But We’ve Always…

It’s December. For those of us who make our living in any form of consumer business, that usually means two things:

  • We have made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with our projections now being evaluated against actuals.
  • In less than a month it will be a new year, where we can either make the same mistakes again or invent new ones.

That leads to two takeaways I would like you to consider before the year ends:

  • Customer behavior tells us almost everything we need to know to be successful in business, particularly when we study data and benchmark assumptions against metrics.
  • We ignore the realities of customer behavior at our own peril, but darn it all if we don’t come up with really good reasons to flagrantly repeat our mistakes with passion and conviction.

How does our eye come off the ball precisely when it is crossing the plate and our bat is in swinging position?

It all begins with three wretched words:

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS.

Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these pronouncements before:

I know our customers complain when we send them too many emails, but we’ve always sent them at least four offers on Thanksgiving Day.

I know our customers don’t trust our pricing, but we’ve always jacked up our regular prices in the weeks before Christmas so we can mark them “50% off.”

I know it’s irrational to cover the cost of free expedited shipping and lose money on every sale, but we’ve always managed to convince our boss that losing money is the only way we can compete with Amazon.

I know our brand promise is what matters most to our company, but we’ve always managed to slip in a few low-quality products with our best inventory to even out our margins.

I know we believe our customers are loyal and have a lifetime value, but we’ve always cut our customer service costs to force our bottom line into compliance with our budget.

Yep, we know what we are doing is wrong, but we’ve always found a way to justify our shortcomings, weak logic, or poor decision-making because we’re out of time, out of patience, or out of energy to argue for doing what’s right.

Earlier this year I attended the third-annual ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas. It had grown 50% over 2017 with more than 8400 attendees. Ecommerce remains an escalating magic buzz word. There were two types of presentations:

  • “People may think our proud, established, vastly well capitalized legacy brand can’t adapt to new technology, but we’ve always been a customer favorite and there’s no reason anyone should bet against us.”
  • “We’re a new brand and will lose our jobs if we don’t succeed, but our investors are betting that if we brainstorm new experiments and focus on customer behavior, the results will tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

Which bet would you place with your own money?

Let me restate the choice:

  • “We’ve been around more than fifty years, we know exactly what we’re doing having coined a business model for hard-won success, we’re a household name, and we’ll still be a household name fifty years from now.”
  • “We have no idea if we’re going to be around in two years, but we’ll take whatever runway we have to figure out how to do what’s never worked successfully before.”

Don’t bother answeringit’s a trick question. The truth is you need some of both to win the long game, some of the newbies and some of the dinosaurs. Yet too many people convince themselves there’s little downside to a buy-and-hold strategy with “forever” companies like GE or GM. They won’t invest in a risky start-up with a funny name and an unproven business model like Amazon or Apple until it’s a fully valued blue chip.

No one knows what companies are going to win in the future, whether cemented or emerging. They all have unpredictable choices to make. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s how new companies are born and old companies die, or old companies are reborn through reinvention. It’s called creative destruction.

My point has nothing to do with improving your stock portfolio. My point has everything to do with recognizing the death knell of an established brand and bringing life or invigoration to a challenger brand.

It can be a fair fight. An established brand can be a challenger brand when it acts like an underdogwhen it stomps out the status quo and humbly looks to customers for confirmation or rejection of any working thesis.

I am willing to bet few employees at Amazon or Apple wander the halls uttering the words “but we’ve always” as a response to why they aren’t trying something new. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they are becoming slow, cynical, and comfortable that they know what they are doing. I doubt it, but if they are, an opportunity for a challenger brand is out there for the taking.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Sears.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Toys ‘R’ Us.

When was the last time you said it? Still feeling good about that?

This year’s holiday shopping strategy is already behind us. There’s nothing we can do with history except study and learn from it.

The new year awaits all big ideas, particularly those focused on truly delighting customers with a sustainable business model and a resonating brand promise.

My advice going forward in whatever you are doing?

Eliminate the phrase BUT WE’VE ALWAYS from your company’s vocabulary before it eliminates you.

Erase those three words entirely from all conversation.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS is defensive, uninspiring, and telling.

Try something instead that hasn’t worked, something that you think might work because you have reason to believe in a thesis. Measure the results. If there’s promise, hone it with precision. If it starts to work, stay humble. Stay inquisitive. Question the potential interpretation of every collected data point. Remember that every successful idea has a life cycle, and a bad idea yesterday might be reformed under changing market forces as a good idea tomorrow.

When an idea works dependably and someone questions it in a future review, just don’t say BUT WE’VE ALWAYS done it that way. You haven’t always done it that way. It had a beginning. It can have an end. What can’t end is innovation.

