Grow Your Business

Confessions of a change agent: How I get Fortune 500 companies out of their ruts

It all began over lunch with the CEO.

His business provides financial services to help companies expand internationally. (Picture things like setting up a business in a new country, paying those employees, and staying compliant with local laws and taxes, etc.) But it wasn’t going well.

From the second he walked in I could tell something was wrong. He looked stressed, tired, and well, beaten. Over some calamari, he confessed to me:

“Things just aren’t going like I thought they would. I mean, everything’s ‘fine,’ but it’s not how I always imagined running this business would be. We’re doing well, but I know this could be different. I know we could grow faster. I know we could move quicker. I know I could enjoy this more than I am.”

By the end of the lunch we had mapped out a plan. Then executed it over the next few months. And I don’t say this lightly, but this completely transformed the business. The business results transformed. His team transformed. And he had personally transformed. (If you’ve ever watched Happy Gilmore, it was like he’d refound his happy place.)

Now the company is on course to double in size over the next three years. This may not seem like a lot to those used to reading Silicon Valley vanity metrics like “unique visits” — but this will be worth approximately $500 million extra revenue each year.

Everyone gets stuck. EVERYONE.

Getting “stuck” is a pain that almost every entrepreneur can relate to. You wake up feeling sluggish. You stare blankly at your screen forcing yourself to do something. Nothing clicks. Nothing flows. You feel more and more stressed out, frustrated that you’re procrastinating so much. You know you need to change, but how?

I help ambitious leaders grow businesses intelligently. And in my experience helping Fortune 500 brands and fast-growing startups turn things around, one surprising thing stands out: Everyone, at every level, gets stuck from time to time. The difference is what they do about it. So in this article, I’ll take you through what the pros do at the highest levels to break through. We’ll cover a step-by-step approach so that you can see through the fog and start realizing your business potential.

Now, I should say this up-front: leading through change isn’t for beginners. Having the courage to make tough decisions like scrapping products, letting people go, or changing your own behavior isn’t for everyone. But it’s what makes the difference between good and great. What we’re going to cover is a battle-hardened methodology that looks like this:

Part 1 — Regaining your clarity of purpose

Part 2 — Conducting customer research

Part 3 — Breaking and remaking your business

Part 4 — (Quickly) turning ideas into action

Part 1 — Regaining your clarity of purpose

Looking inside a space ship

Illustration: Tara Jacoby

CEOs and entrepreneurs at all levels get stuck for one reason: they lose their clarity of purpose and get overwhelmed. If you feel this way, you need to get back to basics.

This is exactly what the financial services CEO and his top team were struggling with. Their business had grown quickly and they’d been finding quick, day-to-day fixes to get by. This complexity meant they were always firefighting, never really clear about what big, strategic decisions to make and why. This had to change to take things to the next level.

Find your path

To regain their “Why,” we started by getting the top team together in a room at a nice hotel overlooking the River Thames in London. You don’t need to do anything fancy like this, the point is a change of scene helps you gain a different perspective. We locked the door and blocked out the afternoon to get a brutally honest look at what wasn’t working, why, and what success looked like. Basic stuff, but something they just weren’t clear about.

To kick things off, I probed them with some challenging questions like, “Let’s imagine we were, say, here in six months, what has to change for you to feel like you’re making real progress?” and “What does success truly look like to you — in your business and in your life?” This helped the team to cut the shit and get real.

One by one the team opened up about what was wrong, and rather than being defeatist, spoke passionately about their love for the company and where they wanted to steer it. We captured all of this on the walls, Post-its, and notebooks. Then we took photos of everything and shared it with everyone to mull over for the next week.

The following week we did the same. This time at their offices, in their environment. I challenged them again with difficult questions like:

“How do you aspire to be seen by your customers?”
“Why does this matter to you?”

And the Peter Thiel question, “How could you achieve your 10-year goals in the next 6 months?”

We poked at the ideas from the two sessions. Had they really expressed why they needed to change and what that looked like? Or had they just said some “stuff” that didn’t really excite them? Finally, we refined this into a single aspirational statement — the new “Why” for their company.

What difference does this make? Well, I used to be cynical about “vision” and “purpose” too. It sounded fluffy and a bit kumbaya. Then I saw the impact it can have on people.

For instance, this is General Motors’ vision statement: “To become the world’s most valued automotive company” Zzzzzz…

Now here’s Tesla’s: “To create the most compelling car company of the 21st century by driving the world’s transition to electric vehicles.”

Which one would you work for? Which would you rally behind? Which is vague, bland and corporate…and which is crystal clear and undeniably audacious?

