Practical tips for webinars and online conferences

I’ve attended a variety of online meetings over the past three months from mid-March – these meetings have ranged from small groups for an hour or so through to multi-company conferences lasting for the best part of a day. Some have been excellent, with the organisers fully understanding how best to use the technology and how to keep attendees engaged. More than half, however, have ranged from “OK” down to “woeful”. As a result, I’m departing from my normal style of blog post in order to provide what readers may find as a useful set of practical tips – if this can help in any way to lift the quality of webinar experience then I’ll have succeeded in my aim!

  1. In advance / set up
    • Invitations should make clear which video tool is being used.  Many firms are using Zoom or Microsoft Teams but there are many other tools and downloading the software or updating a previously downloaded version may prove necessary for a number of attendees – I lost the first 15 minutes of one webinar that I attended when my software demanded that it be updated before use
    • If people have to register in advance, please make it clear that they need to go through the registration process.  Without this, a calendar invite can go in the diary and then the attendee clicks on a link at the time of the webinar only to find that they’ve sent through a registration request and haven’t yet entered the webinar itself
    • Ensure that all your speakers and other key attendees are using the right software and they know how to use the functionality.  It’s easy to test this by setting up a briefing session in advance on the same software and explaining the process of the event and the functionality that will be used (e.g. chat function, Q&A, breakouts, whiteboards)
    • Agree any rules that you want to adopt for speakers and your own firm’s attendees (e.g. dress code, backgrounds, use of company logos)

  2. Dialling in
    • For the event itself, have all your speakers and other key attendees dial in early to check that no one has network issues (e.g. some properties have more than one Wi-Fi network and if someone has been moving around with a laptop or tablet they could be on a network that doesn’t work so well in the room they’re choosing to use for the event itself)
    • Some software has people dialling straight in – others hold people in a virtual lobby and you have to admit them.  Be ready for this and ensure that you’re in “professional mode” as soon as the first guest arrives
    • Have a welcome screen (e.g. an opening slide) or the person acting as the host being “front and centre” ready for when guests join
    • Admit people at exactly the start time and spend 2-3 minutes welcoming them in order to allow stragglers to get their software sorted, grab a drink after their last session or whatever and dial in
    • Plan to actually start the content around 3-4 minutes in

  3. Format
    • The best webinars, short or long, seem to be those that have a clear host person who welcomes people, explains the methods being used for submitting questions or comments, facilitates Q&A, introduces speakers etc
    • Where quite a bit of functionality is being used, it helps to have a person other than the host being dedicated to this
    • Speaking slots of 15-25 minutes, followed by immediate 5-10 minutes of Q&A with that speaker, work well
    • A wider Q&A at the end is good for questions outside the direct focus of the webinar, to mop up questions that couldn’t be answered previously and as a flexible piece of the agenda to either fill in time or, more often, act as contingency for speakers who have overrun
    • Events lasting over an hour benefit from not purely being one long plenary session of presentations and Q&A.  Insert instant polling, videos and/or breakout groups
    • Events lasting over two hours should have a ten minute break for urgent calls etc
    • Longer “conferences” should have a proper lunch break, maybe even for an hour

  4. Presentation materials
    • You must have some!  I’ve attended a number of webinars now where a speaker is simply speaking to camera and I’ve yet to witness one that has worked well – in fact, I’ve seen people who’ve left their cameras turned on clearly zoning out and getting on with other stuff, and I’ve witnessed many attendees simply dropping out of the webinar entirely
    • The only exception to this is events clearly labelled as panel discussions – these need strong facilitation and still need some material to lead into the discussion, as a minimum
    • Presentation slides should be few and have simple content.  Busy slides with detailed diagrams and small type can be difficult to see for some people
    • Short video clips can work well to keep attendees interested
    • Instant polling grabs the attention back of minds that have been wandering and can be good to get some interactivity in discussion

