This project was developed to help the leadership training consultancy firm May & Company achieve its 2020 revenue growth goal of 500%, from the current 2 million dollars yearly mark to 10 million dollars, with a focus on resource-efficiency. May & Company was founded 10 years ago, in Berlin, by its CEO Susanne May, a former senior Daimler executive. The company has a presence in 40 countries and leverages a network of 150 coaches, has catered to clients in a diversity of industries and in the private and public sector, and desires to be recognized as a holistic provider of solutions in leadership training.
Informed by literature in strategic entrepreneurship (Barney 1995; Bhide 1999), operations management (Cachon and Terwiesch 2008), sales management (Aileron 2013), and marketing management (Kotler and Keller 2016), the starting point for the analysis was to understand how the company's value proposition is unique, how the differentiators that make the value proposition unique are currently communicated to prospective clients, and how the firm operates from a sales and marketing standpoint Our priority was to assess transparency, clarity, efficiency, and process scalability. Our main findings can be summarized as follows, with critical pain points marked with capital letters for further reference and listing.
The company prides itself in high customer retention rates, superior intellectual quality, high levels of agility and personalization in comparison to top-ranking competitors, and a lower price point. None of these points, however, are clearly expressed in the company's website, and there are no tools in place to showcase the firm's uniqueness or claim thought-leadership (A), such as blog, LinkedIn, newsletter or magazine articles.
There is no structured information management in the company. Historical records on past sales efforts exist almost exclusively in Susanne May's memory. This does not allow for smooth onboarding of new potential sales partners (B), who would require the CEO's attention prior to reaching out to each client. It also does not generate data that allow for measuring and setting sales process performance goals or revenue forecasts (C).
Lastly, client outreach for the private sector is done almost solely through Susanne May's personal network (D). There is no continuous industry trends assessment (E) that would inform her or the sales team of potential opportunities outside of their current networks.
To treat pain points (A) throught (E), we assessed a number of marketing and sales management strategies, focusing on low to no budget solutions.
Following advice from the Forbes Coaches Council (2018), we proposed a new website architecture and design that communicates clearly the company's differentiation factors (A) and generates valuable data (C) from potential customer interactions (E). The product was a complete, detailed design and architecture proposal for a new website.
Drawing from literature on thought-leadership as a brand management tool (Groves 2018) we also proposed the creation of periodic newsletters with targeted content (D), with the purpose of increasing public awareness of May & Company's superior intellectual quality and high level of expertise (A) while also generating valuable data on customer preferences (C). The product was a newsletter prototype with a detailed implementation proposal.
Inspired by Holmes (2007), a book recommended by Susanne May herself as inspiration for this project, we also proposed the creation of short, free workshop sessions in up to 10 cities that are global startup hotspots, also in order to reflect May & Company's uniqueness (A) while presenting the firm to a new and wider audience around the globe (E). The product was the assessment of 10 cities where to host the workshop and 15 invitees per city.
In spite of a general academic and managerial consensus on the importance of CRM systems as a strategic imperative, the effectiveness of its implementation seems to vary across and between organizations (Bohling et al. 2006). May & Company had recently created accounts for Hubspot, a powerful, free CRM tool, but had not implemented its use. After evaluating the tool's capabilities, it became clear that designing and ensuring adoption of processes for contact and deal management throughout the sales funnel would allow for less senior sales partners to easily assess customer history (B) while also generating invaluable information on potential revenue curve or sales partner productivity and activity (C). The final product was a complete process design with step-by-step guides for use of the CRM tool.
Finally, to generate a pro-active routine of market trends assessment and potential for new client outreach (D, E), we assessed the leadership training needs of 55 global companies, ranked by fit with May & Company's strategy and value proposition. As shown in Guenzi & Troilo (2007), the market learning capability is crucial to a company's ability of generating value. The final product was a summary outreach strategies and contacts for an initial list of 55 companies, and a step-by-step process on how to expand on it continuously.
2. Critical Assessment of Project
As previously shown, the project aimed to help May & Company achieve its goal of increasing yearly revenues in 500% in two years without expanding its core team. Our analysis pointed to a way towards this objective through the increase of marketing and sales efficiency via the adoption of new processes and tools for client outreach and information management.
As we approached marketing strategies and processes, our recommendations followed on three different pathways: (i) content marketing as a way of expressing thought leadership (see Jevons & al. 2013 for an introductory discussion on thought leadership in brand management; also Jutkowitz 2014); (ii) creating sales management and marketing processes in order to increase efficiency and allow future scalability; and (iii) implementing information management systems that allow for storage of relevant market research and past customer interaction history, as well as performance measurement of marketing campaigns and sales efforts. Each of these areas of focus present challenges and concerns regarding future efficacy, which can be summarized as follows.