Regaining their clarity of purpose helped them find their focus. A purpose gives each company something to check against when making choices. The CEO came out of the second session visibly excited about the future. He was literally shaking. And they now had a clear direction about where they wanted to go. And had the courage to see it through. It gave them their “Why.”

How to do it yourself

I’m going to assume you’ve got a small team. But you can also use this if you’re a solopreneur (obviously just ignore the group steps).

The most effective way I’ve found to help entrepreneurs and teams find their focus is by running workshops with their teams. What you want to get out of your workshop is a clear vision and the right values to make it happen.

Your vision is what you’re aiming for. Your values are the specific behaviors you want to live by to achieve this. For instance, one of Google’s values is “You can be serious without a suit.” That shapes their culture and how they operate. One of IKEA’s values is “Cost-consciousness.” That shapes their pricing, positioning, and approach to products. You don’t want your business to be like anyone else’s, so here’s your chance to stamp your unique take on the world on your company.

Here are the steps to do this:

1. Find the right location

You know that friend who went off traveling to “find themselves” at some sunny, far-off location that you’ll see on Instagram? Well, there may be some logic to it. You see, when we go somewhere new we don’t have the same thoughts and associations, so we’re able to make new connections and explore things differently. That’s why corporations spend billions every year on company retreats and getaways.

Of course, you don’t have to do this. This isn’t some spiritual retreat. You don’t have to spend a fortune — or anything at all. The key is to find: a) somewhere new, b) somewhere you won’t get distracted.

You could rent an Airbnb for an afternoon (pro tip: some hosts will give you a discount if you don’t want to actually sleep there). Hire a small conference room at a hotel. Ask a friend if you can use a meeting room at their offices. Ask a co-working space if you can use a meeting room for an afternoon. Book a private area at a restaurant. Use a friend’s house or apartment. Or book the Four Seasons private jet and go to Fiji. Whatever suits your budget.

2. Involve your team

This might sound obvious. But I see so many leaders thinking they have to do everything themselves — especially in times of crisis. When they do that they’re actually telling their teams that they don’t trust or value them. Then they wonder why those people don’t seem truly committed to the company’s success. On top of that, they’ll massively stress themselves out, rather than being open and honest that things need to change.

By involving your team, being open with them about the problems, and inviting them into the conversation, you’ll start to see how invested in your success they really are. Then, once you’ve built the plan to fix it, they’ll also be committed to making it happen.

I usually work with CEOs so we run these sessions with the senior team. If you’re only a handful of people, include five key people initially. The reason why is once you get a workshop with more than five people together, it tends to become hard to focus. (Of course, if you’re a team of six then you should make an exception.)

3. Invite an outside party

People tend to try to avoid facing reality — especially when it’s something very personal like their business. That’s why it helps to have an outsider come in. This isn’t a deal breaker, if you can’t make it happen that’s fine. But it’s one thing that I’ve found leads to a better outcome because it forces you to see things as they really are.

Now, I know that probably sounds self-serving for a guy advising companies to say, but it’s the only way I’ve found to ensure you challenge the obvious. And too often I meet entrepreneurs who actually just have to get out of their own way to be successful. For instance, I had a call this morning with a client, basically asking if she should do more of the marketing stuff that’s working and is profitable to grow her business. Sounds obvious, but it’s easy to get stuck in analysis paralysis and doubt your instincts.

The outsider doesn’t have to be a consultant, but it should be someone who a) you trust and b) knows their stuff. There’s no point asking your friend Dave to tag along unless he’s started and grown a real business.

4. Set your agenda — and share it in advance

You need about three hours to run a good workshop. The first hour you’ll start warming up. The second hour you’ll have the ideas. The third hour you’ll start to run out of energy, but it’s nice to have to ensure you don’t cut things short when you’re in flow. So book this in people’s calendars in advance.

Then, what works best is to also send over a set of questions you want to cover in advance and share these with the workshop attendees. The reason why is brainstorming doesn’t work. People come up with better and more valuable ideas when they’re given time to think in advance, filter their ideas, and then bring them to the group. These are the typical questions we go with:

  • Why do we need to change?
  • What are the challenges we need to overcome?
  • How can we eliminate those challenges?
  • What does great look like?
  • How should we behave to achieve this?
  • How will we make decisions towards this?
  • How can we achieve our 10-year plan in six months?

I know these sound quite clinical — play with them. Put them in your own words so you look forward to doing this.

5. Capture and share everything

Have you ever had a great idea…only to forget it?

