The Value of Business Advisors and Consultants to SMEs

I recently circulated an email promoting my services and amongst the replies, I received, was this one: –

Anthony
Many thanks for your kind offer for ————.
Unfortunately X——— was recently placed in Administration but when I “resurface” I may well revert back to you.

Kind regards

Y————

I don’t know “Y” and I have no knowledge of either the business or the circumstances surrounding its demise. But, my immediate reaction was a sense of frustration. I would, of course, be pleased to help Y in the future, as he implied but, if I could have started working with him perhaps a year ago, we could have possibly turned his business around and prevented this tragic outcome. Y’s prospects would now be considerably better and his employees would still have jobs.

To be fair, Y may have brought in business advice and support and it may not have worked. But, in practice, many struggling businesses don’t or, if they do, they leave it too late. And that’s the basis of my frustration.

When an established business fails, it is very rarely a sudden event that comes completely out of the blue. It normally happens after a comparatively long period of decline that could, in some cases, take several years. In fact, it never ceases to surprise me how long some businesses hang on before they eventually succumb to the inevitable.

Businesses that are institutionally owned or part of larger corporates, generally have structures and processes in place that are better able to identify potential threats at an early stage; so remedial action can be taken long before any serious harm is done. If CEOs and management teams are found unable or unwilling to respond appropriately, they are replaced. It’s a fairly clinical process; albeit not very pleasant, if you’re the person being fired.

In the case of owner managed businesses, these structures and processes aren’t normally as robust and often don’t exist at all. So the identification of weaknesses and threats tends to be left to the owner manager plus, perhaps, a small team of directors working for him/her; and this isn’t always easy because their main focus is managing the day to day activities of the business, which can often obscure some of the more strategic and broader based issues.

However, irrespective of the ownership of the business, threats and weaknesses need to be identified and addressed at the earliest opportunity to prevent a crisis from arising. If this doesn’t happen, the number of options starts to reduce, profits decline, cash becomes tighter and the ability to fund the change programme, that is needed to achieve a turnaround, is undermined. The business then slides inexorably towards collapse.

Owner managed businesses tend to be more susceptible to this problem than institutionally owned businesses or those that are part of larger corporates. This is partly for the reasons I’ve already explained – lack of focus on strategic factors – and partly because owner managers can sometimes become overwhelmed and unable to find solutions.

There is also another factor that needs to be considered.

If a management team has been running a business that is either in crisis or which is sliding into a crisis, it is unlikely that the same management team, on its own, will achieve a turnaround.

There are, undoubtedly, exceptions to this but, generally, it holds true; and it is one of the main reasons why CEOs and other senior directors of institutionally and corporately owned businesses are replaced.

For the owner managed business, the position is, in many ways, more difficult. An owner manager is unlikely to fire him/herself; and even if he/she did, who is going to run the business in their place? However, if the owner manager has managed the business, as it has declined, the chances of him/her turning it around, on his/her own, are not great. If the skills and experience had been there to do so, the decline would have been arrested much earlier.

Let’s now consider why businesses get into trouble to start with. A successful business creates and maintains a sufficient level of competitive advantage in its market(s) to remain sustainable. The really successful ones develop strategies that enable them to build on this and increase their competitive advantage over the medium and longer term. A declining business may have created significant competitive advantage in the past and maintained it for a time, but its decline indicates that it is now losing whatever competitive advantage it may have created.