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Image: Pixabay

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Everyday Innovation

You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be an innovator. Becoming a startup CEO may not be your thing, but changing the world is always within your reach.

There is a frenzy of late among those longing to lead business startups, and that is exciting. Entrepreneurs are a special breed, and while the successful ones are rare, no one really knows who is going to be successful in advance. Naysayers will tell you what you can’t do, and only you can prove them wrong.

When we talk about innovation, that undoubtedly points to entrepreneurs, but I’d like to think it not exclusive to them. Innovation is a process where creativity is harnessed, often galvanized through the building of momentum and the sharing of a vision. Often a new project or the reinvention of a product type begins with very few people involved, perhaps only one. The idea is refined and vetted, resources are added, more people get onboard, a consensus around a feature set emerges, and eventually it comes to be owned by a team. If you’ve ever been a part of this kind of team, you know how invigorating the process can be.

A subset of this process is the highly competitive world of funded startup companies, and that is a different beast entirely. In a quite insightful op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the trials and tribulations of Uber, Andy Kessler recently noted the sometimes seething nature of a startup CEO who makes it through the hurdle of significant investment in their ambitions to excavate a gold mine:

Hubris becomes an asset. Startup CEOs are always saying the goal is to “suck the oxygen out of the room” of their competitors. Success requires a certain bravado. That should be encouraged, but most entrepreneurs have no idea when to turn it off.

There’s nothing wrong with being competitive, embracing ambition, and wanting to do the impossible. Does the goal of that have to be the annihilation of those who currently populate a market segment? Maybe because it’s the holidays, I wonder how that thinking aligns with Give Peace a Chance, but I think you can change the world without an ethos of leveling good chunks of it.

It is important to our economy and financial well-being that new companies are constantly born, that creative destruction replaces old opportunities with new ones. It is also limiting to evaluate innovation on this metric alone. If the only creativity that receives our highest praise is the moonshot IPO or breathtaking acquisition multiple, perhaps we send a difficult message to our colleagues and children that commercial success is the most important success. Do we really believe that it is somehow less noble to be part of reinvention that is not about clubbing a competitor over the head and walking away with his or her bounty?

Innovator's DilemmaMuch has been written around the concept of disruption, where traditional ways of doing things are derailed in almost unbelievably short periods of time. We saw it happen with music and video, where digital media disrupted the business model of selling and renting physical media. We’re seeing it happen with the news business, most recently evidenced at The New Republic, where the economics of professional journalism are colliding with the realities of recovering its cost. Disruptors are a very real force as author Clayton Christensen so clearly taught us in his landmark book The Innovator’s Dilemma, but is it an end unto itself? What if someone doesn’t want to be a war-declaring disruptor?

There are all kinds of ways to define admirable innovation. Truth be told, very few of us are going to draft a business plan and schlep from angel to venture to institutional investors with an all-or-nothing mentality. If that’s not you but you still feel a hunger to join the reinvention movement, here are seven concrete ways you can embrace innovation right now:

  1. Give Yourself a Stealth Performance Review: Secretly write down exactly how you think you are doing at work. Be as candid as possible. Conclude with a set of recommendations for improvement. Pick one. Do it.
  2. Ask Your Boss for a Problem: Walk in and say, “How can I take a burden off your back? Give me something on your to-do list that is important but you don’t have time to do. Let’s brainstorm it together.” Always remember that every problem is an opportunity.
  3. Clarify Your Brand Promise: If you don’t know what your company stands for, ask someone in senior management for some evangelism around your company’s brand. Then look at the work you are doing every day. Does it align with the brand promise? If not, what tweaks can you make to your daily tasks to bring you personally more in line with your company’s expressed mission?
  4. Help a Non-Profit: Find an organization near you whose values and mission you embrace. Contact someone there in a leadership capacity. Tell them you want to help and what skills you have to offer. Ask them what is on their plate that isn’t being addressed. Address it.
  5. Fix Your Personal Budget: Develop a formal income statement for yourself or your family. Write down all sources of revenue and expenses. Look for areas where money is leaking out that needn’t be. Plug the holes. Get your credit under control. If you have longer-term needs, create a formal plan for getting there.
  6. Get a Hobby: Right, you don’t have the time. Yet a hobby allows you to abstract so many of your daily thoughts and tie back that problem solving to your everyday responsibilities. Plant a garden, bake, follow a sports team, adopt a pet. Don’t think of it as a diversion, think of it as a commitment to lifelong learning and self-improvement. Push yourself to approach it slightly differently from those already doing it.
  7. Coach a Friend: Look around your circle of acquaintances for someone who might be struggling a little. Offer to be a coach or mentor for the next six to twelve months. Ask nothing in return. I promise you the ideas that will emerge from your discussions will be as valuable to your personal growth as they are to the friend. Ideas and energy compound when shared. You may forget who is coaching whom.