Of course! We all have, and it’s a pain in the ass. That’s why you should prepare all manner of ways to capture ideas. That means Sharpies, Post-it notes, magic whiteboards, and notepads, so that you can write ideas down.

I’d also advise you to record the workshop (you can use the Voice Memos app on your iPhone — I’m sure there’s an equivalent for you Android users) and even film it (again, a simple smartphone on a tripod will do). That way it won’t just be another thing you tried one time — it’ll be something you can come back to for years to come.

One more thing on this…aside from any technology you’re using to record or film, leave all technology outside the room (or at least turn your phone off). It will distract you just as you’re about to make a breakthrough.

At the end of your workshop, capture everything. Save the Post-it notes. Take photos of notes and scribbles. Then get it all into a form you can share. We use Google Slides because multiple people can view and collaborate, but it doesn’t really matter — just get it into something you can email to everyone.

6. Wait a week…then do it again

We all get ideas in the shower. The reason? That’s when we’re taking a break between tasks, allowing our subconscious to go to work. The same is true with a workshop: your best ideas might come to you after the session. And that’s why you’ll want to book a second session in the next week.

The second session you can run in your office — or wherever you work from. You’ve had the initial new ideas so you can now bring them back to your typical environment. This time you simply go through the same agenda and challenge your original thinking, add any new ideas, and refine them.

For instance, you might realize that you were quite stiff in the first session and you came up with a bland vision, like General Motors. But since that moment you’ve had this idea that really excites you. Great, here’s your chance to put it to the group to see if it inspires you up as a team.

7. Refine and test

You’ll now have a load of material, ideas, and notes. Hopefully you’ll have clear answers to each of the questions in your agenda. If so, now the key is to start to actually live by the vision and values. Let’s say you said that one of your values is “Making a difference.” How will you embody this? How will you ensure it’s not just a bland statement?

For instance, “Making a difference” is one of my company’s values and we regularly challenge ourselves on how we can make more of a difference — both to our clients and through our philanthropic efforts.

Of course, this stuff isn’t set in stone. Don’t spend months navel-gazing on it. Just get it done so that you’re clear about your “Why” and then you can get on with taking your business to the next level.

And the secret to doing that is exactly what we’re going to turn our attention to now…

Part 2 — Conducting customer research

Illustration: Tara Jacoby

Illustration: Tara Jacoby

Now what? You know where you want to head. But, so what? You can have your “Why” but you also need your “How.” How are you going to make it happen?

Jeff Bezos recently said, “We never think of ourselves as tied to any particular technology or skill set. We think of ourselves as tied to our customers. We’re trying to work backward from their needs. And we’ll learn whatever skills we need to service our customers.”

That’s why taking the time to understand your customer’s needs is so important. It keeps you rooted in solving a problem, rather than getting stuck trying to sell something nobody wants (probably the number one rookie entrepreneur mistake). And it keeps you nimble and open to change if a better way to solve their problems comes along.

To uncover this with this client, we did something this team had never really done: we researched their customers.

It may sound strange, but my experience of Fortune 500 brands has been that, almost universally, they never do any valuable customer research — except maybe a bland corporate survey once a year that nobody ever really reads or does anything with.

This is utter madness. Your customers have given you money to solve a problem. Why not find out how to solve it better so you can charge more? Why not solve more of their other problems so they’re worth more to you? After all, that’s all business is about. Find a problem and solve it. The more valuable the problem the more you can charge. The better you do it, the more customers who have that problem will buy from you.

So we started with their most valuable customers. And we did the exact opposite of every other company trying to do customer research: we treated them like real people. We did this by sending personalized thank you notes from the CEO asking for their advice and help improving the company.

Note

The note reads:

Dear XXX,

This handwritten note might seem a bit unorthodox. But I’m writing to you for two important reasons.

First, to say thank you.

As CEO, I know there are lots of people you could choose to do business with. Thank you for continuing to choose XXX.

Second, to ask for your help.

As a company we’re always looking to improve. That’s why I’d really appreciate if you could share your experience as a customer with us — the good, bad and ugly!

My colleague XXX will email you the details. (If easier, you can contact him direct XXX).

I’m looking forward to hearing your opinions — and acting on them!

Best,

XXX
CEO
Company Name

And guess what?

They didn’t say, “No way, leave me alone.” To the CEO’s surprise, their customers loved being involved in this. I mean, who doesn’t like talking about themselves and their problems?

So we set up interviews with them. We didn’t just ask their opinions, we delved deeper to uncover the problems they had that we might solve with questions like, “What’s top of mind right now?” and “What are the biggest challenges you face on a day-to-day basis at work?”