Competitive advantage isn’t just getting things like price, quality, delivery and service right; as important as those factors are. It is about creating advantages over competitors across a whole range of factors that are important to the market concerned. However, markets are continually changing; so something that provided a competitive advantage yesterday may not do so today; but something else might. So businesses need to be continually adapting in response to the market. It’s a journey without an end. For anyone interested in reading more about competitive advantage, I have written an earlier article, which you can read at: –

https://anthonypratt.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/competitive-advantage-what-is-it-is-it-dangerous-does-it-hurt-do-i-really-need-to-understand-it/

Markets go through their various cycles of growth, maturity and decline; economies go through cycles of boom and bust; and the time frames of all of this are often inconsistent and unpredictable. In the right conditions, when a market is buoyant, the strongest businesses will grow, prosper and make large profits; and most others will survive reasonably comfortably; but, even in these circumstances, there will be some that just can’t make it work and which fail. However, when market conditions become adverse, the strongest businesses will still grow and prosper but they will mainly do so by taking market share from the not so strong. As a result, for many that were previously surviving comfortably, survival starts to become more challenging and, for the weaker businesses, survival becomes very difficult and increasingly impossible.

Let’s now consider a business that has been reasonably successful and surviving comfortably but which starts to see its performance decline, as market conditions change. There are really only two possible outcomes.

The first is that it responds to the changing market circumstances, adapts appropriately and remains successful, albeit with a bit of a blip, while it grapples with the change that was needed.

The second is that it doesn’t respond or responds inappropriately and continues to decline.

For the first outcome to be achieved, there is a prerequisite that the business correctly identifies the changing circumstances in the market and that it then develops appropriate strategies to address those changes. Identifying the changes is often reasonably straightforward because there is usually plenty of discussion about it within the particular market and its trade press. Developing appropriate strategies to address those market changes is much more difficult and usually involves a degree of risk.

This is where institutionally owned businesses and those owned by larger corporates often have an advantage. The CEO and directors have access to external resources that can support the business financially through change programmes and provide a broader base of experience. This combination means that new strategies and change programmes are likely to be more robust and incur less risk.

For the owner managed business, the challenge can be much greater. Limited resources mean that you can’t afford to get it wrong. But there is often much less experience available, other than that of the owner manager and his/her team; and there can be a very limited capability of testing and challenging the strategies that are developed. So the risk of getting it wrong tends to be higher.

The risk of change can also lead SMEs to do nothing, which, set against changing market dynamics, can actually be just as risky or, in some circumstances, even more so.

When you start to think about all of this, from the perspective of an owner manager, it can all become very daunting and can lead to inertia, inappropriate strategies and panic, all of which, in the face of changing markets, leads towards administration.

This may all sound very gloomy; so we must remember that most owner managed businesses don’t fail and a minority remain very successful indeed; although it’s probable that the majority underperform and never achieve their full potential. But there are also a considerable number of owner managed businesses, for which the scenario I have painted is very real. So how can you prevent your business from being one of them? And how can you ensure that it achieves its full potential? I would ask you to consider the following points: –

