"So I was wondering, what is that exact point where a company stops caring? Stops paying attention to their customers? Stops with the phenomenal customer service? Is it when they reach a certain sales figure? A certain number of employees?"
These were some of the pertinent questions posed by Brains On Fire's
resident firestarter Spike Jones yesterday
This is too big a topic to try to cover in only one post, but the least I can do is to try and get the discussion started. Here is a short list of what you might call purple cow killers
. These business diseases can strike a perfectly cool little company with quasi-infinite potential, and turn it into a bumbling corporate flunkie faster than you can say "I.P.O.":
People lose their passion for things they love when those things become routine. Think about it. Your first day at a new job. Your first drive in a new car. The first time you see a good movie. A first kiss. Everything is exciting at first... but then you eventually get jaded. The excitement wanes. You lose some of your passion. Details become someone else's problem. So do your products. So do your customers. Deny it all you want, it's true... and it's inevitable unless you do something about it.
The trick is to keep the fire burning by keeping things fresh. If routine is a passion-killer, then build a corporate ecosystem that actively fights routine. Easier said than done? Nope. Quite the contrary. (But that's a topic for another day.)
The bigger you get, the more you start to rely on procedures. The more you start to say things like "no" and "can't" and "we'll have to charge you extra for that". The harder it becomes for the people at the top of your organization to stay in direct contact with their customers. That's bad. It shouldn't take thirty minutes for a customer to get a return authorization. It shouldn't take seven transfers to get a product manager on the phone. Nobody should ever get the runaround. Ever.
Bureaucracies slow things down and build walls between employees and between you and your customers. As you grow, take the time to develop systems that overcome this problem. Again, this isn't hard, but you can't let these things fall to chance. You have to be just as proactive in building your company's structure as you are in building its markets.
Don't lose sight of the fact that a company isn't a building or a logo or a set of rules. A company is always, first and foremost, a group of people united to pursue a common interest. And while you may not think of it that way, this applies to your employees as well as
your customers. As a business leader, one of your jobs is to make sure these people are all connected. If your organization disconnects them from one another, you are majorly shooting yourself in the foot.
If you've only worked on the agency side of the business, chances are that you've never heard these dreaded words: "We've been doing things this way for ____ years, and we've been successful at it, so there's no reason to change."
(Nails on a chalkboard.)
Yeah, well, in the wise words of Jack Spade
, "Never believe anything you've done is successful." The minute you do, you're dead. End of story. In business, getting comfortable = getting lazy.
Reality check: Markets change. Technologies and tastes change. People grow old and younger ones take their place. Renewal = relevance. Even old-school luxury houses like Bentley and Cartier have adapted to new markets. (If you don't believe me, watch MTV sometime.)
If you don't constantly question what you could do better or where you might go next, you're done. Period.
It's natural to want to surround yourself with people you know and trust. It's another thing altogether to promote buddies and family members to positions they are neither qualified for, nor passionate about.
Furthermore, while surrounding yourself with people who won't ever challenge you might be a nice ego boost, it is certainly no way to keep your company moving in any kind of direction.
If all your key managers are passionate about are their 401K plans and their annual retreats to Tahiti, then it's no surprise that your company has lost its focus.
"Show me a guy who's afraid to look bad, and I'll show you a guy you can beat every time." (Lou Brock)
The older you get, the less chances you are likely to take with your career. The larger your company is, the less likely you are to risk screwing something up.
Too much to lose, you see.
So you stop taking chances. You start worrying about what your "competitors" are doing. Instead of leading them, you let them lead you. Next thing you know, you've exported all of your production power to China, your quality takes a dive, your customer service is anything but, every bit of talent you ever managed to hire has walked out on you, and you find yourself on the losing end of a price war. Other than just plain dishonesty, that's how great companies fail.
. Playing it "safe" is the fastest way to screw yourself over. (And your customers.)
If you don't have the huevos to stretch the boundaries now and again, to be an innovator, a pioneer, and to sometimes be okay with making some people really hate your latest product
, then you need to find another occupation. Being a leader isn't about staying put. It's about... well, leading.
Most companies who don't get it think that they do
get it. That's the tragedy. Once your distribution channels are well-developed, once you have thousands of active accounts, once you've been a market leader for twenty, thirty, forty years, the sheer momentum of your growth can carry you into another decade or two. As long as your growth closely matches whatever opportune economic indicator you are following, things might look pretty decent.
You might be under the delusion that you have it all figured out.
So what if you haven't actually spoken to a customer in twenty years? So what if you don't even bother to use your own products anymore? So what if you've chased away companies that could have become your partners in a number of cool ventures, and they went to your competitors instead? So what if your best people are quitting, one after the other? So what if you have absolutely no idea what people are saying about your products, about your customer service, about your company, about your leadership?
No news is good news, right?
How do we end up in sad little places like this? Really. You'd think that by now, we'd ALL know better. Tsk.
Okay. It's really late, so I'll leave you with another Jack Spade favorite:
"The bigger you get, the smaller you should act."
Every C.E.O. on the planet should be required to recite that line a hundred times every morning before they even get to their desk. (Let me propose a UN resolution. Do I hear a yay?)