Next we got a sample of other customers, including former customers. And a sample of people who might be future customers. (Pro tip: Strategic growth might mean you need to target an entirely new type of customer.) We did the same: We spoke to them to uncover their problems.

Then we did some secondary research, analyzing customer feedback — what were common complaints we could use to find ways to improve? We dug into online data they had — what were people doing at every point in their sales funnel?

(You might not have the luxury of all this, but you do have access to sites like Reddit, Amazon, and Google reviews, where people post the good, bad, and ugly about all sorts of products and services.)

Together this allowed us to uncover some immensely valuable insights about what problems people had and how to solve them in different and better ways than their competition.

Rather than feeling like another number in a research project, we got thank you notes back from customers saying they’d enjoyed the conversations and couldn’t wait to see what was coming. It helped build real momentum around the transformation the company was undertaking.

Now, again, this was a big business. You might not be able to do in-depth, robust customer research. But take what applies to you and steal it. You can do most of this on any budget.

How to do million-dollar research on a startup budget

I have a controversial theory: people want to run online businesses because they’re afraid of people. That’s why there’s such obsession over 100% automation from day one.

Don’t get me wrong: email autoresponders are incredible. But before you can get there you need to truly understand the goals, needs, and pains of your market. That’ll make it easier to create a great product, emails that people act on, and sales pages that convert. Here are just a few ways to uncover valuable insights.

1. Recruit people to speak to

The best people will be previous clients. You can also use LinkedIn groups, Facebook groups, Reddit subreddits, and other forums if you’re struggling. I tend to find five people is the minimum to see useful themes — of course, the more the better.

Here’s an email template to use for previous clients:

Subject: Please can you help?

Dear CLIENT,

I’m getting in touch for two reasons:

i) To say thank you.

You’ve been a great client and I really appreciate your business.

ii) To ask your help.

I want to make sure we do everything to get things right for you. That’s why I’d love to speak to you for 15 mins, at a time that suits you, to ask you a few informal questions about INSERT BENEFIT YOU PROVIDE.

This isn’t a sales pitch in disguise — your ideas really will help us to improve the service we offer.

I can do INSERT DATE AND TIME or INSERT DATE AND TIME. Would either work for you?

If not, I completely understand. Please let me know either way.

Thanks in advance,

YOUR NAME

2. Prepare key questions to ask in advance

In my experience, you’ll want to book about 45 minutes in so you don’t have to rush. If you can do in person, even better, because you’ll be able to pick up on body language — but Skype is fine.

It’s best to start by opening the conversation with a bit of background to set the scene and explain why you’re having the conversation. Then I like to start with some opening questions to build some rapport — you don’t want to go in too heavy immediately because you won’t get the raw, honest answers you’re looking for. After that, I’ll move on to some more probing questions to find the insights that competitors offering bland products and services won’t.

Secondly, the questions are just a guide for the conversation. The purpose is to help guide the conversation in a useful direction. But don’t be afraid to go off script — it’s a conversation, not an interrogation.

Here’s an outline of a conversation guide we used on this project:

Introduction

Hi, I’m INSERT NAME from INSERT COMPANY.

Thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me today. I really appreciate it. As I mentioned in the email, we’re currently looking to learn more about INSERT PROBLEM so that we can improve how we INSERT SOLUTION.

So the purpose of this call is to ask you about INSERT PROBLEM. And to get a sense of what your experiences are with this, your pains, and what a good solution would look like.

[Confirm they understand.]

Does that all make sense?

Ok great!

[If you’re going to record the call always ask their permission.]

Before we begin — I’m going to record the call. This will remain anonymous — it’s just so that I can focus on listening to you. Is that ok with you?

[Set them at ease before you begin.]

Any questions before we begin?

Opening questions

[This is a good opener for a business owner.]

Great. So let’s start with a bit about you.

  • What are your main priorities right now?
  • What are you trying to achieve over the next 6 – 12 months?
  • What are the main challenges right now?
  • Have you bought anything in the past year to help with this? What worked? What didn’t? And why?
  • Let’s say I could wave a magic wand and invent the perfect solution to help, what would that look like?

[You’ll get a few answers here. It helps to ask them to prioritize so you know what matters most.]

Thanks. And, of those, what’s the #1 thing that would really help you?

Deeper questions

[This is where I want to delve deeper into what they’ve told me, ask “Why” and get to the core problem.]

Ok thanks. So you told me that INSERT was a problem for you. What is it about that you’re finding difficult?

[Then ask “Why” until you get to the core of the problem.]