  • Ensure that you have enough feedback from the market to know what is going on in it and the trends that are developing. This doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of expensive market research. But most businesses have some form of sales function, which is out and about in the market; so listen to it. Similarly listen to suppliers. Read the trade press; attend trade shows and exhibitions. And network; keep talking to people at all levels and in all sectors of your market. Then bring together appropriate groups of your own employees, at regular intervals, and maybe invite an outsider or two, with relevant experience; throw everything into the pot and then distil out the facts from the fiction.
  • Make sure that your business is responding appropriately to the facts i.e. the changes in the market that are definitely happening; but maintain a watching brief on the fiction until it is either confirmed as a fact or is dismissed as being incorrect.
  • Be totally objective and non-partisan about the competitive advantages that your business has in the market place. How real are they? How important are they to your customers? How does each competitive advantage, you have, rank against those of your competitors? In each case, are you gaining ground or losing ground? Are some of the competitive advantages that you have declining in importance in the market place? Are you developing competitive advantages that are increasingly important to the market? Do the competitive advantages you have cover a broad enough spectrum or are they too narrow? Are you developing new competitive advantages that expose weaknesses in your competitors? If you have the answers to these questions and others like them, you can begin to understand the direction, in which your business needs to go.
  • Develop, a “Business Improvement Plan”. This should have short, medium and long term goals. The medium term goals should move the business in the direction of the long term goals and the short term goals should move it towards the medium term goals. It doesn’t matter how strong and successful your business may be, there isn’t a business in existence that couldn’t do better somewhere or somehow. And a business improvement plan is a template that will under pin progress. However, a business improvement plan needs to be dynamic; and if market conditions change or the business’s circumstances change, the plan must be adapted accordingly. Moreover, the plan should, at all times, guide the decision making process so that the business is heading resolutely towards the achievement of its various goals and milestones.
  • When things don’t go according to plan, as so often happens, face up to it sooner rather than later. CEOs, owner managers and directors all tend to put a lot of personal kudos behind the various strategies they implement; and it can sometimes be very hard to accept that you’ve got it wrong. I’m not suggesting that you should change course every time there is a hiccup but, as patterns start to emerge, don’t allow yourself to start tilting at windmills; if you do, your business will soon be on the slippery slope. When things start to go wrong, the sooner you act, the more options you have, on which to base a recovery and the more likely you are to turn the position around.
  • Think very hard about the resources and experience you really need; and don’t penny pinch. This is particularly relevant to owner managers, who all too often spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar. However, don’t be over ambitious with your objectives and ensure that they are within your ability to resource.
  • Bring in external help and support to plug the experience and skill gaps that your business inevitably has.

The seventh point is probably the most critical because it is fundamental to the achievement of the first six.

For most SMEs, external help and support can probably be split into three types, namely: –

  • The outsourcing of specific services
  • Mentoring, coaching and training
  • Business advice and support

The outsourcing of services refers to such things as IT, HR, Health & Safety. In some cases, it may also include operational activities such as logistics.

There are arguments for and against outsourcing of this type; and there isn’t a “one size fits all” answer. But most businesses, in this day and age need efficient IT systems, good HR management and a keen focus on health and safety. But smaller businesses often struggle with the half person syndrome, where they can’t really justify a full time person; so outsourcing may be the answer, particularly if it can provide a much broader base of skill and experience. What is crucial is that these services are comprehensive, appropriate, efficient and cost effective. And my advice is to be open minded and objective about how this is achieved.

Mentoring, coaching and training are often overlooked by SMEs because they can’t afford them and they’re “nice to haves” not “need to haves”. However, as you build the skill sets within your business over those of your competitors, you increase your competitive advantage; and the bigger the gap in skill sets that you can create, the bigger the competitive advantage you develop. Many owner managers accept the need for staff training but relatively few think about their own training and development. Yet, this is actually at least as important, and probably more so, because the consequences of their decisions and leadership are likely to be much more profound than those of their employees. More owner managers are now beginning to engage business coaches and mentors to help them develop their own skills and competencies; and most who do acknowledge that it helps them enormously and adds real value to their businesses. However, if this is the case, the gap between the coached and the uncoached will open up giving an increasing competitive advantage to the coached. So like it or not, the pressure on owner managers to “up their game” is now increasing.

Business advice and support can be achieved through the engagement of non- executive directors, management consultants or a combination of both. The difference between this type of service and that delivered through coaches and mentors is that business advice deals with the development of strategies and processes for the business, whereas coaching is concerned with the development of the individual director or owner manager.

Businesses that are institutionally or corporately owned are monitored, supported and evaluated, in many different ways, by external shareholders. Wider external skills and experience are available by default, as is a significant degree of objectivity. Pressure can also be brought to bear on CEOs and management teams to address weaknesses and threats. None of this is true for most owner managed businesses; and it can undoubtedly give institutionally and corporately owned businesses a significant competitive advantage over them.

It is for this reason, that owner managed business should at least consider the engagement of some form of external support, of which there are probably three different types.

