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M&A trends 2022

Considering an M&A Deal in 2022? Keep an Eye on These Trends

With 2021 firmly in the rearview mirror, now is a good time to explore the merger and acquisition (M&A) outlook for 2022. After an historic year, fueled by a backlog of deals from 2020, soaring global markets, plenty of access to capital, advantageous changes to tax rates, and attractive valuations, investment professionals expect a still active but cooler market in 2022.

While many of the factors that contributed to global M&A volumes topping $5 trillion for the first time remain in play, they are less pronounced. And dealmakers agree that deal volume peaked in August of 2021. This coupled with the likely rise of interest rates this year, which will increase the cost of debt, could impact valuations and slow deal volume.

Despite these potential headwinds, if you’re considering launching an M&A deal on either the buy or sell side in Q1 or Q2 of 2022, you’ll likely find a busy dealmaking environment. So let’s discuss the M&A outlook and what to watch as you prepare your materials.

Takeaways from 2021 M&A Activity

During a panel discussion at the end of last year, my fellow panelists and I discussed strategic M&A opportunities for investors and the M&A outlook for 2022. To watch the full panel discussion, click here.

As we kept an eye on deals playing out at the end of 2021, here are our biggest takeaways:

  • Private equity will continue to play a huge role: Private equity firms played a huge role in M&A deals in 2021 and will continue to do so. According to one report, private equity now accounts for 30% of M&A activity. This makes sense because with the market surge, private investors have a record amount of dry powder (capital) available.
  • Valuation/multiples have been climbing but will likely level out: Most M&A professionals believe that valuations in several sectors have reached their peak — or are borderline frothy. It’s hard to envision a scenario where valuations would be significantly higher a year from now and likewise, few see valuations dropping significantly. Experts expect valuations to settle at a sustainable level in the next few months.
  • More selective deal strategies are on the horizon: While few practitioners expect a slowdown of the M&A market, many see more selective deal strategies on the horizon. We’ll likely see megadeals playing a transformational role and smaller, tuck-in acquisitions playing an increasingly important role for small- and medium-sized companies looking to build and scale capacity quickly with less integration risk.

Key Differentiators Remain

Looking at the big picture, key differentiators remain. Whether you are on the buy side or the sell side, you and your team will want to keep the following in mind:

1. Integration matters.

If you aren’t looking past the deal to the future, then you will be at a distinct disadvantage when negotiating. On the buyside, you’ll want to be ready to share your integration plan. Show your awareness of everything from projected revenues to cultural implications to talent management. Changes to the labor market, for example, could complicate your deal. Be ready to prove that you’re aware of these details.

On the sellside, you’ll want to make integration easy to whatever extent is possible. Identify and mitigate key risks early both in the external competitive market and in the internal workings of the company. In addition to risk mitigation, look for opportunities to create value. Be prepared to talk about how you can add value and the quickest path to increased profits as you see it.

2. Keep non-financial due diligence on your radar.

The M&A outlook also reminds us that there are a lot of factors that can affect deal success and financial performance, but which are non-financial in nature. In fact, 70-90% of M&A deals fail due to non-financial aspects. 

Show your deal partners that you know where the non-financial risks and opportunities lie for your brand. Dig deep into factors such as executive reputation, employee sentiment, culture, and communication style.

Management’s credibility is also important to convey. Develop your story connecting your managers and executives to the company’s mission, vision, and values. The more you can show leadership as standing strong together, the better your prospects for closing a great deal.

3. Pay attention to middle management.

More often than not, middle management — as opposed to the C-suite — controls the narrative for employees and customers. Because managers are often more accessible and work more closely with these stakeholders, they are trusted. So, you’ll want to give middle managers the same attention you give to executives.

According to Sarah Gershman, Executive Speech Coach, CEO of Green Room Speakers, and one of Audacia’s partners, it’s important for middle managers to feel prepared to communicate appropriately throughout the deal process. “Middle managers spend most of their time interfacing with customers and doing the work,” says Sarah. “And telling the story of the merger doesn’t come naturally when you’re in the weeds. So it’s a smart idea to find an expert who can help middle management understand and empathize with their audience.”

Beyond prepared remarks, there will be questions and plenty of uncertainty. Managers are the first line of defense in helping to stabilize nerves, and they are your best line of offense in sharing enthusiasm for the next step of this transformative event. That said, the key when answering questions is to show that you understand the question. “Deep listening is a critical skill here,” says Sarah. “You want to listen not only to hear the question, but also to understand what’s behind the question and what’s at stake.”

What if someone asks a question and you don’t know the answer? According to Sarah, as long as you have demonstrated that you have really heard the question, you can feel empowered to say the magic words, “I don’t know. Let me check on that and get back to you.” Remember, it is always better to share authentic and accurate information than incorrect information or speculation.

4. Clearly articulate the narrative.

For both the buyer and seller, it is essential to be able to articulate the narrative around why this deal, why now, and why this property is best in XYZ hands. “Keep in mind,” says Sarah, “people have spoken and unspoken needs.” Unspoken needs are usually driven by emotions, like fear. To clearly articulate your narrative, you need to drill down and find the precise emotion you’re after. “If you want to inspire your audience, that’s different from motivating them or energizing them.” 

With an M&A deal, addressing the other side’s unspoken needs goes far beyond explaining your unique capabilities and differentiated IP. You must also be able to demonstrate an understanding of your company’s markets, customers, opportunities, and competitive pressures. And telling the story of your company’s value within the context of the deal is key.

The bottom line: Despite the headwinds identified, the M&A outlook for 2022 is very good.

If you’re ready to ride the M&A wave this year, you need the right partners by your side. At Audacia Strategies, we’re prepared to work with you and your team as you navigate the next big deal. Contact us to discuss your M&A strategy.

Photo credit: Modern Businesspeople Having A Video Conference In A Boardroom by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

IPO

The IPO and SPAC Market is Hot. Is Your Firm Ready for the Public Eye?

2021 has been a record-breaking year for Initial Public Offerings (IPOs). Analysts predict that by December 31, we will have seen roughly 1,000 companies hit the market. As of now, there have been 372 IPOs and 535 SPACs, for a total of 907 companies representing $266 billion in proceeds. 

Among the most notable companies on the upcoming IPO agenda are giants like mobile payment company Stripe, San Francisco-based Instacart, which has more than half the U.S. online grocery delivery market, and Impossible Foods, the maker of plant-based burgers. Others include Databricks, an artificial intelligence company and a Brazilian digital bank, Nubank, backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

With the market this hot, we know that you may be considering joining their ranks and raising capital either through a traditional IPO or a SPAC. And while you can find plenty of IPO checklists and guides, making the process seem deceptively simple, the decision to take your firm public requires careful consideration. So, we thought it might be appropriate to look at some of the questions founders tend to overlook.

Make Sure You Know Your ‘Why’

There are a lot of good reasons to go public, but being the CEO of a public company adds several layers of complexity to your job. So it’s important to make sure you know your ‘why’ and why your ‘why’ makes you unique in your market (AKA your differentiator). This will help you stay grounded throughout the tough moments.

Many firms may think, “I need to raise capital, so I think I’ll take my company public.” Maybe you need access to capital to support planned acquisitions or maybe you want better access to debt and equity markets to carry out your growth plans. That access comes with costs both in flexibility and on the bottomline. Whatever your reason, spend some serious time evaluating it from every angle. A murder board can be a great resource here as well.

