Looking back to look forward

January is a time for both reflection and making plans, so this month I thought I’d write about one particular day last year that I think signalled a lot about what businesses need to do to be successful.

It was a Thursday, and during the day I had three conversations.

Trust your staff

I’ve written before about trust, but it was highlighted again for me in one of my conversations that Thursday – and with what happened to me afterwards when I went shopping.

My colleague had told me about her experience at a local jewellers.  She and her husband had decided on an item that they wanted to buy and they dropped into the jewellers over lunch, when they were in a hurry.  It wasn’t ideal, but it was the only time they could both make.

The member of staff who served them was very pleasant and polite,but unfortunately she looked after them by going through what was obviously a trained process: she sat them down and brought out a range of bracelets, as that was what they were looking for – but not the one they wanted.  Eventually, she did bring out the one they wanted, but my colleague and her husband had to make several requestsbefore she would just sell them the bracelet they’dalready decided upon.

In other circumstances,the assistant’s approach would have been the right thing to do – making sure a potential customer was aware of a wide range of options, and exploring the possibility of upselling from their original expressed wishes – but not this time.  My colleague left with the bracelet, but she was unhappy and has been telling everyone about her experience and frustrations.

After we’d chatted, I went into a shop to get some writing icing for some biscuits I was baking for my son’s wedding.  The shop only had a very small selection on display and I was a bit disappointed, so I asked the lady who was serving if they stocked any others.  She told me they didn’t but then asked what I was trying to do. When I told her, she kindly advised me on the best way to do it – without using the premade writing icing, but with another product that would be better.  I was delighted, boughtnot just the itemsshe had recommended but a few other things as well, and left happy.  I too have been talking about my experience.

To my mind, one shop trusted that theirstaff were capable of asking sensible and helpful questions and serving theircustomers intelligently and thoughtfully; the other didn’t trust their staff and wantedthem to apply a ‘safe’ formula. Yes, both resulted in a sale, but… I am telling everyone about my positiveexperienceand will go back to the shop again – my colleaguewon’t return and is talking about her negative one.

Really listen to you customers

Later that day, I was talking to another colleague about the car industry.  In the course of our conversation, I mentioned my perception that many businesses today don’t listen to their customers. They may talk about doing it, and pay lip service to doing so, but ultimately? Not really. What they do is encourage staff to sell what their factories produce and people to buy that – it’s actually all about asset utilisation, not meeting customer’s real needs.

My colleague agreed and said the car industry was a good example.  She asked what it was customers in the car industry wanted.  It’s not actually a car: it’s cheap, reliable, available, private, clean transport, or at least that was her view.Her answer? A sophisticated form of car club.  You don’t buy a car, you sign up to a fleet scheme.Need a small run around? That’s what you have.  Need a large people carrier for you and a group of friends to go on holiday?That’s what you get.  And so on… So you don’t actually have a car: what you have is access to the transport that you need, when you need it.

Just an idea I know – and still solved with today’s vehicles – but it’s not about owning a car or being sold one: it’s about providing transport.  Where else might the car industry go with its thinking if that was what it saw its purpose as,rather than just selling as many cars as possible to maximise utilisation of their factories?

Focus on your purpose.

My day ended by listening to a lady from Unilever talk about how they are working as a business.  They have three key targets:

  • Improve the health and well-being of more than a billion peopleand enhance the livelihoods of millions working across their value chain
  • Halve the environmental impact of their products
  • Double the business

She went on to tell me how they’d been working to improve water supplies in South America following a recent drought.  So they could sell more tea, I thought.Well yes, there was that, but no water also meant no showers and no washing, which also impacted on their business – people without running water don’t buy so much soap or detergent.(It also did little for those livelihoods, or that health and well-being.)And it also meant no water in the hydro-electric dam, so there was no electricity and no fridges, which for them meant no ice cream sales.

Yes, the lack of water and the drought was having a direct impact on them.  But by helping solve the water issues, they were helping the whole community have a better standard of living – and that would in turn lead to them selling more product.  The chain is reversed: it’s not about profit first. It’s about the planet, about people, and about their purpose. And that means Profit at the end of the day.

So Unilever give away and share their technology and ideas – such as mini-packaging – that they think benefit the whole planet.  Without a functioning planet, there is no business,so the planet comes first.  Secondly, they seek to improve people’s lives, because if humanity as a whole isn’t flourishing it leads to violence and disruption.  Finally, they focus on their purpose because that links planet and people to give them profit.

Looking Forward

So there you have it – my thoughts for a successful 2016.

  • Trust your staff
  • Listen to your customers
  • Focus on your purpose.

It’s not complicated – it’s hard, understand the difference.