Time was when you could buy a platform ticket at railway stations. It allowed you onto the platform to wave farewell to your loved ones as they set off on their journey in a cloud of steam, but it didn’t allow you to board the train. You could even buy platform tickets for the London Underground. Some have claimed that the idea of using the underground as a shelter in World War II came about when a family bought platform tickets and simply bedded down for the night.
There are no more London Underground platform tickets but you will often hear the warning to “mind the gap” as you try to step from crowded platform to equally crowded train.
Young businesses face a similar challenge. Plenty have the initial idea, build a small team, perhaps raise a little money and create their first product or service: they get onto the platform. But few seem to successfully ‘mind the gap’, get onto the train and get some real momentum into their business.
In my experience a common theme at this stage of a business’ growth is that there is suddenly too much new stuff to think about. To founders and early employees, building an amazing new piece of software or medical device is easy. Building the business around it seems horribly complex and as the to-do list expands with multiple new and seemingly unrelated tasks they struggle to prioritise effectively. In many cases a gap opens up somewhere they weren’t expecting, often somewhere they don’t even notice for a long time, and the business falls through.
Viewing this as one ‘commercial process’ divided into simple building blocks can help companies organise the complexity and ensure they don’t miss any critical steps. I normally use the four below. I’ve used this approach successfully in a slightly expanded format to improve performance with more mature businesses too.
The four key components are: Sell. Provide. Assure. Bill & Collect.
- Sell: however good your product or service is it won’t walk out of the door by itself. It must be sold. Who will you sell to and why will they buy? What value are you delivering and how much will they pay for it? When they want to buy, how will they actually place an order? What contract or set of terms will the customer need to sign? Who actually does the selling? Sales is a numbers game and you need to “learn to love each no” because every no gets you closer to the next yes. That can be a thankless task – if your sales approach requires cold calls many of your rejections will be rather ruder than a ‘no, thank you’ and in the health sector, where many of my clients operate, selling to CCGs and other public sector bodies brings a whole set of other challenges. Thankless or not it needs to be done.
- Provide: Congratulations, you’ve got your first real sale. But that’s not the champagne moment. Not yet. You now need to be able to deliver what the customer has ordered. If it’s a physical product, how will you get it to your customer? If it’s a service, how will you activate the customer so they can begin to use the service?
- Assure: Once the customer has got what they wanted, how will you help them if there’s a problem? Will you allow them to return the device if it’s broken? Or if it turns out not to meet their needs after all? How will you provide any help they might need to use the service? In what way will you limit that assistance to control your costs?
- Bill & Collect: The sale isn’t complete until the customer has been invoiced and you have received the cash. If your business model involves payment up front, great, but it’s still not your cash until any proving or cooling off period has passed. Or perhaps you will deliver first, then invoice and get paid later. If so, when will they pay? Do you have enough cash to cover all your sell, provide and assure costs until they do pay? What if they don’t pay? Who will chase the debt and how?
Once you have successfully sold, provided, assured, billed and collected then, and only then, can you break out the champagne!
None of this is easy, of course, but viewing it as one simple, segmented process in this way should help you mind the gap and successfully get onto the train. If you want some help getting your business on the train please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org