Increasing User Buy-in of Financial Forecasts

Business HandshakeLet me begin with two assumptions: first, your primary modeling tool is Microsoft Excel; second, you share model projections with others. If both these assumptions are correct, I have two secrets of success for those new to financial forecasting.

The first is that everyone who sees your forecast assumes they know more about what the modeled results should be and better understand the impact of changes than you do. That you spent countless hours constructing the model, studying company and industry trends, back-testing formulas and validating every assumption will be quickly lost in their rush to point out what to them appears to be “obvious errors”.

I frequently develop complex models generating quarterly projections of full financial statements for a three to five year horizon. Models usually involve the consolidation of multiple entities and detailed ratio analysis. A typical model has 35 to 60 variables. Every variable is contained in named cells on an assumptions tab (immediately behind the title tab). All formulas utilize the appropriate variable name rather than a cell reference or hard coding.

For those not familiar with the use of named cells in Excel, go to the File Manager icon on the Formulas tab. Additional guidance is available online. One source is http://bit.ly/18tl7OP.

Typically, a client will zero in on one or two variables, insisting (as an example) that sales growth projected in year 3 is clearly wrong! He or she is so confident of their belief that the model has likely lost significant credibility with them.

Invariably, the impact of the user’s change is not as significant as they suppose. Sticking with the sales example, changing the growth rate has no impact on earlier years. Furthermore, the effect on future income is reduced by resultant increases in the cost of goods sold, inventory carrying costs, variable expenses such as commissions and shipping, borrowing costs and so on. Finally, income taxes further reduce the bottom line impact by another 35% to 40%.

Rational discussion and logic serve no purpose in this situation. You cannot change human nature! Your goal is merely to channel it in a productive direction.

I do this by simply asking what they think the number should be. I then take them to the assumptions tab and change the offending variable to their number. The model then recalculates, eliminating any guesswork on the impact of the proposed “correction”.

Seeing is believing.

The second “secret” complements the first. Without exception, even the most complex models come down to a mere handful of key variables. Since your goal is to redirect rather than change behavior, help users focus on those that drive projected results, rather than getting bogged down in immaterial detail.

You can accomplish this by highlighting which variables have an individually material impact on the cumulative results of your forecast. Begin by deciding what the appropriate base or dependant result is. I find it is most often one of three things depending on the primary use of the model: net income, stockholders equity or the internal rate of return.

I then test every variable in isolation with a 10% unfavorable change. For example, a 20% sales increase is reduced to 18%. I note the impact of each variable on the cumulative base result. I then typically use a materiality threshold of 2% for disclosure. The less attention drawn to non-critical variables the better!

Rarely will a variable have a high correlation to the measured result. A typical scenario might be that a 10% change in each of my 35 to 60 variables produces four to six with an impact greater than 2%, with none exceeding 8%.

This sensitivity analysis is the third tab, immediately behind the variables. By quantifying and clearly presenting the impact of changes in this manner, you are inviting needed input (and therefore user buy-in), without having to debate or justify the majority of variables that will have minimal or no impact on your forecast. Users can then concentrate on achieving a comfort level with a relative handful of model inputs, saving everyone time.

As a closing note, while the focus is on the cumulative impact of variable changes, there are times and circumstances when individual period results are also important, regardless of the dollar impact. For example, loan covenant compliance is a constant requirement. If a change in an otherwise insignificant variable creates an incidence of non-compliance, the change cannot be ignored.

How I handle that situation is the subject of a future article. Here is a hint: conditional formatting!

We Have Meet The Enemy & He Is Us, Dealing with Entrenched Policies & Procedures (Part 2)

On Monday, I introduced the topic of inefficient and outdated policies, processes and procedures using the cartoon character Pogo, and the mid-twentieth inventor and cartoonist Rube Goldberg.

After coining a new acronym (RGP3s) and describing some common characteristics, I ended with the obvious question, what is a manger to do about them?

First, be open to the possibility of their existence in your organization. Every company has some areas that need improvement. You cannot assume that something is “best practices” simply because it worked in the past. If a department is unable to keep up with current workloads, there are only two possible reasons. Either they are understaffed, or they are operating at less than peak efficiency. Adding staff adds costs. Improving efficiencies is likely a cheaper and perhaps faster alternative.

