Performance Improvement Advisors provide analysis, guidance and/or support services to increase the value and growth potential of small and medium sized companies. These advisors offer expertise across a wide range of disciplines, incorporating a fully array of technologies to support their clients.
These advisors might offer expertise in operations, technology, marketing, sales, market research, employee development, essentially any activity that drives performance. Some advisors emphasize efficiencies, cost cutting, risk management or systems development. Others focus on sales growth, customer satisfaction, product enhancements or market research. Benchmarking and key performance indicators are commonly used by many advisors, while others address issues that are equally significant, but less amenable to numerical measurement. Some advisors provide insight without implementation, others support the implementation efforts of the management team and some provide turnkey implementation support. Some emphasize industry expertise, while others stress process or technology.
At first, the sheer number of disciplines and approaches employed by Performance Improvement Advisors can seem overwhelming. In this brief guide, we describe one path a middle-market company owner might take to identify needs and select the appropriate resources to achieve its most pressing goals.
What You Need to Know
The first and most important issue in selecting a Performance Improvement Advisor is identifying clearly both the company’s goals and the resources needed to achieve those goals. Selecting the right tool for a job requires, first, a clear understanding of the job itself.
The View from 30,000 feet
First, the management team must define the big picture goals to be achieved and the capabilities/resources available to achieve them. The following questions can provide important insights to inform the search/selection process.
What is the goal?
Are we seeking to buy a company, sell all or part of our company, raise funds through equity or debt, or prepare for an eventual public offering? Are we simply seeking to improve our overall performance as a means of generating higher returns to existing shareholders?
What gap do we need to fill to achieve our goal?
If we were buying our company, knowing what we know about it, what issues would reduce the amount we would pay to make the purchase? If we were buying our company, what would we see as the biggest threat to our ability to achieve our targeted ROI? Is there one clear issue that we can identify, or are we looking at a number of symptoms that must be diagnosed (with a Performance Improvement Advisor) before we pinpoint the underlying cause?
What is our time frame?
Are we in the midst of an acquisition and seeking due diligence about the company we are buying? Are we crafting an exit strategy to be implemented over five years? Is our industry consolidating in a way that threatens our long-term potential? How much time do we have available to complete our performance improvement?
Let’s consider some of the answers that might flow from these questions and link them to different types of Performance Improvement Advisors. For example:
We need to improve operating efficiency.
We seem to be trailing our competitors in terms of margin or our margins have failed to increase as much as sales growth would suggest. Advisors who specialize in cost reduction, efficiency and systems might be considered here.
We need to improve customer retention and penetration.
We have a good track record of gaining new customers, but we have not been as successful as we need to be at building their reliance on us, or keeping them at all, once we are in the door. Advisors who focus on customer perceptions of value and marketing.
We need to improve our human capital.
We are not as good as we need to be at identifying the skill sets necessary for success and recruiting/retaining the people who have those skill sets? Our staff does not seem to be focused on our core goals and we would benefit from having everyone rowing in the same direction. HR consultants or executive coaches might be a good fit.
We must improve our information systems.
You get what you measure, but we aren’t measuring what we need to get. Our systems are outdated and our people are doing a poor job of collecting and inputting the facts most critical for our success. IT consultants, broad-scale management consultants or benchmarking specialists might be considered.
We should be able to penetrate new markets, but we haven’t figured out how to do it.
Our products and services should be in demand from people we aren’t serving yet, but those people don’t respond to us in the same way as customers in our existing market. We need insights into local market conditions, foreign business customs or unfamiliar sales channels. Advisors who focus on a specific industry, geography or marketing/sales channel might be appropriate.
We must get more from our sales team.
Our sales expenses continue to be very high, but we aren’t gaining enough new business in return for the dollars expended. We need to find new ways to energize and/or incentivize our sales team. Sales consultants, compensation experts, marketing specialists and executive coaches could be an appropriate fit.
The challenges and possible approaches listed here are only a small sampling of the issues and solutions that might be applicable to any individual company, but they illustrate the refinement process that each company should follow in order to select the best fit.
Each of these answers will generate new questions that must be answered in order to refine the path to success. As you reach new conclusions, you will begin to define the challenges to be met more precisely, along with the timetable for addressing key issues. If the management team is unable to answer these questions clearly, it might be appropriate to engage a Performance Improvement Advisor to perform an opportunity assessment, creating a framework for pinpointing issues and goals in the most productive way.
Getting Granular at Ground Level
Once the goals are defined broadly, it’s important to drill down to identify some specific issues that will drive success for your specific company. The right match will depend on who you are, how you work, how your team is organized, your dominant culture and other factors.
Some companies do well with a large consulting firm that offers sophisticated tools for analysis and implementation. Some companies work best with a single advisor whose perspectives or experiences mirror those of the management team in place. Some companies can benefit from data-driven solutions, while others lack the data depth or consistency to utilize this approach.