Your conversation will obviously depend on your aims. Keep it light and friendly until you’ve covered the areas you’re interested in. These will come in useful in a minute when we get to breaking and remaking your business.

3. Record the session and get it transcribed

There’s no need to type and talk. I advise you to focus on really listening and recording your conversation. Then getting the recording transcribed. Better yet, transcribe it yourself so you listen to every word once more.

If you’re using Skype there are a number of recording options. If you’re meeting face to face you can use the Voice Memos app on your iPhone. There are many Android options. I’d recommend Evernote if you want to keep all your notes in one place.

To transcribe everything I recommend Rev — they’re very quick and cost $1 per minute of your recording. This investment is well worthwhile and will avoid valuable insights being forgotten.

4. Create an 11-star experience with your customers

We often talk about having a great product. But every product is one element of the overall service and experience. Your goal is to design a better service and provide a better experience. But how can you do this?

Brian Chesky, one of Airbnb’s co-founders, recently shared a great research exercise that helped them design their $31B customer experience.

In the early days they were looking to work out what a great travel service looked like. So Brian decided to invite in either existing Airbnb customers or potential ones and ask them:

Brian: “What does a one-star travel experience look like?”

Airbnb customer: “I guess that would be that I couldn’t book any accommodation. The plane is delayed. I lose my luggage. I can’t find a ride into town. I’m just stuck in a foreign city.”

Brian: “Okay, that’s interesting. What would a two-star experience look like?”

Airbnb customer: “So I’d probably get to the destination. I’d have a crappy ride into town. Then my room wouldn’t look like the pictures.”

And so on to 11 stars, where he’d get an answer like:

Airbnb customer: “I’d land on a private jet. The door would open and a crowd of fans would be cheering. There’d be a car waiting for me — a Ferrari. I’d arrive at this amazing place to stay with an incredible view of the city. The hosts would be Victoria’s Secret models and invite me out for dinner with their more attractive friends. They’d take me to this great local place — the food would be amazing and the chef would personally come out to advise me on the best things to order. Then we’d head off to this cocktail party…”

And so on. Insert your own fantasy.

The point is this: Airbnb didn’t just create a product, they knew they had to solve a problem. The basic problem is booking a room, probably a three-star experience. They started there. Now they’re adding things like Experiences (fun stuff to do) to create the ultimate travel service. They may not be able to deliver on the 11-star experience, but it helps to give them ideas to deliver a better service and experience. Use this exercise to help you create your business roadmap.

5. If all else fails, scan the internet for insights

Reddit subreddits, Google reviews, Amazon reviews, Facebook groups, Instagram comments…there are a million places to hunt out insights from customers buying things like yours.

A pro tip is to look for three-star customer reviews, because they’ll usually suggest things to improve — things that you can use to stand out.

Of course, if you have a social media following, you can ask your discussion guide questions to your followers. And, likewise, if you have an existing email list.

Part 3 — Breaking and remaking your business

Illustration: Tara Jacoby

Illustration: Tara Jacoby

You’ve now found your ‘Why’ and your ‘How.’ Now, guess what? You need the ‘What.’ What are you actually going to change to improve your business?

Back to my client to show you what I mean…

After the one-on-one interviews with their customers and the 11-star experience workshops we ran, we had a whole heap of interview transcripts, ideas, and suggestions. This was a huge step in the right direction. But now we had to do the hard work to filter the golden insights from the noise.

First, we put all written notes into one master doc — we used Google Docs so that we could collaborate as a team and add comments and ideas. Next, we meticulously combed through to find common themes, pain points, and opportunities.

Honestly, this is part art, part science. When you have 274 pages (yes, literally this is what we had after all the workshops and 50+ customer and staff interviews), you won’t have the time, or desire, to scientifically check everything. And that’s fine.

As I said, this business helps other businesses expand to new countries, pay those employees, and stay compliant with local laws and taxes. But what we found was customers had many more problems, which this company could potentially solve. Bingo: that’s how you start and grow a business.

For instance, many customers needed help finding talented people internationally. They needed help marketing their business in new markets. And most of all, they needed to focus on strategic issues in their business, while a trusted partner took care of all the back-office tasks. All potentially very lucrative new business opportunities.

The research also showed their customers saw the experience of doing business with them very differently from how they saw themselves. Customers complained about having to call and email to see things like their accounts and payroll spreadsheets each month (not sexy stuff — but important if you’re a CFO at a global company).

All of this was a bit of a shock for the CEO and he got quite defensive about it initially — it’s not always easy to accept hard truths about your business, which is why outside help is valuable. But he soon cheered up when he realized he now had the specific insights to improve.

