In an age of commodities, so many companies and their competitors offer products and services that are so similar you frequently cannot tell them apart. Tom Peters points out that when everyone else looks mostly the same, this is an opportunity for some companies to really stand out by doing something different.
Southwest Airlines – Even though this book was written more than 20 years ago, many of the insights that Peters makes about Southwest Airlines continue to be true today. Most of the time, their people are having a good time and giving their customers a memorable travel experience. A good example of this was when I recently flew Southwest and they got to the portion of the safety instructions where they talk about oxygen masks. They say to secure your own mask before assisting others, but this flight attendant said “If you are flying with more than one child, apply the first mask to the one who is most likely to contribute to your retirement account.” This got a healthy chuckle from the crowd during an exercise that most other airlines appear to “get through” as quickly as possible and most travelers are actively ignoring. At Southwest it is more than simply getting from point A to point B, they are providing an experience.
Some great “guru” quotes from this chapter:
“Are you regenerating? Are you dealing with new things? When you find yourself in a new environment, do you come up with a fundamentally different approach? That’s the test. When you flunk, you leave.” — Jack Welch, former CEO of GE and Management Guru
“While hard data may inform the intellect, it is largely soft data that generates wisdom.” — Henry Mintzberg, McGill University Professor and Management Guru
“Effective prototyping may be the most valuable core competence and innovative organization can hope to have.”— Michael Schrage, Innovation Guru
“Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.” — Oscar Wilde, Author, Playwright and Poet
It is freeing to realize that doing things (in life and in business) differently from the way others do them is actually a good thing. To stand out, develop a specialty, fill a unique need in the market, be colorful, leave a lasting impression and take risks is really the best way to approach things (again, in life and business). Breaking the mold means being one-of-a-kind, so celebrate and differentiate on what makes you and what you do/provide for your clients that is unique.
Tom Peters makes a great case that there is no excuse, no matter what kind of business you’re in, for thinking that what you offer can’t stand out from your competition. This week is all about suggestions for ways a business can reframe the way it thinks about differentiation and many practical ideas that can be implemented to make a business one of a kind. Customers are loyal when they connect with your business, and those connection points are the things you do that surprise, delight, and inspire them.
Customer Service Matters – Reinforcing a culture of excellent customer service pays high dividends to a business. There are several ways this can prove to be a differentiator. First, many companies tolerate mediocrity (and sometimes even unintentionally encourage it). Exceptional customer service is a strategy that almost any company can employ, yet it continues to be an underutilized strategy. Understanding your customers’ wants, needs, and expectations and then exceeding them in as many ways as possible can establish unbreakable customer loyalty.
Your People Matter – Who you hire mediocre people, don’t be surprised when you get mediocre performance. If you hire creative people, they will likely come up with new ways of doing business and see opportunities that others have missed. Reliability is important, but reliability does not have to equal boring. People can be visionary and reliable. Seek out the best people in the business, treat them exceptionally well, and reward them when their performance is outstanding. They will delight customers and drive profit over and over again.
Design Matters – Peters shares a list of 142 different examples of great design. Some of my favorites are:
the precisely correct placement of an airbill on a package being shipped to a finicky customer
the formal position of chief designer on a corporate organization chart (and the importance that role plays in every decision about a product or service)
a 20-year-old sweatshirt that you love
the smell of a new baseball
the garnish that makes a plate of meat and potatoes an elegant dish
stuff you can’t explain but know is there
the fact that you sometimes buy books for the cover and wines for the label
something that old folks appreciate…and wee kids…and the handicapped
a truck stop where you feel at home
Really Listening Matters – Beyond customer service, listening to your clients creates an ongoing dialogue that can yield amazing results. If you hear and address little problems, you can avoid them becoming big problems. Customers often have great ideas…often beyond what you could have imagined yourself. Hearing those outrageous ideas might produce your next breakthrough product. Peters also suggests interviewing 5-15 irritated customers and sharing it with your colleagues and management. It will likely produce a big discussion and inspire some memorable changes for the good.
Everyone Matters – Everyone in the organization should be able to produce a wow list that captures the things they are doing or projects they are working on that produce memorable results. HR might be doing things to improve the lives of employees so they can deliver better service or products for customers. Accounting might be working on ways to make customer payments easier for them. Everyone in the business has a role to play in making it stand out among a crowded field of competitors.
CockADoodleMoo is a food truck and catering business operated by Jolie and Doug Rollins. They opened their business in 2014 with the decision to “live fearlessly” and follow their dream. Doug has more than 20 years of experience as head chef at country clubs and Jolie has more than 20 years of business experience in the health care industry. Together, they are a dynamic duo that produce some of the best food you’ve ever tasted served with flair and extraordinary customer service.
I visited their truck this week after corresponding with Jolie by email for a couple of weeks. She was extremely generous with her time answering my questions about her business. After my visit, it is clear to me that this is a business that will be successful long after the food truck movement fades away. The food is all fresh and local whenever possible, so the menu adapts based on what is in season and available. The meat all comes from local farmers. It was absolutely delicious!
