Friday, June 3, 2011

Grow Your Practice by Understanding the Altitude of Growth

What business leaders can learn from pilots.

By Travis Dommert

What does your professional practice have in common with an airplane in flight?  A lot.  Both require careful and seasoned stewardship to stay aloft.  Both yield catastrophic consequences if they fall.  As professional advisors, consider these lessons we can learn from pilots and take action to make sure your practice isn’t losing altitude.

Part 1.  Gravity and drag…24/7

An airplane in level flight is a contradiction in terms.  Every second an airplane is in the air, it is in a fight to stay aloft.  Thousands of pounds of metal and wire are summoned to earth relentlessly by gravity, and drag pulls it backwards with every passing moment. 

The blessing, if there is one, is that pilots and engineers know this to be true.  The entire airplane was specially designed to maximize lift and minimize drag.  And, the pilots are trained repeatedly on the dangers that lurk below if they take their attention away from fighting gravity and drag.  They could lose their lives and those of their passengers and crew.  Shutting off the engines while they take a break or tend to other matters isn’t just dangerous, it’s idiotic.  Who would do that?

Well, how about us?  As professional services providers, do we ever idle our business development engines because “more pressing matters” are at hand?  If you are an accountant, do you really do a lot of selling during tax season?  If you are a consultant or attorney, do you really maintain all your sales and marketing activities after you land a big engagement or client? 

Hmm.  Should you be surprised that you have lost altitude the next time you get back into the market?  Probably not.  The fact is, your practice is under the same perpetual forces as the plane.  Client relationships that go unnourished fade and die.  Merely satisfied clients are the next to leave.  Competitors and new entrants are constantly looking for a bite out of your book of business.

So what do you do about it?

First, acknowledge these facts.  Just to maintain your practice revenues, you must constantly work to grow your business.  Sales and marketing aren’t for the good times or the slow times, they are for all the time.  You can’t afford a week to go by without sales and marketing activity.  Every week.  And, if you don’t have a dedicated business development team (frankly, even if you do), then YOU must be doing some of this work every week.

The exact prescription depends on your practice, but as a rule of thumb, think about what effort it would take to grow your professional practice revenues by 10%.  How many new clients, accounts, or sales would that be?  What does the prospect pipeline and business development cycle look like in reverse?  To yield a 10% gain, what recurring actions would you have to do each and every week?  Lead generation, prospect contacts, business development and client cultivation meetings, presentations, pitches, proposals, assessments, follow-up calls, touch-points, recommendations.  THAT is what you probably need to do just to stay even.

Think you can take the tax season off while you prepare returns?  No.  Think you can stop pursuing new client relationships while you work on the one you have?  No.  It won’t work.  You will be losing altitude.  And the scary thing about losing altitude is that you don’t even feel it.  Pull up and you’ll feel it in your gut; coast gradually into the side of a mountain and you may even enjoy the flight…until you notice what’s happened.

Don’t let this happen to you.  Don’t idle your engines.  Take time, even in the busiest of times, to sell.  Get focused on a few key recurring business development actions.  Keep track.  And, with a little luck you can smooth the ups and downs from your business cycle, gain ground from one season or project to the next, and stop scaring the passengers each time you go dashing back to the cockpit.

Part 2.  Reading your instruments.

We already talked about the fact that you can’t trust your gut instinct when flying an airplane.  A steady descent feels just fine, as does a slow turn or a gentle roll.  Pilots know that they are safer flying with no visibility and quality flight instruments than with blue sky and no instruments. 

With a half dozen gauges, they know the attitude of the airplane relative to the horizon, the speed through the air, the rate of climb or descent, the amount of fuel remaining, and the finer points regarding direction.

The question is—can you run your business or professional practice using your gut?  Many people seem to think so.  Or worse, whether they think so or not, they tend to do so because they don’t have any instruments.  Are you smarter than a pilot or just less attuned the perils of losing altitude? 

Okay, maybe both, but our pilot friends are generally a pretty smart bunch.  They know that a plane falling from the sky is bad.  A plane running out of gas is bad.  A plane flying at an unsustainable rate of climb or descent is bad.  They know exactly how bad, and they know how to make changes to sustain the delicate balance that is flight.

So what does this mean to you?  Well, for one thing, if you don’t have them already, develop a set of quality instruments.  Whether you call these key performance indicators (KPI’s) metrics, analytics, or just your rules of thumb, figure out the handful of measures that indicate that business is coming in the door (remember—if you aren’t gaining new business, you are losing altitude).  Figure out how much gas is in the tank (working capital, credit).  Assess the attitude of your operation—are clients and colleagues happy or under distress?

Then, once you understand your instruments, identify several key actions that keep them in a healthy state of operation.  What activity is required on a weekly basis to keep business coming in, keep colleagues engaged, keep service levels high, keep quality in check, and keep the tanks from running dry?  Delegate these actions to the appropriate team members and hold them accountable for making time each week for getting them done.

If you don’t undertake these actions, then don’t be surprised when the next time you consult your instruments, one or more of them signals trouble.

Travis Dommert is the Chief Operating Officer at two companies in the area of human performance and HR solutions, IRUNURUN LLC and The Lindquist Group.

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