Is it Christmas yet?

Every year all the children get excited because Christmas is coming, but all the retailers get stressed because Christmas is their busiest time of the year.

In the US their busy period is from Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) through to Christmas.

Wikipedia tells me the name comes from the appearance of the crowds that thronged the streets of Philadelphia but the popular myth is that it is when the retail chains move into the black (into profit) for the first time since January. Don’t tell anyone, but the smart retailers make money all year round, not just in the last few weeks of the year. The dumber ones go broke in January & February when the rent bill falls due.

Is your business seasonal? Is there a distinct pattern to your sales, so that you know that some part of the year will be quieter than another? Do you look for the pattern?

Seasonality is common in many business sectors, with summer holidays and the Christmas break affecting many, but if your business is seasonal you have three choices:

A.      Match your resources and investment to the pattern of your sales. Some businesses do this through the use of temporary staff (Retailers at Christmas is a classic example of this)

B.      Use the quiet period to do jobs that have been put off from the busy period (common in the agricultural sector, and in some parts of the building trade)

C.      Find something else to fill in the gaps

One of my clients is a florist, and their seasonality is weekly, or rather at the weekends. Everyone wants to get married at the weekend!
We’ve made a deliberate decision to target other markets, moving away from weekend work to jobs that can be done between Monday and Friday, balancing out the workload across the week. It will never be perfect, but where doubling the size of the wedding floristry would require a doubling of the team, we can double the size of the business during the week just by utilising the existing team & giving them a few more hours.

Big swings in sales lead to big swings in cash flow, big swings in cash flow stress the business (and the owner) sometimes to breaking point. If your business is very seasonal, that’s not a good place to be. Remember that more businesses fail from cash flow problems than anything else.

Find another market, or another product to sell to smooth out that seasonality.

A colleague helped a client whose business was entirely winter seasonal; they bought a business that equally seasonal, but in the summer.

The same is true of orders and projects. If all you do is very large projects, sooner or later one will go wrong or be delayed & deferred. Lots of little project to fill in the gaps are a really good idea.

The best sales graph is one that has a smooth upward curve – how can you smooth out your sales?

A system set for failure

The surprising thing from reading the news about the misbehaviour of RBS is that a structure where RBS have their own property business was not seen to be a recipe for trouble if not disaster.

If you have a business, or a department or a division, they need objectives and targets. You can guess that in this case the property business had a set of targets to maximise returns from the properties in their portfolio.

If that’s the case, you have the bank’s internal property company competing with the property companies who are borrowers from the same bank.  It’s not that much of a stretch to see that the internal company, incentivised only to maximise returns, would influence the lending teams to turn over any business that even began to struggle. Someone undoubtedly misbehaved, but the system was setup to encourage that bad behaviour.

One of my clients had a problem with their collections; very long days outstanding, and it wasn’t getting any better. When we drilled into it, the credit control team were doing their best but sometimes had to go back to the customer service team.

The customer service team’s incentives were all around speed of customer response and satisfaction  and had nothing to do with credit control, so of course the requests for help from the credit controllers were very low priority.

We made the credit control team a “customer” for the objectives of the customer service team; many of the problems were cleared up and the debtor days were greatly reduced.

When you set your departmental objectives, do you make sure they align with the overall business objectives?

Keeping a customer is easier than finding a new one

I was reminded of this yesterday by discussions in an all-day meeting planning the future of the organisation.

We’re taking a new direction, investing some additional funds and resources to increase and re-shape our marketing so that we can win new business. The meeting yesterday focused on the strategy in the morning, then the tactics in the afternoon – a very productive day.

Towards the end of the day we turned to the subject of customer retention, and realised there was a possibility that some of our new activities, unless carefully communicated, could disappoint and disillusion our existing customers.

We chose to forego some of the whizzy new stuff to keep the existing customers happy. It does not mean we will not do it – just not yet – and the cost to us is minimal. There’s an opportunity cost, to be sure, but it is pretty small.

If you lose 10% of your customers in a year, you’ll need to add 11% just to stand still.

If you break down your revenues by customer, and then by order size you get a formula that looks like this:

Total Sales = Customers x Sales per Customer

Sales per Customer = No of Orders x average order value

So to grow your total sales, you can either increase your number of customers or you can increase the sales per customer.  One of those is much harder than the other!

To increase your sales per customer, you can either increase the number of orders (the frequency with which the customer shops with you) or you can increase the average order value.

So, how much of your marketing effort is devoted to your existing customers?

Strategy or Tactics?

Many business advisors bandy around the words “strategic” and “tactical” but for me, the only real difference is the timeframe.

There will be times when you have to take a decision to solve today’s problem, but it comes back to haunt you at a later date.

It’s a bit like buying something you can’t really afford on a credit card. If you are not careful, you end up paying for it twice over (or more) by the time you’ve paid the interest.

A client of mine has been approached to sell his business, and I am helping him through the process and we are providing information to the buyer.

One piece of (quite important) information is the share structure and ownership of the business.  The MD and his wife are the majority owners, but two key employees (Nick & Bob) were given a small shareholding many years ago.

When the MD declared the shareholding, he included Nick & Bob as owning 5% of the business each, but when I looked at the accounts there were far more shares that he had declared.

Several years ago, when bidding for a large contract, a director’s loan was converted into share capital so that the business could obtain finance. 

The MD had forgotten all about that transaction. It had to be done at the time, his money was already committed to the business, and it didn’t matter to him.

But Nick & Bob don’t own 5% of the company each, they own 0.05%.

This business will sell for about 5 million pounds; Nick & Bob will receive a few thousand pounds instead of the £250k they would be entitled if they still owned the 5%.

If my client wants to do the honourable thing and give Nick & Bob the difference (I am sure he will) then taking into account the various tax implications he will be about 500k worse off.*

If, after taking the undoubtedly short term decision to convert that loan to share capital, the MD had thought through the implications for Bob & Nick in the longer term, there would have been a way to make sure they still had the 5% he had promised them.

So when the answer to the short term problem is obvious, and you just get on and do it, try to take a step back every so often & ask yourself the question

 “How will that affect me / us / the business in 3 years’ time?

*(Now I think I have a solution for this problem – I just need the corporate lawyer to check)