Picking Up Pennies In Front Of A Steamroller

I have a tendency to subvert aphorisms and expressions to suit my own purposes.

We all do it to some degree when we use the language of sports as either an metaphor or an analogy. At work we all know you’re not talking about hockey when you say you have to “take one for the team.”

I don’t think of repurposing as abusing the meaning of things. It’s not like a malapropism; the substitution of the correct word for a similar sounding word with a completely different meaning, although those can be strangely profound. I prefer to think of it as recycling: Taking something old and giving it a new life.

In investing, there’s a widely-known expression that describes, as Wikipedia puts it, “An investment which normally provides a payoff of small positive returns, while carrying a small but significant risk of catastrophic losses.”
The expression, if you’re not familiar, is “picking up pennies in front of a steam roller.”

Again, from Wikipedia: “The term was coined by journalist Martin Wolf and economist John Kay to describe investments with a ‘high probability of a modest gain and a low probability of huge losses in any period.'”

It’s not too much of a stretch to see how that scenario can apply to business activities as well.

One that comes to mind for me is the risk associated with pursuing new business in new channels. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Revenue growth isn’t always easy to come by and finding net new revenue from new partners outside of your existing channels is a good thing. But it does carry its own hazards.

For one thing, too much focus on cultivating those new sources of revenue can distract you from properly servicing your existing customer base in your already-established channels. What happens then? Your revenue from them decreases. That’s not really what you were hoping to accomplish.

There are a few necessary steps to approach this to minimize your risk. The first is to conduct an objective assessment of whether your company has maximized its revenue from customers in your established channels. How well do you know each of your customers? Do you know how much of their business you’re getting, versus what’s going to your peers and competitors? Do you have a clear picture of their own business prospects, not just with you, but overall? Are they doing well? Are they struggling? Are they likely to be up or down or gone next year?
If you don’t have the answers to those questions, you have a lot more work to do, tuning up your existing sales relationships so that they’re firing on all cylinders.

Unless you have your existing sales channels fully maximized, seeking net new business somewhere else is putting the cart before the horse. Assuming that you’ve done all that, then it makes sense to seek out new opportunities, under the condition that you still need to allocate time and resources to ensure that your existing customers are happy and continue to order from you. I’ll be honest, this isn’t always easy. There are only so many hours in the day, and whatever the size of your sales team, there’s only so much each of them can achieve at any time.

At the same time, all emphasis is no emphasis. It’s hard to focus on everything, at once, all the time. That’s why scheduling and time management is essential. It’s imperative that your team use planning and communication to make sure no one “forgets” about a customer.

If you like analogies, think of the performer at the circus, spinning plates on the ends of long poles. He has to keep all the plates spinning fast enough, even as he adds more plates to the trick.

While it wasn’t coined specifically for how I’m using it here, picking up pennies in front of the steam roller is a dramatic expression, and drives home the point that if you focus on one set of rewards you may end up costing yourself more than you gained.