(i) The main assumption behind suggestions connected to the idea of expressing thought leadership through content marketing—newsletter articles and workshops—is that there is valuable content being continuously generated thorough May & Company's past and current projects. While there may certainly exist a number of unique insights that can be leveraged in short stories, the quality and amount available is unknown and will be assessed by the company and only post-implementation of recommended content generation processes.
(ii) A typical concern with projects that deliver process recommendations instead of a clear product is that results will not be perceived without due implementation. Muthulingam & al. (2010) have found that three main decision biases stop managers from implementing process improvements: overall myopia about benefits; considering costs instead of net benefits; and opting for the recommendations that are presented first. According to Bohling & al. (2006), many firms are not successful in CRM implementation, a project that “rests on successful cross-functional integration of processes, people, operations, and marketing capabilities” (p. 185), due to low levels of awareness of the tool's strategic impact by top-management (p. 187). A stronger perception by top-management of the tool as “a way of life, critical” is associated with greater perceived success of CRM implementation projects, while leadership of these initiatives by lower or middle-level management are bound to fail (pp. 187-188). While the aim of the project is to clearly express the benefits of CRM implementation and feasibility of immediate use by current sales team and Susanne May herself, it remains her responsibility to ensure coordination among marketing and sales teams and discipline in the new process adoption.
(iii) In regard to information management systems, there are concerns that are added to the adoption issues listed in the previous paragraph, particularly relating to three key points: data privacy, data sample sizes and team capabilities and training in web and data analytics. Obtaining consent for data collection and inclusion in mailing lists is a crucial step towards being able to send newsletter campaigns. As May & Company has not a process in place for sending out digital marketing content to its client list, General Data Protection Regulation—GDPR compliance would require the firm to send out an email to every client requiring a confirmation on setting updates that allow data collection and confirms newsletter subscription. Consent rates, however, can vary up to 50% depending on opt-in language or even the time of the day in which the email is sent. Low consent rates will significantly diminish the success of a content marketing initiative based on newsletters, which brings to the second concern of data sample sizes. Currently, the company's contact list is comprised of about 2000 listed phone numbers or emails, among which are duplicates and poor-quality data entries. While this is a relevant sample size in total, it remains to be seen if newsletter click-rates and website visits will generate enough traffic in order to provide reliable insights on consumer preferences; there is also the final concern of adequate data analytics training for the marketing person responsible for evaluating and acting on such insights.
Considering that top-level management enthusiasm, commitment, and support for process improvement initiatives is a key success factor in their implementation (Stelzer & Mellis 1999; Muthulingam & al. 2010) an approach to the project's management that should have been more carefully considered would have been to have more actively involved Susanne May in the construction of our analysis and proposal. This was constrained by the project management structure laid out for the project, which included a project manager on May & Company's side that would act as focal point for all communications with the CEO and founder, and also by her own schedule. While we have obtained excitement and validation of our proposals from the middle management and project management team at May & Company, formal involvement of Susanne May in scheduled milestone report presentations could have increased even further Susanne May's perception of value in strictly committing to the project's findings and recommendations.
Due to a necessary limitation in the project's scope, restricted not only by its time-frame but also by the client's team availability, there were a number of additional efforts that would have been desirable but have not been implemented. While we strived to create process maps, step-by-step guides and prototypes for all of our recommendations, we did not run process trials with the team, assigning employees tasks within real company activities that would require going through the new processes. Still reverting to the research in Stelzer & Mellis (1999), while “providing enhanced understanding” of the new process is ranked third in the list of most relevant success factors for process improvement implementations, mentioned by an average of 80% of survey respondents, “staff involvement” still ranks as the second most relevant success factor, with an average of 84% mentions. Greater staff involvement in trial runs would have allowed for better and more targeted recommendations and higher understanding of the collaborative nature of the improvements we suggested by each member of May & Company's team, particularly concerning marketing and business development integration.
A main concern with the project's conclusion is that it did not map or set targets for key performance indicators that would measure the success of each recommendation and its contribution to the company's bottom line. The absence of previous processes, historical records and consistent performance analysis of past efforts would make short-run goal-setting an exercise in divination. Therefore, the assessment of potential for improved performance arising from the implementations of the recommendations in this project originates from a strictly conceptual analysis. As per Goldenson & Herbsleb (1995), Bohling & al. (2006) and others, the ability to clearly measure outcomes and monitor progress and improvement goals is a critical success factor for CRM or any process improvement implementation. While some linkage may be clear with each initiative, the scope of feasible goals remains unclear and was not treated within this project.