All successful organizations eventually reach a size where managers are not expected to be familiar with the application of every policy, process and procedure. Even if they are, RGP3s can be virtually invisible to the familiar (or complacent) eye. That suggests one of two possible approaches.

The first approach is to constantly challenge and encourage employees to identify efficiency improvement opportunities. Maintain an open and direct line of communication through brief but regular interaction. Actively solicit employee input and implement at least one idea every month. Publicly reward accepted suggestions in ways they value. That may mean an employee of the month plaque in the lobby, a front row parking spot or an AMEX gift card.

Unfortunately, relying solely on employees’ willingness to point out flaws has a major limitation, human nature! People seem to have a tendency to accept most things as they are. Furthermore, asking questions and challenging the status quo may be viewed as career limiting in some corporate cultures. That is not to suggest people are by nature lazy or apathetic. It’s just how things are.

The second approach is to bring in a fresh pair of eyes. A while back, I shared a story about an experience in a new job. On my second day, I was reviewing a lengthy payment report when I spotted something unexpected. About every 20 pages or so, there was an entry with a negative amount. Based on my still limited understanding, there was no reason for negative numbers. To make a long story short, I had stumbled across an internal control weakness that allowed certain items to be paid twice.

The point is that other people who worked with the report every day had undoubtedly noticed negative entries before. Yet they failed to follow through with a few simple questions. If they had, they might have closed the control weakness years earlier.

In closing, let me clarify what constitutes a “fresh pair of eyes”. It may mean a consultant. This outside resource could be an expert in your field, or someone well versed in common business practices and operations. An auditor or independant CPA with other clients in your industry may be a valuable resource, especially if the area of concern is one they review as part of their evaluation of internal controls.

In my example, a fresh pair of eyes merely meant introducing a new employee into the mix.

Either way, the path to improved efficiencies in your business may be as simple as finding someone unburdened by the “But we’ve always done it that way” mentality.

That mindset, Mr. Pogo, is the real enemy.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

We Have Meet The Enemy & He Is Us, Dealing with Entrenched Policies & Procedures (Part 1)

Students of American pop culture will recognize the title of today’s post as a quote from Pogo, the swamp dwelling possum in the classic comic strip of the same name. I use it to introduce a discussion of an all-too-common business phenomenon.

Owners and managers are often their own worst enemies when it comes to recognizing what I call Rube Goldberg policies, processes, and procedures (RGP3 for short).

What exactly are “Rube Goldberg” policies, processes, and procedures? Rube Goldberg was a twentieth century cartoonist, famous for inventing complex devises to accomplish the simplest of tasks. He was the inspiration for the 1960s game Mouse Trap.

Michael Hammer gave a perfect example of a modern day business mousetrap in Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate. A company required that the “corner desk” approve all overseas invoices. The policy had been in place for many years. It turns out it originated back when many customers were French, and when an employee who was fluent in French occupied that desk. However, the employee had long-since left, and fluency in a foreign language was not a requirement for assignment to the desk.

In other words, the original value of the policy was lost long ago. All that remained of the legacy were unnecessary costs and shipping delays.

This example exhibits several common characteristics of RGP3s. Those characteristics may include:

  • They are overly complex for their intended purpose.
  • They involve outdated technology.
  • They are not integrated with other systems.
  • They involve manual input of paper records.
  • They are labor-intensive.
  • They are non-scalable and unable to keep up with demand.
  • They are poorly documented.
  • They have been in effect for as long as anyone can remember.

In other words, they are inherently inefficient and outdated.

Yet with all these negative attributes, RGP3s seem to enjoy a sort of sacrosanct protection. Decision makers are reluctant to identify, let alone change them. Perhaps like an old pair of shoes or a childhood tradition we cling to in adulthood, we take comfort in our inability to remember life without them, even if we outgrew them long ago.

Although my RGP3 experience is mainly in finance and accounting, I am certain they exist in all areas of company operations including production, distribution and customer service.

So what is a manger to do about them? More about that on Friday.

Until then, have a great week.