To tap into these opportunities, we started from scratch with a blank sheet of paper. We drew out how we might deliver these new services. We drew out the steps the customer would take, the website pages, the emails they’d receive, the sales conversations, the customer service they’d need. Then we drew out the behind-the-scenes people and processes required to make it happen.

Next, we based it in reality. How were things set up now? What were the “quick wins” they could do soon that could make a difference? For instance, we moved conversations from email to real-time conversation tools like Slack or WhatsApp to make it easier for customers to communicate with the company. Then we thought about what more strategic things we could do — like creating a digital portal for clients to log in anywhere, anytime rather than having to reach out for information they needed to do business.

What does this mean for you?

Well, let’s say you have an online business helping freelancers raise their prices. You go back to basics, and your “Why” is to bring about a future where the world enjoys work. Then you do the research and discover that your customers have a bigger problem: finding the right clients.

After all, what use is it knowing how to charge $10,000 per week on value-price basis if they’ve got no clients? If that’s the case, that’s a new problem you can help them solve — and potentially charge more and offer a new and better service.

Or it might be that your customers are telling you that they love your product but they really need ongoing support. Or something else. And it may be that you’re not set up for this right now so you have to change things. The point is that you’ll want to ensure your business is set up to deliver the greatest possible value.

You may not have the luxury of being able to start from scratch. But you could start delivering services manually now. Then find ways to build the right operations to scale things effectively. As Reid Hoffman recently put it, In order to scale you have to do things that don’t scale.”

How to turn insights into profitable ways to grow your business

1. Identify key themes from your research

What are the key things that stand out? What came up multiple times? What did you learn that excited you?

At this point you’ll want to take an afternoon (or a weekend) to really dig into all your notes and pull out the things that stand out. For instance, if 100% of people say the same thing independently, then it’s worth exploring further. This is part art, part science — trust your instincts as they develop.

2. Sort the insights into tactical and strategic ideas

Tactical ideas are things you can implement fairly quickly. An example would include creating a private Facebook group for customers to get follow-up support if follow-up support is something that your customers would value. A strategic idea would be something that might take some thought and investment, such as creating a new product or service. Make a list of each.

3. Map out each step of your customer journey

A customer journey is a way to see your business through your customers’ eyes. Just like a journey from A to B will pass through many locations, your customers will go through many points from A, when they first hear about you, to B, when they’re enjoying the benefit of the services you provide.

I use customer journeys to focus teams on finding ways to make improvements to the customer experience. That might sound vague, but think about when you paid for a premium product — say going to a high-end restaurant. How much of your enjoyment came down to the food? And how much was about the attentiveness of the staff, the interior design — and even the others also dining there? Great companies spend millions of dollars every year designing all of this so every customer feels special.

Let’s take an example of an online product business. Start by breaking this business into stages: the awareness phase, the decision phase, the experience phase, and the evaluation phase.

Or put another way, finding out about you (awareness), making a decision (decision), using your product/services (experience), and after they’ve completed your course (evaluation).

You can map out your customer journey using digital tools like Mural, a whiteboard, or on a wall with Post-it notes.

GL Table Blank

4. Put your ideas on your customer journey

Now that you have the skeleton of your customer journey, you can start putting tactical ideas to improve on it.

For instance, you could improve the experience phase by focusing on a great onboarding experience — like an initial phone call to say welcome, or free bonus material as a surprise. Similarly, you could improve the decision phase by improving your sales page copy, or making it easier to check out by adding a PayPal or Stripe option.

GL Table

Again, Mural is a good tool but Post-it notes are fine if you’re doing it on your wall — don’t worry about getting too fancy about it.

Start by focusing on the tactical stuff — the stuff you could do relatively easily within the constraints of your existing business — such as adding support or adding new features and benefits to the sales page that you can easily offer. The reason why is you want to first focus on ways to capture more value fast — rather than spending six months focusing on big ideas that never actually get anywhere.

5. Prioritize all your ideas by impact and effort

Making the things happen is going to take time, so it pays to put these on a simple 2×2 table to prioritize by impact and effort. The high impact, low effort stuff you’ll want to do now. The low impact, high effort stuff you’ll probably want to ignore.

A low effort, high impact idea that most online businesses can offer is a premium-priced version of your existing product. This could be as simple as adding in some Skype sessions when a customer buys and bi-weekly calls to ensure they follow through.

I’d advise starting with a few tactical things so you see some momentum and belief. (The other reason is too many entrepreneurs daydream wantrepreneuring — rather than getting shit done.) Then you can focus on more strategic things, like making a new product.

