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SIMON SAYS, LET’S TALK BUSINESS: Frank Williamson with Oaklyn Consulting

I recently sat down with Al Simon of Sandler Simon to chat about how Oaklyn helps prepare business owners to work effectively and navigate their big decisions. Thanks for having me, Al!

Read below or listen here.

Al Simon: Hello. Welcome to Simon Says Let’s Talk Business on Business RadioX. This is your host, Al Simon with Sandler Training by Simon, Inc. And on our show, we talk with smart people. We talk with high-performing business professionals. And the idea is to sharpen our skills and to learn new ideas and concepts and to share best practices and get to know these smart people.

So, listen carefully, take some notes and look for the contact information at the end of the segment so that you can engage with them. In this case, with Frank Williamson, my guest. As always, we will conclude our show with a sales tip from me in our Ask Al segment. So here we go. My guest today — Frank Williamson with Oaklyn Consulting, founder and president, overall major guru. Frank, how are you doing?

Frank Williamson: Fine, Al. Good to be here with you.

Al Simon: Good to have you here, all the way from Chattanooga, Tennessee. So, you have an office in Chattanooga, and you have an office and a big presence in Atlanta — fair?

Frank Williamson: Yes, we do. We’re lucky to have a few people on the ground here in Atlanta. And few people in Chattanooga. And from my perspective, Chattanooga is a great place to live if you’re working in Atlanta.

Al Simon: I bet. Chattanooga’s a great city. I love going to Chattanooga. Great city. So, Frank, Oaklyn Consulting, it’s sort of investment banking, sort of a consultancy, lots of stuff that you do that’s different than banks, right? It’s different than private equity firms, right? Can you tell us more about all that?

Frank Williamson: Well, here’s how we help people out: We help business owners work more effectively with private equity firms, individuals who might be buying their businesses, or competitors and complementary companies that might be the exit strategy for someone. And we help businesses raise money to grow when they need it. We’re not investors ourselves and we are not, like many of our peers in the industry of helping businesses change ownership, working to close deals on a commission. We’re just helping people get to good decisions.

Al Simon: So it’s a true consultancy for mergers and acquisitions or an infusion of capital or whatever’s needed — that kind of thing?

Frank Williamson: Exactly.

Al Simon: So, you’ve got actually a lot of different services, right?

Frank Williamson: Well, it might seem that way from a distance. But it boils down to helping business people present themselves well to Money People in order to get capital on good terms, in return for some stake in their operating business. It doesn’t matter whether that stake is a loan, investment or full ownership of a business.

Al Simon: Okay. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense because me, as a business owner, I would have no idea how to go about doing that.

Frank Williamson: You know, it’s the kind of thing people do once a career, or if people really get into the mode of doing mergers and acquisitions, maybe they do it four times in their career. We find that clients really appreciate that when they get to the point of doing a transaction like this, they’re working with someone who does it all the time. It just gives you some comfort that you know how the game is played.

Al Simon: Okay. And you say, “more effectively.” Does that mean that you help them with best practices? Do you actually get inside these conversations yourself? What do you do there?

Frank Williamson: Depending on what people need, we might fully act as an intermediary for somebody and stand in as a middleman. Or we might only provide advice away from the negotiating table, so to speak. Imagine working with an individual about succeeding you as the owner of your business; it might not seem appropriate for there to be anyone else in the room. Maybe it is just a discussion and relationship to be worked out between two people. We’re perfectly happy to stay in the background and coach when it’s useful, or if it works better to have a third-party present and representing you, we’re happy to do that too.

Al Simon: That’s a great combination, really, or a spectrum of ways you can work with people. Do you work with sellers only, but also with buyers?

Frank Williamson: We do a little bit of both. We’re working with an Atlanta client now whose business is growing quickly, and they think that they can grow even more quickly by buying a series of small businesses. We’re helping them design their “sales” process for buying businesses, convince owners of their target businesses that they’re a good home, and build a string of acquisitions. That’s the buy-side. However, most of what we do is help people sell businesses.

Al Simon: Interesting. I help companies grow by growing revenue. You can help companies grow by acquisitions.

Frank Williamson: Exactly.

Al Simon: They’re both valid strategies, right?

Frank Williamson: They’re both valid strategies and they’re both sales, because it’s hard to close an acquisition if you can’t sell the idea to the owner that life’s going to be better on the other side of that deal.