© 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Too Foolish To Fail

The big buzz on Wall Street is today’s planned IPO of Facebook. I hope it will reverse the recent downward trend (11 of the 12 last trading days were losers). Several months ago, a partner and I were discussing Mark Zuckerberg in the context of starting a new business. That discussion lead to a two-part post, which in honor of his IPO, I repeat in its entirety today.

My partner and I concluded that Mark’s phenomenal success with Facebook is the direct result of three “rookie” mistakes, none of which we would have made.

Those mistakes were:

  1. He was not the first to arrive at the social networking party. Rather than come up with an original idea, he improved on other people’s ideas. That never works. Either get to the market first or stay home, right?
  2. He waited too long to “cash out.” He should have jumped at the first opportunity to raise some serious “beer money” like a normal college kid. If only he had, he would be a millionaire today!
  3. He failed to exercise basic common sense! Anyone smart enough to get into Harvard should know that a dream of launching a worldwide business to redefine a major facet of society is destined to break your heart. Homer Simpson said it best, “Trying is the first step toward failure!”

Let’s analyze each of his mistakes in more detail. It turns out there is historical precedence to support his seemingly illogical behavior in committing Mistake #1.

For example, historians credit German engineer Karl Benz with inventing the automobile. He patented the first gasoline engine powered vehicle in 1885. That was 11 years before a thirty-year-old “techie” at the Edison Illuminating Company began experimenting with his Ford Quadricycle.

Henry Ford’s primary contribution to the automotive industry was to apply “best practices” manufacturing processes including interchangeable parts and a moving assembly line. By combining cost saving efficiencies with a social philosophy that included paying factory workers $5 per day (double the going wage), he transformed the automobile from an expensive curio for the idle rich to an affordable source of transportation for the masses.

Ford put his vision into words. He said, “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

With the benefit of 115 years of hindsight, it is clear his value proposition actually created a market where none previously existed. He sold 15 million Model Ts over its nineteen-year production run.  At one point, half of the cars in the world were “Tin Lizzies.” True to his value statement, he was eventually able to reduce the selling price to $290, a 65% reduction from its introductory price.

O.K., Mark, I’ll concede your first mistake was not a mistake after all. Astute late comers can still profit by improving on an inventor’s ideas and capitalizing on missed opportunities.

What about waiting too long to cash out?

I am frequently surprised at the short-term vision baby boomers adopt in their business planning. I often encounter entrepreneurs who hope to build a successful business and “cash out” in five years or less.

This view is a distraction from your value proposition, the very reason you went into business in the first place. Think about it. Customers are at best indifferent to your retirement plans. Would you pick a new dentist if you knew she planned to sell her practice in two years?

It also introduces a bias that will slant business decisions in favor of maximizing short-term cash flows at the expense of building long-term value. For example, owners will forego investments in customer service and product design if payoffs extend beyond their timeline. This situation is analogous to watching a runner round the bases as you chase a fly ball. There are already plenty of opportunities to falter in business without unnecessary distractions. Do not take your eye off the ball!

It seems counterintuitive that a college student, given the opportunity to finance what would have been a carefree life style, would follow a business plan that extended beyond the next frat party. To his credit, now 27-year-old Mark Zuckerberg has resisted the temptation to monetize his 24% stake in Facebook for 7 years. Instead, he has continued to lead the company according to his vision.

It is hard to argue with his success. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs valued the private company at $50 billion. Mark kept his eye on the ball, even when faced with what would have been an irresistible temptation for us mere mortals. Cashing out four or five years ago would have cost him billions.

You were right, Zuck. My partner and I were….we were….well any way, you were right. Gloating is so not cool, Mark!

That brings me to his third mistake. Mark should have listened to the voices in his head that are quick to point out all the reasons why his grand plans would surely fail.

Abraham Lincoln once described a general who was unwilling to make decisions under pressure as “acting like a duck that had been hit on the head.” Fear of failure is a powerful motivator. It causes some of us to avoid decision making altogether.

Decision making is a cognitive process involving logic, reasoning and problem solving skills. Unfortunately, each of us enters that process with certain preconceived biases. We are often quick to listen to any voice that supports them. It is normal to exhibit a reluctance to move off those biases, even if faced with new facts, circumstances or opportunities. Therefore, the safe decision (i.e., to spend our career as a corporate wage slave rather than launch a new venture) is often the default decision.