  5. Etiquette
    • The host and anyone else considered key must keep their cameras turned on and they must look engaged throughout
    • If you can mute attendees microphones remotely to allow an uninterrupted flow, do so and tell everyone that you’re doing it.  If you can’t, then ask them to do it.  They can always unmute if they really want to speak
    • Questions are best submitted through a dedicated Q&A function, if it exists, or through the wider comments function if not.  The host can always choose to ask someone to unmute to ask their question, or a follow up, directly, if that’s what he/she chooses
    • If you have “resident experts” attending, maybe because they’re facilitating a breakout, it helps with the overall feel of the event to ask them to answer a question in a plenary session, or add to a point that’s been made
    • You must finish on time, or even 1-2 minutes early.  You cannot overrun – people drop off the event to attend their next call and the whole thing falls into disarray
    • Don’t be “salesy” – if many attendees don’t know you then it’s OK to do a (maximum) one minute introduction to the firm – otherwise, stick to the topic
    • Confirm with any external speakers that it is OK to share their materials, and a recording of their session, after the event – this may be to attendees only, or all the way to a recording on your website that could get a link to it sent out via social media, so be clear what you want their permission for

  6. Breakouts
    • I haven’t yet seen software where attendees can elect which breakout to join and achieve it themselves.  You have to allocate people to breakout groups so it’s best to work out in advance who goes into which one
    • It’s unlikely that breakouts will be used for further presentations – they’re more likely to be discussion fora
    • Discussion breakouts work well with a facilitator and 3-6 guests.  Your planning should allow for dropouts – I facilitated a breakout session recently that should have had three other attendees, from different firms that operated in the same market – it could have been powerful but, in fact, only one attended the webinar so it made a discussion forum quite difficult!
    • Have someone managing the technology, to put people into the breakout “rooms”, allocate unexpected/late entrant webinar attendees into groups and end the breakout sessions, moving everyone back into the plenary “room”
    • Some software tools require people to press a button to enter the breakout room – others don’t.  If yours does, tell people as you’re about to send them into the breakout “room”
    • Most video tools have a simple whiteboard facility.  This can work well in breakout groups, especially when controlled by the facilitator.  Some whiteboard tools allow free-format drawing etc – in my experience this only works well when all attendees have touch screens, which is unlikely.  Most of the time, the whiteboard will be used for recording comments, thoughts, agreed actions and the like, so they can be typed by the facilitator.  It’s important that the whiteboard is saved (there will be functionality for this) before the breakout ends or else the content will be lost.  Saved whiteboards will most likely be placed on the facilitator’s computer hard drive and can then be pulled up in the plenary session by screen sharing, or can be emailed to someone central behind the scenes
    • The technology should have functionality to allow for a message to flash up a minute (say) before the end of the breakout and count down to zero – use it!

  7. Overcoming technical issues
    • The most likely technical issue is broadband speed which can vary for all of us
    • For this reason, more than one person should have a copy of all presentation materials – if the host has broadband problems, the whole event could fail.  Ideally, a second person with a copy of the materials would be able to step in as a replacement host in this eventuality
    • Passing control of a presentation deck to others can work if all involved are both used to doing this and enjoying good broadband speed (i.e. it is fraught with risk!).  It’s probably better to either have one person moving slides on the request of a speaker or for the first person to stop sharing their screen/presentation and the second one to start sharing theirs, and vice versa later

  8. Follow up
    • Send a copy of any slides or other materials to attendees (or a link to them), as well as a link to any recording made (Note: which you may need to edit rather than sharing the whole thing)
    • Ask for feedback, unless you already know how it went from comments left via the chat facility
    • Choose whether or not to send materials presented, or a link to the recorded webinar, to registrants who didn’t attend
    • After this mechanical follow up, move into a sales process in the same way that you would normally.

I hope that some of these tips prove helpful to readers.

Good luck with your webinars and online conferences – they’re here to stay so it’s worth getting them right!

Stay safe.

Update your consulting propositions now!