Another reason knowing your ‘why’ is important is that you need to be prepared to own the IPO process. Don’t assume that the investment bankers, lawyers, accountants, and consultants you hire will manage the process. Make sure you (and your team) manage the timeline and understand the process. Ask a lot of questions. Avoidable delays may cause you to miss your window in your industry. When you stay in charge of the timeline, you stay in control of the process.

What are SPAC IPOs?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a surge in what’s called a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC) and these relatively new types of deal are fanning the flames of the IPO market. Also known as a blank check company, SPACs are another way to raise capital.

Not your typical IPO stock, SPACs start out as shell companies that raise money by issuing stock. Then they use the proceeds, combined with bank financing to buy and take privately held companies public. SPACs typically set two-year time limits on completing the acquisition and if the deal doesn’t go through, then investors get their money back.

Although SPACs aren’t new, they have seen a rise in popularity after COVID-19 shut down the IPO market in Q1 of 2020. Prior to 2020, we were seeing about 15 SPACs per quarter. During Q3 of 2020, that number jumped to 82, and it jumped again to 129 the following quarter. In the first quarter of this year, we saw a record of 298 SPACs.

But whether SPACs are a temporary trend or have real staying power is yet to be determined.

3 IPO Tips from an IR Pro

There’s one other point that founders should be aware of when considering whether it’s time to take their company public: it’s all about the investors. Sure, you need to focus on the SEC regulatory requirements and keeping the analysts on your side. But when it comes down to brass tacks, public companies live and die by their investors’ decisions.

To that end, here are four tips from Managing Director of Investor Relations and Financial Transformation, Mike Pici:

1. Get your house in order.

There’s no reason to be in a hurry to go public. In fact, we’re seeing trends go in the opposite direction. Whereas a startup receiving a healthy stream of venture capital might have once gone public in four years, today the process might take eight years or more. Companies are waiting longer and growing larger before they go public. 

This is a positive trend because it is hard to course correct when you’re being publicly held to the results. So make certain your house, both financial and non-financial, is in order before going public.

2. Be prepared to show a track record of growth.

If you’re thinking like an investor, then you know that investors aren’t just looking for positive cash flow or past success. They’re also looking for evidence of future growth. The amount of revenue is not as important as showing healthy growth quarter over quarter. To this end, we recommend that you show a minimum of 1-2 quarters of growth before filing for your IPO.

3. Consider whether the firm can withstand the amount of stress going public will create.

You’ve likely faced obstacles in the growth of your business. And you should be proud of how you were able to face and overcome those obstacles. But if you believe overcoming adversity qualifies you to take your company public, you would do well to talk to other founders who have gone through the process.

You need to know what you’re walking into before you sit down at the table. The stress of going public is a particular type of challenge and while most founders will only do it once in the lifetime of their businesses, remember that you’ll be working with experts who have done hundreds of deals. Make sure you and your management team are up to the task.

Your IPO Roadmap:

Once you have decided to take your firm public, you’ll need a plan. At Audacia Strategies, we work with our clients through every stage of the IPO process. Here is a preview, which we call our IPO Roadmap:

Part 1: Developing your IPO story 

Although you’ll have multiple filings that describe your business, your risks, and your opportunities, you’ll also want to develop an overarching narrative to share with diverse audiences. Now is the time to refine your value proposition, establish credibility and proof points, set your guidance strategy, and set up internal processes to establish consistent communications.

Part 2: Building an Investor Relations (IR) program

A successful initial public offering requires syncing up several moving parts. If doing a product launch feels like playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” an IPO feels like playing “Beethoven’s 9th.” Of course, to play a symphony, you need an orchestra. For your successful IPO, that means building an IR program. You can schedule a consultation with our Managing Director of IR, Mike Pici, here.

Part 3: Navigating life after IPO

Once you’ve successfully taken your firm public, it’s time to follow through on the commitments you’ve made and deliver against those proof points. Remember the IPO is really just the beginning of your journey.

If you’re ready to start your IPO journey, contact us today to discuss your needs. Our team is ready to develop a transformational strategy that works for you.

Photo credit: Team of two women analyzing charts and diagrams by Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

c-suite change

C-suite Change Can Be Energizing or Panic-Inducing. The Choice is Yours

Does this sound familiar? Your organization is one of the bright, rising stars in your industry. It has taken years of hard work, but you’ve finally reached a point where you have strong leadership across the board, a steady vision for the future, and everyone from the executive team down to the employees on the frontlines are working together like a well-oiled machine.

And then…the CEO turns in their resignation letter. Does the prospect of C-suite change send a shock wave of panic through the company? Or are you ready to guide everyone through a smooth transition?

If your initial response is panic, that’s okay. This is the perfect time (i.e., before this scenario becomes your reality) to come up with a plan. Let’s look at how you can reframe c-suite change as an opportunity rather than a potentially destabilizing event.

Revisit Company Culture for Successful C-Suite Change

First, recognize that C-suite change is a natural part of company evolution. The person you had steering the ship during the start-up phase may not be the best person to lead you through the next stage and beyond. Thinking about how far you’ve come and how your culture has evolved will help you choose the right CEO for this next phase.

Also, if you’re moving from a founder as CEO to a new corporate executive, you’ll want to consider how much of the company culture is tied up with the founder’s personality and whether that makes sense going forward.

For example, suppose your Founder and CEO is a literal rockstar. He plays the guitar and performs regularly with his semi-famous band. He has even been interviewed by Rolling Stone. It’s an interesting draw and has given the marketing team lots of fun campaign ideas. But is this crucial to the DNA of the organization? In other words, is it critical that the new CEO also play the guitar?

Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that you need to figure out what is part of the DNA of your organization and look for a new CEO that shares the same values — someone for whom your culture is authentic to who they are as a leader.

Why is culture so important when considering C-suite change? Well, it’s likely that culture is one big reason that scaling and reaching the point where everyone is working together like a well-oiled machine has happened. So as you consider the selection and managing of the C-suite change for customers, investors, and employees, keeping the culture consistent should be your first priority. 

How to Keep Company Culture Consistent:

Once you begin to see your CEO’s resignation as part of the evolution of the organization, you can turn your attention to deciding, likely with the help of your board, what is crucial to the company’s DNA. Take your time here because decisions about how to separate the former CEO from the company culture will determine whether stakeholders perceive the C-suite change as energizing or destabilizing.

Keep the following tips in mind:

1. Have a good sense of the culture as seen through the eyes of employees. 

Find a way to take the pulse of your employees. One good approach is to use an external team to conduct Voice of the Employee interviews. You may be surprised that what you think of as crucial to the culture of your firm is really hidden from your employees and vice versa. So this kind of research is hugely beneficial for smooth executive transitions.

It’s also important to announce the transition itself to employees at the same time as you announce the C-suite change publicly. If you announce internally and externally at different times, rumors will fly and rumors are a huge source of instability during big transitions.

We recommend having a specific employee communication plan to address key cultural issues and how the C-suite change will affect the organization from a macro perspective. Also, as soon as possible, set up a town hall meeting where employees can be formally introduced to the new CEO and have their questions and concerns addressed.

2. Ground everyone back into the company strategy.

While the CEO may be changing, the company strategy is staying the same, especially if we’re sticking with the scenario where everything is going well and the CEO needs to move on. This means it’s a good opportunity to go back to basics. 

Let your mission, vision, and values drive you forward. Get everyone to recommit to company fundamentals and talk openly about what is changing and what will be staying the same.

3. Be as honest and transparent as possible.

This third recommendation is a big one, so strap in. As soon as your executive gives you notice that they’re even thinking about moving on, you want to have a strategy in place. This will allow you to be as honest and transparent as possible. This goes for all of your key leadership, not just your CEO.