Samuel Clemmons once said, “It’s not what you don’t know that will get you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

To his credit, Mark Zuckerberg did not let what he did not know about launching a business get in the way of his success. His vision was inspiring; his execution was courageous.

In the final analysis, my partner and I could take a lesson from him. So can you!

You proved all of your distracters wrong! Good luck in your IPO Mark.

 © 2012 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

I HATE TO SAY I TOLD YOU SO!

This is a sad day for long-time antique Kodak camera collectors like me, not a day to remind readers about the critical importance of cash flow to business survival.

Unfortunately, as demonstrated by the following timeline, the inventor and one-time “King of Cameras” has been reduced to a shadow of its former greatness. It was victimized by slow strategic decision-making and the dreaded negative cash flow.

Here is a brief summary of their 128-year history.

  • 1884: George Eastman developed film technology to replace photographic plates. He founded Eastman Kodak in 1892. With the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest” he introduced photography to the masses with cardboard box cameras that sold for $1, the equivalent of $24 in 2009 dollars.
  • 2009: With its market steadily evaporating since the 1975 invention of digital cameras, Kodak ended a 74-year run when it discontinued production of Kodachrome film. Their SEC filings reported a $210 million loss that year. Ironically, a Kodak engineer invented the digital camera.
  • January 19, 2012: The market for film cameras now virtually extinct, Kodak has witnessed its market value plummet from over $30 billion to $150 million. Today, they filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, having endured an operating cash drain of $750 million over the past twelve months alone. A company spokesperson said they “intend to sell significant assets” during the bankruptcy.

The moral of the story is this: few things in life are absolute. The laws of gravity and physics come to mind. Another absolute is the need for positive cash flow.

Almost everything else is negotiable.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

CASH: NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T

The first response to a cash crisis is usually to tighten up on expenses, cut back on something, or generally to make do with less. That may be necessary, but it is usually only part of the answer.

As shown in the diagram below, cash flows generated (or consumed) by any business are the net result of the inter-action of three related cycles. They are the expense, revenue and capital cycles. I will discuss the first two today, and conclude next Friday with the capital cycle.

A brief description of each follows, along with what I consider the most common problems within each cycle. All three cycles presuppose that you have the ability to measure and monitor its activities and results.

The expense cycle:

Let’s start with the expense cycle, the assumed “bad guy” for most small business cash problems. This cycle is largely what the name implies. It is also the easiest to fix.

The expense cycle involves the cash used to pay vendors, employees and others for the goods and services they supply. It also includes operating expenses such as rent and utilities.

The biggest obstacle to correcting expense cycle issues is one of attitude. Your goal is not to “pinch every penny” and second-guess past spending decisions. Experience teaches that it is too easy to miss the big picture while focusing only on inconsequential items. Reducing paper clip expenses by 80% will not save your company.

The focus of your expense cycle review should be to ensure that costs are planned and justified by their expected benefits. Ask yourself whether they are consistent with your business goals. If the answer is no, the appropriate action is to eliminate the expense. It is that simple!

Furthermore, expenses must be incurred within an environment of adequate internal controls. This control environment includes management tools such as monthly financial statements, a detailed budget and basic procedures such as a purchase order process with competitive bidding. Without these controls, it is simply not possible to manage expenses.

The revenue cycle:

The revenue cycle deals with money coming into your business. If only it were that simple!

Problems within this cycle are the most difficult to identify and analyze, especially if management lacks a solid grasp of the numbers. Consequently, the root cause of many business failures lies within the revenue cycle. They are unpleasant to address, since they ultimately affect customer relations. Two examples follow.

Money coming into a business always starts with a sale to a customer. However, it does not end there. If your business offers credit to customers, making a sale actually drains cash until you collect the receivable. This creates an inherent conflict between the desire to increase sales through generous credit terms and lenient collection procedures, and the need to maximize cash flow. Success in this area requires adequate internal controls including standardized billing and collection procedures, a balanced customer approval process, and sound treasury management.

