3 Ways Finance Can Help Improve Operating Margins

One of the challenges facing today’s finance executives is improving operating margins for the business. Top-line growth is very slow, inflationary pressures are causing higher input costs, and customers are pushing for innovative new products and services, albeit at discounted prices. All these factors, among others, are significantly squeezing company margins left, right and centre.

Uncertainty is the norm today, rendering tried and tested ways of creating value unfit for purpose. Thus, finance executives and their teams have to come up with new innovative and agile ways of capturing value and striving in this environment, while at the same time keeping costs down. Look no further than the number of profit warnings, earnings miss and business closure announcements by companies of all types and sizes. This just shows how the pressures on margins are considerably increasing, and also not expected to abate anytime soon.

When it comes to improving operating margins, many finance executives normally make one of these common mistakes. Implement across the board cost-cutting initiatives (mostly focused on reducing employment costs), raise products/services prices, or offer steep pricing discounts with the hope that the discounting will boost revenues and translate into higher operating margins. The problem with these approaches is that they fail to take into consideration the value-add to the customer.

So what must finance do?

Think and Act Differently

Most of the time the finance executive’s focus is on improving specific elements of the Income Statement, instead of the entire business. This in turn results in the finance organization embarking on one-off cost reduction initiatives, that fail to differentiate and understand the difference between good and bad cost.

Instead of focusing on cost reduction, heavy discounting and price increases, the CFO and the team must apply innovative, non-traditional thinking to margin management. They need to have a deeper understanding of the forces (both internal and external) driving the business margins. Many finance executives are aware of the factors influencing their margins. But, do they really know the significant drivers at granular levels for each product, channel, geography, segment, market, or business unit?

Thinking differently and making use of ABC/M, Customer Life-cycle Value and Customer/Product Profitability Analysis techniques can help CFOs understand their organization’s costs and their drivers. It also helps them to think beyond historical top-line focus and current constraints, and focus on doing the right things. For example, the CFO will be able to ask and answer the following questions:

  • What does our customers value most?
  • Is our current value proposition delivering customer value?
  • Do we need to change our current business operating model?
  • Should we sell all the under-performing assets or not?
  • Should we exit all the under-performing businesses, brands, markets or channels?

In order to improve operating margins, it is critical that executives consistently apply margin management to the entire business. You need to manage margin the end to end processes of the entire value chain, and find a more integrated way of driving overall results as opposed to one element of the income statement or business. This helps eliminate waste and also leads to more transparent and informed decision making.

Make Insight-Driven Decisions

Although information systems have improved significantly, many organizations are still struggling to benefit from their use. For instance, there is an organization class that is still reliant on primitive systems that are no longer fit for purpose in today’s data driven-economy. Then there is another class of organizations who have implemented modern technologies to enhance decision making but are struggling to integrate these with existing systems or have experienced dismal implementations with far-reaching consequences.

The modern finance organization must leverage data and analytics to inform margin decision-making. For instance, CFOs can make use of advanced predictive modelling and simulation tools to identify drivers of margin, calculate margins under different scenarios and evaluate ways of improving the margins.

Care must be taken that you do not embark on a data-hoarding spree without first understanding why you need that specific data. You need to make sure that you are collecting the right data to analyse and extract meaning from, otherwise you will end up wasting your time, energy and resources analyzing wrong data and generating ineffective insights. Information is only as valuable as the decisions it drives.

Wrong data collection often results in ineffective analysis and generation of misleading insights which ultimately leads to slow and ineffective decision making. This also causes the business to react slowly to new opportunities and threats. Instead of being proactive, overall decision-making is mostly reactive.

When margin decisions are made based on insights, more emphasis is placed on adding value to the customer and not on quick fixes such as slashing more costs. You can cut costs only up to a certain extent, long-term this is not sustainable. Hence the need to find alternative ways of boosting margins. Evidenced-based decision making also enables executives to develop a more detailed understanding of the full set of profitability drivers for the company.

Cultivate a Margin-Focused Culture

Delivering improved margins also requires the organization to develop a common understanding of the meaning of margin management and why this is crucial.  This is necessary to promote accountability, drive the right behaviours across the organization and ensure that margin optimization remains a key priority.

Successful fostering of this culture depends on senior management buy-in and involvement. If the drive is coming from the very top, it becomes easier to embed the culture into the business and make margin improvement an everyday part of the decision making processes. Senior executives have to therefore show a commitment to margin improvement otherwise the middle and lower level employees will also not be committed.

CFOs are better placed to drive this culture because of their constant engagement with the business – Sales, Marketing, Operations, R&D etc. By collaboratively working with other business units, finance executives can provide them with the information and the tools they need to make decisions that support profitability goals. They can also help put in place metrics that are not focused on volume alone but also drive the right behaviours and stimulate growth.

Furthermore, CFOs have to ensure that they are consistently reporting and reviewing margin performance across all brands, product categories, channels, segments and markets on a monthly basis. This will enable margin management to get embedded in the fabric of the business, and also be fully integrated with the broader strategy of the business.

