of any member of any production team to stop the assembly line. Each team member knows each standard process, and if something occurs that a team member knows or suspects is not standard, he or she can stop production by pulling an overhead line. Pulling the line stops the production process at the team’s station and alerts the team members and leader of a potential problem.  Production does not start up again until the problem is resolved.  

In their subsequent training sessions, some of the service organization managers commented that leading a service organization was entirely different from managing a production operation. TMMK was interesting, but it wasn’t really relevant to them. 

Until they pulled the line.

It started with the announcement of a goal expressed as a percentage increase.  Each of the managers was asked to achieve the goal through their regional teams during the coming year. This top-down goal generated a range of reactions. Some wanted to set their own goal.  Others felt that if the goal came from the top, so should the ideas for achieving the goal.  All agreed that that there was no standard process for them to work towards the goal.

The training agenda moved on to another session, but the managers and their concerns did not.  The unresolved questions about the goal dominated discussions during breaks and undermined engage-ment. This team of managers had pulled the line. 

As the leader of the training, I had a choice: continue with the agenda and ignore the undercurrent of frustration, or listen and make adjustments.

That night I made adjustments. Some of these adjustments meant taking risks – including making a business case for the adjustments and explaining to senior executives who had prepared presentations weeks in advance that their session times needed to be cut in half – not a comfortable conversation.  But the line had been stopped, and listening to those closest to the work had become more than The Toyota Way. Stopping was the only way forward.

The next morning, training started with three words: We heard you. The managers then worked in teams of four to discuss the goal and identify a process to achieve it. True, they did not fully develop a standard process. But they agreed that engaging and listening to the people who would be responsible for implementing the process in their regions was the best way to achieve the goal.

Ultimately, the managers realized that pulling the line is not a power play.  It’s an opportunity and responsibility to create and deliver value.  Whether we manufacture products or deliver services, run a sales department or manage a business unit, the line is being pulled by our employees, customers and prospects when our standard processes fail to deliver value.  It’s up to us to listen and adjust.