One unpleasant aspect of squeezing more cash out of the revenue cycle is the prospect of having to raise prices. Perhaps the single most common mistake is under-pricing products and services relative to your cost structure. Correcting this challenge is even more difficult after you have established unrealistic customer pricing expectations, or if you operate in an especially competitive environment. People who do business with you primarily because you offer the lowest prices are unlikely to exhibit much customer loyalty.

We will finish this topic next Friday with a discussion of the capital cycle and a closing comment on cash flows.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

 

CASH IS KING, LONG LIVE THE KING!

 

 

Today’s title is an obvious parody on the old phrase, “The king is dead. Long live the king!” It dates to thirteenth century England. It conveyed the immediate transfer of power between a deceased monarch and the heir to the throne. More relevant to our purposes, it signified the continuity of sovereignty, or the supreme authority.

Future articles will explore where cash comes from, and where it goes, two critically important issues for every small business. For now, I will discuss the more basic question of why cash is cash king in today’s business world.

First, allow me to quote the experts. A 2005 study titled Small Business: Causes of Bankruptcy by Don B. Bradley III and Chris Cowdery of the University of Central Arkansas explained the supreme importance of cash rather succinctly:

“A lack of cash flow is often the biggest failure indicator. A lack of cash flow could cause a business to fall behind on wage payments, rent, and insurance and loan payments. A lack of cash flow also could inhibit the company’s ability to reinvest for future profits such as the ordering of products or supplies and marketing execution. When a company is borrowing to pay off past debts, it is usually a sign of disaster to come.”

They also said, “A significant shortage of cash flow limits the company’s ability to respond to outside threats. This is critical for fledgling businesses since new threats seem to appear every day.”

The only thing you can be certain of in business is that things will never turn out exactly as you planned. Adequate cash allows businesses to survive extended periods when sales, profits and cash flow are running behind plan, whatever the cause. Every business requires some level of cash to serve as a buffer against this uncertainty.

You could say cash provides sleep insurance. Constantly worrying whether a large customer will pay their invoice in time to meet Friday’s payroll, or whether you will have to turn away sales during your busiest season because you cannot stock sufficient inventory to meet demand is too often part of a businessperson’s everyday thought process.

Adequate cash levels are especially vital during the initial start-up period of a business. However, while the risks and challenges change as a business grows and matures, cash is supreme during any stage of a company’s life cycle.

For example, imagine that a 120-year-old company generated $1.2 billion in net losses. My immediate reaction is they certainly won’t be around to celebrate their 125th anniversary. That company is Alcoa. They lost $74 million in 2008 and a staggering $1.1 billion in 2009. Yet, Alcoa is still the world’s third largest producer of aluminum, and still trades on the New York Stock Exchange.

How is surviving such staggering losses possible? It was possible because during the same two years Alcoa generated $2.6 billion of positive cash flow from operations. As the old adage goes, “You can survive almost anything if you just have enough cash.” Businesses close their doors when they run out of cash to pay vendors and employees, period!

Here is an even more dramatic and current example of why cash is king.

AMR Corporation, the parent company of American Airlines, filed for bankruptcy protection in November 2011. During the previous 15 quarters, the company accumulated over $4.9 billion in net losses. Yet industry experts seem confident the company will successfully emerge from bankruptcy. Why? AMR has over $4.3 billion in cash on its balance sheet.

Far too often, the immediate response to a cash crisis is to tighten up on expenses, cut something back, to make do with less! That may be an appropriate tactic, especially if you have not scrutinized expenses closely in the past, or do not have a good handle on your cost structure.

However, cutting back is not the only tactic.

Next week I will begin a discussion of how cash flow generated (or used) by any business is the net result of the inter-action and proper management of three related cycles. They are the revenue, expense and capital cycles.

Until then, long live the king!

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

 CFO America: Your Cash Flow Optimization experts

Resolve To Make a Decision

Abraham Lincoln once described a general who was unwilling to make decisions under pressure as “acting like a duck that had been hit on the head.” I have never actually observed the behavior of waterfowl suffering from cranial trauma, although I once accidentally hit a duck with a stone skimmed across a frozen pond. But that was long ago and involved an entirely different part of the duck’s anatomy.

I have observed the behavior of managers making (or not making) decisions enough to conclude that the majority of problems in business are not because someone made the wrong decision, but because no one made any decision. Will Rogers summarized the risk of indecision with this, “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there.”

