I am always on the lookout for solid business improvement lessons that pop up in our everyday lives—little reminders or sticky notes that are all around us, begging for a bit of attention. The other Saturday I planned to go to our local public library to return some books and check out a few new titles I had put on hold. The library had actually been closed for a few weeks due to some construction projects in the building where they are housed, so I figured I would do a bit of research before I headed out just to make sure they had successfully re-opened. The Chicago Public Library web site is decent but not very “real time” in terms of location information, so I decided to call the number listed for my location. The phone just rang and rang with no answer. I called back and the same thing happened. Hmm. So, I Googled the location. Google stated the library was open on this day, and they listed the same phone number I had tried. Just for kicks I tried the phone number again—no answer and no voice mail with info.
It was a decent day outside, so I put my books in my backpack and headed out for a little walk. The library is less than a mile away, so I figured even if they weren’t open, I’d get a bit of fresh air and exercise. As I approached, I could see lights on inside, but very few patrons, so I still wasn’t sure they were open. But the front door was unlocked and in I went. I piled my books on the return counter and asked the person at the check-out desk about the books I had on hold. She pointed to the hold shelf, but she said I couldn’t check anything out because their computers were down, and she had no idea when they would be back up. No apology or info on another location that might have the same books or even a notion about when the computer system might be back operating. And there was no offer to contact me when the system returned to functionality. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected much, but even a hint of remorse would have helped a tiny bit.
It was really not a big deal, and as I said I got a bit of fresh air and exercise out of the afternoon. But I was truly struck by how hard it had been to convey even the simplest tidbits of information that might have made my day just a bit easier. Maybe the web site could have had something about the computer issue, or if they had a live person answering the phone or even a simple voice mail message stating that until further notice you couldn’t check out any books. Or even as a last resort just a paper note taped on the outside door? Again, this certainly wasn’t a huge problem, and there are many bigger issues than my inability to check out some library books, but this does point out something you and your team should focus on relentlessly—how you can insure that doing business with your company can be as easy and enjoyable as possible?
There is a great competitive advantage in making your company friction free, a smooth and comfortable business partner, in a world filled with hurdles and difficulty. There are plenty of examples of companies that use this “ease of doing business” to their advantage. Amazon expends huge amounts of money, intellectual capital, and effort on making the entire buying experience with them as easy, transparent, and reliable as possible. The most striking example of how this impacts their business is the Holiday/Christmas shopping season. It is well documented that on-line shoppers radically alter their behavior as Christmas nears. In November and very early December people will shop on-line for the best deals or look to manufacturers direct sites for clothes, toys, electronics, etc. But Amazon becomes the preferred shopping site the closer you get to Christmas because people are sure they’ll get the product delivered when promised. When customers want to be certain their gifts will be delivered accurately, on time, and in good shape—they change their buying over to Amazon.
Wal-Mart & Kroger are consistently heralded as the major retailers who manage supply chains better than their competition. Better forecasting, more transparent data and information on stock levels, and pro-active communications are always mentioned by suppliers when commenting on these two retailers. They are just much easier to do business with than their competition.
And McDonalds market share advantage versus Burger King has much more to do with having significantly more store locations (hence more options for their customers and more convenient to your driving routes) and their continued investment more modern customer facing technology than it does on having a better hamburger.
I’m not advocating for any of these companies and am not arguing that their products are better in terms of price, quality, etc. However, these companies are experts at making interacting with them easy—for both customers and suppliers. The “that was easy” philosophy is key to their competitive advantage and allows them to stand out in very crowded competitive fields. This is not random chance, and the leadership at these companies makes sure this conversation is part of key employees daily standard work. Easy, quick, transparent, accurate, convenient, outward facing, customer, supplier—these words, thoughts, and focus dominate their strategic planning and execution.
Does this discussion (the concept of making your company or organization exceptionally easy to do business with) dominate the conversations with your team? Is your focus outward first, to your customers and/or suppliers, with your entire team working to make you a friction-free leader versus your competition? Your top-line growth and cost mitigation performance as a company depends as much if not more on this “easy to do business with” focus as it does with product innovation, marketing programs, or operational improvements. Invest in your own team and help them to re-focus outward on your customers and suppliers looking for ways to make your organization easier and more frictionless to interact with. Make this exercise an integral part of your daily/weekly management routine. You’ll improve your top line and get happier, more relaxed and engaged customers and employees as a result, and your team will have more skills and resources to perform the tasks that drive your business forward every day. Don’t just say it—lead by doing it.
Photo: J. Carbine