Product of the Year

Greetings.  I'm often thinking about new products, services and solutions, and what it takes to really capture the interest of large numbers of customers.  What it takes to really find your way into almost everyone's conversation and onto almost everyone's shopping list.  Typically this type of offering involves a new and clever technology that sparks our imaginations and promises to make our complicated lives easier, more enjoyable or more complete.  

But sometimes its different.  And that's what makes one product really stand out in 2009.  No its not the latest iPod–a true wonder of technology and lifestyle that has changed our relationship to entertainment and personal connectivity.  Or the new third generation Toyota Prius with its promise of a greener future.  Or the newest electronic game or web application.  Or a new biotech medicine, diagnostic test or gene slicing marvel–though each could hold the key to identifying and preventing disease.  And it's not a new food product that can magically create a gourmet meal after only three minutes in the microwave.  Or the new "instant" Starbucks coffee that purports to taste as good as its fresh brewed sibling.  Or the newest Kindle or other electronic reading device.

No. I'm thinking about a product that has, in far more subtle but profound ways, quickly etched itself into our individual and collective consciousness.  A product that we now seem compelled to reach for over and over again.  In workplaces, at home, in schools and restaurants.  On the counter of our favorite retailer–though they provide it free as a "public service."  At community gatherings and religious functions.  At rock concerts and in museums.  A must have that is on everyone's shopping list and in everyone's backpack, briefcase or purse.  Teachers request it, and it alone, at every "Back to School Night."  Salespeople bring samples to get on the good side of customers and prospects.  And its not even a "new" product.  But with concern building about a global pandemic, it has become the hottest thing since sliced goat cheese. 

You guessed it.  It's hand sanitizer.  A profoundly useful product whose time has come thanks to the emergence of the H1N1 virus.  And if there is a hotter product anywhere I'd like to know about it.  Then when you and the geniuses around you have a few free minutes, maybe just after you've walked into a public place and grabbed a little hand sanitizer, think about what this straightforward offering can teach us.

We win in business, and in life, by protecting those we serve from the things that worry them the most.  What are you and your organization doing to provide protection and peace of mind?  Maybe the real key to your success can be found in a simple product that is now sweeping the nation and the world.

Cheers and have a safe and sanitary week ahead!

Fast When It Matters

Greetings.  Speed matters.  As customers we want things quickly or even instantly, and are often willing to pay a premium.  We buy faster cars, upgrade to higher-speed internet connections, use one-hour dry cleaners, buy a growing number of things on-line using overnight delivery, and wait at the door for pizza promised in 30 minutes or less.  We expect service to happen when we want it and are frustrated when it cannot or does not meet our expectations.  We see queues, robotic phone voices and waiting as the bane of our busy existence…intended merely to prolong our suffering until the company on the other end can get its act together (see yesterday's post).

As companies, we strive to be faster as though that will be the key to our success.  For some businesses "do it faster" has become the new mantra, based on the unclear assumption that speed will win over customers.  But have we mistaken this unconditional belief in speed for the need to be fast at only the most critical times in the lives of those we serve?  Times when a better and more innovative response would really making a difference.  And, if we really want to be fast at those times, wouldn't it make sense to seek ideas and inspiration from one of the fastest and most focused creatures on earth?  Perhaps studying the real genius of cheetahs, beautiful and remarkable animals designed for speed, will give us some clues. 

Cheetahs are the world's fastest land mammals, capable of speeds approaching 70 miles per hour–or about 113 kilometers per hour for those of you who measure speed in a slightly more logical way.  At their top speed it actually looks as if they are flying through the air!  In their world, speed at the right time is everything and mistakes can be costly.  Being fast when it matters determines whether they eat and whether they and their cubs will live another day.  After all, the world of the east African savannah is harsh and filled with predators like lions and hyenas that can be as much as four times their size.  Like many other animals that lack the brawn to compete against larger and stronger foes, cheetahs must survive by being more clever or faster or both.  And one might imagine the same challenge for many companies and organizations that are not the biggest competitors in their industries.

So here's the question.  Does your organization's design allow you to be consistently fast when speed matters?  If not, it might be fun and valuable to look more closely at the design of cheetahs and to imagine "mapping" your structure to the essential elements of a cheetah's body…

  • Long legs for longer strides;
  • A long tail for stability when turning quickly;
  • A very large heart and lungs to pump more blood and take in more air;
  • Feet that grip the road firmly;
  • An uncanny sense of hearing to sense prey and predators;
  • A small head to reduce wind resistance;
  • And, "tear marks" to deflect the sun's powerful rays.

It's a fun and thought-provoking approach that might allow you to rethink the way you operate in a new, simple and powerful way.

We succeed in business by being super-fast and super-skillful when it really matters.  And when we can keep our heads from slowing us down.  Are you fast enough to make a difference to those you serve?  


Go Ahead–Waste My Time!

Greetings.  On a recent call to our bank's customer service department I was excited to have the opportunity to talk with their automated representative.  She began by saying a very business-like "Welcome" and then proceeded to ask me a set of questions designed to get at the heart of my problem.  She had a calm and reassuring voice and sounded very focused as she worked her way through each scripted phrase.  To her credit, she kept trying to make clear her desire to stay on task–continually rebuffing any errant response.  And once I finally got with the program, I dutifully responded with clearer and more concise answers.  Answers intended to help her and the bank zoom in on the problem they had created for me. And I quickly realized that confusing this poor electronic soul would only frustrate both of us, thus delaying my ability to speak with a real human being who might actually solve my problem.  So I hung in there for about five minutes, as this slick piece of software posing as customer service agent tried to train me.  Eventually I pushed enough of the right buttons and offered enough of the correct responses to be transferred to a real person who was less clear than her robotic co-worker but slightly more empowered to resolve my concern.