There are no choices that are inherently right or wrong, but there are approaches that match your company more or less closely. The better the fit, the more likely your chance for a successful engagement. Some of the factors of your company that will influence an advisors relevance for you include:
How much management bandwidth is available?
What skill sets and time constraints define your management team’s ability to direct, support and participate in the performance improvement process? Do you have the expertise to address technical issues, but not human resources challenges? Is your management team already stretched too thin to take on added assignments from a Performance Improvement Advisor? Management engagement in the performance improvement process will require hours and mindshare that could be utilized elsewhere. It will be important to select a resource that can work within this limitation.
What internal resources are available?
Do you already track the processes that are the source of your challenge or will new research be required? Does your staff have capacity to develop reports, conduct research or support the day-to-day process of the Performance Improvement Advisor? If every employee is working full time now, something must move to the back burner during the performance improvement engagement. It is important to select an advisor that can work within this limitation as well.
What is your culture?
If yours is a centralized command culture, your Performance Improvement Advisor should have the capability to offer solutions that fit within this type of structure. Conversely, command solutions will not be a good fit for collaborative or decentralized corporate cultures. Of course, if your challenge is a toxic or non-productive culture, the matching process must be even more specific.
How do you manage the business now?
What reports do you use and what key performance indicators do you track? Do you have systems in place to monitor staff activities and are those systems measuring what you really need to measure? Any solutions developed by a Performance Improvement Advisor are more likely to be implemented if they fit within the constructs already in place. That doesn’t mean a new system cannot be developed as a solution to your needs. Often, though, the path to implementation can be smoother when the solution resembles activities that everyone knows already.
What has worked, or failed, in the past?
Looking back at other initiatives undertaken at the company, what are the common links among those that succeeded and how do they differ from the failed attempts?
Are you data friendly?
Many companies and advisors emphasize collection and analysis of data as a means of identifying issues and setting benchmarks for improvement. Data-driven tools can be very valuable, but only if your company generates enough of the right type of data. Many companies have too small a customer base or too short an operating history, too much cyclicality or too many minor products to benefit fully from data analysis. Other companies have a natural affinity for numerically based assessments, which would drive their search toward data-focused advisors.
While common process and challenges will repeat consistently among almost all businesses, there will be a unique combination of issues that must be addressed at your specific business. By focusing on your company’s characteristics and culture, you can multiply your opportunities to identify the best resource for you and increase your likelihood of success.
What to Expect
Performance Improvement Advisors will offer a wide range of deliverables and engagement approaches. It is a good practice to agree to the following before engaging an advisor.
What exactly is being measured and how does it fit into the goals identified by the company? Is the advisor proposing an exploration of possibilities or a specific action plan for a clearly defined challenge?
Some advisors offer a specific list of items for a flat fee, while others charge an hourly rate or a success fee. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, both for your company and for the advisor. No single approach is “best” in all cases, but one might be better for you.
What will the advisor deliver at the end of the engagement? Will it be a report with general recommendations or a detailed road map to improvement?
When will the work begin, when will it be finished and what checkpoints or milestones must be met along the way. Timetables will shift almost invariably, but clear definitions in advance will make it easier for each party to plan activities, manage expectations and measure results.
Does the advisor expect to implement the plan she develops or will the plan be designed for implementation by your internal staff? Does the advisor offer the option of implementing the plan, identifying other external resources for implementation or training your team to handle the job?
There is no single approach that is best or worst, right or wrong. It is critically important, however, that both parties have a clear understanding of what they must do, what the other will do and how much money will be paid in order to reach the company’s goals.
Avoiding the Traps
A logical and company-specific approach to performance improvement will lead your company to define its goals clearly and select a resource with the capacity and attributes to support your plans. Along the way, it is important to avoid a few traps that can undermine your search.
Bigger is better
The size of an advisory firm or the size of its clients will not necessarily make that firm a good match for you. It is often a benefit to be a large client in your advisor’s eyes, commanding the attention of the most senior people in the advisor’s organization. This translates into selecting an advisor whose size and approach are a match for your needs.
Friends and family
The advisor that did a good job for your golfing buddies or your brother-in-law is not necessarily the right company for your needs. Frequently, recommendations from friends and family will appear to be more relevant than is ultimately the case.
Sometimes, the issue identified by management as the focus of improvement is the result of another, unidentified challenge. If the engagement is defined too specifically in terms of process or deliverables, the company and its advisor might miss the opportunity to address the underlying cause of the shortfall.
The best plan is no plan, if it cannot be implemented. Often, managers will seek to achieve more goals than their bandwidth or finances will accommodate. The result can be overly ambitious plans that will never be implemented.
Performance Improvement Advisors can help multiply the market value of your company, identify hidden risks in a company you are acquiring, strengthen customer relationships, reduce employee turnover, build profitability and drive growth in hundreds of ways.
The key to selecting the right advisors for your company is to begin with your specific issues and challenges, the resources you can devote to the process and the results you want to achieve through the engagement. daily operations and drive continuing enhancements to corporate results.
By Michael Rosenbaum