3. Generalizability of the Project Findings
The project set out on a journey of discovery of what low-cost measures could a leadership training company with a team of full and part-time employees of only 10 people could implement to achieve 500% growth revenue in two years. Our findings, as previously discussed, pointed towards increasing sales and marketing efficiency through better information management, client outreach processes, and establishing thought-leadership through content creation.
The company's 2020 goals of “ten people, ten million dollars” were originally inspired by Pofeldt (2018). In “The Million-dollar, One-person Business: Make Great Money. Work the Way You Like. Have the Life You Want”, the author researches several solopreneurs—one-person businesses—that have reached the one-million-dollar yearly revenue mark. Among the author's main conclusions is the fact that these entrepreneurs focus heavily on automation and in properly delegating activities to their network of freelancers in order to focus in the core aspects of managing and growing their businesses, as well as leveraging digital services and marketing strategies in order to improve and broaden client reach (Taylor 2018).
Our project outcomes are in line with these empirical findings that are more broadly applied to small companies worldwide, and also suggest that May & Company, an enterprise that in many ways is still a one-woman show, develops into a stronger and independent supporting system for the business, as Susanne May finds more time to dedicate herself to cultivating a thought-leadership position among key players and potential customers in the European private sector, through the creation of valuable content and promotion of what Susanne May believes is May & Company's superior intellectual quality.
The concept of storytelling and content marketing as a tool for achieving brand leadership is well established in marketing management literature (Kotler & Keller 2016). Drawing from Hutchins & Rodriguez (2018), the applicability of content marketing as a strategy for brand equity improvement in a B2B environment calls for further empirical research, but a conceptual approach suggests that content marketing is a driver of competitive advantage also in that segment. Kotler & Keller (2016) also point to product or service trials and digital marketing strategies as paramount branding guidelines for small businesses in general, reinforcing the applicability of our recommendations in these cases.
On the other hand, customer insight is the most powerful tool for any company to create value and innovate, and leveraging data is key in being able to discover and act on these insights (Sawhney & Khosla 2014). These are canonical marketing concepts that are applicable to any industry, company size or region, and reinforce the project's efforts towards emphasizing customer information management and customer outreach through tools that provide data analytics on customer behavior and preferences.
May & Company's business model is highly dependent on flexible labor laws that allow for part-time employment and smooth onboarding of freelancers. In this sense, many of the core assumptions of the project, in particularly those related to scaling the sales force, are only functional in countries and regions where home-office is clearly regulated, and third-party contracting is allowed for a broad range of activities, including those related to the core services and products provided by the company. The company's 500% revenue growth target in a two-year timeframe would likely not be sustainable if the company effectively employed the coaches that currently are part of its partner network.
In sum, this project is particularly applicable to service providers that are either solo entrepreneurs aiming for high revenues and lean startups that rely on a network of third-party collaborators to scale their production. For any CEO, the key lessons from this project are that treating storytelling as a service is key in marketing and brand management strategies in the digital age, and that information management and clear process designs are at the core of both efficiency and scalability.
As I was personally invited by Susanne May to conduct this consulting project for May & Company, I had the opportunity to define the initial criteria for building the project's team. My primary focus was to have a diversity of skills that would follow up on the framework of the CliftonStrengths Domains (see Rath 2017), balancing talents in order to create a stronger and more effective whole. The final team composition was as follows (each point corresponds to a team member that has strengths in each of the domains):
Strategic thinking Executing Influencing Relationship Building
3 2 3 3
The high level of balance within our team has proved to be positive as we were able to rely on a varied pool of skills throughout the project conception, execution through tight time-frames, presenting results to a variety of stakeholders, and leveraging the project as an opportunity to create stronger relationships. It is interesting to reinforce that no single team member had their top five strengths falling into more than three domains, and three members had over half of their top strengths falling in a single domain.
Drawing also on the benefits of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator—MBTI® tools for understanding preferences within our team (Hirsh, Hirsh, & Hirsh 2003) our combined team personality was ENTP (Extrovert, Intuition, Thinking, Perceiving). This result was clearly expressed in the energetic, optimistic, self-motivated and can-do attitude of the team as a whole, and also in the team's mild reluctance in prioritizing, showing restraint and embracing necessary exclusions of scope.