The great food is only part of the equation that assures the success of this business. Jolie has a larger than life personality, remembers her regulars and their orders and makes their interaction with CockADoodleMoo memorable. Her people skills also pay dividends beyond her customer interactions, as she has developed a large network of businesses that host her truck for lunch and dinner service. She and Doug also have a great network of local farmers that they work with to ensure the quality of their local raw materials is the very best.
I asked Jolie several questions about her decision to open CockADoodleMoo and how it runs. Those questions and answers are below.
Why a food truck (as opposed to a stand alone restaurant or some other format)?
Work/Life balance. When we go out of town, the truck is parked – no worries about leaving someone in charge! No worries at all!
What are the most challenging aspects of owning your own business?
Not enough hours in the day. [It was clear from our conversation that the 5-6 hours they were open every day was preceded by hours of food preparation, shopping from local farmers, as well as calls and emails to make sure their schedule stays fully booked.]
What do you enjoy the most (and least) about your work?
Most – customers. Helping them decide, telling them stories, listening to stories and watching them enjoy my husband’s creations.
Least – paying taxes.
Was there any specific impetus that inspired you to follow your dream in 2014 to open CockADoodleMoo?
I’d been in healthcare for 18 years and needed a change. My husband had been a country club chef for 18 years, he needed a change. Why then? A tug that told us if we didn’t at least try, then we would regret it forever.
What do you know now that you wish you knew back when you were getting started?
I wish I was a mechanic!
How long did it take before your business was profitable? What strategies did you employ?
We were profitable after 16 months. Knowing when to say no to an ‘opportunity’ is critical to the success of our business. My dad told me “you will take a lot of business where you think you are making money and you won’t. Don’t take business knowing you will lose money”. That stuck with me when someone wanted us to go outside our brand or sell at a lower cost to meet their goals. It wasn’t easy, but I have learned to say NO!
Are there things about a food truck business that are unique and different from other types of businesses?
Our local Food Truck Family is very tight – we call it Co-oper-ti-tion (combine cooperation and competition). We are all individual businesses with our own brands but collaborate and share information.
How do you market and promote your business?
Shop Local Raleigh and RDUMFA are two organizations that we’ve used to market our business. We also rely heavily on social media and word of mouth. [I saw this in action when I visited, as people came up to the truck they mentioned they follow CockADoodleMoo on Facebook and saw they were going to be here.]
What advice would you give to someone (like me) who aspires to start a food truck business?
If you love people and hard work then what are you waiting for???!!!
Here are a few photos I took when I visited CockADoodleMoo.
Peters references a book by Rosenbluth and Peters called “The Customer Comes Second” (1992) which points out that for customers to come first, employees must come “more first”. It is important that employees feel valued, are treated with respect, and are given the room to develop and thrive. In the knowledge economy, the mantra “Our people are our greatest assets” has to be more than lip service. If employees leave an organization or become disengaged, the loss to profitability is both real and tangible.
Peters suggests a number of ways to build in breaks, both daily and occasional, to refresh employees. One of my favorites are a milk and cookie or coffee break in the afternoons, so everyone gets up from their desks, stops what they were doing, and talks to each other. Other good suggestions include holding meetings outside, taking an afternoon off for a team activity, talent shows, spring cleaning day, and spontaneous bagel or pizza parties. All of these activities get people out of their spaces and routines to have fun and recharge.
Another important aspect of developing a team atmosphere is the size of the group. When the unit is several thousand people large, people will splinter down to smaller groups automatically. By organizing smaller units with distinct missions, people can really bond as teams and feel like they are a part of something that is larger than themselves. The size question also relates to the amount of bureaucracy in the organization. Peters encourages leaders to carefully consider how much administration is really needed to accomplish its goals and consider pushing more of the decision making down to the front line managers.
The “Three Rs for the ’90s” still hold true in 2016:
Reputation. You are as good as those who publicly attest to the quality of your work.
Resume. You must know and communicate your skills and measurable accomplishments.
Rolodex. Professional relationships are more important than ever. Who can you call on when you need something or have a question?
Interviewing is one of the most important skills you will develop as a leader. Peters suggests several lessons from his experience:
Spread them out and give yourself enough time to really tune into the person you are interviewing.
Find a comfy setting and avoid interviewing people from behind your desk.
Small talk helps some people loosen up and connect. If you are good at it, it can be a useful approach.
Prepare! Have more questions that you need/want to ask. This makes you feel confident and gives the impression that you are prepared to your interviewee.
Expect those you are interviewed to give specific examples. Don’t let them get away with talking in generalities.
Take notes immediately after your interviews so you remember your impressions and the details vividly.
Practice interviewing with other great interviewers at your company to understand their style and adapt what works for you.
People (individually) matter more today than they ever have in organizations. Creating a culture that reinforces people’s sense of value and contribution to the mission of the organization sets the company up for success. Choosing the right people that fit with the company culture and have the skills and knowledge that you need is one of the most important roles that you have as a leader. Adding the wrong person to your team can have lasting consequences, so choose wisely, train them well, and treat them like the assets they are.