GL Matrix

6. For any new products or services, be clear about what you’re offering before you do anything

The biggest mistake businesses make is not being clear about what they’re offering. The result is vague propositions that no customer cares about. A complete waste of time, money, and effort.

So if any of your strategic ideas mean making a new product or service, complete this sentence before you do anything:

Our INSERT PRODUCT DESCRIPTION helps SPECIFIC CUSTOMERS who want to INSERT BENEFIT by avoiding INSERT PAIN and increasing INSERT GAIN.

Bonus tip: A quick note on pricing

Pricing is almost always the fastest way to grow your revenue. 99% of companies undercharge for the value of their product or service. Why?

Two reasons:

1. Because they tie their prices to their self-esteem. Most entrepreneurs (especially small business owners) are afraid to charge premium prices because they don’t feel like premium people. Stop doing that. Raise your prices. If you’re delivering a great service (and you will be if you build your business around customer needs, wants, and desires) then you have nothing to fear.

2. Because they aren’t marketing their business effectively (one for another article) and so accept sub-par customers — or even discount to win them over.

Pricing is part art, part science but it comes down to this: what value is the problem you’re solving? What quality of experience do you deliver? The more valuable the problem and the better the experience the more you can charge. There’s a reason Michelin-star restaurants charge more than Taco Bell.

If in doubt, test raising your prices to the point where you’re a little embarrassed. If you’re delivering a great experience, which we’ve designed together, then you’ll be better than 99% of companies that promise the world and deliver average products.

Part 4 — (Quickly) turning ideas into action

Illustration: Tara Jacoby

Illustration: Tara Jacoby

You now have your ‘Why,’ ‘What,’ and ‘How.’ But it’s all academic unless you do the one thing that really matters: making it happen.

With this client, they had a website. But a lot of their sales process, service delivery, and customer experience relied heavily on people. This meant everyone was stuck on a hamster wheel and always busy firefighting things.

What we needed to do was allow customers to self-serve by providing a portal they could log in to and then automate a few things so the entire company wasn’t firefighting every single issue. An example was getting documents — the company spent hours each day responding to client demands for documents that could be hosted online and accessible 24/7.

We knew this was a big project. It would completely transform how they did business. It would completely transform their client experience. But it could unlock significant growth. It would require investment, something the CEO was cautious about risking. So we did something they’d never done before: We created a quick, cheap prototype for this new way of doing things. Then we took that to customers to get a response. Was this worth pursuing?

They loved it. It wasn’t perfect — there were a few ideas they had to improve it. But it set a new standard and helped us refine the project and create a roadmap. The company started baking in “quick wins” to improve things now. And realized this investment was worthwhile to transform things for their customers and themselves. We then prototyped and tested everything that was required: the sales process, the onboarding process, how customer support was handled, and so on.

When we had something we felt happy to launch, we offered exclusive access to the new service (note: exclusive access is very different from asking your customers to be a beta tester). Then we rolled it out to their highest value clients. And so on. What we found is this not only improved the customer experience. But it also increased their sales conversions, as this became a differentiator, and upsells because clients saw the full range of ways the company could help.

The CEO and his team now had a new sense of excitement about the business. In fact, one night he said, “We’d been bumbling around for ages without making real progress. Now, thanks to you and your team, I finally feel like we’re realizing our potential. Our numbers are better than ever. And most of all, I feel better than ever. I thought change was hard. It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t realize how fun it could be.”

How might this apply to you? Well, if you’re selling an online course there’s likely demand for additional services. You might do these face-to-face or via Skype or whatever initially. The point is: test and learn. Then, once you know it’s worth pursuing, you can build out a new product or service that covers these areas in depth. After all, why leave money on the table?

How to add to your bottom line…without wasting time

1. The most obvious advice you’ll ever read: work out how to deliver anything new

No shit, right? You need to deliver on your promises. If it’s a service, who’s going to do the work? Will you? Your team? A partner? Will you do in-person? Skype? Something else? You’ll know your business better than me. But, remember: unscalable is fine to get started. The key thing is getting the proposition right and offering it to someone to prove it’s profitable.

2. Create a simple action plan

I like to keep planning simple by having three simple lists of:

  1. What are we doing this week?
  2. What are we doing next week?
  3. What are we doing in the future?

You can use digital tools like Trello. I like to have these lists on the walls so it’s always top of mind — usually I use Magic Whiteboards.