Perhaps you will want to call a board meeting to open discussions about all of the topics above. Perhaps you’ll want to make an announcement (internally and externally) early and reassure everyone that the transition period will last several months. Whatever your first move, having a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) around C-suite change is a smart idea.

In a previous blog article, we talked about the elements that plan should include whether your C-suite change is expected or unexpected.

4. Know your game clock.

Timing is also important here. The more you can be in control of the timeline, the greater your ability to control the message of the transition. Unexpected changes can raise questions about the stability of an organization. One way to ease these concerns is to share (at a high level)  your succession planning process with key stakeholders so that they understand the corporate calculus behind the leadership selection. 

For public companies: if you have a planned transition with a good amount of lead time, it’s good to make this announcement as part of your quarterly reporting cadence. If the transition is unexpected, public companies will likely have to disclose the leadership change via an 8-K within four business days, but make sure to consult with legal counsel to determine your specific disclosure requirements.

5. Teamwork makes the dream work.

If possible, make time in your transition strategy to allow the outgoing and incoming CEOs to work together. If appropriate, having a “pass the torch moment” can be a critical element to  transferring credibility and trust from the outgoing CEO to the incoming CEO. Part of this strategy should include coordinating their narrative. As an example, the outgoing CEO may talk about why they built the company and why the new CEO is the right person to carry the mantle forward. This gives the new CEO the opportunity to share their own vision about the future of the company.

Finally, make sure your new executive is prepared to take over. Is the new executive on the same page when it comes to the company culture? Have you defined your key messages? Have you acknowledged that C-suite change requires an acclimation period that can take at least 30 days? Have you organized listening sessions and key meetings with stakeholders? Do you have a comprehensive introduction strategy?

For our private equity-backed companies: if your CEO has experience with public company boards and they will be transitioning to working with your private equity board, do they understand what that entails? This is a helpful resource to share from McKinsey

C-suite change can be a powerful signal of an organization’s evolution. If you’re ready to move into the next phase of your company’s metamorphosis, our team can help make the transition energizing instead of panic-inducing. Let’s talk about your next business transformation!

Photo credit: Jacob Lund Photography from NounProject.com

back to the office

3 Tips for Hitting a Home-Run As You Bring Your Team Back to the Office

As remote workers are being called back to the office here in the U.S., many are experiencing a reverse of the identity crisis we collectively experienced during the early days of the 2020 shutdown. Whereas when offices shut down we felt our routines being abruptly disrupted, now we have the opportunity to intentionally re-enter our post-pandemic work lives.

It’s time for leaders to consciously decide how to make re-entry as smooth as possible for their employees. And if it sounds like I’m asking you to come up with a strategic plan, that’s because I am.

See, re-entry is not something to be taken lightly. You can’t expect your team to go from languishing to flourishing overnight just because they’re back in the office. But if you send a message of realistic optimism. If you make it clear that this is a time to reset and build our future together, with time, you will see a new, stronger team emerge from the pandemic ashes.

So, let’s discuss your triumphant back to the office strategy.

Reconstructing How Work is Done

Despite all the challenges of figuring out how to juggle childcare while working and creating healthy boundaries around work, surveys show that most people enjoy working from home. A McKinsey study from June 2020 found that 80% of workers enjoyed working remotely. And while many now prefer to have the option of returning to the office, there’s still a strong preference (55%) for working from home at least two or three days a week.

The pandemic forced the question: is this really how work should be done? And leading organizations are taking this question seriously. They’re questioning assumptions about what employees need to do their best work and re-examining the role of being together in the office.

There’s, of course, no one-size-fits-all answer here. Reconstructing how work gets done will look different for every organization. this is about achieving your business and cultural outcomes. 

Get your managers and teams together (you want a diversity of perspectives!) and have a discussion around the following:

  • What are the most important systems and processes for each major business, geography, and function?
  • How can you boldly re-envision each of these systems and processes?
  • How does being physically present in the office enhance professional development?
  • How does being physically present in the office push a project forward at different stages? For example, previously, a business unit may have generated new ideas by convening a meeting, brainstorming on a whiteboard, and assigning someone to refine the results. A new process might include a period of asynchronous brainstorming across a digital channel, like Slack, followed by a multi-hour period of debate via video conference.
  • What values, practices, interactions, and rituals most promote the culture your organization wants to develop?
  • What suboptimal habits and systems can you do away with completely?

Of course, reconstructing how work gets done at your organization is no easy task. Undoubtedly, tough choices will arise and leaders will need to be empowered to make decisions that move individual business units and businesses forward.

In addition, it’s important to recognize that permanent change requires strong change-management skills. Both leaders and workers need to maintain a level of flexibility that allows for pivots based on what’s working.

The good news is that if you hit a home-run here, you will achieve the culture you’ve always wanted: an environment where everyone feels safe to enjoy their work, collaborate with their colleagues, and achieve their personal goals while achieving the organization’s objectives.

How to Hit a Home-Run:

1. Have a Reboarding Plan

Once you have gathered together your team to envision the future, it’s time to make that vision a reality. So, you’ll want to treat this return to the office like you would treat a merger or an acquisition or a new product launch.

Yes, making sure your return to the office is triumphant and not tragic is all about having a solid reboarding plan. First, consider how you do onboarding. Typically, this occurs at the very early stages of employment. But forward-thinking companies view onboarding as a strategic process that filters throughout an employee’s experience and can be leveraged at any point in a person’s career with the company.

This is where reboarding comes in. After a big transformation, like returning to the office following a pandemic, it’s time to reintroduce employees to policies and procedures that they may have let slide in various ways. It’s also an important time to introduce any new policies and procedures.

If you take a people-centered approach to your reboarding plan, you will be in a better position to help your employees embrace the new changes and make a smooth transition back to the office.

2. Lead with Empathy

Looking at the unemployment data and what’s happening with economic recovery, some economists have taken to calling this the “Take This Job and Shove It” economy. Employees want to feel valued and they seem to have little trouble quitting or moving on from positions where they aren’t feeling this way. A year of grieving and dealing with an elevated level of fear has reminded us all that life is short.

One way to ensure you’re recognizing the humanity of this moment and not simply focused on your organization’s bottom line is to lead with empathy. For example, instead of recalling everyone 40 hours per week and expecting a return to pre-pandemic levels of productivity overnight, consider spreading out the physical return and phasing in policy changes aimed at increasing productivity.

Some organizations are even anticipating a summer slowdown and intentionally working that into their strategic plans for the rest of 2021. Giving your team a break this summer is another way to show employees, who were stressed before lockdown, that you understand the toll the past 16 months have taken. After a true recharge this summer, everyone can return to work in full force this fall.

3. Communicate Well Both Internally and Externally

Above all, making the transition back to the office successfully will require strong communication guardrails both internally and externally. First, establish clear, regular, two-way communication with your team. This will allow employees to feel as if they are in the loop and that their input matters. Also, make sure not to limit communications to only what has changed. Talk about what isn’t going to change as well.

Second, make sure to communicate early and often. Once you have your reboarding plan in place, you can communicate that plan internally with your managers and employees. Make sure they understand what is happening when and what responsibilities they have within the plan so they can manage their own expectations. All of this should be firmly established before you start communicating externally.

Next, make time for collective venting and open communication. You want your employees to feel free to participate in any future changes and to get buy-in from them, they need to feel heard. Collective rituals are one way to help your team feel supported and heard.