Finally, the team composition was diverse both in demographic and professional experience aspects. Among the 5 team members, we were two women and three men and brought perspectives from India, the USA, Latin America, Western Europe and South-East Asia, with ages ranging from the youngest (25 years old) to close to oldest (35) in our MBA class. Within the team, our combined expertise encompassed business modelling, process design, financial and strategic analysis, technology analysis and implementation, human resources onboarding and training, and entrepreneurship in the education sector.
Our team motivation strategy drew from Douglas McGregor's notion of Theory Y, in which it is assumed that team members will seek responsibility if motivated “through participative decision making, challenging work, and good group relations” (Robbins & Judge 2016, p. 129). As team leader and drawing from my previous experience in cross-organizational project management, I aimed to contribute to the team's motivation through goal setting (p. 134), by establishing an agile project management methodology with consensually defined tasks and deadlines attributed to each member, project managers on both ESMT and the client's side, weekly update meetings, and a set of tools for project controlling (Asana) and communications (Slack). The project was divided in three milestones, each with its respective deliverable, in order to promote a relationship of continuous feedback with the client. My leadership behavior falls clearly in line with the initiating structure dimension, that is, organizing “work, work relationships, and goals,” while the consideration dimension—approachability and showing appreciation—is an aspect in which I am not as strong.
Another motivational advantage of structured project management was that it allowed flexible work hours and telecommuting (pp. 152-153), combined with remote and face-to-face internal and meetings, the need for each defined according to the level of richness—complexity and room for ambiguity—of each required communication (pp. 170-171).
We drew from both a motivational (p. 129) and an effectiveness (p. 208) focus in opting for group decision-making, with a preference for accuracy, creativity and acceptance of final solutions instead of speed. In order to minimize a tendency to assign tasks according to requirements and contribute to the team's learning curve and enjoyment of the project, which is particularly salient in my own leadership style, team members chose the tasks they would spearhead according to their own interests—whether those were leveraging on their previous experience or learning something new.
Victor Vroom's expectancy theory (p. 143) may also have played a role in motivating individual performance, as Susanne May is recognized in ESMT's community as someone with a broad professional network that she will share with MBA candidates if she can trust them. The possibility of not only succeeding in the project but also in impressing Susanne May and thus obtaining her personal recommendation for interesting job positions may have closed the gap between the performance-rewards and rewards-personal goals relationships.
Considering communication skills, I have contributed to the team through continuously striving for clarity, both internally and externally, and directing discussions towards its final goals. Protocols of meetings and internal activities of the team were set in a project management board that was shared with the client, ensuring complete transparency and thus minimizing grounds for misunderstandings. However, a downside of the option for working with flexibility and telecommuting was that a few times, routine communications through messaging tools were too lean (p. 170), and thus not effective, being either lost to some members of the team or the client or remaining ambiguous or inconclusive. As a self-reflection, I may add to this analysis that the aspect I struggle the most to balance in my communication style is to allow more time for different opinions to arise and manifest, as my inclination is always to efficiently reach closure for every topic.
My previous experience in project management also helped in negotiations with both internal and external stakeholders, regarding expectation management, ensuring quality levels, and aligning the client's needs and wants with the team's. Particularly in this last case, there were two stakeholder levels on the client's side to be managed: the project manager and the CEO/founder. The project manager at May & Company was the business development manager and saw great value in process improvement implementation plans, particularly those coupled with information management initiatives. The CEO and founder, however, had a more urgent approach and aimed for straight revenue growth—for instance, through direct client acquisition by the consulting project team. Finally, the consulting project team aimed to deliver a project that would have long-term meaning and a sustainable impact. Through empowering May & Company's project manager with analyses supporting our proposals, while also incorporating many of his suggestions into the project, I was able to ultimately communicate the value of our project scope to Susanne May and obtain her go-ahead for our process improvements focus. Striving to balance Susanne May's needs and to have more immediate impact in May & Company's bottom line, we created one pitch that also helped us understand the pitch-creation process, and a list of suggested outreach strategies for 55 potential clients—accompanied by a monthly step-by-step industry trends assessment process inspired by our own methods while creating the list.
While the project ran quite conflict-free, especially due to the choice for group decision-making, my approach to the minor cases in which conflict resolution was required was to remain goal-oriented and analytical. Concerns were dealt with directly and in a constructive way; a chief example is the fact that our original methodology rested on analyzing May & Company's deal history in order to understand market receptiveness of their solutions, an idea that crumbled as we quickly realized they had no structured information management system on past or current customer relations. The response to this challenge was to incorporate improvements in information management into the scope of the project.
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