3. Find people to test your new business with

Now’s the fun: seeing results. If you’ve done your research you can go back to the people you spoke to, they’ll want to see the outcome of their help. Here’s an example email you might use:

Dear CLIENT,

Thanks so much for speaking with me about INSERT. I really liked your ideas to INSERT, INSERT, and INSERT.

As a result, we’re testing something new. I wanted to let you know first, before we offer it to anyone else.

We’re introducing INSERT. It’s the INSERT for SPECIFIC CUSTOMERS who want to INSERT BENEFIT.

I think you’ll love it because you told me you were looking to INSERT.

With this, you’ll get:

INSERT
INSERT
INSERT

You can try it now for PRICE (special offer to you). It comes with INSERT GUARANTEE.

Plus you’ll get INSERT SUPPORT.

Either we can give it a go next month and I’ll add it to your invoice, or we can find a time to speak about the details. Whatever suits you bestI always think it’s worth trying new things.

If not, I completely understand. Thanks again for helping us create this offer.

Best wishes,

YOUR NAME

You can also reach out to other previous customers, email your list, reach out to contacts on Facebook, LinkedIn etc. Or you could also write a blog post on your website or a platform like Medium announcing the offer. Or you could test a small $50 Facebook ad campaign to your target audience.

There are a million ways to reach potential customers. Don’t get overwhelmed. One of the biggest pieces of business (and life) advice is to get comfortable losing small amounts of money. If you spend $50 testing Facebook ads, it’s not the end of the world, but it’ll save you 100x the time and energy of trying to chase free traffic from Twitter #hashtags or SEO.

The point is: get the message in front of people to get a reaction. (And if you’ve tried and nobody’s interested, that tells you something…but it’ll save you six months of struggle.)

***

So, let’s take a look at where we are.

2017 10 31 GROWTHLAB RethinkYourBusiness

Getting stuck is part of life as an entrepreneur. That’s true whether you’re a solopreneur, leading a small team, or the CEO of a 100,000 organization.

If you’re stuck in a rut, don’t stress yourself out about it. But why wait to break out of it? By following the steps in this article you’ll soon find you’ve escaped from overwhelm and are enjoying the freedom of running a thriving business.

Three questions for you:

1. What are you stuck on right now?

2. How could you break out of that rut?

3. What does success look like?

Let me know in the comments below and I’ll reply to help you.

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Wow my mind is blown there are way too many golden nuggets to recap.

I help premed students get into medical school and you just helped me rebuild my business from scratch as I realized it wasn’t generating clients or addressing their specific needs as seen by students saying I don’t know how you are different from all the other websites out there.

I’m going back to the drawing board and finding my customer avatar to be more specific than premed student and I want to target the high achieving student who also have the means to pay for products and services.

Also realized I’m doing a huge disservice by use bottom pricing bc it attracts wrong caliber of student who is mostly looking for free while my competitors charge 10x what I do and it was sad when a student said I paid $2500 for this other advisor but you gave me more help for free yet they never decided to work with me ultimately.

Lastly I need to really nail my buyers journey and understand that process bc I’m lost so it means my visitors must be lost too.

But I have saved this blog post to reference a million times over and to start implementing immediately such as raise rates and do more phone consults for customer research and also add as premium service too.

Jason – I’m so pleased you enjoyed the article. Good ideas. Remember: There’s always room to be the best. Once you do the hard work up-front, building a business will become a whole lot easier. I guarantee none of your competition will. Good luck and let me know how you get on.

The skeleton of customer’s journey and the prioritization matrix were an eye opener to me.

Thanks Thomas for this detailed and profound article.

Really, really great article coming at exactly the right time for me. I plan to implement this right away! Thanks for all the detail and tools! It’s a privilege to learn from experts like you.

This was really helpful! I realized I can’t progress in starting my business because I don’t have a “why”, which means I don’t know who my customers should be, which means I don’t have a way to do any customer research. I’m worried that if I choose one “why” I’ll be stuck with it and miss out on a much better one, so I’ve been trying to do really broad customer research from reviews and blog posts and reddit to find the best possible angle, but now I think I may be working backwards. Is that right? Should I get that “why” first and then follow the rest of the steps from there, even if I don’t have a business yet?

This was exactly what I needed. I’m surrounded by people who have millions of reach and major errors in the system. It has taken me a few tries to wrap my head around this process. As the underdog I have nothing to lose, let these other flashy people worry about contest leads which complain and never buy. Thanks to Growth Lab and you Thomas these advanced processes like these are in the hands of honest people who will take the time to build a business right.

Excellent article. I really love the customer research part. I find that the article can apply to many areas of life too. Thanks for the time and effort to write this great article.

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