Consulting firms and their clients have now broadly adapted to the remote working world. Projects have been prioritised – some put on ice at one end, new urgent projects added at the other and a mix in-between.

Client thoughts are turning to the future, now that it’s clear that we won’t be “coming out of this” any time soon. When we do emerge, we’ll be doing it into a new world…but what will it look like?

Strategy consulting firms have seen backlog and pipeline drops by around one third over the past couple of months. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise – who has wanted to strategise over the past few weeks? I believe that these firms are about to come into a new wave of activity, however, scenario planning for their clients, working out what they’ll need to do to adapt to the new world. They’re getting ready for this and the volume of post-COVID-19 “insights” on the major strategy consulting firms’ websites has been steadily increasing over the past week or so – much of this is at an overall “preparing for the new normal” level but some is quite focused on individual sectors or the potential use of specific solutions such as AI. Interesting reading!

Every sector will have its own scenarios to consider – to mention just a few examples, will Utilities think about onshoring their call centres, how can airports utilise contact-free technologies to transform customer journeys whilst maintaining high levels of security, which manufacturing supply chains still operate effectively and which need to go back to the drawing board, will retail banks take the opportunity to radically downsize their branch networks, how much can the health sector provide via home-based care with the support of virtual patient engagement technologies? There will be a huge amount to do and a lot of advice and support to be provided by the consulting and IT industries in particular.

Don’t relax at this point, however. It’s not the case that all firms will benefit equally. You need to prepare, and do it now!

I was reviewing a consulting firm’s Financial Services Digital proposition recently. It was fine…good, even…but I realised that it was deficient in that it looked at the world through a “pre-COVID” lens. Financial Services has, to date, viewed Digital as primarily another channel.  Now that, for example, the over 60’s are using PCs and tablets for video calls and are having to use the internet for shopping, banking etc, there’s an argument that the “cork is out of the bottle”. Digital Transformation is about to hit Financial Services organisations like a tsunami! Digital will be expected by the majority of the retail and business customer bases and there will be a permanent switch in traffic volumes between channels. The impact on operating models, staff skillsets, data accessibility and the like is significant.

Taking this on board (admittedly just a scenario!), the consulting firm’s Financial Services Digital proposition suddenly needs a rethink – it should be more “all-encompassing”, at least in terms of providing the framework, and then the client can understand the scope of the overall transformation required and the elements that this consulting firm can help to address.

The same holds true for many consulting propositions – they need to be reviewed and then updated to take the new world into account. Oh, and just to add an additional flavour, I suggest there are two new world time horizons to think about – “medium term” whilst social distancing remains essential (probably until there’s a vaccine that many of us have been able to benefit from) and “longer term” when we’re properly in the new world.

Enjoy the rethink and stay safe.

Don’t be scared of “sales”!

A very high proportion of consultants has either come up through the ranks or joined from industry. They are subject matter experts, industry experts, team leaders, programme managers and the like, and we and our clients love them for it! Often, however, they are blinkered on the topic of sales, feel uncomfortable when asked to sell our firms’ services and shy away from sales activity, preferring to disappear into valuable client delivery activity, knowledge management or internal training. Why?

The clue is in the first sentence of this post – very few people in consulting firms have come from professional sales backgrounds and whilst IT Services firms tend to have some people with sales training, even these feel more comfortable in a product or solution “features and benefits” world. Professional Services and much of IT Services sales is around “concepts” – there’s nothing to hold, show or point to without creating it from prior client deliverables or accelerator tools, for example.

Sales training is useful in order to make consultants familiar with the “methodology” of sales but, in itself, can create a mechanical process. Adding sales targets to this environment can serve to increase the feeling of discomfort, leading to high stress levels and likely failure. What to do?

More fundamental than the mechanical tools associated with sales is the mindset. I’ve encountered many, many consultants, including at Partner level, who believe that sales is not part of their job description, that trying to sell to a client would damage their trusted advisor relationship and/or that sales is about responding to inbound requests from client organisations. Hmmmm! I can almost smell the fear!

