Building a Strategic Plan Doesn't Have to Be Puzzling - If You're Playing With All the Right Pieces

(Originally published in the September 1999 issue of AFSMI's The Professional Journal.)

By William K. Pollock

There is often little incentive to spend either the time, money or effort to build a strategic services plan when there are so many more easily identifiable tactical, or "surgical", actions that can more quickly result in attaining some visible "wins" for the organization. However, by focusing too heavily on these short-term "wins" rather than planning for longer-term growth and stability, many services organizations may never get successfully beyond the short term.

For many business managers, the problem with strategic services planning is their relative inability to reconcile the benefits of long-term planning with the "quick wins" generally associated with these swift, tactical actions. However, this does not have to be the case, since there is no specific reason to build only long-term activities into a strategic plan for services. In fact, the best strategic plans typically include both short-term, as well as longer-term, activities.

Strategic planning does not have to be "rocket science" - the most successful plans are typically built on a solid foundation that addresses the most important questions in a logical and prioritized order. For some, the most difficult part of the planning process is the identification of which questions to ask; however, if you have been finding yourself asking these questions as a normal part of your day-to-day business activities, you may already be at the point where formalizing the plan will not be very difficult at all.

The best approach to strategic planning is to focus first on those critical questions that need to be asked, and then on which plan elements will most effectively answer them. Among the key questions that your organization may consider asking are (Figure 1):

Figure 1

  • Who are our customers? What do they require, and are we providing them with everything they need? What can we do to keep them happy, and "in the fold"? How can we attract more good customers like the ones we already have, and how can we make our good customers, great customers?
  • Who, within the current customer base, makes the decision to use the products and services we provide? Is there a formal process used for choosing a provider? How many people are involved? How long does the process take? Is the same process used at all of the customer's facilities?
  • What are the primary evaluation factors used to select a provider? Which factors are most important in differentiating one provider from another? How do they change from one market segment to another? How do they change over time?
  • Why do our customers choose us? Who do they reject when they select us? Who do they go to when they reject us? How many providers make our customers' long lists? How many make their short lists? Where do we typically stand on a segment-by-segment basis?
  • Are we meeting all of our customers' services needs and requirements, and, if not, where else are they going for enhanced service and support? How can we become their "total service provider"? What will it take to position ourselves as their single source "provider of choice"? How can we grow our portfolio along with the needs and requirements of our customers?
  • How do our customers use our products and services? Do we fully understand their specific needs and applications? Do we understand their services "value-in-use"? Do we focus enough attention on the needs of individual market segments, or are we perceived as merely being a "generic", commodity-like services provider?
  • How satisfied are our customers with our present products, services and support capabilities, as well as those of our competitors? What additional areas of customer service and support do they require, and how do they rate our potential capabilities in providing them? What can we do to improve our current levels of service performance and customer satisfaction? What can we do to make our organization more important to our customers and targeted market prospects?
  • How do customers get their information on us and our competitors? In what form? How does our sales and promotional material compare to our competitors'? Do we have enough marketing collateral? Does it convey the proper message? Is it working?
  • How are we positioned against our competition? Who are our strongest competitors? What makes them so strong? What are our principal strengths and weaknesses? How do they impact the way in which the market perceives us? What can we do to correct any mistaken perceptions?
  • How vulnerable are we to losing some of our customers to the competition? For what reasons? How likely would they be to switch providers? How easily can we "win" accounts from our competition? Where are they most vulnerable? What are our greatest opportunities and threats?
  • How comprehensive and current is our portfolio of products, services and support? Where can we most effectively expand our "value-added" service and support offerings? How can we assure our customers that we can support their total services needs?
  • Are we offering the right "mix" of products and services, to the right market segments, and at the right value-price points? Are we communicating the right message to each targeted segment, and are they being responsive? What other products, services and support do our customers need? What expanded, or "value-added", offerings could we add to attract additional customers?
  • How is our pricing perceived by our customers? By the market as a whole? Do we need to restructure our pricing to gain share? What are our customers' total needs? What are our competitors doing about meeting these needs? What should we do?
  • How effective are our sales and marketing efforts? What do our customers/ prospects think of the quality/capability/knowledgeability/courteousness/helpfulness of our customer service, sales and marketing personnel? What additional training do they require to make them more effective? Where can we improve the overall marketing process?
  • What type of plan do we need to put into place to ensure that we are able to compete on a "world class" basis? What elements of our overall planning process require the greatest effort? Have we set attainable goals and objectives? How can we best measure our progress in attaining them?
  • Are we using the most appropriate channels to move our products/services to market? Are we using the most effective marketing and promotional media to communicate our message? How can we make our sales and marketing programs more effective?
  • Are we being targeted and focused? Have we positioned ourselves effectively in the marketplace? Do we have a realistic path forward?
Ultimately, all of these questions will need to be answered, although a realistic order of priority must first be determined. Not every question will have an easy answer, nor will all of the answers necessarily be actionable. However, on the basis of which questions are deemed to be most important to your organization, the specific types of planning elements required to attain answers will become more apparent.