To be sure, there are “mission critical” decisions that have the long-term potential to make or break any organization. Nevertheless, unless you are a heart surgeon or an airline pilot, most mistakes are to some extent correctable, at least within limited timeframes.

Decision making is a cognitive process involving logic, reasoning and problem solving skills. Unfortunately, each of us enters the process with preconceived biases and exhibits some degree of “decision inertia” or a reluctance to move off those biases when faced with new facts or circumstances. Business decisions can be reduced to a four-step process as illustrated in the following diagram.

The first step is to analyze the problem and identify solutions. This is largely a fact gathering exercise involving input from multiple sources and considering alternative courses of action.

It is important to differentiate between problem analysis and decision making. Although it may sound redundant, success requires the decision maker to do just that, make a decision. Theodore Roosevelt said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

While the dreaded “paralysis of analysis” may be seen as the cause, the reality is many people, perhaps including Mr. Lincoln’s general, simply find it safer not to make decisions, even in obvious situations.

As an example, I was once responsible for opening three new offices and hiring several hundred employees, including managers with company cars. The fleet manager came to me in a panic one day. Company policy allowed employees to select their own cars. This meant they would be without cars for several weeks. I calmly asked what the choices were, and immediately ordered 15 identical cars. She asked how I knew they would like the cars. The truth was I neither knew nor cared! Since a decision was needed, I made it. The managers arrived on their first day to find a fleet of new cars waiting on the front row. As expected, no one died.

Investment professionals report there is a tendency to “sell winners too quickly and hold on to losers too long.” The reason we hold on to losers is primarily a subconscious reluctance to admit mistakes. Your focus should be on early detection of challenges and the identification and implementation of appropriate corrective action. American author Arnold H. Glasow put it this way, “One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Be willing to make changes if indicated by the monitoring process, even at the risk of exposing your mistakes. Tony Robbins put it this way, “Stay committed to your decisions; but stay flexible in your approach.”

Accountability is paramount to a successful decision making process. If you want credit for your accomplishments, be willing to take responsibility for mistakes. Have enough confidence to say, “I was wrong, now let’s fix it.” Remember, your goal is not to avoid all mistakes. Simply doing nothing would accomplish that. Your goal is to minimize the impact of missteps and learn from them.

I end with this comment by Peter Drucker, management consultant and author of 39 books. He said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”

P.S. My apologies to PETA for the whole duck by the frozen pond rock skimming long time ago hit in the anatomy thing.

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Reducing Fear and Uncertainty, Part 3

This week, I have been talking about the important marketing topic of decreasing consumer fear and uncertainty to increase sales. I conclude the series today with a discussion of introductory offers and giving away free service.

  1. Customers want to know approximately how much they should expect to spend in advance, without having to keep an anxious eye on the clock. This is often an issue for lawyers, CPAs and other highly compensated professionals who generally charge hourly rates. If this situation applies to your business, structure an introductory offer. For example, as an attorney with a billing rate of $250 per hour, you might offer to incorporate a new business, obtain all required permits and tax identification numbers and organize their corporate records for $499 including an initial consultation. If the project is completed within two hours, you earned your standard rate. If not, the introductory offer still works if you provide subsequent services using your regular fee schedule. You may also land full-price referrals because of your introductory offer.
  • As you complete assignments, you will likely find ways to reduce time and costs, lowering your breakeven point in the process.
  • The introductory price is independent of who performs the work. You can further reduce your costs if you can delegate portions of the assignment to your staff or outsource to lower-cost vendors.
  • For example, if you are a personal wealth manager, offer a free analysis of a prospect’s retirement investments. That is an important part of your main service. Your hope is obviously that some prospects will be so impressed with your knowledge and advice (or so unhappy with their current manager) that they will retain you to manage their portfolio. Other examples of providing a free service include a carpet cleaner who offers to clean one room free of charge, or an alarm company conducting a free home security analysis.
  • Jewelry stores illustrate an example of attracting customers with auxiliary services. They often provide free ring cleanings or replacement batteries for watches. With the highest gross profit margins in retail, very few prospects have to make additional full-price purchases in order to make the free service a successful strategy.
  1. My final suggestion under the topic of reducing fear and uncertainty to increase sales is an extension of the previous one. It is admittedly controversial. The idea is to provide free service in the hope of gaining new customers for full-price services. However, what you are giving away is neither the “2-cent sample” variety of the previous idea, nor the deluxe version of your service. It is somewhere in-between, probably closer to the former than the latter. Your free offering should be either a limited version of your primary service, or a less expensive auxiliary service.

