The One Thing You Need To Know
During my white-knuckle ride in the world of business writing I have definitely been able to put my seal of tried tested and approved on to the classic clichè "You can’t please everybody." In my darkest moments I could even be tempted to think “You can’t please anybody.” If one writes a book of soaring business thoughts and philosophy that glides and flutters tantalizingly with the hidden truths of commerce that are the very engine of the universe, people call you a pretentious prat. If, on the other hand, one restricts oneself to the simple “You could try this one” stuff, the accusation is of infantile simplicity. For mad and inexplicable reasons, my beloved wife has got me involved in horses (dangerous, strong and unpredictable brutes) and the person teaching me completely summed up in the most eloquent way exactly what I am struggling to express here and that is, simplicity sometimes hides terrifying levels of complication and challenge. She said, as I was carried off yet again into the horizon on a bucking, biting, runaway monster, “Riding, Geoff, is simply the art of keeping the horse between you and the ground.” So let me try that with business.
We need to construct a product or service at a known price. We then need to find slightly more people to buy this product or service than we can supply. These people will pay more than our cost. The difference between what they pay and our cost is profit. These people shall be called customers. These customers will be so pleased with us that they will allow us to profit from them for the whole of their lives and they will love us so much that they will bring other people that would also like to become customers for the whole of their lives. When this makes us so busy that we cannot cope on our own, we will invite people to help us. We will pay the people to help us and what we pay them – and what they are asked to do – will make them so happy that they will want to work for us for the whole of their working life. And, they will say such good things about us to other people, that they will also be either customers or work with us. The cost of the people who work with us will always be less than what they can bring in as profit and so ends Noddy’s guide to business.
Please challenge this or tell me where it’s wrong, or more to the point, surely if you don’t do any of the above you are likely to fail. Some other business guru once said in a more succinct way, “Finding and keeping customers is the only activity that generates revenue. All other activity involves you in cost.” Sit for a moment and think about that statement and try to find any chink in its armour. Then look at your own enterprise and think how much of your time and skill is devoted to finding and keeping customers. You may be developing the world’s finest chocolate pudding, throwing your all into sourcing (or should that be ‘saucing’ ho ho) the world’s best chocolate, possibly employing the most renowned pudding chef and of course leaving you with the best product in the universe but so far it has all been cost. Do you have the skill to find that wealthy hungry person who can become the customer that will not only finance the project so far, but who will pay more than your costs for you to profit and will cheerfully repeat the process for the rest of their lives. When they die they will have recruited scores of new customers to replace themselves. (Oh by the way, the chef will love working for you so much he will not be tempted to make his own puds and steal all your customers).
So simple, yet when you experience products and services in your day to day life, you can clearly see that as a customer yourself you are rarely valued or listened to. The people you deal with are either totally disengaged or powerless to offer you any kind of solution. Because of what I do for a living, I feel obliged to read every business book that is available. They tend, at one end, to be the “think like a caterpillar, soar with the eagles, whilst believing in yourself” stuff, to the other end of the scale where they are very academic and philosophical. Both sides declare that the other has little value and both conjure from their own clouds of mumbo jumbo and a pinch of well-aged bat’s blood consultants that make vast sums of money from selling this load of old rubbish to stupid businesses who then continue in a way that still alienates staff and loses customers.
One of Britain’s biggest retailers has just spent millions on basing its staff motivation and customer focus on the ghastly American starfish story. Very simple, very flawed and only slightly useful, but the whole staff training programme? Come on, give me a break. The same applies to that Fish thing. For those of you who haven’t encountered this let me put you in the picture. There was once a TV film documentary about a Seattle fish market where the people who worked there turned the mundane process of flogging fish into pure theatre. More than that, they loved doing it and relished coming to work each day and even more than that it attracted herds and herds of customers, who really didn’t care what they had to pay to see their piece of fish flying through the air. Then a bunch of American business gurus turned this into a book, a training programme and a philosophy, the core of which is four very simple messages which if I recall correctly are:
1. Choose your attitude. Clearly everyone would like people working for them to have a good attitude, but attitude is not set in stone and it is not something we are born with. Everyday, people can wake up, look in the mirror and choose their attitude.
2. Play. If work is fun or could be made fun it generates positive energy.
3. Make their day. By involving the customer with great attitude and playfulness it makes their day.
4. Be present. I read the book a few times and I wouldn’t say I 100% get this one but I believe that it means pay complete attention to the person who is our work in hand. (The butcher doing a bit of bacon boning senses that you are there, puts down the knife, rubs his hands on his apron, looks you straight in the eye and smiles. You have his undivided attention).
Oh how seductive these simple books are. It is “Keep the horse between you and the ground” all over again. I read it and I felt quite inspired until I started colliding with Fish everywhere I went. The first time was in a hotel. As a jobbing ‘guru’ I spend a lot of time in hotels usually hanging about waiting to do a bit of guru-ing at some conference or other. Hotel service is on the whole in my experience pretty dire and I enjoy engaging the frontline staff in conversation to understand a service industry that is a byword for crap service. On this occasion I had found a smelly, slightly disheveled young porter who was positively abusive about his employers and even more so about his customers. Some people who use strong language can offend and make you squirm with discomfort but others are so fluent with the profanities and expletives that it seems like a natural and easy form of communication. This lad was one of the latter. His colorfully gynecological and blasphemous descriptions of his masters and their guests were making me bark with laughter at the outrageousness of his tales. Then I noticed with some surprise a little golden fish on his lapel. A born again Christian? Surely not. “What’s with the Fish badge?” I enquired. “Oh this load of old rubbish” he explained, (here I must tone down the language in case my kids read this but if you can guess the words you are no better than he is and if you can’t, you should get out more) “We had some silly chap who could only find romantic experience alone, come and tell us some unmitigated torrofaecialogical subject about contiguous posterioral communicated niceness to the fatherless people who stay here.”
