12 Considerations for Driving Growth in Financial SMEs

Photo by Markus Spiske

Driving growth is a vague concept. Where do you start? What does it involve? The goal of “achieving overall growth” within a company is broad. As you’ll see with the following 12 considerations, all you’ll have is good intention without direction without prioritizing focus areas. There is no one-size-fits-all plan; there is no single path because every company’s position and needs are unique.  But many of these 12 considerations are universal to SMEs striving for growth in the financial sector.

Let’s dive into each of them.

R&D and Innovation

The digital age has put the financial sector into warp speed, and companies that stand still will fall behind. The theme is increased competition, making it much harder to drive sustainable growth if your business or product/service isn’t evolving.  No matter what stage of the business cycle, there should always be a good chunk of capital/resources allocated to R&D and innovation.   The proportion of resources and capital may vary depending on the industry and unique business circumstances. Still, it should never be zero or some menial amount that may as well be zero.

Keep in mind, financial investment in R&D isn’t the only way to drive innovation. Innovation can occur over any function and doesn’t have to be exclusively driven by a dedicated R&D department.  It is also worth noting that investing in these areas doesn’t mean conducting speculative, experimental work to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t mean to spend recklessly either, as there is no linear relationship between R&D spending and growth.  Yes, those who invest wisely in innovation are more likely to achieve growth, but the keyword is wisely.  A bad investment is a bad investment.  There is no participation prize for throwing money into R&D.  It’s essential to have a clear goal and do preliminary research before diving head-first into your R&D investment – same as any investment portfolio. You also need solid KPIs to ensure progress towards the desired goals.  Your high-level objective for R&D/innovation should tie into and support your overall corporate strategy.  This objective will then be broken down into subgoals from which the corresponding KPIs will be derived.

Business Development & Partnerships

“Biz Dev” can be the ultimate leverage play for a business.  Business development is a broad term whose functions can span sales, marketing, and other strategic initiatives and cover buy, build, and partnership paths (although buy and build can also be under the corporate development umbrella depending on the organizational structure).  Cross-marketing, product integration, and reseller networks are just a few proven ways to drive growth with business development.  These can be forged upstream or downstream and divided into value categories such as economic, brand, or product, or alliance types such as strategic, tech, and channel deals.

An example of a business development initiative is building distribution networks.  These networks can multiply your sales capacity exponentially and only require payouts on realized revenue (unlike the in-house salesforce, which requires salary, benefits, training, etc.).  Another focus could be on product deals that allow for integrations or new iterations of products with a boost from inter-company synergies.

Business development will add new revenue streams, business lines, brand recognition, and more, with the ultimate goal of growth.  Biz Dev is imperative to growth, yet neglected by many management teams solely focusing on frontline sales and marketing.  These are undoubtedly essential, but on their own may not offer the necessary leverage needed to drive growth.

Cross-Functional Synergies

The silo approach to each business function is a sure-fire way to hinder growth.  Competing interests between functions will inevitably arise, but great care must be taken to remediate immediately.  Inter-departmental goal alignment, which is ultimately united with the organizational strategy set out by upper management and the board, must be a priority from day one.  Each person across each function must understand the part they play in achieving corporate objectives and bases their decision-making on the organizational ethos and commander’s intent.  When this happens, it allows for natural synergies and inter-departmental collaboration to arise.  It also provides optimal efficiency by building processes optimized for the sum of the parts – not the individual components.

Photo by Leon

Intelligence

“Know thyself, know thy enemy: a thousand battles, a thousand victories.” – Sun Tzu.

Better info means better decisions.  In all its forms, intelligence is another crucial component to growth across most functions, including R&D, C-suite, sales/marketing, IT, operations, HR, etc.  This includes corporate, strategic, business, and market intelligence, to name a few.  People often get tripped up when they hear “intelligence” and think of spy tactics and unethical information gathering.  Only legal intelligence and strategy functions based on ethics and integrity are being discussed here.