Al Simon: I’ll bet, because otherwise it’s just a hassle, right?

Frank Williamson: That’s right. Otherwise, people are just talking.

Al Simon: Yeah, I believe that. So how can business owners best make these kinds of high-impact decisions, like buying or selling? Bringing in new stakeholders? Outside investors? I mean, there’s got to be a bunch of things that people without your help would do wrong, right?

Frank Williamson: The number one thing, Al, that I see people do wrong is they chase a single deal opportunity to see how it’s going to work out.

And it either works out or it doesn’t because the odds of a particular deal closing, sort of like the odds of a particular sales prospect closing, are not 100 percent.

It is a huge amount of work to do all the negotiations, give all the information and go through all the emotional heartache involved in selling or merging a business. But time after time, we see people say, “Well, here’s one opportunity and I want to run it down,” and then the deal breaks down for some reason. Then they say, “Well, I still want a deal like this, so let’s find another one,” and this one breaks down. This kind of one-prospect-at-a-time deal negotiation is a prime way for everyone to get worn out, feel desperate and ultimately capitulate.

It’s one of the times when people fail to think about selling a business like sales. Any salesperson trained by you would say, “I need more than one lead to make up a sales funnel.”

It’s a hard way to make a living — one lead at a time — and you’re going to wear yourself out.

When people start to think about the future of their business, too many go after one thing that looks promising and try to run it down, rather than saying to themselves, “It’s time to go do this, so let me fill the prospect pipeline.” Often, they fail to do the normal preparation that a good salesperson would do because they don’t know where to go to fill this kind of prospect pipeline – the one where prospects are buyers for their business.

Al Simon: I just saw play out what you’re talking about. I have an acquaintance in another city who was going to sell his business.

He had a lead, which was someone who said, “Hey, you know, I might want to buy your business.”

In this case, it was a lot of work, a lot of stuff, a lot of time that they both spent doing this dance, and in the end, it didn’t work out. So, then there was a second person and that went a long time, a lot of effort, a lot of activity, a lot of time — it didn’t work out.

So now my acquaintance is in Plan C, and frankly, Plan C is settling for a lot less.

He’s disappointed and he’s worn out, like you said. If I had known this was all going to be happening, I would have introduced you to him. Would have made it a lot easier on him. My goodness. Yeah, I can see why that would be.

Frank Williamson: It makes a big difference when plan A involves understanding what all the options are first, and then starting to qualify all those options simultaneously.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest this is not also a lot of work. It is, and this is also why people call us. People with the right intuition about Plan A might know the right process, but they also realize they could use help because they need to run the business at the same time as manage this M&A or capital raising process. Transactions are, unfortunately, a nights-and-weekends job for business owners, because you can’t let the results from your day job break down and then expect a transaction to work out. Both things must happen at the same time.

Al Simon: Plus, aren’t there dynamics, like you don’t want rumors to get out into your company? People get nervous.

Frank Williamson: Absolutely. Rumors about a deal can be harmful. Everyone needs to think about the way of messaging a transaction that that will work best in the culture that they’ve built.

There’s not one right way to manage this.

In some organizations you absolutely want to keep things quiet.

In other organizations, it works to take the attitude of most real estate developers that I know, which is to let everybody know publicly: “It’s all for sale, all the time. We can always talk about a deal.” It’s amazing how this open approach creates comfort in some situations. Employees might already be thinking, “I know my boss is in his or her late sixties. I’m pretty sure he or she is not going to live forever. He/she is starting to act like they don’t want to work forever.” So, when the boss says, “I’m thinking about what we do with the business next,” everyone says, “Well, of course, we already knew something was going to happen.”

On a business-by-business and culture-by-culture case, people need to think through how to talk about strategic transactions. I find it gratifying to see business owners’ relief when they realize that this fraught topic turns out to be a smaller deal than they were worried it would be.

Al Simon: Okay, but a good first step would be talk to you. And then you can get the lay of the land and then you can help them make better decisions. So really, as soon as you start thinking about buying or selling, talk to you. That’s the bottom line, right? Before they get farther down the road, having already made some mistakes.

Frank Williamson: If you start before you have a solid plan, you can just be tired when things really get going. It’s better to start out with energy.

