Are You an Essential Leader?
This week I was a guest at UnleashWD, a conference founded by Dirk Beveridge to foster innovation in the wholesale distribution business. The industry, which creates about 5% of the private sector jobs in the U.S., faces the extraordinary pressures seen by most “middlemen” today, including new, innovative competitors. Amazon launched its own supply business last year. Seventeen speakers from outside the industry shared words of wisdom with the executives in attendance:
“beware the tyranny of the urgent;”
“dismantle the office of innovation prevention;”
“the worst formula for change is 20 years of success;”
“to reinvent your business, reinvent yourself;” and
“the best of humanity shows up in the worst of times.”
Most attendees seemed determined to leverage the inspiration of the conference into a fundamental shift in their approach. Yet others were wistfully resigned that company leaders would not embrace innovation.
As I pondered how to break through to recalcitrant leaders, I recalled a pivotal moment when I was an executive at 24/7 Real Media, an Internet advertising company, following the NASDAQ crash of 2000. Like all our competitors, we had used easy money raised in the stock market to finance rapid expansion, and then dismantled most of it in a fire sale. Our revenue had collapsed, immediate prospects were dim, and most outsiders predicted we would soon join the scrap heap of failed Internet companies.
As we thought about how to rebuild the company during very uncertain times, our CEO, Dave Moore, asked the executive team, “are we essential to anyone right now? Who would care if we went out of business tomorrow?” Bill Taylor explored the dynamics of this question in a blog on Harvard Business Review in 2010.
Are we essential to anyone right now?
My initial response was that our many customers would surely miss us if we were gone. But the truth, as Dave quickly replied, was that we were a “me too” company, and every one of our customers would quickly find an acceptable replacement.
Every strategic decision we made in the next seven years was geared towards making our company essential to our customer. We acquired or developed best-in-class technologies, expanded only into markets in which we could establish a strong presence, and significantly enhanced our customer relationships. In 2007, we sold the company in a spectacular transaction. Every asset that was prized by the acquirer had been purchased or developed by us after Dave asked that pivotal question.
At the closing session at UnleashWD, we broke into small groups to discuss concrete steps companies could take to leverage the learning from the conference.
I thought of my friends and family members who run small businesses and purchase goods and services from wholesalers. Each of them struggles daily with the “tyranny of the urgent.” When there are customers to serve, orders to fill, walls to paint, and roofs to cover before the next rain, they struggle to find time even to send invoices, much less engage in future planning or mentally process the many changes coming their way.
How can a wholesale business win the long-term loyalty of these small business owners? An occasional discount, football tickets, and fruit baskets won’t do.
Figure out how to insinuate themselves into the fabric of their customers’ existence.
One UnleasedWD speaker, John Johnson, who ran innovation at Pepsi, urged businesses to get a “day in the life” view of their customers so they could understand better how to meet their needs.
But wholesalers, like all businesses today, need to go beyond merely understanding customers and meeting their needs. They must figure out how to insinuate themselves into the fabric of their customers’ existence.
One of the suggestions in my breakout group was to begin using the word “customer” in every sentence. I countered that the word “customer” should be banned; people have names. 72andSunny, an award-winning ad agency that adopted this approach, says that by referring to people by their names, you “tend to think of them more as the people that they are as opposed to cogs in some machine.” This removes an artificial divide and makes it “easier to empathize with our partners and their situations.”
The word “customer” should be banned; people have names.
A second step all companies is to add someone to the team who creates and curates content that helps customers succeed. As UnleashWD speaker Dorie Clark writes, “For organizations…that want to be known for their ideas, the clearest — yet most underrated — path is through blogging. It hasn’t been buzzed about in years, but it’s more essential than ever.”
Nearly all of your customers need advice on the same topics; healthcare and other insurance issues, employment laws, managing cash flow, customer management, or something industry specific, like how to cut costs when renovating a bathroom.
How do I know this? Many of my small business-owning friends call me for this advice. I have no relevant experience, but I have the ability to quickly find authoritative answers, and they don’t.
You likely have this expertise in-house, could find a law firm, insurance agency or other service provider to furnish it for free, or could curate it from information freely available online. This could be done inexpensively in-house, or through a content provider, and published on a blog on your website. It would not only serve your existing customers, but would attract new ones who find your content through a search engine.
If you proactively provided your customers with information critical to their success, how essential would you be to them?
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