Depending on the organization in question, valuable intelligence inputs can include social media and online data, sales and prospecting data, customer data, and product data. Valuable intelligence on key players in your space helps keep track of the competition and due diligence on potential partners, vendors, or M&A targets.  Good market intel is also essential. It helps build strategy to enter new markets, grow existing market share, and evaluate market entry/exit opportunities.  All intelligence products can then be used for strategic initiatives such as customer road mapping, strategic modeling, counterintelligence, win-loss analysis, and wargaming.

Dynamic, Agile, Strategic Planning

Like most of the world these days, the financial sector moves too fast to allow SMEs to succeed with highly inflexible strategies and bureaucracy-riddled planning.  The days of the rigid five-year plan are long gone.  Today, strategy is composed of a long-term vision that rarely, if ever, changes.  This vision links to the ethos of the organization, the soul of the entity.  The other component is the tactics.  It is here where flexibility, adaptability, and agility are critical.  The open-ended tactics continuously evolve with the times but are always built upon the timeless vision of the firm.

Agile planning requires more capital and other resources, so top-notch budgeting is critical.  This is especially true for younger firms with a more negligible (or non-existent) war chest.  Getting caught up in long-winded planning cycles based solely on hard data is a death sentence.  Quantitative data is critical, but so is qualitative data.  Experience, instinct, and history are invaluable inputs.  Priority should be given to liquidity and building/protecting the war chest.  Dynamic, agile strategy starts with innovation culture embedded into the soul of the organization.  Now suppose your organization is stuck in the archaic way of strategic planning. In that case, you need to convert slowly. Moving too quickly will almost certainly result in errors, backlash, and other consequences that will hurt the firm.

Think Big While Staying Realistic

Going big means different things to different businesses.  Maybe it means big individual accounts, or perhaps it means acquiring small accounts en-mass through big wholesale deals. Either way, focus on going big.  Bringing in bad, low profitability deals can be worse than bringing in no deals at all.  Bad deals can kill your business just as quick – if not quicker – than a dry spell.  This does not suggest only going whale hunting – an equally poor strategy but on the other end of the spectrum.

It seems simple enough, yet time and time again, sales teams get bogged down with bad deals.  The reason often stems from poor management metrics such as call times, client touches, and accounts opened, incentivizing bad business across the front office.  Staff will inevitably focus on gaming the system to make themselves look good at the expense of company profitability and success.  Instead, create front office targets tied to profitability to ensure goal alignment with its customers, shareholders, and potentially other stakeholders.  Incentivizing front office staff based on deal profitability is also a good risk management strategy. It avoids the conflicts of interests that exist otherwise—more on this in our next consideration.

Photo by Noah Buscher

Total Incentive Alignment

Misaligned incentives can be the downfall of many organizations.  Preaching long-term thinking while rewarding only short-term results is a sure-fire way to ensure a toxic organization.  An organization in this bind is incapable of making any meaningful strides towards long-term success. At best, they become dominated by self-dealers looking to extract as much personal value (money, status, etc.) as possible until the whole operation inevitably crumbles.  At worst, they skip straight to the collapse stage.

A typical example of this is seen in some sales teams where compensation is based on short-term gains (see previous consideration), which leads to bad deals that will bite the firm in the long run.  When there is imperfect alignment between compensation and firm, client, and other stakeholder outcomes, there is an incentive for unethical or overly aggressive sales tactics that will injure other stakeholders.  This will cost the company’s growth aspirations through reputational, legal, and financial risks.  For this reason, we see a shift in metrics compensation schemes toward team and company goals (options, bonus, etc.) and customer satisfaction, retention, and success as opposed to sales-focused incentives.

