In the due diligence process, a lot of documents and statements have to be delivered. What are sometimes forgotten are those crucial discussions about the heart and soul of a business. The information that is difficult to put into even the best owner’s manuals of the most systematized businesses. It’s also true that not all buyers and sellers develop the kind of rapport where an easy discussion about challenges and mistakes can organically happen.
In this article, we’ll offer four possible questions you could ask in a hypothetical exit interview for an outgoing seller as you undertake to replace him or her. The hope is that you can learn key lessons that will help you take the business you are buying to the next level.
What would you have done differently?
Very rarely will this question result in a quick, “Nothing.” There are people who are either extremely intentional with what they did and proceeded along that line or those who are totally blind to self reflection. Most sellers will take a deep breath, exhale, and pause to think or just as quickly say, “Lots of things.”
The goal of this is not necessarily to capture every single thing that the seller could have done differently. Hopefully you will see a pattern that can help you avoid those potholes or make improvements that the seller couldn’t have. These discussions can also lead to broader philosophical conversations about the business. It’s an opportunity to introduce key questions for the buyer to fire his/her imagination and problem solving skills.
One of our sellers told the incoming buyer that he’d had personality and management style differences with one of the staff. This caused her to resign. But that the seller found her to be remarkably professional and dedicated to clients. He thought she would probably come back to the firm knowing there had been a change of ownership. He happened to be right and the employee returned to the benefit of the buyer, herself, and their clients.
What skill(s) do you wish you had that would have made a difference?
Some skills people are born with. But many can be acquired with diligence and patience.
If a seller confesses a weakness in a skill set that you also share, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Obviously, he/she didn’t possess that skill but still managed to build a sell-able business. But it does offer you additional insights and guidance from someone who has been in the position you are aspiring to. It gives you a head start so that rather than realize, “I need to be able to work better in the early evening, when a number of clients check in with us” a few months into the sale, you are told ahead of time by someone who has been doing it for years.
Sometimes, owners were too blind to hire their weaknesses, convinced of the “up by your bootstraps, do it yourself” attitude that parades as humility but is actually (and ironically) a very subtle form of pride. If an owner identifies a skill he/she wishes that you had, that’s a great sign. If something is missing, however, you can begin to brainstorm how to deal with it, including perhaps delegation to an existing employee or a new hire.
Can you share some war stories of experiences with clients or employees? How you handled it well and/or how it might have been handled differently?
This is perhaps the most controversial question you might ask and one that is taboo in our “we are all scared of lawsuits” society. And the seller is always free to refuse to answer. But this again is part of the honest, goodwill effort for a smart transaction to occur and for a business to continue to grow, and indeed, thrive.
The new owner should be warned about a problematic client or an employee who created a bad atmosphere at the office. Likewise, the owner should be proud to share some times when a big risk was taken in client or employee relations and it ended up very positively for all involved.
We know of a client who had made personal deliveries to their clients on Mother’s Day. Some of those mothers were key factors in his company’s success. While it had been noted in the operating manual as a key part of marketing operations, it was important to share the reactions from those grateful clients. Many had probably never received Mother’s Day flowers from any business they had ever worked with (much less, the seller was told, even their own children!) This personal context is valuable and should be saved and shared.
Who is the most important staff member in the company at the moment? Why?
All sellers dread the loss of staff during a transition period. Sometimes the staff leave for no reason directly related to the incoming owner. A sale just signals a “change” in life and that can trigger a number of things related to their own career trajectory and plans, leading them to believe that perhaps it’s time for a change for them too. Where you have to hope to make the opposite case is with the most important member of the team.
Find out from the owner who this person is, what makes him/her tick, and what’s his/her “why” in relation to the company. After the acquisition, have a heart-to-heart conversation with this person as soon as possible and find out what his/her vision for the future of the company is, and if there are any ways you can incorporate that vision into yours. If so, you’ve just guaranteed a major factor of success for yourself in any business endeavor: retention of key staff.
We have other exit interview questions we’ve developed over the years to help you successfully acquire a new business. Ask us about them today.