There are many ways to address this but I often find that appealing to the ethical standpoint that all quality consultants have is the best way forward. Would we try to sell something to a client that isn’t in their organisation’s best interests? Would we try to sell them something that we’re not truly capable of delivering? Of course not! Good, so that creates a list of things (that we don’t need to write down!) that we’re not going to raise with them. So let’s look at what we are going to raise.

Whether we’re focusing on a new business sales campaign or expanding an existing account, understanding the relevant issues that the client or potential client is, or may be, facing is a good start point. We can do that, it’s called research and is part of what consultants are trained to do! Then we match these against our firms’ capabilities and identify which issues we’re able to help to address, using combinations of our capabilities – again, standard consulting stuff known as analysis. Next, we develop our proposition, how we can use our bundle of capabilities to focus on the client problem and produce a solution – otherwise known as design.

OK, so we have our head sorted out and we’ve used our core consultant training to develop something that we can go and talk to a client or potential client about – and it’s not just “something”, it’s something that’s in the client’s interests and something that we are capable of delivering. It suddenly isn’t so “scary” after all, is it?!

Now to put the mechanical sales training to good use!

Virtrium joins Chaucer Group

The merger of Virtrium into Chaucer Consulting was announced recently – an important milestone for both firms.

My story here begins in the summer of 2016 when the Directors of CIO Advisory firm Virtrium asked me to assist them with their forward growth strategy. Virtrium had a good brand in the market and a wealth of satisfied, long-term clients so I was happy to take a look. We spent time understanding why clients came to Virtrium and what they were asking Virtrium to help with, and gained a wealth of information.

From this, we honed propositions into three groupings that follow the life cycle of CIOs’ key investment programmes, namely IT Strategy, IT Architecture and IT Transformation – and with these being focused in on the Digital or Omni-Channel agenda that many IT functions are needing to supplement their own teams with external expert assistance. Altering Marketing messages and sales collateral to suit, the team was able to explain better the core focus of Virtrium and how it could assist its clients.

The results have been rewarding – a similar level of “point solution” assignments but, crucially, a much larger demand for Virtrium to assist its clients across complete programmes, taking lead roles in implementation phases.

Moving the clock forward two years to last summer, the Virtrium Board felt that it would be able to support its clients more easily if it had access to a larger team of programme and change management resource, and recruiting these was both taking an inordinate amount of effort and taking too long. Accordingly, we went out into the market to talk to other consulting firms that come from a programme, project and change management background.

In Chaucer, not only did we find the necessary capability but also a wealth of business consulting skills to sit alongside Virtrium’s IT strength. Also, Chaucer was already heavily involved in the implementation of Digital Transformation programmes without necessarily having been involved in the earlier strategic definition activity – Virtrium therefore provides the Chaucer team with additional much needed expertise in IT Strategy and Architecture. A true “win win” or “2 + 2 = 5+” scenario.

It’s only been a month, and with the Christmas break within this too, but client feedback has been excellent and supportive with some programmes involving one “heritage firm” or the other being extended to include the expanded capability.

I’m delighted to have been involved across the journey so far and look forward to witnessing the next chapter – the continued growth that the combined business will undoubtedly enjoy going forward.

See here for Virtrium’s press release.

Are you managing your bench?

Is your bench empty?  Unlikely, but would you want it to be anyway?  Do you know how populated it is?

When I spend time with services firms, conversation inevitably gets round to profitability and then I start asking about gross margin.  Two times out of three, I find that gross margin isn’t understood well and, in particular, the costs of employed delivery resources are not split between chargeable and non-chargeable time.  When investigated, the cost of non-chargeable time is often an eye-watering surprise for the firm’s leadership team!  Worse, how this non-chargeable time is being spent isn’t understood properly.

We’re running people businesses.  If we don’t understand how our people are spending their time then we’re in “cobbler’s children” territory!