Improving operating margins is not the responsibility of the finance organization only. It should be everyone’s concern. However, finance must lead the conversation. The CFO must ensure that the right operating model and capabilities have been developed to identify areas of margin leakage and define improvement actions.

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Finance Analytics: It’s Not About the Size of The Data

As the need to make impactful operational and strategic decisions in real time increases, CFOs are playing a greater role in the adoption and integration of data analytics in their organizations to support data-driven decision making.

Executives and business unit leaders are increasingly relying on insights produced by Finance to better understand enterprise performance. That is, what has happened, why it has happened, what is most likely to happen in the future, and the appropriate course of action to take.

In an era where data is proliferating in volume and variety, decision makers have realized it’s no longer enough to base key enterprise performance and risk decisions on experience and intuition alone.

Rather, this must be combined with a facts-based approach. Which means CFOs must set up modernized reporting and analytics capabilities with one of the main goals being the use of data as a tool for business decision making.

Appropriately analyzed and interpreted, data always has a story, and there’s always something to discover from it. However, many finance functions are failing to deliver value from their existing data analytics capabilities.

There is a misconception that to deliver actionable insights, the function needs more data for analysis. As a result, the supply of data keeps rising, while the ability to use it to generate informed insights lags badly.

Yet it’s not about the size of the data. It’s about translating available data and making it understandable and useful.

In other words, it’s about context and understanding that numbers alone do not tell the whole story. Finance leaders should connect the dots in ways that produce valuable insights or discoveries, and determine for example:

  • What is being measured, why, and how is it measured?
  • How extensive the exploration for such discoveries was?
  • How many additional factors were also reviewed for a correlation?

Further, to use data intelligently and influence better decision making, CFOs and their teams should recognize that most enterprise data is accumulated not to serve analytics, but as the by-product of routine tasks and activities.

Consider customer online and offline purchases data. Social media posts. Logs of customer communications for billing and other transactional purposes.

Such data is not produced for the purpose of prediction yet when analyzed, this data can reveal valuable insights that can be translated into action which delivers measurable benefits.

Often the company already has the data that it needs to answer its critical business performance questions, but little of it is being aggregated, cleaned, analyzed, and linked to decision making activities in a coherent way.

Exacerbating the issue is the mere fact that the company has a mishmash of incompatible computer systems and data formats added over the years ultimately making it difficult to perform granular analysis at a product, supplier, geographic, customer, and channel level, and many other variables.

There is nothing grand about data itself. What matters most is how you are handling the flood of data your systems are collecting daily. Yes, data can always be accumulated but as a finance leader:

  • Are you taking time to dig down into the data and observing patterns?
  • Are the observed patterns significant to altering the strategic direction of the organization?
  • Are you measuring what you really want to know, what matters for the success of the business?
  • Or you are just measuring what is easy to measure rather than what is most relevant?

CFOs do not need more data. What they need right now is the ability to aggregate, clean and analyze the existing data sitting in the company’s computer systems and understand what story it is telling them.

Before they can focus on prediction, they first need to observe what is happening and why. Bear in mind correlation does not imply causation.

Yes, you might have discovered a predictive relationship between X and Y but this does not mean one causes the other, not even indirectly.

For instance, employee training hours and sales revenue. Just because there is a high correlation between the two does not mean increase in training hours is causing a corresponding increase in sales revenue. A third variable might be driving the revenue the increase.

Jumping to conclusions too soon about causality for a correlation observed in data can lead to bad decisions and far-reaching consequences, hence finance leaders should validate whether an observed trend is real rather than misleading noise before providing any causal explanation.

Certainly, big data can be a powerful tool, but it has its limits. Not all data is created equal, or evenly valuable. There are situations where big data sets play a pivotal role, and others where small, rich data sets trump big data sets.

Before they decide to collect more data, CFOs should always remember data is comparable to an unexploited resource.

Even though data is now considered an important strategic asset for the organization, raw data is like oil that has been drilled and pulled out of the ground but not yet refined to its finer version of kerosene and gasoline.

The data oil has not yet been converted into insights that can be translated into action to cut costs, boost revenues, streamline operations, and guide the company’s strategic direction.

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Doing The Right Thing For Too Long

Markets and business models are shifting, and so should you keep up with these market changes if your business is to survive and succeed. Compared with the past, the current era of digitization represents an inflection point.

Consider individual trends such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, Big Data, cybersecurity threats, drones, the Internet of Things, driverless cars, blockchain technologies, and more.

These new technologies have significantly changed the way we connect and interact as individuals, including how businesses deliver products and services to their customers.

Reinventing your business will determine whether you succeed or fail in the digital age. As the saying goes, disrupt or be disrupted. No company, business, or industry is safe from disruption. Today, individual businesses have the potential to compete against multinational companies and win.

These businesses are quick to anticipate market changes and flexible to get ahead of the curve. Sadly, many companies are blinded by their successes and aren’t willing to disrupt themselves. They are not experiencing their desired growth trajectory because they are stuck doing the right thing for too long.

Don’t get comfortable with the status quo and allow your business to get stuck on a strategy and mindset that no longer fit the market.