Startups can be cool, but all innovation does not require a startup environment. Creativity is a process that leads to all kinds of new stuff, and it also exhausts dead ends around stuff not worth doing or not ready to be done. Instead of making a hollow new year’s resolution, pick a path to one of the above suggestions or come up with your own idea for reinventing the world around you. Everyday Innovation is there for the taking. Go make change happen, and I’ll see you at the starting gate!

The $20 Brand Bond

Amazon LogoLet’s talk about lifetime value of a customer for a few seconds. I use the term “a few seconds” purposefully.

Recently I bought one of those discount vouchers for a neighborhood deli, where you pay something like half of face value and then cash in full value when you’re at the restaurant. This one wasn’t from Groupon or Living Social, but from Amazon Local. When I went to cash it in, the deli was out of business. Tough times always for restaurant retail. It happens. Went to another place for lunch. Oh well.

I got home that night, went to the customer service web page for Amazon Local, found the template under Contact Us, and submitted a one-sentence email notifying them of the event. How long did the response take? Less than a minute. Full credit.

Yep, Amazon Local “bought” this voluntary endorsement for a whole twenty bucks. Plus my ongoing loyalty. My lifetime value to Amazon the Brand just increased a good deal more than twenty bucks, perhaps a hundred times that, maybe more. Why? Well, first because they respected me and my time, but more so because they laid the pipe to assure me that if something bigger ever needed to be addressed, I could count on them.

What did they do right internally to cause this function to be enacted externally? For one, they fully empowered their staff, someone in a call center likely on the other side of the world. There is no way in that brief turnaround their staff person had to ask anyone for permission to do anything. They saw an issue, they jumped on it, case closed.

We look for WOW THE CUSTOMER moments in business all the time. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising to get someone to sample a new product or service, so that somehow a WOW THE CUSTOMER moment can occur. This one cost an entire twenty-dollar bill.

Compare this experience to another I wrote about earlier this year, where try as I might, I could not get one of the largest retailers in the world to help me locate a $5 replacement part for a thousand-dollar appliance I had purchased from them. That retailer competes with Amazon, probably does not know it, and will never get another dollar from me. If you have a moment, go read the transcript I shared from that interaction. Coincidentally, I happen to have shared that post with a rising star at Amazon back when it happened who was aghast when he read it. He had no idea of the contrast to come.

This is not meant to be a lionizing of Amazon. Full disclosure, they were a minority investor in my previous company and proved to be a formidable competitor, daunting in many respects, not the least of which was their near-rabid obsession with precision, time to market, and transaction perfection. They had vast resources to call on that were not available to me, but they used them wisely and never skimped when it came to the customer experience. That is a big part of how they got to be best in class, and consistently one of the top performers in the Internet Retailer Top 500.

Germane to Amazon’s perfection is a mandate of setting a customer service standard that is so extraordinary and so rare it can seem financially irresponsible to emulate—so much of net margin goes right back into the expense line to serve the customer. Market analysts often shiver when they report on Amazon, wondering how their eye-popping trading multiples can last, with so much volume but so little relative profit. Amazon seems to pay little mind to these analysts, instead worrying instead about customers. That leaves them no choice but to focus on lifetime value, calculating it in complex equations with net present value back to the reinvested capital that most others would probably harvest.

How tempting it is to consume the fruit of that harvest, but harvest has to come each year, and that is why we focus on brands. Here I lionize the customer service commitment as an essential and grounding component of the brand promise. It is the shortest business case study in the world, yet almost every company you encounter gets it wrong.

A service culture in the information economy puts the CEO at the bottom of the hierarchy and the customer at the top. The customer is the boss. The people closest to the customer, individual contributors like those in customer service, are the ones who interact with customers. They make or break your brand. How much discretion and authority are they usually granted? None. How much should they have? As much as you can pile on. They own the customer relationship, so they own your future.

Go on, hire the highest paid consulting firms and retain power player ad agencies. Hold multi-day off-sites for brainstorming retention strategies. Give motivational speeches about reframing your mission and vision.

Or just be really, really, really appreciative of your customers. Love your customers, every single one them, embrace them as strategic imperatives, bonds that build moats.

What’s the ROI on world-class handling of those who frequent your brand? You tell me.