When we prepare a budget, we set utilisation levels for each grade of consultant from Partner down to Analyst (Note: how “utilisation” is calculated varies from one firm’s definition to another and is a topic of great debate!).  On an ongoing basis, we then need to manage our resources so that the budgeted utilisation level is achieved or even exceeded slightly from time to time….but do we do this?

Step one, therefore, is about assigning our “home team” onto chargeable client work to target utilisation levels.  If we’re struggling to do this then we don’t have a high enough level of business overall and so are overstaffed, the work we’re selling isn’t matching with the intended skills mix that we’ve resourced up for, resourcing isn’t controlled tightly enough and delivery is biased too heavily in the direction of associates, or we don’t have sufficient confidence in individual consultants.  Whatever the reason, it needs to be identified and addressed.

Step two is to make use of the non-chargeable time.  When we do the budgeting exercise, we rarely do anything other than identify the headcount requirement to deliver the volume and types of work that we’re planning to sell and calculate a budgeted cost of employed consultants and external third parties (associates, partner firms etc) associated with this.  In addition, we should look at the amount of non-chargeable time that we’ve built our budget around and the skills linked to this and build a plan to use this effectively for the good of both the firm and the consultants.

Topics such as training requirements mostly get picked up via personal development plans – the timing of delivery of training is planned in to fit with periods of expected lower chargeability where possible and I rarely see big issues in this area.  I often see Business Development and Proposition Development-related activities, however, being left loose and then suddenly jumped on as useful things to be doing “immediately” whenever the leadership team realises that the bench is looking a bit big and people need to be given something to do.  Why?

Most firms these days have resourcing, or wider Professional Services Automation systems, installed and they insert forward client project resourcing needs into them.  This is great, and facilitates forward revenue and gross margin projections, especially if weighted “hot Prospects” are shown as well.  Many of these systems also allow for different categories of “project” to be entered as well and we can use these to schedule a predicted workload of different non-chargeable activities, even split into types such as Market Research, Marketing, Account Management and Proposition Development.  Resourcing discussions can then include debates around the importance of the individual non-chargeable activities as well as client assignments – I accept that the non-chargeable activities will regularly be the ones to “give” in order to satisfy client demand but at least we will know what we’re moving around and we’ll understand the impact on the “list of useful things to do”.

If we plan and manage the use of our resources properly for both chargeable and non-chargeable activity, we’ll achieve higher consultant utilisation, increased opportunities for additional sales, a more likely achievement of internal development plans and more satisfied employees who know that they’re always doing something useful.

 

What acquirers look for in a Consulting Firm

I was interviewed recently, as part of a podcast series, on the topic of what acquirers look for when searching for consulting firms to acquire.

Drawing on my experience from both sides, helping firms to acquire and “packaging up” firms to get them ready for acquisition, there was more than enough content to fill a 25 minute session.

Enjoy listening to the podcast here and feel free to provide comment or contact me to debate the content and/or share your own experiences.

The future’s uncertain…….and bright!

Theresa May stood outside Number 10 after her audience with Her Majesty the Queen on Friday and announced that she will now form a Government to provide Britain with “certainty”. Really? The only thing more certain coming out of this election is that the country has a much stronger second party in Opposition than was the case before she called it.

Whatever your political persuasion, we are faced with a “fog of uncertainty” as Larry Elliott wrote in The Guardian, investors are “unnerved by economic uncertainty” as reported on the BBC, and business leaders are “appalled at the prospect of more political uncertainty” as Sarah Gordon reported in the FT.

So should we be despondent? What does all this uncertainty mean, for business and for our Professional Services and IT Services industry in particular?