Enterprise Risk Management

As a company grows, risk management becomes more and more crucial.  A comprehensive risk policy covers financial, operational, legal, reputational, strategy, cyber, and potentially other risks depending on your business and industry.  Risk management isn’t just protecting the downside; it’s also about the upside derived from appropriate risk-taking.  While looking at risks at business unit level and risk type level is vital for modelling, aggregation, and hedging, a firm must also zoom out and make strategic decisions at the enterprise level.  This is because risk exposure in one unit may be netted or diversified in other units or worsened via contagion corridors or pockets of risk concentration.  The enterprise risk management (ERM) approach gives senior management the complete picture of the operation, allowing it to effectively evaluate decisions, such as entering new markets, products, partnerships, etc. Doing so allows for proper risk mitigation strategies across categories, types, etc., and accounts for correlation risks.  It also allows firms to price risk into their business/financial decisions and base each decision on the total cost of risk to the firm versus the potential reward.

Credibility Through Content

Become thought leaders and experts, not a product-focused sales organization.  Have thoughtful discussions/interactions online, avoid product pushing, and instead cast light on the problems you solve. Don’t be afraid to adventure into other topics outside your product, market, industry, etc.  Show some personality that will help display your human side, such as community/social posts, supporting a local sports team, meet the team, etc.  Explore multiple channels and mediums.  Experiment with many mixes and iterations until you see certain ones pulling ahead, then focus time/resources on dominating those.  That said, online mediums change all the time, so always allocate some time/resources to trying new things to ensure your brand grows as your business does.  Don’t fall behind the times.

Another important note: be original.  Don’t run campaigns that competitors have already run; a common occurrence in many highly saturated fintech/finance sub-industries. Co-branded content can add to the originality and be a powerful multiplier for a growing company if the partner brand is strong and the content is quality.  Be sure to map out your content campaigns to correspond with a mission.  If the campaign is to generate leads, make sure the campaign and its content are structured accordingly so that reader is likely to end up in your funnel.

Pricing Strategies

Whether the business is product-based or service-based, never sell on price. Don’t be afraid to be more expensive than competitors.  That said, you must provide value more than your competitor’s offering.  Nobody will pay more if they don’t get more.  Look at pricing through the lens of where the company wants to be.  If you’re going to be a premium service, does giving your product or service away for free/cheaply help you get there?  This potentially makes sense in minimal promotional capacity or to gain market penetration. Still, it would be best to have pricing consistent with the brand image you want in the long run.

Bundle pricing is another great way to cross-sell and drive sales volume.  While it can reduce the margin for a la carte sales, you can create a pricing model that factors this in.  So, make your target price margin on the bundles, then gross up a la cartes, making the bundle price more attractive.  Explore membership, subscriptions, retainers, and other bundle variations.

Having multiple, flexible pricing options (fixed, commission, retainer, subscription etc.) can open more doors to potential clients and ensure the model is structured to align you with your client’s interests.  Client interests will differ, so having only a single model will leave you out of certain pools of clients.

Photo by Brett Jordan

Diversify Revenue Streams & Product mix

Just as you don’t want one single stock in your portfolio, you don’t want one single path to revenue realization.  Revenue diversification can be achieved by expanding your in-house product shelf, external product and distribution partnership deals, new markets and geographies, M&A deals, etc.  Having multiple streams allows for cross-selling opportunities that will open the door for your existing products.  This is especially important in highly commoditized or saturated markets.  Your product/service may not be unique on its own, but your overall offering portfolio can be.

KPIs & Scorecard Management

Design KPIs/scorecards aligned with the growth goals (go hand in hand with goal alignment), and always look at the data to make sure things are tracking in the right direction.  Be sure to constantly monitor to make sure the KPIs are not just being met but translating into the overall goals being achieved.  If not, the KPI model is incorrectly calibrated.

What’s Next?

Growth is about evolution, which means something different to every business. We have discussed 12 broad considerations most applicable for SMEs striving for growth in the financial sector. The next step is to determine where to start.

While reading through these 12 considerations, what was thought-provoking? What triggered a thought specific to your company’s needs?

Start there.