Then, having weathered the initial hurdle, I received a wonderful surprise.  None of the information I provided had found its way to the agent.  Not the nature of my call.  Not my specific problem or a single digit of my 16-digit account number.  Not my secret answers to their not-so-security questions.  Not even the slightest sense of my hopes and dreams for resolving the issue.  Nada.  Zippo.  Ingenting (which is Swedish for nothing).  So when she began to ask the very same questions in the very same order, I started feeling very sad and more than a bit frustrated.  It seems that in their efforts to reduce costs, my bank and too many other businesses have decided to use systems that waste the customer's time and often abuse us.  Keeping us on hold or talking to robots so they can manage their queue or get us to give up. 

Whose time do you think is more valuable–yours or the customer's?  If your customer isn't absolutely at the center of your service and support equation, then it's time to rethink why you deserve to be in business.   


A World of Ideas and Possibilities

Greetings.  I woke up this morning thinking about the world we share.  Not the crazy, crowded and conflicted planet filled with so many problems and challenges. Though that world certainly warrants our collective attention and genius.  But the remarkable, diverse and amazing planet that on its best days reveals the limitless potential of people, organizations and nature.  And it sparked a powerful idea that is always with me…

Try to imagine that you and your company or organization could have access to all the best thinking and insight in the entire world.  Any idea from anywhere or anyone.  From other businesses, communities, cultures or from other people very different than you.  Even from other species.  If you could, would that make you more successful in meeting the needs of your customers?  The best thinking about products, services or solutions.  The best thinking about systems, tools and techniques.  The best thinking about science or technology.  The best thinking about how to create the most amazing customer experience or about how to build greater teamwork and employee engagement.  It sounds like a crazy idea, and until recently it would have been.  But today we are only a few mouse clicks away from a wealth of knowledge and insight about practically anything that is going on or has gone on in the past.  And we're only a few more clicks away from some of the best thinking about what might occur in the future.  Sure it would be even better to head out to the far corners of the earth, but we don't have to in order to discover their genius. 
This is powerful idea, and yet all too often we cast a very narrow net in trying to create new opportunities or resolve pressing problems.  First we brainstorm, in the hope that someone in the room is clever enough to come up with a new and more powerful alternative.  And maybe it happens.  But is it the best idea we can come up with?  Then, failing that, we look around at the comfortable confines of our "known world" to see who else in our industry has a better way of doing things. After all, what could be better than copying their best practice.  But what if our industry isn't close to being brilliant at what we are trying to accomplish?  And besides, can we win by being the same as our competitors?  And only then, if we are bold enough to stretch our thinking, do we reach out to other industries and familiar places in search of better ideas.  But how far do we actually look?

Globe in Hands

We win in business by being different in ways that matter to those we serve.  But doing this means looking for ideas and inspiration in very different places.  Where will you cast your net today? 


Asking the Right Questions

Greetings.  Today is the day for my annual physical exam.  And because I have a good health insurance policy, I'll be able to go to the doctor of my choice, have the tests she thinks I need and get a thorough review of the current state of my health and guidance for the year ahead.  I'm reasonably upbeat about the appointment. During the past year I've tried to watch my weight, tried to eat a relatively healthy and balanced diet, tried to exercise with greater consistency and focus and made an effort to control stress at home and at work.  So as I approach the exam I feel, knock on wood (or at least particle board), pretty healthy.

Which leads us to the topic of healthcare, or more specifically to the importance of asking the right questions.  Because if we ask the wrong questions we limit our ability to succeed in life, business or at the doctor's office. As the "debate" about healthcare rages in Congress, the media and a host of other forums, it seems that the most important question is rarely asked.  You see, I'm not particularly interested in having "healthcare."  Sure its a good thing to have, and even essential, when you really need it.  But what I want is to have "health."  To be as healthy as possible for as long as possible.  To just "check in" with my favorite medical professionals at the appropriate times–based on the state of knowledge–to make sure that my balanced health scorecard remains in balance.  And if my objective from a policy standpoint is to create the healthiest community or nation on the planet, as opposed to the one with the most healthcare, I'd develop a very different plan.  One that focused on wellness, education, preventative diagnostics, early detection, preemptive treatment, diet and food safety, exercise and activity, environmental security and life balance.  And I'd commit to providing access to health over access to healthcare.  So while we need to improve the healthcare system before it bankrupts all of us, we would be far better off as a nation if we improved our individual and collective health and made us less dependent on the need for healthcare.  

Apple Picture

This very same logic applies to every single business or organization.  Because most customers aren't very interested in getting high levels of care.  What they really want is products, services and solutions that enable them to achieve their objectives without interruption.  Things that work and, in the quiet of the night, repair or upgrade themselves.  In fact, they only need technical support, return policies, extended protection plans and features that don't matter when we haven't kept them healthy.  They want the promise of the Energizer Bunny.  To keep going and going and going.  And that's what they deserve.

Too often in companies and organizations we ask the wrong questions and then try to solve them in ways that really don't matter.  What's the big question that you should be asking?  And, what's the most powerful and compelling answer that you can give to those you choose to serve?