For example, you could reserve an hour after lunch on Fridays where teams come together virtually or in-person for a group venting session. Allow everyone some time to check-in with each other about anything that’s causing them stress. Make sure to end the meeting with time for each person to express gratitude. Moving, in this way, from feeling stuck to expressing gratitude can help to navigate the range of emotions everyone experiences.

Returning remote workers to the office is a big transformation for any organization. Having a strategic plan in place gives you the best chance for success. With the above in mind, you’ll make strides toward achieving the culture you’ve always wanted and supporting your team as they re-learn how to thrive in our post-pandemic future.

It’s an exciting time! This is our chance to reset and intentionally redefine what work means to all of us. Audacia Strategies is ready to partner with you as you make the transition. Let’s chat about how to reconstruct the way work gets done at your organization.

Photo attribution: Team of investors meeting in corporate office with documents and laptop by Jacob Lund Photography from Noun Project

rebuilding corporate trust

Rebuilding Corporate Trust: 4 Ways Business Leaders Can Bring About Real Change

As we slowly leave the pandemic behind and enter the rebuilding period, let’s not forget our responsibility for rebuilding trust in public institutions. With all the highfalutin talk about rebuilding society and cultural norms coming out of the pandemic, it’s tempting to point the finger at the government, NGO’s, and the media.

But we are at a unique crossroads where business leaders are positioned to bring about real change both inside and outside of their organizations. Want evidence? Look no further than corporate reactions to measures tightening voting accessibility. Just over a week ago, hundreds of companies and executives signed on to a new statement opposing “any discriminatory legislation” that would make it harder for people to vote. 

This type of overtly public engagement has become increasingly common over the past few years as corporate executives step into the trust gap vacated by government organizations. 

Earlier this year, global communications firm, Edelman, released its 2021 Trust Barometer and the results are revealing, especially when it comes to rebuilding public trust:

  • Business has a 61% trust level globally (that’s higher than any other institution)
  • 86% of respondents believe that CEO’s must lead on societal issues
  • 68% say CEO’s should step in when governments fail

We can point the finger at others, or we can embrace this as an opportunity to reshape relationships and build new communication paths providing benefits that will long outlive the current moment. Edelman’s Trust Barometer makes it clear which choice your customers and employees want you to make. So let’s look at the why and how of rebuilding trust.

Rebuilding Corporate Trust in Response to the Epidemic of Misinformation

How did we get here? If you were an alien landing on Earth today, you might expect to find people turning to governments and other long-standing institutions for guidance as we restart the global economy. However, the way governments handled the global health crisis has not engendered confidence in people.

Time Magazine nicknames the findings of the Edelman report the “Epidemic of Misinformation.” In the first half of 2020, public trust of governments did rise. Early on, both U.S. and Chinese citizens deemed the government to be the most fit institution to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. However, by May 2020, China and the U.S. saw significant drops in trust by 18 and 23 points respectively.

To explain these sharp decreases, Richard Edelman points to China’s use of censorship and U.S. officials’ touting of “miraculous cures” that were discredited while simultaneously diminishing the efficacy of mask wearing and social distancing in favor of reopening businesses. Edelman’s recommendation: it’s time to declare information bankruptcy

As trust in governments has diminished, trust in businesses has only grown stronger. Given that trust is the glue that holds society together, especially during trying times, leaders must take the initiative to rebuild corporate trust.

How Our Clients are Rebuilding Corporate Trust

Even before the pandemic, many CEO’s appeared to be heeding this call and stepping into their roles as “America’s new politicians.” In 2019, 181 of the nation’s top CEO’s agreed that “driving shareholder value is no longer their sole business objective.” This is a significant break with the past profit-above-all-else mentality.

And this shift, spearheaded by Business Roundtable Chairman and JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, reflects growing pressure from employees, social media, and customers to do more than increase stock prices. The pandemic and recent political events have only accelerated this shift.

At Audacia Strategies, we’re fortunate to have a front row seat to see this change in action with our clients. Here’s how our clients are stepping up to rebuild corporate trust one organization at a time:

1. Looking deep into the “soul” of the organization

Our clients are looking deep into the “souls” of their organizations to tap into their purpose. They’re asking: Why do we exist beyond profits? And what value do we add?

They’re also recognizing that often rebuilding corporate trust requires reaching out to customers and employees to ask for help. They’re initiating Voice of the Customer and Voice of the Employee studies to really take the pulse of their key stakeholders.

In many cases, though, rebuilding trust is perpetually aspirational. This applies not only to startups, but also to long-tenured companies. As the world changes, how we leave an impact can and must evolve too.

2. Knowing credibility matters

Employers are recognizing this moment for the opportunity to be a credible voice and to provide clear, unambiguous information for employees to follow — whether it relates to corporate strategy, benefits changes, or societal changes.

When organizations look at employees as humans, as opposed to money-making machines, they see beyond increasing productivity, profitability, and financial performance. They see how having empathy for what their employees have experienced in the past 12 months can open doors for the organization.

In the current climate, employees are exhausted from having to parse through health messages online, in their inboxes, on television, and in the media. Misinformation and disinformation have created a void leaving many without an orientation point from which to believe anything at all. Operating in such a gray area is exhausting and demoralizing.

Companies focused on rebuilding trust recognize the chance to fill this void for their employees (and customers) and gain credibility as a result.

3. Believing consistency is king

The quickest way to blow your credibility when it comes to communications is to broadcast inconsistent and sporadic messages. The old 7×7 rule is still a good starting point — but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

For our clients, we encourage a message architecture that ties every communication back to the organization’s purpose and vision

Overcommunication is key… but not via an avalanche of emails. Instead, use multiple channels and — most important — use live events whether structured town halls, small group roundtables, regularly scheduled staff meetings, or just chatting before the next Zoom call. All of these are opportunities to reinforce a consistent message. And that leads me to…

4. Proving trust is not a one-way street

Employees must also have a voice and provide feedback in real time.  And although annual engagement surveys can help, these shouldn’t be the only means of listening. Some ideas:

  • Hold open Q&A sessions
  • Use your internal communication tools like Yammer, Slack, or Google Hangouts to solicit and facilitate feedback
  • Share pulse surveys
  • Voice of the Employee (VOE) research 
  • Have an open inbox/phone line/door for receiving and sharing feedback

When your employees feel heard, they trust that you’ll share with them what’s working and what’s not in a constructive way. They trust that you’ll share the questions and suggestions you receive. And they will trust you to create a roadmap forward and share your progress regularly. 

Rebuilding corporate trust is hard work. It’s sticky. It can be emotional and truthfully, it can be exhausting for the leader who often says, “but I’ve said this in the last 5 meetings — let’s move on.” Remember, though, consistency is credibility and credibility is trust. 

As leaders, we don’t have the luxury of passing the buck here. Rebuilding public trust starts with us. If you’re ready to boldly step into this new era of radical transparency and corporate trust, your partners at Audacia are here for you. Contact us to discover how we can work together. 

Photo credit: Group of happy people working together in an office by Flamingo Images from Noun Project

listening and learning

Audacious Transparency: Reaffirming the Core of Our Business

At the end of 2020, Audacia Strategies passed a big milestone for a small business. We celebrated five years in business. As the CEO, I’m simultaneously thrilled and anxious to see what the future holds.