Here are a few questions to ponder, the answers to which will determine the future of your business:

  • What is at the core of your strategy?
  • Are you in touch with the customers you want to serve? When customers give you negative feedback, how often do you listen and act on it?
  • Are you operating your business on the premise that you know what is best for your customers therefore they are supposed to buy whatever product or service you offer them?
  • Are you keeping up with market shifts or you only know how to grow under one set of conditions or products and services, but not how to survive and strive under another?
  • How robust and flexible is your IT infrastructure to help you innovate, perform your company’s Jobs To Be Done, and scale your business?
  • Are you creating a strong culture that is focused on customers, including a culture that not only embraces change but seeks it out?

Given our world is changing faster, it’s imperative to continuously look for signs that things are changing and think about how those shifts would play out in the short-term, medium-term, and long-term, not forgetting the impact on the execution of your strategy and enterprise performance.

The signs can reveal individually. At times, they are part of a wider trend.

Nonetheless, how you adapt will determine whether you succeed or fail. Keep learning. Learn about innovations in your industry and beyond. Try out new business models and technologies and embrace a philosophy of constant change.

Once you understand how the market is changing and evolving, you can develop the right product or service and strategy that will help you achieve your desired outcomes.

We often talk of the ability to “connect the dots” and “take a helicopter view of the business” as key ingredients for success. But how often are business leaders and their teams doing this?

Across the organization, a culture of “them versus us” prevails. Important decisions are made at a functional level with little or no consideration of their impact at the enterprise level.

Having the ability to grasp the big picture and see how different trends intersect is essential for determining the right path or course of action to pursue.

So, how do you spot market transitions and develop a clear sense of where the market is going?

  • Be curious and hungry for new ideas. Continuously ask tons of key performance questions and pay attention to what’s around you.
  • From time to time, challenge conventional wisdom. It’s easy to stick with what you know about your business model, customers, competitors, markets, or industry but dare to pivot when conditions change.
  • Don’t be nostalgic about the past or worried about protecting what you’ve built in the present. Always be curious about the future and develop a willingness to take calculated risks.
  • Ask existing and would-be customers how they feel about your company’s products, services, and strategy. Instead of turning to sources that reinforce your existing point of view, seek multiple perspectives and cross-reference them as new facts come in.
  • Develop an ability to handle multiple random data points at once. This will help you generate critical market, customer, and business performance insights and make smarter, informed decisions. Be careful to distinguish between the signal and the noise since data can be deceiving, especially when you’re looking for “confirmation” that protects your business model.

Data might not tell you why something is happening, but it does tell you what’s going on.

  • Look for patterns and abnormalities that might suggest something is going on, including any interdependencies.
  • Anticipate all the various scenarios of what could happen.
  • Plan your course of action in response to what’s happening in real time.

As the signals of a market shift increase, the need to act becomes more imperative. Note, monitoring and identifying market shifts, and effectively taking the appropriate course of action is a matter of timing.

If you continue doing the right thing for too long and lack the boldness to disrupt both the market and your own organization, you risk being disrupted and left behind. There is no company that is too big to fail. Neither is there a startup that is too small to succeed.

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How Feasible Are Your Strategic Objectives?

Every organization sets out its goals and objectives, to accomplish its mission and vision. The two often seem like two interchangeable phrases but there is a distinction.

A goal is a desired result you want to achieve and is typically broad and vague. An objective, on the other hand, defines the specific, measurable actions each employee must take to achieve the overall goal.

It is every leader’s job to create a coherent set of feasible objectives or what Richard Rumelt calls proximate objectives. Objectives that define targets the organization is fairly expected to achieve, even overwhelm.

This is essential for ensuring energy and resources are focused on one, or a very few, critical objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of positive outcomes.

An effective strategy defines a critical challenge or opportunity and clearly articulates how the organization is going to play to win or perform customers’ Jobs to Be Done.

Thus, the objectives an effective strategy sets should stand a good chance of being accomplished, given existing resources and competence.

On the contrary, a bad strategy results in the setting of bad strategic objectives.

Long lists of “things to be done,” are often labeled wrongly as strategies or objectives. Or the desired outcome is simply rehashed with no explanation of how this will be accomplished.

It doesn’t matter how well-thought your strategy is in response to an identified challenge or opportunity. If the resultant strategic objectives are merely a list of things to do, or just as difficult to achieve as the identified key challenge, there has been little value added by the strategy.

In today’s highly competitive, uncertain, dynamic, and complex environment in which a leader’s ability to look further ahead is diminished, it is better to focus on a few pivotal items through taking strong positions, creating options, and building advantage.

First identify the key challenges or opportunities for the business. Look very closely at the changes happening within your business, where you might get an added advantage over competition.

Next, create a list of the issues, including the actions your company should take.

Then, trim the original list to a noticeably short list of pivotal issues and proximate objectives by identifying one or two feasible objective(s), when achieved, would make the biggest difference. Remember, the identified objectives should be more like tasks and less like goals.

Now, focus on the objectives by channeling skills and available resources to accomplish the overall goal.

Once accomplished, new opportunities will open up resulting in the creation of more ambitious objectives. This cycle will help you develop a system that enables the setting of feasible strategic objectives.

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