Rosenbluth, H. & Peters, D.M. (1992). The customer comes second: And other secrets of exceptional customer service. New York: Morrow, 1992.
Tom Peters starts the chapter “Getting Things Done” by exploring the concept of power. I share his understanding that power is a “normal part of everyday life” that is essential to accomplishing goals and achieving success. True, power can have a dirty connotation and often people are uncomfortable leveraging it, but it also has potential to drive serious progress and do a whole lot of good. Peters presents a number of practical (and not at all dirty) ways that we can strategically build power (and a lot of these you’re probably doing already). Below are a few of my favorites:
Write thank you notes. Peters believes this is so important that if you can take writing thank you notes to heart, you can (almost) throw the rest of the book away. This simple expression of genuine gratitude impacts people so positively that you won’t believe the kind of support and loyalty it can encourage.
Recognize people. When someone does a great job, celebrate it. Everyone loves to be recognized.
Gently remind people of your contributions. Peters tells a great story here about a manufacturer who had a long history of on time deliveries. To promote this, they added a performance score to their invoices to (gently) remind customers that they were exceeding expectations by putting the requested delivery date, the actual date, and subtracting them to show how far ahead of schedule the delivery was sent. The results were HUGE.
Give credit to everyone. It costs you nothing and doesn’t diminish your successes in any way to acknowledge when someone else helped you get there.
Show up. Sometimes, being in the right places makes all the difference. If you don’t show up, those opportunities will never happen. In the age of email, people notice when you schedule a meeting in person.
Leaders back their people up. In stressful times, showing up with a pizza or rolling up your sleeves to do some of the grunt work will gain huge loyalty from your team.
People notice the little things. If you go out of your way to address an issue that inconveniences someone, they will never forget it. Removing small hurdles often pays big dividends.
Networking is power. Having and maintaining connections that you can call upon (and they you) when needed will infinitely increase your value to your organization.
Solve problems quickly. Letting a problem remain unaddressed usually makes it worse. Even if it isn’t fun to do, eliminating small problems early means they won’t grow to be big problems later.
Be nice. Don’t underestimate the power associated with being the kind of person that others want to be around.
A lot of this is practical advice, but I think many people don’t make the connections to the accumulation of power. As you become a trusted adviser that people at all levels of your organization recognize and support, it makes good sense that power will follow. This is the kind of power I want, because it is gained doing things that I’m proud to do anyway. In doing so, it can help me achieve organizational goals (and by extension my own).
For the next several weeks I will be blogging on The Pursuit of Wow by Tom Peters. Although this book was published over 20 years ago, I find the book to be just as relevant and insightful for today’s entrepreneurial leader. The book is a compilation of more than 200 observations by Tom Peters, a management guru, on how to achieve WOW. It is written in a way that is extremely accessible, as his style leans toward informal conversation rather than formal academic language. In short, I know from the first two chapters that this will be a very fun read.
The root idea of this book is that individuals at every level of a firm or business should be looking for opportunities to stand out from the crowd. One that really stood out for me in chapter 1 was focused on attentiveness. A research study on why customers left 14 major manufacturing and service companies showed that only 15 percent of the customers were lost because of quality and 15 percent for price. The remaining 70 percent was related to the human side of doing business like lack of attention from the company or contact was not good quality. This was a great reminder of how important paying attention to your customer is.
Another great observation is a quote by Albert Einstein answering a question about how he works. His response: “I grope.” I love this! It reinforces that even a genius like Einstein recognizes that his progress is iterative and imperfect. To get to a place of discovery, it will not necessarily be pretty.
The idea of starting a “pay-what-you-can” food truck came to me after a visit to the F.A.R.M. Cafe in Boone, North Carolina. A group of citizens concerned with the unmet hunger in their community partnered with a local church to open F.A.R.M. Cafe in downtown Boone where everyone would eat regardless of their means. It is staffed largely by volunteers and serves as much local food as possible. The food is good, so lots of paying customers frequent the business beyond those seeking the free meal and others donate to support the mission to end hunger.
After more research, I discovered that there is a growing network of pay-what-you-can eateries across the United States. One World Everybody Eats is a foundation that offers support to individuals seeking to apply this business model to address hunger in their communities. They offer a manual sharing the lessons learned and best practices for those starting a new cafe. In the last ten years, more than 50 pay-what-you-can cafes have opened and 20 more are in the development stages.
The more I learn, the more I am convinced that this model can work in Charlotte, North Carolina. The citizens are very generous financially and with volunteer time. There is also a growing appreciation for locally sourced food and an expanding food truck scene. Unfortunately, the need in Charlotte is great. The local nonprofit infrastructure is not able to fully meet the needs of the hungry, so there is capacity for another service that addresses this need in a new way and a food truck would provide a flexible service that could partner with existing organizations that address hunger to fill in gaps.
In the weeks to come, I look forward to sharing what I learn about the hospitality industry, the food truck business, social entrepreneurship, and running a nonprofit organization. I plan to interview current food truck owners that have offered to share their expertise and experiences with me as I embark on this journey. I appreciate your interest!