As we grow, I’m doing all I can to make sure Audacia remains true to our guiding purpose: helping companies achieve their boldest initiatives and transformational vision. Here are a few of our steadfast guardrails:

  • Vision, conviction, and clarity have been the core of our business since day one.
  • We hold the line when it comes to our business values and we walk our talk.
  • We start with clarity about who we are — we support organizations taking the biggest steps and we enable our clients’ bold visions.

After all, if you’re going to start a business and turn down a regular salary and steady hours, there had better be a bigger purpose — a bigger prize — on the horizon. This remains my philosophy of business ownership.

All that being said, we faced our first real test of our mission and values in 2021. So in the spirit of audacious transparency, I wanted to share what we learned.

Growth! Scaling! Excitement!

In a previous blog article, we discussed keeping tabs on our underlying messages. While it’s easy to get caught up in the big, surface level messages we want to share with our audiences, if those messages aren’t grounded in our core values, it’s easy to get off course.

Not only does this happen with corporate messaging, it also happens with the way we run our businesses. And I think one of the biggest reasons businesses fail is because they lose sight of their core values or make too many compromises in the name of scaling.

Now here we are, five years in and Audacia Strategies has served a variety of clients in industries from specialty chemicals to cyber security to government IT. We are growing quickly, but the “Founder fear” is always there. Could it all disappear? (Hint: It won’t. But fear isn’t rational.)

And this brings us to the story of our biggest test yet. We were approached by a politically-motivated, third-party to support a coal-based chemical firm in need of crisis communications support and management. 

My gut reaction: This is not in our lane. It’s not where we want to be and it’s not who we want to work with. Just as quickly, though, the fear sneaks in: “What if it all goes away? What about growth, scaling, excitement? We should at least take the call. So we took the call and started putting together a team. Then, a team member with many years of experience in this industry came back to us and said, “I just can’t do this.” She was right. We stepped back and referred the work to a large firm with deep resources, deep pockets, and a very broad client set. 

Today, I’m confident that decision was for the best. I’m relieved not to have pursued the business or expended the energy. When making the decision, though, I was flooded with so many emotions (fear, panic, relief, shame, disappointment). Brene Brown would have a field day here! I’m still working through the experience.

Positive Outcomes

Even while I continue dealing with the emotional fallout from this near miss, as a team, we’re seeing many positive outcomes. 

Since stepping away from that opportunity, we have moved planned new offering(s) forward significantly (coming soon!). We’ve been able to expand our support to current clients and their transformations are taking flight.

Also, we’ve had some really fun, fulfilling, and meaningful new opportunities walk through the door (although nothing simply walks through the door in entrepreneurial life — it’s all based on the work you put in and forgot about or wrote off days, weeks, and years earlier)

In addition, saying “no” to the opportunity that wasn’t right for us, means we can direct our energy toward what feels right. And this experience reminds me that focusing on our missions and values yields work that doesn’t feel “purely transactional,” but that feels purposeful. It almost seems like the universe is rewarding us for making a good decision. 

And it’s a good reminder that taking work solely to chase the goal of scaling and growth comes with an opportunity cost. Clearly, we saved ourselves from going down the wrong path. It scares me, though, to think about how close we came. I don’t think we are alone in this challenge. In fact, I see it with our clients all the time and that’s why I want to share our experience.

Still Learning and Listening

It’s too soon to claim that we’ve learned any transformational lessons from this experience. We’re still integrating, but I want to share my initial thoughts while they are fresh.

1. I’m grateful to work with folks who are willing to say, “I can’t do this” and lend a hand to help reframe and refocus priorities.

2. We’re learning Tony Robbins’ lesson first-hand: “where energy goes, focus flows.” It has been amazing to see what has appeared once we refocused on our vision.

3. We’ve recommitted to the work. We have our eyes on our page. This is our journey and it just doesn’t matter what others are doing as long as we are true to our vision/values and our clients are achieving their vision(s).

4. This is why I started Audacia Strategies. I’m reminded of the beauty of building a business with shared team values at the core. If we “have” to take on work that is outside our values, then why do this hard work at all? It’s like working for someone else and building their dream.

Audacia Strategies has emerged from this experience stronger and more committed to our mission, vision, and values than ever before. We appreciate the nudge to recommit to walking our talk and this conviction is something we are proud to bring to our clients. After all, every business faces similar challenges. And every business needs to recommit to their priorities on a daily basis.

As always, we’re grateful for the chance to learn, listen, and yes…make a mistake. We’re even more grateful for the near miss and the lessons learned.

Ready to let your your vision, conviction, and clarity guide your next business transformation? Contact us to schedule time to chat!

Photo credit: Jacob Lund from the Noun Project

underlying messages

More Than Words: What Underlying Messages Are You Sending?

It’s 2021. And I, for one, cannot remember a time when our words — all of our words — carried more weight or were more carefully scrutinized. It’s no longer an overstatement to say that the Internet has the power to make or break your brand. Welcome to the communications pressure chamber where anything you say has the potential to be found and amplified.

As leaders and communicators, our job is to shape conversations. But with the speed of information dissemination, the time to strategize is before — not after — a narrative is trending online. Anticipating all the facets of how your narrative might be perceived, however, can feel like an impossible task.

It’s no wonder we are hearing from many, if not all, of our executive clients asking how they can be more aware in their communications (look for a post about humanizing communications coming soon!). So let’s talk about strategies for making sure our underlying messages are consistent with how we want to represent our brands to the world.

The Challenge

If you’re a leader worried about the underlying messages you’re sending with your content, you are likely facing one of the following challenges:

  • The fear of saying the wrong thing is paralyzing, so you put out watered-down, over-wrought messages that end up effectively saying…nothing.
  • The fear of saying the wrong thing is paralyzing, so your communications have stopped altogether. But saying nothing at all says so much more.
  • You’re ready to walk the talk and you want to communicate directly, but you fear reputational harm if you “don’t get it 100% right.”

These fears are understandable, but the answer is not to get defensive or hide behind jargon. Former President Barack Obama, speaking at the Obama Foundation summit in 2019, told his audience: 

“The cancel culture is predicated on this idea of purity; the illusion that you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff…You should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.” 

Rather than tip-toeing around your communications, maybe it’s time to embrace the messiness and welcome conversations around what our underlying messages are saying both to those within our circles and to those on the outside looking in.

Embracing the Messiness  

Cancel culture aside, this heightened state of awareness creates challenges for leaders and communicators, but we can also choose to see these challenges as opportunities for change. 

I’m in a heightened state of awareness too. Not only am I hyper aware of the words organizations use (including Audacia Strategies!), but also I’m aware of their actions. This past summer, for instance, I received a message from an M&A consultancy announcing its recent merger and its partnership with several large universities to bring on new team members. 

I heard the surface-level message loud and clear: Growth! Scaling! Excitement! 

The problem was with the underlying message. The email included their full new leadership team — with photos. All 9 were white, male, and all appeared to be over the age of 50. And this was the message they chose to use as a recruitment tool directed at new graduates. I was stunned. It felt completely tone-deaf. 

When I opened that email so many questions flooded my mind: 

  • What does this say about the priorities of this firm? 
  • What does this say about the structures of higher education? 
  • What does this say about those completing business valuations? About opportunities to acquire, sell, or engage in M&A processes? And about the finance and banking industry more broadly?

The underlying message being sent—not only by emails like this, but by the lack of equity, inclusivity, and diversity across corporate America—to women and BIPOC is “you are not welcome here.” So what can we as leaders of the business community do to bring about change? Here are some ideas to get you thinking.

1. Take a stand as anti-racist

Now, there’s no doubt that the M&A consultancy was unaware of the underlying message their email was sending. They were firmly focused on the “Growth! Scaling! Excitement!” 

