What is your business?

“We don’t see the stars in motion, though they move at speeds of more than a million miles per day. We do not see the trees grow or notice ourselves aging each day. We do not see the hands of a clock in motion. We tend to think statically and are surprised, often uncomfortably and sometimes fatally, by the constant changes in our world. This also applies to the world of business: It is difficult to shake our static notions of business and markets. That is why so many businesses seem to belong to an obsolete yesterday.”
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That’s how Michael Michalko began one of the most interesting chapters in his remarkable book titled Thinkertoys. I was reminiscing about the above observation a few days ago during my last visit to a branch of a local financial institution. Here’s what happened: After a long, long time, I visited the said branch to sign some paperwork. I was expecting this visit to be no more than one of those in-n-out situations, but no—I actually spent an hour and 10 minutes there. Why? Because the paperwork they presented me with was crammed with gobbledygook and incomprehensibly long. I was honestly considering to ask them: “What’s your business—to make my life difficult?” Needless to say, I was not impressed. But wait—that’s not all. Just as I was going to start signing the paperwork, the employee who was walking me through the whole process, as he was handing me the pen with which I was to sign the paperwork, said this: “Sorry, but all we have are these cheapos…”

Let’s hit the pause button here: The same things drive people everywhere to engage in positive word of mouth marketing. Small things that make their lives easier, happier and more meaningful. Looking for big results? Think small. Okay, here’s Michael again:

“On the face of it, nothing may seem simpler or more obvious than to know what a company’s business is. A railroad runs trains, a publisher produces books, an automobile  company manufactures cars, and so on. Actually, ‘What is our business?’ is almost always a difficult question, and the right answer is often anything but obvious. Consider Bell Telephone. What could have been more obvious than the telephone business in the late 1800s?
Theodore Vail was fired by Bell Telephone in 1890 when he dared to ask top management ‘What is our business?’ He was called back a decade later, when the consequences of the lack of an answer had become evident—that is, when Bel System, operating without a clear definition, had drifted into a severe crisis and was being threatened by a government takeover. Theodore Vail’s answer was: ‘Our business is service, not telephones.'”
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What fuels positive word of mouth marketing in business is the quality of interactions with the customer, not the quantity of interactions. I could go on for another paragraph or two deconstructing my less than ideal encounter with the above financial institution, but what would be the point? “Let’s not spend time dissecting the losers,” declared Rich Karlgaard in the Feb 28 2011 issue of Forbes. In the same article, in an effort to suggest some business building ideas, Rich goes on to quote Helmut Panke, the former chairman and CEO of BMW: “I want to be able to blindfold a person, set him down in a BMW and have him know it’s a BMW by the feel of it.” Rich concludes that segment of the article with the following: “The best brands are not shallow. They touch a customer’s every sense.”

Let me support Rich’s last point with a personal story: in the Spring of 2005, I had the privilege of being invited to the North American debut of the BMW’s new 3 Series at South Beach in Miami. The whole event lasted almost an entire week, and every little detail was world class. Every detail. Even the so called swag pens we were given on a number of occasions were world class, made by the Swiss company called Prodir. Six years later, I am still using one of them. Daily. Isn’t the intention behind that pen a symbol of BMW’s commitment to communicate value and values and a desire to build lasting relationships? It’s a great story, isn’t it? And once known, can it be ignored?

My 2¢: As Rich suggests: for business building ideas that last, study the winners.

April 2, 2011