"Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to make something simple." – Richard Branson
I've been in the "real" workforce for 11 years (I turned 32 this past April). I took a sales job at a small print distributor after college. I had no sales training or experience. I've always wanted the flexibility that comes with owning my own business and thought that working for a small business would give me the hands-on experience needed to start my own company someday.
I quickly learned that our company's value proposition was weak and would not hold up against our competition. Our company did not have solid long-term strategies. How was our company going to help clients make more money? How would we differentiate ourselves from the thousands of other companies in the print industry?
I felt that to succeed at my job (i.e. bring in lots of new clients), I needed to infuse technology into our company. I spent two months interviewing print buyers at companies that bought a significant amount of print.
I scheduled a meeting with the two owners of my company to talk about changing the company's business model. The meeting went well. I facilitated a conversation using five strategies I learned at Sonoma State (where I participated in major campus clubs and organizations, serving as president and in several other leadership positions). Those strategies were as follows:
1. Know your end goal. Is it to build understanding, create new processes or to make a critical decision about the future of the business?
2. Invite the right people. Bring together a diverse group of people who provide unique perspectives on all aspects of the business. Don't downplay the value of having representation from each department. If you are talking about marketing, a colleague in accounting might be able to provide time-tracking process ideas.
3. Make it visual. Visuals are often much more effective than words to communicate the problem.
4. Create the right environment. Conversations in a successful meeting are engaging and focused. Positive interaction supports the best work and promotes unity. Create a meeting environment (whether remote or in-person) that encourages conversation. I have learned that fast Internet connection, good phone services, fresh air, natural light and organized materials are important. The small stuff matters.
5. Keep it simple. As Shakespeare said: "Brevity is the soul of wit."
I spent the next 12 months helping design and build our print storefront. Once our computer system was ready for operation, we stopped selling print and started selling an online buying solution — and it brought in $10 million of new business in seven years. How did I do it?
I had strategic conversations with buyers at companies that spent a lot of money on print and
had complex buying needs. I kept the conversations and communication simple. I would ask a
prospect questions about his or her current buying environment, technology needs and goals around increased labor efficiency and product cost savings. I listened and uncovered the buyer's real needs. Then I clearly showed and explained how our technology would solve each need and how it would provide additional value above and beyond what our client thought possible. All my communication was simple. The buyer never had to interpret or analyze what I said or how it would help them. My emails were short — about two to four sentences. If I needed to prepare a proposal, it had very few words and lots of visuals.
My company sold to The Sourcing Group (TSG) in May 2013. I’m the chief growth officer at TSG, and I continue to facilitate strategic conversations. If I keep it simple and clear, the conversations work.
Sarah Scudder is the chief growth officer of The Sourcing Group.