Identify the Owner’s Concerns to Initiate Phased Planning

Fri, 07/24/2020 - 09:56


Our recent posts have introduced the phased planning approach we are seeing advisors use to get the planning ball rolling with their clients. Phased planning is appropriate for owners who don’t want to commit to comprehensive Exit Planning but are willing to engage you to help them solve one or more of their pressing business problems. This approach can also be used with owners who are willing to engage in comprehensive Exit Planning, but who need to limit the amount of planning work they can take on at one time.

Most Exit Planning engagements begin with tackling a single issue, or perhaps two, because owners are motivated to solve issues that are most important to them. Once major issues are resolved, more comprehensive Exit Planning often ensues. In this article, we discuss how you can convert reluctant and preoccupied owners into clients on their way to exiting their companies successfully.

Ask the Right Questions

Most BEI Members, trained to create, manage, and execute comprehensive Exit Plans (using BEI’s Seven Step Exit Planning Process), don’t begin initial conversations with owners by talking about comprehensive Exit Planning. Instead, they ask owners a series of questions to uncover the business-related concerns that “keep them up at night.”

Most owners have ready responses to questions such as “What is your biggest concern or business challenge?” or “What keeps you up at night?” But they don’t know how to resolve these concerns or meet their challenges, often because they are unaware of the underlying causes of their concerns. To help these owners, we begin by asking questions. Insightful questions can uncover weaknesses in management, for example, or perhaps a company’s dependence on its owner, or the absence of up-to-date operating systems. BEI advisors prepare for such conversations by creating a list of thoughtful questions that prompt owners to expound on their concerns and issues. BEI puts considerable effort in training advisors to create, ask, and answer questions with their clients.

Be Prepared to Address Owners’ Responses to Questions

As advisors ask a range of questions to understand an owner’s needs, they encounter a range of responses that they must address. BEI Members have found that the most common responses owners give when asked to talk about their most pressing concerns include:

  • How can I get my key employees more motivated to grow my business?
  • I’m paying too much in taxes and my CPA isn’t helping me.
  • I’d like to transfer my business to my children, but I don’t know how to do so without creating conflict in my family.
  • My management team is interested in buying my company, but they have no money. What can you suggest?
  • An ESOP seems like my best exit option. Tell me more! (Thirteen percent of owner-respondents in BEI’s last owner survey were interested in an ESOP as an exit path.)
  • I’m ready to sell today. Can you help?
  • If I die tomorrow, my business is in deep trouble. What can I do now to prevent that?

Taking an Owner’s Response and Running with It

Once an owner expresses a concern, your next step is to demonstrate your value by proposing actions that address and resolve that concern. We suggest that you prepare three or more suggested actions appropriate to each common owner response.

For example, let’s say that an owner tells you she wants to motivate her key employees to grow revenue. You might make the following three suggestions:

  1. Pay key employees a cash bonus if the business grows at the pace you need or desire. Part of that bonus can be deferred and subject to vesting. 
  2. Create a stock bonus plan that awards ownership to key employees if the business grows according to plan.
  3. Create specific, written business and/or personal performance standards that employees must meet to qualify for any bonus, whether cash or stock.

To summarize: advisors need to first ask the right questions to elicit owner responses describing their concerns. Second, advisors should anticipate typical owner questions and be prepared to respond. Third, the advisor’s response should offer specific, action-based suggestions or recommendations to resolve each concern. BEI trains advisors to do just that, and supports them in numerous ways including, providing them with a carefully designed assessment.

Use Assessments to Uncover Additional Owner Concerns

BEI has developed a short online assessment designed to alert owners of issues and concerns that they might otherwise overlook. This assessment generates a graphic that illustrates to owners the areas that are critically important to them. Using this visual tool, advisors can then direct the conversation to how they can best help owners deal with their specific concerns. 

Take the Next Action

Phased planning is driven by an owner’s most urgent concerns. As one issue is resolved, you move on to the next. But what steps do you take after you resolve an owner’s list of concerns to retain the owner as a client? Our next post describes how to maintain and expand your representation via periodic planning meetings.


  • BEI’s question-based Exit Planning Process and supporting software are designed to thoroughly probe, understand, and address an owner’s most urgent concerns.
  • Asking owners about their concerns elicits responses. Be prepared to offer a number of suggestions that address their concerns.
  • Asking the right questions in the right way improves your odds of an engagement.
  • Use an assessment to identify owners’ areas of concern.
  • Single-issue focused engagements lead to additional representation and comprehensive planning through the use of Periodic Planning Meetings.