We often engage with business owners when they’re starting to think about their options and don’t quite know what they’re going to do. They might want an employee to succeed them. They might feel that the best home for their business is with a competitor, because scale is going to help both businesses. Or they might feel the last place for the business to go is with a competitor. They might need help thinking about whether there is somebody else in their ecosystem that is a better owner, or they might worry that the best thing to do with the business is to wind it down (and this is true from time to time).

For many people, it’s helpful to talk through what’s realistic and what’s not with an expert, and to discuss with somebody who’s been through the process before how to take an idea all the way to the finish line.

Al Simon: So, I’m curious about something that you just said, Frank. When would it be good to talk to competitors and when would it not be good to talk to competitors?

Frank Williamson: That’s a great question. The people who I see succeed best at late-career succession transactions are natural networkers. They’re the sorts of people who know their competitors, who are friendly with their competitors, who get that business is just business and when you’re out on the playing field, that a competitor is your opponent but not your enemy.

These natural networkers have found a way, over the course of their careers, to talk with competitors about things like, “What if we did something bigger?” or “If we combined forces, how much influence would we have with our suppliers or our customers?”

It just opens more options when you’re thinking about a community made up of you and your competitors.

When would you not want to talk to competitors? When it is easy and cheap for a competitor to take over some chunk of your business. If you’ve got especially good customer or supplier relationships or sticky contracts, there’s probably not that much risk. But if it’s the kind of thing where you and your competitors are swapping customers frequently, it might just be better that they do not know what you are thinking.

Al Simon: Right. Because I was thinking about that in the sales area, if I was up against my competitor, I wouldn’t want them to be able to tell our mutual prospect, “Hey, you know, I was thinking about selling this company.” I mean, that would be a problem.

Frank Williamson: Yeah, it often could be. But if you had been talking with that competitor off and on over time saying, “Hey, you know, should we do something together?” it defuses the issue a little bit. Some mutual prospects who know that you talk this way could respond to your competitor’s comment with a response like, “Yes, she was here just the other day, talking about how she might team up with somebody else, or might expand her business by joining forces with another business. We hear her talk about transactions all the time and we assume she is going to do one when it’s right for her and for us as her customers.” It’s like the real estate developers’ line that “It’s always for sale all the time,” because a tone is set by people believing, “Maybe she will sell the company, but she’s always thinking about what could make things better.”

Al Simon: Now that’s a good way to address it. Really good. So why do entrepreneurs seem to excel at selling their own products or services, but really not very good at selling their business? Why is that?

Frank Williamson: Because almost all of them are great salespeople. I mean, you wouldn’t own a business if you weren’t a good salesperson, right? It wouldn’t be much of a business.

Al Simon: You wouldn’t make it very far because you have to have clients. Yes.

Frank Williamson: So, it’s the most interesting thing, I think, that people struggle to shift from selling their products or services to selling their businesses. But it’s natural.

There are a couple of things that make this shift challenging.

First, it’s just a different market. Each of us learns to sell within the norms of our own market. If I sell enterprise software, I know how to work the enterprise software sales process. I understand how buyers of this product make decisions, and I understand nuanced differences among my prospects.

But when I want to sell my business, what I am marketing is not software itself, but the promise of future cash flow generated by software sales. I’m selling a group of customer contracts as if it were a product. People just are not familiar with how this market works and what this market’s norms are.

Second, it requires creating a new perspective for a business owner to separate the person from the company, or the owner role from the operator role, which is needed to be effective in this unfamiliar-seeming market. It’s easier to sell a thing than to sell yourself. The notion that I’m going to identify many leads and qualify them, when I’m selling myself, is just a weird feeling.

Al Simon: So, Frank, what if I’m not thinking of selling or buying, and I just want to raise capital? How is this like selling products and services, or how is it different from that?

Frank Williamson: Relative to selling your business, it’s almost the same thing. It doesn’t matter what kind of capital it is.

For example, when you shop for a bank loan and go through the process of explaining to a banker about how your business is going to work over the next few years and you tell them all the things that the credit committee of the bank needs to know, you’ve basically told the whole story of the future of your business. This is almost the same conversation as when selling your company to an acquirer.

The difference is almost only that there is a different legal contract for how the lender or investor earns a return on the money that they provided for use in your business.

In a business sale, my position might be that I want money and will leave the business, and in a loan or investment, it might be that I want money and will stay. Either way, the person who provided the money needs to get that money paid back.