And this is precisely why it’s important for organizations to take an anti-racist stand. It’s not enough to say you’re non-racist or inclusive. The public needs to hear your personal and professional commitment to anti-racist action. Why not make this a regular focus of your content?

Too often when the national narrative gets uncomfortable, corporate leaders go silent, at least until they’ve completed their focus group testing and run it by Legal. As a leader in this moment when the country is engaged in discussions about institutional injustice, it’s essential to state your anti-racism clearly and announce the actions you’re taking to support those words. 

Communicate this in official statements, through updated company policies, and in your daily workplace interactions. Beyond these direct statements, partnering with a communications expert who specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion can help you become more aware of the subtle non-inclusive messages you may be inadvertently sending.

2. Examine and address systemic racism in your organization.

If your response to my description of the email I received made you bristle, that’s because of systemic racism. Remember, and this is crucial, systemic racism harms all of us. Systemic racism makes members of “dominant groups” blind to their own racism and bias. Being blind to racism and bias makes us write company policies and procedures that are also biased. 

The only way to fight systemic racism is to face it head on:

  • Examine all company policies and procedures
  • Create a committee to examine and weed out or flag problem areas
  • Ask: Are paths to advancement within your organization structured to disenfranchise people of color?
  • Consider what efforts you are making to hire people of color as well as how you’re ensuring these employees thrive
  • Make visible changes to support a truly diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist culture

3. Use your power to change corporate norms.

Leaders have the power to use their resources and privilege to drive change. Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to look beyond what you mean to say and consider how others might interpret your content. Then get to work improving corporate culture.

As leaders, we are uniquely positioned to move the needle on changing social norms. We need to recognize the position we’re in and commit to taking meaningful action. There’s much to be done. There’s much you can do to infuse your company with anti-racist values and create an anti-racist culture.

In this spirit, here’s what we’re doing:

  • We’re actively examining our recruiting, partnering, and networking processes to engage a diverse network of partners.
  • We’re committed to bringing a broader set of values and bigger, more audacious, thinking to clients and to our community.
  • We’re listening, learning, trying and failing, trying and advancing, and pushing ourselves to learn more, get uncomfortable and bring more awareness to our communications and our actions.

Becoming more aware of our communications is about more than rooting out racism, though. We’ve been seeing increasing calls for companies to take a clear stand on environmental issues, for example. So another change you can consider is to make sure you have a clear set of values and that you stick by them.

Ask yourself and your team:

  • Do our messages amplify our company values?
  • What messages do the images we use in advertising send?
  • What social change movement would you like your brand to lead? What are you doing to move the needle?

All of this can feel overwhelming, which is why it’s so important to have a diverse team. Considering perspectives and voices that are different from your own will make you more aware of the underlying messages you’re sending.

I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers or that we at Audacia Strategies have it all figured out. Audacia has a long way to go. I have a long way to go. We aren’t going to get this right the first time and we will make mistakes. 

As CEO, though, I’m committed to taking action to increase true diversity and inclusivity. With this focus, the underlying messages will fall into place. We have to start, fail, learn, and improve. 

So, what are you doing?

Photo credit: Jacob Lund from the Noun Project

bold steps

5 Lessons from 5 Years (and What’s Next)

This month, I’m celebrating five years taking bold steps as the CEO of Audacia Strategies! Anniversary messages tend to be like toddlers…all about “me me me me me!” But the truth is—it’s all about YOU, Audacia Strategies’ clients, partners, and community.

As I take time out to reflect and celebrate at the end of a year like none other, I am overcome with gratitude. Your willingness to listen as we strive to balance your current business needs with the future needs of a transforming organization means we can cover more ground more quickly. Your positive responses to our content gives us the confidence to be leaders in our community. And your support on so many fronts makes it a joy to get up and do what we do every day.

So, as I share five lessons from five years in business, I want you to know we’re always thinking about how the lessons we learn can be applied to your organization as well.

1. Choose Your Name and Brand Identity Carefully

What’s in a name? Well, I won’t say the name of your organization is everything, but a great name can be a good conversation starter. And since we’re all in the messaging business in one way or another, it is a good idea to give names and titles careful thought. 

Why the name Audacia?

Here’s the definition:

From audāx ‎(“bold, daring”), from audeō ‎(“I dare”)

  1. daring, audacity
  2. boldness
  3. provocativeness

I chose the name Audacia Strategies because I never want to forget that spark that started me down the path to building my consulting business. With this name, I knew I’d never forget my big “why.” I knew it would be crystal clear to my team, clients, and partners that we are all about taking bold steps and transformative action. We don’t back down. We aren’t afraid to take risks.

More recently, I’ve purposefully shifted a lot of my language (both internal and external) to talking about my team. As I like to say, “this is not the Katy show.” All of this is part of discovering my brand’s true identity. Have you reflected on your organization’s identity lately?

2. Insist Upon Your Values

I also want to keep our company values on the forefront of everyone’s minds. There’s no mistaking what we stand for and because we know actions speak volumes, we make sure to walk our talk.

When I look at the strides we’ve made as a team, I know what works only works because we have clients who share our values. Trust, transparency, and audacity are the key ingredients to our success. But if any of these were missing on either side of the equation, we know we wouldn’t be where we are today.

When organizations have strong values that their customers recognize, it humanizes those organizations. Make sure that you infuse all of your messaging, both internal and external, with your company values. Could your customers list your organization’s values? 

3. Stay On Top of What’s In/What’s Out

Top organizations stay on top of what’s in and what’s out in their industries. Messaging and corporate communications has evolved a lot over the past five years. Just consider how much attitudes about Facebook and other social media platforms have changed during that time. Remember the carefree days before Cambridge-Analytica?

Here’s what stands out in our industry:

 

In Out
Straight talk Flowery prose
Teamwork “It’s faster if I do it myself”
“Revenue Driver” “Cost of doing business”
Progress Perfection
Getting uncomfortable Playing it safe

 

4. Taking Bold Steps Pays

For the past five years, Audacia Strategies has been in growth mode. I knew from the beginning that to meet my ambitious goals, I needed to set my fear aside and take steps I didn’t feel ready to take. I knew I couldn’t sit back and wait for the planets to align. I had to go out and find great partners so that I was ready to serve big clients. I had to believe that if I made smart investments, the revenues would come in and I’d be able to cover those big moves. In short, I had to trust myself, so my clients would trust my team.

Betting big has paid off big for us. It hasn’t always been a perfectly smooth ride, but that’s the point. Smooth rides mean that you’re covering well-trodden territory and change-makers can’t afford to play it safe. What big, bold steps do you need to take to raise your organization to the next level?

5. Look to the Future

So, what’s next? More of what we do best—rolling up our sleeves and diving into your biggest investments and boldest ideas. We’re bringing more firepower to the game with expanded voice of the stakeholder (customer, employee, community) capability, non-financial due diligence offerings, and more straight-talk-results-focused communication strategy.

What else should we be working on? What do you need most? Where would you like Audacia Strategies to focus its efforts in the coming months and years? We would love to hear your ideas for what’s next and what we should be working on! 

Give us your best ideas in this short (90 seconds) survey and we’ll share the responses in 2021. Fill out the survey here. #accountability

Here’s to all of us for making it through 2020! And here’s to another five years and beyond of bold steps for Audacia Strategies, our clients, partners, and community!

Photo credit: by Jacob Lund from the Noun Project

strategic narrative

Where Are You Going? 3 Critical Questions for Nailing Your Strategic Narrative

Who are you? 

