Problem solver: You're the owner of the business – focus on sales, not production
Businessman Feargal Quinn answers your questions
Q: I started a business making products for the giftware sector four years ago. I work with four of the team on the production and logistics side and another focuses on sales. We are struggling to grow sales, and I am looking for some advice.
A: Growing sales is about developing a structured process that will underpin all sales activities. Can I question your own role to start off with? As owner of the company, why is the majority of your time spent on production? I would have expected the majority of your time to be taken up with sales. You can't beat the energy and enthusiasm of a business owner for driving sales. I think you should reconsider your role.
Now let's look at the structure. Do you have weekly management sales meetings? Have you a prospect list of clients you are targeting? Are there weekly sales targets in place to force the business to be proactive rather than reactive? Have you a schedule for attending the various different trade shows appropriate to your sector? Have you built up good relationships with key distributors and customers? These are just some of the things you should be doing.
Technically, with five employees, you are too small to be considered an Enterprise Ireland client; however, if you are exporting, it may be worth having a conversation with them, as they may view your business as a high-potential start-up, in which case you'll be able to tap into their vast international network which will help.
Don't forget that sales = process, systems and the right people.
Q: I'm completing a business entrepreneur course and haven't decided on my product/service idea. What do you rate as the key opportunity categories?
A: That's a dangerous question for me to answer, and I certainly don't want people going off making investments on the back of what I think might be a success.
With every new business idea, you must research thoroughly and do a strong feasibility study before you embark on your journey. What can seem like an opportunity at the beginning of the process can very quickly emerge as problematic.
Notwithstanding, here are a few observations that might be worth exploring. The food industry is performing well, and I see many food companies developing large domestic and export markets. What is needed is innovative product that is capable of scaling up. The whole area of technology never ceases to amaze me, and you still read on a daily basis about companies that have become successful in a short period. Online sales is probably the other obvious category, with a plethora of highly successful new businesses emerging.
Go and observe what is happening in international markets. For many years while I was in Superquinn, I used America as a sourcing platform for new ideas, and we tried to catch those which had not yet hit Europe.
Q: How did you motivate the workforce when you owned Superquinn?
A: I had a great team, and to some degree many were self-motivators. I suppose there's a message in that, in that your first priority has to be to recruit the right staff. There were other things on which we placed an emphasis that helped keep everyone interested. I think motivation is about people being challenged and recognised for the contributions they make.
I don't like the word "staff", and throughout my career have used the word "colleagues". We had a policy of sharing all the sales and commercial information with our colleagues which gave a certain sense of ownership to the team, and we were always keen to get feedback about the challenges we faced. Each Thursday morning, the board of management would take one shop each and spend some hours there talking to every member of the team about the branch's individual performance. That was also an ideal way for those responsible for running the company to stay in touch with the grassroots.
There are also practical steps you can take – setting out career paths for individuals to progress, getting each manager to having an open-door policy, encouraging staff to set up their own social club at each branch, introducing staff discount schemes and the like
I also felt that making myself accessible was another part in the overall strategy – I always insisted that each store manager would introduce me to any new recruits who had just started, and that I would get the opportunity to recognise in some way colleague weddings and other major events.
If you treat the people you work with as individuals and acknowledge where good effort is made, they are usually highly motivated by this.