It helps also to think about capital raising as sales. You teach people about consultative sales, and this approach works in capital raising, too. The people who do the best job selling the story of their business to lenders or investors have a conversation with the person across the table from them about the capital provider’s needs.

Just like in other sales settings, it works better when you try to understand what people’s needs are.

Al Simon: It does, doesn’t it? Does he see why we’re doing this? What’s the purpose? What’s the problem? What’s the objective instead of just future benefit? All right. Very good. Frank, one more question: This is a crazy market time, right? Crazy. With the political environment and COVID and just so much noise. Is this a good environment for buying or selling a business, or not?

Frank Williamson: That is a fantastic question. I think it is, but I don’t want our listeners to go away thinking this means it’s going to be easy.

Here’s what I’ve seen happen across the last two years, during COVID:

One, there is a huge amount of money out looking to buy privately held businesses — small ones and big ones. Probably every business owner we know has an inbox full of direct marketing from someone saying, “I want to make a loan to you,” “I want to buy your company,” “I want to help you sell your company.” People are also getting unsolicited offers from bigger companies in their industries who are saying, “Sell out to us. Come join us. We’ll make something bigger together.”

The number of these conversations that is beginning is huge, but the number of conversations that is ending is much smaller. Often, people get through high-level part of the negotiation, and it looks pretty good. But then they get into the detailed negotiation, and something breaks. Deals get pushed off by a month, three months or forever.

On the surface, it certainly looks like there could not be a better time to sell or refinance a company. But the reality, I think, is that the most prepared businesses are getting their deals done, but others are really struggling at the end.

Al Simon: Yeah, I can see that. Our guest today is Frank Williamson, the founder and president of Oaklyn Consulting. Frank, if our listeners are looking to buy or sell or raise capital, or any kind of an M&A kind of discussion, they should not wait, right? They should just go ahead and talk to you now?

Frank Williamson: Yes, go ahead and talk now. Visit our website at oaklynconsulting.com or give one of my partners or me a call on our main number, which is 888-983-1617. We are always available to listen, and we find that it’s a productive conversation when people are still grappling with issues. They don’t have to know what they’re going to do yet, but they have formulated a question like, “How am I going to create a succession plan?” or “Should I grow by acquisition?”

If people find it comforting and helpful to just talk about the market environment for M&A or capital raising and how it might affect them, we love to talk about these issues and help when we can.

Al Simon: Okay. Well, I appreciate you coming on the show today. Once again, to get ahold of you, you can do it at the website, which is oaklynconsulting.com or call 888-983-1617. Did I get all that right?

Frank Williamson: You got all that right. Al, what a pleasure to be here with you.

Al Simon: Well, it’s my pleasure. Our listeners are going to benefit from this, and so, listeners, take advantage of this opportunity. If you’re a business owner, or if you want to be a business owner, or you’re thinking about getting a stake in any kind of organization or have any kind of partnership issues or M&A-type questions or issues, talk to Frank Williamson. Do it now.

This is Al Simon at Sandler Training by Simon, Inc. And our show is Simon Says Let’s Talk Business on Business RadioX.

Frank, thanks for being here.

Frank Williamson: Thank you too, Al.

Al Simon: Okay, let’s transition to our Ask Al segment where I get to talk sales. I am known to love to talk about sales, Frank, and our listeners send questions in.

If you are a listener who wants to send me a sales question or a sales management question, send it to [email protected]. We just might answer it on the show, like this question that has been sent in by a listener. The question is: Why do my prospects keep ghosting me?

Okay. Well, you know, take a shower once in a while — no, just kidding.

He goes on to say, “I give them the quote and I can’t seem to get them on the phone again for weeks, sometimes months. Every now and then, one of these prospects comes back and buys, but most often I never hear from them.” Even though at one time they seem to be really engaged, right? Seemed to be really excited.

You know, Frank, prospects are good at sounding like they’re really excited. They really do get that down, and they do that so that they can pull information from the salesperson. That’s really what they’re after — prospects are after: “Give me knowledge, give me power, give me information, and I’ll make my decision, and don’t bug me while I’m doing that.”

That’s pretty much the definition of a prospect in sales these days. And you know what? It’s not a bad definition for the prospect — they should be doing that. They should be gaining knowledge. And most of the time salespeople are happy to give it. In fact, we have a one-liner that says, “Don’t spill your candy in the lobby,” which means don’t lead with your features and benefits and all your stuff.