What have you done? 

Where are you going? 

Equal parts old perspiration and aspiration, the answers to each of these questions form the core of your firm’s strategic narrative. Having worked with several firms to define and articulate their narrative, we focus on aligning their vision and values with a narrative about taking that vision and those values into the future. 

For example, we recently worked with a firm that wants to apply their services to a different and more challenging set of problems. In other words, they are ready to expand their product and service offerings to bring additional value to their clients’ organizations. 

They knew that the strategic narrative was the place to start even before working on marketing, messaging, and communications. 

We facilitated a series of discussions with their leadership team to distill their areas of focus, figure out their core competencies, and get specific about their aspiration for the future. To ensure the strategic narrative aligned with what their customers truly wanted, we also conducted a Voice of the Customer assessment. The VOC delivered insight into customer trust, awareness, and loyalty.

What we’ve found in working with these clients is that companies are pretty clear on where they’ve been and what they’ve done. It’s where they’re going that is a challenge to articulate. In other words, the aspiration trips people up. 

So, let’s dig into the what, the why, and the how of strategic narrative, then we’ll be able to see the aspirational piece more clearly. 

What is a strategic narrative?

Before we answer this question, let’s talk about what a strategic narrative is NOT. When most marketers and leaders hear “strategic narrative,” they think, “we need a story that defines our organization’s vision and communicates our strategy.” 

They think, “we have a mission statement and a vision statement, so why can’t we just pull in language from those to create a strategic narrative?” But creating a strategic narrative is about so much more than creating the next piece of marketing collateral or writing that P.R. puff piece. 

Your strategic narrative should discuss your firm’s values and how you create value for your customers or clients. It’s the comprehensive, guiding narrative that draws a line in the sand for you. You can think of it as your organization’s North Star. 

Your strategic narrative:

  • Shows employees and leaders their roles and purpose.
  • Drives change when it’s time for a pivot or transformation.
  • Guides all of your communications in times of celebration or crisis.

You can revisit the key steps for developing your strategic narrative in this previous article.

Do we really need a strategic narrative?

Great question! 

I could answer by referring to the history of storytelling. I could tell you, for example, that stories have helped human beings figure out who to trust, establish community, and connect with each other for thousands of years. 

Or I could answer by referring to the psychology of storytelling. I could tell you, for example, that fancy cells in our brains called mirror neurons allow us to not just follow a story as it’s being told, but “live” out the action in our brains. This is why you jump along with the actor in your favorite thriller flick.

Bringing this closer to home, I could also remind you that putting thought and intention into your strategic narrative is more important now than ever before. We are all consumers. We are all clients. And we are all looking for connection. We want to align ourselves and our organizations with the people, organizations, and firms that share our values, understand our goals, and can contribute to our desired legacy. 

But beyond the benefits of connecting and captivating your customers, you need a strategic narrative to inspire employees, excite partners, and engage influencers. These are the reasons the aspirational aspect of the narrative is so critical.

How do we nail the aspirational aspect?

Creating a narrative that inspires, excites, and engages is tough, as anyone who has tried to strategize a social media campaign for “going viral” can attest. Add to that creating an aspirational strategic narrative that also aligns with your values and your value proposition and it’s clear how easy it can be to get lost in the weeds.

Nailing the aspirational aspect of a strategic narrative takes equal parts insight into your organization and reflection on how your organization is perceived. 

Insight into your organization

Your narrative—the story, the language, the tone—must be authentic and true to your organization. This is why input from leadership is key. It should also ring true to those who interact with your organization. 

Integrating the internal pulse that drives your team and the external perception you project out into the world is where the magic happens in messaging that is authentic, accurate, and persuasive. 

  • To gain internal insight, ask the following questions: What are the values we currently espouse? Do they still hold true? Do they need an update or clarification? Does the tone of our organization represent those values? Who do we want to be? How do we want to impact the world? What change do we hope to bring about in the world? Are our values clear to our employees? If answers to these questions are in any way fuzzy, take a pause and schedule a town hall meeting.
  • To gain external insight, ask the following questions: Can stakeholders identify our values based on the tone of our messaging? Are our values clear to our customers? Is it clear to our customers that our organization walks the talk? Do they view our aspirations as aligned with their needs? If answers to these questions are in any way fuzzy, consider whether a Voice of the Customer assessment makes sense.

Reflection on how your organization is perceived

Once you have taken the time to answer the above questions, it’s time to build your aspirational strategic narrative. Reflection on the insights gained through the process described here should reveal your path forward. If you find the answers misaligned with how you want to be perceived, figure out what data to track to get to the bottom of the issue and build up from there.

In addition, if your aspirational goals include expanding your services to reach a new market or solve a different set of challenges for your clients. Reflect on what those answers are telling you in light of your vision for the future.

Together, these pieces of the strategic narrative come together to deliver a narrative that is true to your organization today and a North Star for your future.

If your firm is unsure of where you’re going or how to communicate your aspirations internally or externally, a strategic narrative might be the missing link. Our team at Audacia Strategies is ready to sit down with your leadership team and find your North Star. Let’s find some time to connect!

Photo credit: https://www.canva.com/p/gettyimagespro/

Voice of the Customer

Want to Know What Your Customer is REALLY Thinking? Voice of the Customer Can Be a Game Changer

We are committed to helping clients make progress and develop new strategies for our new reality. Voice of the Customer (VOC) analysis is a valuable tool to deploy to stay connected to customers, demonstrate commitment to serving them well, and gain valuable insight into how to best (re)shape your business strategies (which are probably in flux). Download our Voice of the Customer brochure here for further information on services offered. 

Do you know what your customer thinks of your firm? 

No, I mean what they really think.

Do you wonder how to get honest feedback from your customers? Do you worry that your preconceived notions or conventional wisdom gets in the way of understanding your customers’ real priorities? 

We all know understanding our customers is key to business success and yet, the pace of day-to-day operations and the span of stakeholders across most organizations can force managers to make assumptions about priorities and even customer satisfaction. 

This may be because traditional feedback loops are more prescriptive and formal or because there is a natural hesitancy to probe too deeply into customer satisfaction. Whatever the reason, a Voice of the Customer (VOC) study can provide an additional channel for customer communication and insight.

To get you started, Audacia Strategies CEO, Katy Herr, sat down with VOC strategist and Audacia Strategies partner, Robin Kogelnik, to talk about the what, the why, and best practices for a Voice of the Customer strategy.

Robin brings to the table over 20 years of experience in business strategy, market and competitive analysis, and business development operations. She has led Voice of the Customer and Voice of the Employee studies in classified and unclassified environments for a wide range of clients from large aerospace firms to small businesses and nonprofits. 

To find out how your firm can benefit from VOC, check out these highlights from Katy’s interview with Robin.

Q | Can you talk about what a Voice of the Customer is? What is a Voice of the Customer survey?

A Voice of the Customer study is a very positive and effective way to connect with and get unfiltered feedback from your clients. It’s a structured set of interviews conducted by a third party to gauge how things are going beyond formal communications and normal day-to-day interactions. 

Why do we recommend a third party? Honestly, it makes the process credible and limits the second-guessing! Someone who isn’t directly involved with your day-to-day work and isn’t involved directly with the customer can ask the questions and record the answers objectively. There are no filters, agendas, or assumptions that can interpret a customer’s response or skew the results. 

In my experience, doing a Voice of the Customer study is a discriminator—it shows that you genuinely want their feedback and it really underlines your commitment to their success.  