I conclude the discussion of reducing fear and uncertainty to increase sales by reminding you of Monday’s quote by Mr. Ziglar. The next time you deal with an unhappy customer, take it as an opportunity to learn more about their needs while reducing their perception of risk. Remember also that helping them address their needs and concerns is critical to the ultimate success of every business.

Reducing Fear and Uncertainty, Part 2

On Monday, I introduced the topic of reducing consumer fear and uncertainty, and the distrust that often accompanies those emotions. I suggested that building a reputation for post-sale customer service and offering free samples might help overcome these marketing obstacles.

Today I will discuss offering satisfaction guarantees.

3. A self-described marketing expert once insisted I needed to offer a “100% money-back guarantee” to win new clients. It gets worse! He also suggested I guarantee savings of at least 10 times my fee. I had two major issues with the suggestion. First, in a profession where it was actually illegal to advertise only a few years ago, it sounded too much like an old-fashioned “snake oil” marketing approach. Secondly, all I do is counsel and advise clients. The value of that advice is ultimately dependent on their success in implementing recommendations in a timely fashion. I cannot guarantee the actions of others. Neither can you!

With that said, the concept of a money-back or satisfaction guarantee might have value to service providers within some narrowly defined parameters. Carefully consider the following matters:

  • At the risk of sounding like a cynic, get paid up front. Clients will be less likely to take advantage of your guarantee if they have to look you in the eye and lie about their dissatisfaction while asking for a refund.
  • Place clear and reasonable boundaries on what customers must do to qualify for a refund. Assume for example that I promise to develop your website and have it running within 60 days. That commitment must be contingent upon you providing a list of items like graphics and content, and on your timely approval of my work at various stages of completion. If your failure to perform those obligations is the primary cause of me missing the deadline, forget the money-back guarantee.
  • Consider offering a money-back guarantee on only part of your services. For example, weight loss centers advertise you will lose 20 pounds in 10 weeks for $20, or you get your money back. Since these centers cannot guarantee customers will follow the program, they cannot guarantee anyone will lose weight. They do not seem to fret much over that minor annoyance. Part of the weight loss program is that you eat their food for the entire 10 weeks. That will cost another $75 or more a week. No one can reasonably expect a refund for food they consumed, no matter how little weight was lost. Furthermore, some customers will simply be too embarrassed to admit their failure and ask for a refund. More importantly, for every customer who has their $20 fee returned, others will be so pleased with the initial results they will decide to lose 50 pounds. The extra 30 pounds are not at $1 per pound, and you still buy food from the center. This money-back guarantee is pure marketing genius.
  • Be aware that guarantees sometimes carry negative marketing connotations that can reflect poorly on your brand. That is largely due to all-too-common marketing promotions that border on deceptive advertising. I once had a client who previously developed a product marketed exclusively on late-night infomercials. You are no doubt familiar with the type of promotions to which I am referring. Everything is a huge value (whatever that is), yours for only $19.95 plus shipping and handling charges. The product always comes with a satisfaction guarantee. My client explained the rules of the game. The key phrase is “plus shipping and handling,” a greatly inflated sum that includes the actual cost of the product. That explains why infomercials frequently offer a second item “free” if customers pay separate shipping and handling fees. The $19.95 is pure gross profit! If a disgruntled consumer wants a refund, they must first return the product at their expense. The shipping and handling is not refunded. Therefore, the seller’s “worst-case scenario” is that the customer paid the full cost of the product and is now allowing them to resell it. Meanwhile, the refunded $19.95 was an interest free loan. I trust this deceptive practice is incompatible with your mission statement and value system. Do not risk long-term customer relations and reputation for the sake of short-term gains.

I will conclude this series with a discussion of introductory offers and giving free service. I look forward to meeting you here bright and early Friday morning.

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