Most salespeople spill candy everywhere. They just can’t help it. And maybe because they’re passionate about what they sell, or maybe because like me, I once had a boss that taught me my job was to educate the prospect. So, guess what I did? I educated a lot of prospects.

Whatever the reason, prospects know that most salespeople are going give them all the information they want, answer every question — in fact, overload them with information — and then go away. They don’t want the salesperson to be in their face. They don’t want to be pestered until they say, “Okay, let’s talk again.”

So, this ghosting thing is very prevalent today. It’s amazing how bad the ghosting scenario is.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

It doesn’t have to be that way when we’re in sales.

Yes, we should be a source of good information for our prospects, but let’s make sure that we set expectations correctly. Let’s make sure we do it right. And the number one thing I would say right off the bat is, why in the world are we emailing out quotes? Where did that come from?

I mean, all of a sudden, it’s very convenient to email out proposals and quotes and hard copies of presentations and white papers and case studies and stuff, including our pricing.

Well, no wonder we get ghosted — stop doing that!

You should never give away your intellectual property and your pricing unless it’s live, unless you and the prospect are talking live. I’m talking face-to-face — same room, knee to knee, or at least on Teams or Zoom or some kind of video call. At the very least, a phone call. Let’s not have this: email it out, and then the chase begins — the follow-up, the follow-up, the follow-up, and sometimes we’re chasing ghosts.

So, no wonder we get ghosted. Stop doing those things over email. Do those things live. Set the expectations correctly for your next steps, and then inspect what you expect.

If you expect that the prospect is going to sit with you and go through the proposal live, and then give you a decision within a couple of days, make sure that you expect that, or set that expectation, and make sure it’s really going to happen.

You can say, “Frank, I know you’re busy, you’ve got so much going on. Are you sure it’s reasonable that you can give me a decision by Monday? Should we make it Tuesday?”

Now, let me tell you: if you say that to your prospect, most likely you’re not going to have a problem getting an answer by Tuesday. Seriously.

But if you say, “Hey, yeah, good, I’m glad you’re going to give me that decision by Monday. Cool. I’ll talk to you then — looking forward to it,” well, next Friday, you’re going to be thinking, “Should I call Frank? Should I email him again?” Everybody knows how that goes.

If it has been a while and your prospect still isn’t getting back with you, offer to close the file. Call them up. You’re going to get their voicemail because they’re ghosting you.

But on the voicemail say, “Frank, would it make sense for me to go ahead and close your file? You can contact me again when you’re ready to reopen it, if ever. Does that sound fair?”

You’ll be fine. Go ahead and physically take Frank off your prospect list, so you don’t spend emotional capital on him and go find another prospect that’s going to make a decision in a better time frame.

That’s my advice for the person who’s getting ghosted, which is probably 98.6% of the population of salespeople right now, huh, Frank?

Frank Williamson: In our market, Al, we’re talking to lots of private equity funds. The business development person across the table from us, whose job is to bring prospects in for potential investment, has as a performance metric that he or she should bring in 100 opportunities for every investment the fund wants to make.

Al Simon: Wow.

Frank Williamson: So, number one, what a wheel-spinning waste of effort at some level.

Al Simon: I’m tired just thinking about it.

Frank Williamson: It is unbelievable. But as a result, we coach clients seeking capital or an acquisition to be aware that you’re selling into an environment where a 1% close ratio is normal. You can do a lot to progress along this investor’s opportunity funnel, but if you don’t control the process, set realistic expectations, and use good habits, like closing the file, you’ll just find yourself calling people back who have filed you in their CRM just to be able to calculate their 1% close ratio. It’s a frustrating and easy place to be ghosted if you haven’t thought ahead about how to prevent this from happening.

Al Simon: I can imagine. Okay, so that’s some advice on what to do if you’re being ghosted, and more importantly, how not to get ghosted. Stop doing proposals and quotes via email. Just stop it right now.

This is Al Simon with Sandler Training by Simon, Inc. The show is Simon Says Let’s Talk Business on Business Radio X. Our guest today has been Frank Williamson, founder and president of Oaklyn Consulting. Thanks again, Frank, for being here, and listeners, as always, good selling.

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