Ten Business Cornerstones to Invest In and Consider This Annual Planning Season


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With annual planning season here, don’t just direct financial decision-making. Use this as an opportunity to redirect how your company makes all decisions regarding earning the right to customer-driven growth. To that end, consider these ten cornerstones as you are leading your company toward investing in customer experience, and improving customers’ lives in the coming year.

1. Believe in the integrity of your customers. Invest the time to identify “stupid rules” that could be showing customers you don’t trust them, and encouraging them to leave. The majority of business policies and rules are created to protect business from the minority of customers. Be bold, like Connecticut Griffin Hospital who began sharing hospital records with patients and saw claims against the hospital drop by more than 43%! Take a leap of faith and believe that trust is reciprocated by customers when they feel that you trust them. Find one rule or policy to relax and watch what happens.

2. Invest in employee trust. Show your employees that you believe in them. Beloved companies Wegmans and The Container Store invest in their employees by training them in the skills that remove rules, regulations, policies and procedures that pen employees in. This enables Wegmans to throw away the rule book and live by this: “no customer goes away unhappy.” As a result their margins are higher and profitability more steady because they turnover only 7% of employees versus the average in their industry of 19% employee turnover.

3. Practice democratic decision making. Invest in organizational dynamics that hinder innovation and collaboration. Make sure the best ideas of your company have a way to see the light of day. Give good ideas a chance to prosper no matter what rank they come from inside your organization chart. Innovation and marketplace differentiation comes when employees are respected as part of achieving a mission greater than their set of tasks, and that their voice counts. W.L. Gore has become a $2.7 billion dollar company; named by Fast Company as “pound for pound, the most innovative company in America;” and earned a place on Fortune Magazine’s best companies to work for list since its inception because of how they unleash the spirit and ideas of its people.

4. Grow and invest in customers as a primary asset of your business. Talk about customers lost and gained in real numbers, not percentages, to bring home the vast number of lives your business impacts. Understand what drives customers out your door, and begin the relationship by investing in your customers by realizing their long term potential. Zane’s cycles in Connecticut has experienced 23% Growth every year for 29 years, with 45% percent margins because they never lose sight of the fact that their average lifetime value is $12,500. And they manage relationships bearing that in mind. Valuing customers makes it easy to make decisions about how to treat them.

5. Invest in personal and experiential bonding with customers. Regularly connect with customers as they experience your products and services. Surveys and reports are great – but the beloved customers are also avid “customer watchers.” Take a page from Trader Joe’s who use employee taste buds at their testing kitchens to determine what items should first make it to their shelves, but employ customer “tasting stations” inside their stores combined with sales to determine what items stay. This closeness contributes to Trader Joe’s ability to generate $1300 in sales per square foot – twice the supermarket industry average.

6. Have clarity about how you uniquely serve customers’ lives. Invest in building one-company metrics across the silos to deliver complete experiences to customers. Unite your operation to ensure that decisions connect to deliver an experience customers want to repeat and tell others about. This ties cross-silo decision making together and releases the organization from excess bureaucracy. IKEA for example, designs the price tag first because they know that they serve customers who have less money in their pocket than sweat equity to put together their items themselves at home. Across IKEA, the understanding that the price drives design, innovation, and what they will and will not do drives their growth…sales that increased even in 2009 by 7.7 percent.

7. Deliberately walk in your customers’ shoes. Invest in giving people the time to “be a customer” and immerse themselves in doing everything you require customers to do to get your products and services. You need to know your customers’ life to serve their life. Yet as people rise through the ranks or even join organizations, orientation is often more about process and policy than learning about the customer at the heart of the business. Be deliberate in establishing a process for new hires, such as USAA, who require new ‘recruits’ to wear the flak jacket, and helmet many of their enlisted customers wear and to read their letters. All this is done so that at USAA when calls come in, they begin with connecting with the customer first then the process of the business second. 98% of their customers stay with them year after year.

8. Invest to make employee selection one of your most important decisions. Select your employees as you would customers – for lifelong value. At The Container Store, they only hire 3% of all people that apply. As a result, they have built teams of people in their stores who stick together in how they serve customers. Hire people who you want to become a part of the story of your business and then watch how your social media story improves.

9. Invest in being agile and human when mistakes when they occur. When mistakes happen (and they will) get out in front of customers and admit the flaw – then make peace with your customers. Repair the emotional connection, reduce the concern, and solve problem. The Nurse Next is one of North America’s fastest growing homecare providers, dedicated to delivering flexible, affordable and quality care options to seniors. A landmark practice they started was that they contracted with a company called “Acme Humble Pies,” sending a beautifully crated “humble pie” to customers when they had a slip-up. They spent $1,500 on pies and saved $100,000 in business.

10. Accept the order and the accountability. In a world where customers are holding a megaphone in their hand where they broadcast on the Internet the experience you are delivering, invest in reliability. Don’t make the customer wonder where the order is, how long ‘til it gets there or what happens when it backorders. If a customer can’t tell another customer what they get from you, how they get it or how it feels when they receive it, they you don’t have a story to tell (at least one you want heard). Invest in reliability…earn the right to grow.


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