There are many activities that may comprise portions of the strategic planning process. Among the most commonly used are the following (Figure 2):

Figure 2

  • Executive/Management Training Programs - providing the necessary training to ensure that all elements of the plan are fully understood, and that there is total management commitment
  • Customer/Market Needs and Requirements Assessments - to identify the specific needs, requirements, preferences and expectations of the market base with respect to the organization's service and support capabilities
  • Customer Satisfaction Measurement and Tracking Surveys - to measure and track trends in organization performance and the resulting levels of customer satisfaction
  • Total Customer Service and Support - to determine what factors can make the organization the customer's single "provider of choice"
  • Operations Assessment/Productivity Improvement - to evaluate the present and optimal operational structure for the organization, and identify areas for improvement
  • Business Process Reengineering (BPR) - to identify and recommend areas requiring partial or total reengineering and/or restructuring
  • Product/Service Life Cycle - to determine the total life cycle needs of the customer base with respect to the organization's services offerings
  • Decision Support Systems (DSS)/Executive Information Systems (EIS) - to identify the data and informational areas that will be required to support management decision-making
  • Data Mining and Warehousing - to develop the most efficient means for managing and maintaining the data and information stores required for decision-making
  • Market Image and Awareness Study - to identify and assess how the organization is perceived in the marketplace by both customers and prospects
  • Competitive Market Data Collection and Analysis - to identify and assess the organization's overall market positioning vis a vis its competitors
  • New Product/Service Development - to design and develop new and/or enhanced services offerings
  • Total Quality Management (TQM)/ISO 9000 - to focus on the standardization and continuous improvement of the organization's quality processes
  • Advertising and Promotional Programs - to effectively articulate and communicate the organization's products, services and support capabilities to the marketplace
  • Services Marketing Program - to develop a program within which all sales, marketing and promotional activities will be coordinated
  • Custom Market Research - to conduct focused research in support of specific analytical needs
  • General Business Consulting - to utilize objective, third party assistance in the identification, analysis and recommendation of specific areas for further development.
While all of these individual elements will contribute to the ultimate success of the plan, each, in and of themselves, represents a focused activity that may also take on a short-term, "quick win" nature in its own right. For example, while the results of the customer needs and requirements assessment may be used as input into the overall planning effort, they may also provide the organization with focused data and information that it may use in the short-term to initiate immediate "fixes" to its sales, marketing and business development functions; advertising and promotional programs; or other key services-related activities. Other activities, such as executive management training programs or custom market research reports may also contribute both to the short-term and long-term improvement of the organization.

Once the appropriate set of questions has been addressed as part of the overall strategic planning process, the information and knowledge attained in the process can ultimately be used for:

  • Improving the organization's customer service performance and corresponding levels of customer satisfaction
  • Identifying new markets and customers
  • Developing new products, services and support capabilities
  • Building a "total customer service and support" portfolio
  • Identifying new areas of potential services business development
Regardless of whether the results of any of these activities are used as input into a short-term tactical "fix", or a longer-term strategic planning effort, the best part is that as long as the process goes on, the more questions will ultimately be addressed and answered.
William K. Pollock is President of Strategies For GrowthSM, a Westtown, Pennsylvania USA-based consulting firm specializing in business planning, customer service and customer satisfaction research. He may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.


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