Well, let’s take a look at what needs to happen in the wake of recent events. Both Public Sector departments and private sector businesses have a broader range of forward Brexit scenarios to consider than they thought before and they’ll need help with scenario planning now and with solution design and implementation later. Security, both physical and cyber, needs another round of thinking and additional solutions to be implemented to make citizens, consumers and businesses be and feel better protected. Businesses with strong export trade have a window of opportunity to exploit with an even weaker pound – let’s help them expand in existing overseas markets and conquer new ones. Equally, our own services are now even cheaper to buy by non-UK clients for a period – we should be talking to our international client base and capitalising on this.

Quite apart from these, there’s a huge amount of change happening that has no link to whether things are certain or uncertain in UK politics – the pace of change won’t slacken just because of a somewhat unexpected election result. We’re heavily involved in lots of this change and the demand for our expertise and resources won’t diminish any time soon as:

  • consumers continue to utilise digital channels alongside traditional ones, requiring omni-channel business strategies and  integrated IT and supply chain solutions
  • software manufacturers push their customers towards their shiny cloud-based solutions and the customers have to decide whether to go with this and the IT transformation programmes that result or stick with existing systems that work well enough but which may need to be self- or third party-supported
  • big data gets ever bigger – analysing data and extracting the critical intelligence needed to make business decisions swiftly is becoming ever more important
  • the opportunities created by artificial intelligence become better understood – it’s not just about automated factories any more
  • ….and so on….

The political environment may be uncertain but the future for our industry is bright!

Overseas acquirers are on the lookout!

 

 

 

At the time of writing, I’m looking at a foreign exchange website and seeing that £1 will buy around €1.18 or US$1.25, making our overseas summer holidays more expensive this year. Maybe stay at home and mix with the larger volume of inbound tourists?

Overseas businesses are seeing things more like US$1 will buy 80p or €1 will buy 84.7p, which is much more sterling than they’re used to – so, now that it’s clearer to them that the UK won’t cease to exist after Brexit and is even likely to prosper, they’re seeing the UK as a good investment prospect, as evidenced by recent announcements from Qatar, Nissan and Lidl.

The UK has always been a stepping stone for US businesses wanting to expand into Europe and vice versa. Outside of this, the English speaking world likes to set up a base in the UK and even list on the UK Stock Exchange, which has tended to provide a stable foundation to build upon. The weakness of the pound, which isn’t likely to change much any time soon, is contributing to an increased volume of such activity.

In our Professional Services and IT Services world, we’re seeing a similar picture and there is a number of UK-focused acquisition programmes led by overseas headquartered firms that I’m aware of. This activity in the market is pushing valuation multiples up a little but it doesn’t matter too much for the acquirer as the exchange rate is more than making up for this.

Does this mean that the time to package up your firm and sell it is now? Well, it depends. Initial search activity from overseas buyers may not necessarily be as well focused as it could be – “let’s go and research what’s available in the UK and see if there are some reasonably decent firms that we can pick up for an OK price!” – so you may get some initial inbound enquiries and/or interest if you hang up a “for sale” sign. It doesn’t take long beyond a first meeting, however, for an acquirer to focus in on the fundamentals of a firm, including:

– quality of work

– breadth and depth of capabilities

– a client base to leverage

– a decent revenue, gross margin and EBITDA profile

– a baseload of forward business.

I’m amused to see how some firms have been “respraying” themselves to look “hot” – e.g. process improvement consulting firms now displaying a Business Transformation message, IT advisory and project management firms jumping on the Digital bandwagon and some even trying to “double up” on Digital Transformation! If it’s a genuine change in direction for these firms, they’ve invested in the new positioning and have evidence (case studies, industry awards, a decent number of trained consultants etc) to back this up (Note: it’s normally a three or so year programme to change direction properly) then fine. A swift respray, however, is unlikely to work since these overseas acquirers aren’t desperate to buy – they’re taking a look and may buy if the search exercise uncovers something genuinely interesting. In my own activities on the acquirer side, it isn’t difficult to distinguish between the ends of the spectrum and “pure respray” firms are unlikely even to know that we’ve taken a brief look!

So the overseas acquirers are here for a reason, they’re investing but they’re not being silly!