Think of it as one more powerful tool to add to your customer relationship management and business development arsenal. 

Q | Can you explain how the process typically works?

First, you and your account and business development teams know the customer best. You select the individuals to include in the study and provide all the contact details. We’ll help you prioritize the information you need and craft a set of interview questions that will provide the kind of insight that you can act upon.

Obviously, the number of interview questions has to be realistic and respectful of your customers’ time. We never ask for more than 30 minutes. Sometimes interviews take less time, and sometimes people talk and talk (which is wonderful!). But if the initial ask is too much, they’ll say no. So be disciplined and keep it to a manageable number of questions that focus on the information that you truly need.

Now, the goal is always to get unfiltered feedback, so you want to give customers the opportunity to tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can get that kind of honesty when any and all feedback is on a non-attribution basis (AKA anonymous). 

Anonymity is key because it gives people the opportunity to open up in a way they’re not afforded on a daily basis (particularly for those who work within the government).

There are a lot of different ways to conduct the interviews and capture the customer’s feedback, but you want to make it as easy as possible for them to participate. What I’ve found to be the most effective is having the conversation over the phone. The calls are scheduled whenever it’s most convenient for the customer. 

“I’ve had interviews with customers at 11:00 pm and 5:00 am, and I jump at the chance. It reinforces how important they are, how much you value them, and how much you value their opinion.”

Phone interviews give customers the most schedule-flexibility, but in an interesting and subtle way, they reinforce the fact that their feedback is on a non-attribution basis. It creates an environment that gives them the freedom to relax and answer questions in an unguarded and thoughtful way. “I always joke that it must be like going to confession!”

“All joking aside, we take the non-attribution structure very seriously—from beginning to end. In our reporting, we summarize the feedback by topic to ensure there’s no traceability back to any one individual. We do capture everything verbatim, and we include direct quotes to provide the right amount of emphasis (i.e. the customer’s emphasis) when it makes sense and when it helps to highlight the importance of any particular feedback.”

Q | How do you see clients using this information once they have it?

Well, that really depends on where they are in their business development cycle—whether they are concerned about a particular account or they have a big recompete on the horizon or if they’re interested in branching out into other areas within the customer organization. 

It’s also been a great way to check in with customers after a big internal reorganization or after a merger. There are times when things are moving so quickly that you decide you need to call a timeout: How is everything going? What are we doing well? What’s not working? 

This is a way to get clear on how you’re doing and the customer’s priorities.

“Ultimately, though—and this is key—this information helps clients prioritize how to spend their time, how to spend their resources, whether they need to make personnel changes, whether they need to shore up a particular service or support they provide, or even whether they need to change partners or bring on a new partner.” 

I’ve also worked with companies that are interested in developing their value propositions and trying to understand what differentiates them from their competitors. I think this is a valuable insight: Why did they choose you? What do you do that separates you from everybody else?

And your value proposition is another one of those things that can very easily be subsumed by company dogma and generic corporate-ese. You might assume, as most companies do, that you know what differentiates you from your competitors. But hearing it from the people that are evaluating you against your competitors will either confirm the messages you’ve always relied on or provide you something more. Insights that can guide how you position for the next program, how you qualify and quantify your value in a proposal, and how you compete for business. 

Q | It sounds like it’s helpful across the customer life cycle. It’s helpful when you’re in business development and for your positioning. It’s helpful for taking the pulse of the customer once they’re on board operationally. And it’s helpful for keeping that pulse throughout the customer service journey—showing “we care, we want to know, and we listen.”

Absolutely. I think going beyond just making sure that you’re on the right track with deliverables, it’s important and it shows that you want to invest in doing all the right things for your clients. For many clients, the Voice of the Customer study becomes a real value add. Even if you don’t always like the feedback, it’s such a positive process and experience. 

An extremely high percentage of customers I’ve interviewed (I won’t say 100%, but a very high percentage) are very glad they’ve been asked to participate. They say things like, “Thank you. This is a good thing to do. I really appreciate that they included me in this process.” They feel good about your company because you’re going above and beyond. They feel good because you chose them, you respect their opinion, and you want their feedback. 

Q | Are there best practices in conducting a Voice of the Customer study that companies should think about when they’re embarking on their planning or thinking about how they might utilize the information?

Yes. First, when you’re planning your VOC, in order to get relevant feedback, you want to get a representative sample of the people that your company, i.e., your personnel, are interfacing with. So you want to contact customers working at different levels and in different functions—not just manager to manager, but a 360-degree evaluation.  

Also, ask questions that get at the information you need, like: How has it been going contractually? Or on the financial and business management side? How has it been going in terms of service delivery or technical deliverables? How are we doing from a program management perspective? How are we doing on subcontractor management, partners, and bringing on the right people and skill sets? 

Finally, if you decide to do a voice of the customer study, you need to plan to follow up with them afterwards. You certainly want to acknowledge and thank them for participating, and you don’t want them to think that it was a waste of their time. So you can use the results to continue to build those relationships. 

It’s important to say, “Hey, this was a big help. We really appreciate the feedback. It gave us a lot to think about (or it gave us a lot of good ideas on how we can improve).” It doesn’t mean you have to throw a lot of money at anything and it doesn’t force you to commit to anything. It does give you another opportunity to have follow-up conversations, to continue to build trust, to get direct feedback on how you can move forward and how you’re doing, and to show that you’re always focused on helping them succeed. 

Q | Is there any one thing that you wish your customers would know about Voice of the Customer, either to get a better outcome or something that would make the process easier for them to make a decision on or to get more people to participate?

Yes, I think it helps to set the tone for the whole exercise if you introduce the idea to your customer informally. If it seems too formal and strict, they’re going to be reluctant simply because the formality makes people wary.

“And don’t be afraid of being straightforward about why you’re doing a VOC. Maybe the company’s in the midst of a change, maybe it’s spinning off, maybe it has just been acquired, maybe there have been layoffs in other parts of the company, etc. Some big change is happening at the company, and you want to check in and see how things are going. We always want to keep it positive right from the beginning. So I encourage people to just bring it up during a regular meeting or give them a call and let them know your plans.” 

For instance, say your business development lead has a great relationship with one of her counterparts onsite. Ask her to bring up the idea the next time she’s onsite or mention it on a call, “Hey, we’re thinking about doing this study, and we’d really love it if you can participate. Would you mind if our consultant gave you a call and asked a few questions? It’ll be quick, and just think, you can really let us have it if you want to!” 

Sometimes people are concerned about why the study is being done, but it’s a very positive experience all around and it’s never about trying to disrupt anything or to get “dirt.” Customers feel very good about being asked to participate. 

And you can set the tone at the very beginning for what this experience is going to be like—you want your customer to know that it’s going to be very positive, it’s going to be very easy, and say, “we’re only asking a very select group of people, the ones whose opinion we value the most.” That might sound like hyperbole, but it’s true.

Q | This has been hugely helpful, Robin. Thank you so much!

So, there you have it: a Voice of the Customer study can be a game changer for your business strategy, your business approach, and your customer relationships. Consider the opportunities investing in unfiltered customer feedback could open up for you. (And, by the way, this works for getting employee feedback too! We call this…wait for it…Voice of the Employee (VOE).)

Audacia Strategies now offers VOC and VOE services. Download our Voice of the Customer brochure for further information. If you’re looking to “get under the hood” and get an unfiltered read on your customers’ or employees’ experiences, we’re ready. Book your consultation session today! 

Photo credit: HONGQI ZHANG