This hotel chain had spent a fortune on the Fish thing and to be fair it had, let us say, fallen on stony ground. I think a more telling experience came about when I visited a pharmaceutical company. It was based in a large open-plan office and at one desk sat a guy who was clearly in the darkest of moods. His colleagues had noticed this and were behaving in a quite bizarre fashion inasmuch as they were throwing soft stuffed fabric fish at this person and beating him playfully round the head with these jolly icons of fun. This, as you can imagine, simply took our dismal chum to new and previously unimaginable levels of frothing fury. I don’t know if these soft toys were issued with the fish package or they were a jolly wheeze from the fun-loving pillocks in HR. Whatever they were, they fascinated me and on finding someone in charge I asked for an explanation. “They are to remind us to CHOOSE OUR ATTITUDE, and you saw the folk in invoices received BEING THERE for their colleague by having ‘fun’ and ‘making his day’.” “But he wasn’t having fun; in fact it was a bit like the torment scene in the hunchback of Notre Dame.”
“That is because he wasn’t choosing a fun attitude” came the happy clappy reply.
“Who – Quasimodo or Ron from accounts?”
A thoughtful pause then “Well both of them, really.”
“So a poor deaf twisted creature’s battle with unrequited love for Esmeralda and the truth of his illegitimate birth to a senior of the Catholic church could be set straight by a simple choice of attitude and having fun. but I suppose swinging on the bells was quite funny.” Another pause, “I didn’t know Ron’s significant other was called Esmeralda – I thought it was Jean, but as to his birth and disabilities, we are completely inclusive and non-judgmental but I think Health and Safety might have something to say about the bell thing!”
This took me a moment. “Not Ron, Quasimodo!”
“Which department is he in?”
A change of subject was needed. The thing that struck me was that people were getting a bit confused about this fish business. The folk were having fun in the fish market. This playfulness was demonstrated by the skilful but risky act of throwing fish. This company, being a pharmaceuticals firm, shouldn’t be throwing stuffed fish at each other – their business had nothing to do with fish. They should by rights be firing pills at each other with a pea shooter or playfully stabbing one another with syringes.
This suggestion was met with horror. “You can’t disrespect our valuable products” With that comment the whole edifice collapses.
People who read business books usually are in a position of influence or are decision makers so I will assume that you are in this group and I want you to imagine that you own a large traditional city-centre wet fish business. The customers are served quietly politely and with normal good service, then one day one of your team starts throwing fish. Be honest now, wouldn’t you put a stop to it right away? So how does the fun start? With risk, that’s where. The thing with simple ideas is that at their root there is a whole lot of complication and people buy in these fads for a quick fix to paper over the cracks. The times I have attended the annual company bash as a speaker to see them wheel out the latest full wardrobe of king’s new clothes. I have seen the company storybook, the fish, the starfish, crowning the customer, TQM, etc etc. On returning in a year or so it has been discarded like an overelaborate and disappointing plastic Christmas toy. If you work for that pharmaceutical company and are reading this now, you know that your bins are full of stuffed fish. We have to construct something that is real and lasting, that is built on an understanding that comes from stripping the whole thing to its component parts. Together we will find out what works and what doesn’t, the risks involved, which genies are in which bottles, where we want to let them out and to understand that once let out we can’t put them back in again. Therefore with this book we need to get into the mechanics of profitable customer handling, how we engage the people who work for us and how we can continue to increase the quantity and profitability of our customers. There are books on customer care, leadership, sales, quality, complaints and change – the list is endless, but as an old hippy I am still very sold on the idea of a holistic approach. In other words you can’t have one thing without the other. If for instance you incentivise your team in one area, say sales, their concentration on that can unbalance the rest of the enterprise. Also, because I am basically simple-minded, I love simple solutions, so the plan is to take each element of the customer experience, see what does work, what might work and what clearly doesn’t work. There will be hints, tips and thought-provokers and then there will be japes and wheezes that you can try for yourself.
By the way, over the last few pages every time I have mentioned the word ‘sales’ I have felt you wince. This is fast becoming a very touchy area. The elephant in the corner. It was so simple a few years ago, the motorways and highways were jammed packed with sales people in their mid-range Fords, hammering up and down the country to flog as much of their employers’ goods and services as they could. Now they are a dying breed. Doesn’t anyone want to sell their goods anymore, or is something more complicated afoot.
I seem to remember that in a previous article I had a little tirade about overall performance being measured solely on the bottom line, which of course is no bad thing because it makes us keep an eye on the overall cost of running the enterprise, but we mustn’t ignore the impact of the top line – in other words our gross sales. If our top line is maximized, it tends to pull the bottom line up and make all the bits in between that much easier. Sales was the big business thing of the late twentieth century where white-suited sales gurus could literally fill the Albert Hall or Madison Square Gardens with thousands of baying howling and cheering salespeople who wanted to know the latest wrinkles. To show you where I stand, I will state here and now that I believe once you have mastered this dark art, you can sell anything to anybody. Remember the following thought for future reference, a few easy to learn techniques that anyone can master will hugely multiply the cash input to any enterprise. It’s just that we seem to have lost the intention to sell.