The first is regular advisory input to develop strategies, structures and processes; to monitor performance, identify threats and opportunities; and to provide general advice across a wide range of business and management issues. This type of advice will draw on broad based experience that is gained predominantly from outside the business concerned. It will be more objective and will act as a balance against the more subjective, more intense but narrower field of experience that exists within the business. If structured correctly, this will deliver more robust strategies, stronger financial performance, improved competitive advantage and greater long term sustainability. A good non-executive director or a competent business advisor should be able to provide this type of service on the basis of a few days per month; so the cost does not have to be high and the potential advantages are substantial.

The second is project based consultancy. This is where a business may have a particular problem or issue or wish to develop an opportunity that has arisen. There may be insufficient skills or resources to tackle whatever it is; so outside help is required. In these circumstances, the choice of consultant will be determined, to a very large extent, by the nature of the issue involved. A production related issue will require appropriate production skills and experience; a logistics issue will require appropriate logistics skills and experience; and so on.

The third is where the business is under performing and facing an increasing risk to its long term sustainability. Unfortunately, this is a far more common problem than many of us would wish and, in far too many cases, is not being addressed. Under these circumstances, a consultant would undertake a full review of the business, identify, quantify and qualify the threats and weaknesses and develop strategies designed to address those strengths and weaknesses, as well as strengthen the business’s competitive advantage. In many instances, consultants will also be able to help manage the implementation of the change programme.

In practice, a business review of an underperforming business or a project based consultancy may be undertaken on the recommendation of a non-executive director or business advisor. Similarly a project based consultancy, the appointment of a non-executive director, the engagement of a business coach etc. could be an outcome of a business review. So all of these means of help and support can be interlinked to produce the desired outcome. But this is where, for many owner managers, things can become confusing and appear to have the potential to run away with the cash. So I’d like to finish this article with a few words about how to select the support you need and how to keep control.

If your business is performing well, you’ve been growing and developing it successfully, you have good market feedback, you’re developing strategies to address market change and exploit market opportunities, then you have a great business model. So whatever you are doing doesn’t need fixing; just carry on and don’t be tempted to hire people that can’t add any more value. However, if you’re in this position, you’re almost certainly amongst a fairly small minority.

If, on the other hand, you could, with the right kind of support, build a stronger and more successful business or turnaround an underperforming business, then you would be well advised to consider the type of support you need.

Is there a particular part of the business that is weak and letting down an otherwise strong organisation? If so look for expert help in that area and bring it in.

If you personally feel out of your depth and are struggling, then perhaps some form of business coaching or mentoring would help. Or perhaps you should engage a business advisor or non-executive director to provide advice, act as a sounding board and oil the decision making process.

If the business is struggling strategically or operationally, perhaps a business review would help give it some direction and focus, particularly if this was followed up with the development of a business improvement plan.

However, the problem for many owner managers is that they know that they need some support but find it difficult to establish what kind of support would be best for them. If this is the case, a business review can be very useful because, it will take an objective view of the business, including the role and contribution of the owner manager. And one of the outcomes should be the type of support, from which the owner manager would benefit.

So in essence, if you’re clear about the type of support you need, go for it; if you’re not, consider an external business review and let that guide you.

However, whatever type of support you require, remember that you are searching in an unregulated market. There are some excellent practitioners, who will be able to help you but there are also some not so good ones. So do a proper search, make sure that the people or firms, you select, have the appropriate experience and track record; and it’s usually best if they have, at least, some knowledge and experience of your industry sector.

Finally, fees are normally based on daily rates plus expenses. What is important isn’t the daily rate; it is the added value in relation to the total cost of the service. If one consultant charges half the fee of another but takes three times as long to deliver and creates only half the added value, he/she will have ended up charging more money for a lesser result, even though the daily rate was much lower. It’s a bit of a minefield and, within reason, its best to make a judgement based on your confidence in the consultant to deliver the outcome you want, for a cost that is acceptable, rather than the headline daily rate.

I hope that you’ve found this article useful; and I’ll be pleased to discuss my own consultancy services with you at any time.