The Straight Line to Business Success

Walking in circlesDid you know that we humans can’t walk in a straight line without visual cues to keep us focused on our path? Not only can’t we walk straight, we actually walk in circles if we can’t clearly see where we’re going.

It seems we also drive our businesses in circles if we don’t have strong focal points like clearly defined visions, goals and strategies.

I learned this odd fact about humans walking in circles when listening to a recent NPR piece that covered a research paper on the topic written by Jan Souman, Ilja Frissen, Manish Sreenivasa, and Marc Ernst. According to the paper:

We tested the ability of humans to walk on a straight course through unfamiliar terrain in two different environments: a large forest area and the Sahara desert. Walking trajectories of several hours were captured via global positioning system, showing that participants repeatedly walked in circles when they could not see the sun. Conversely, when the sun was visible, participants sometimes veered from a straight course but did not walk in circles. We tested various explanations for this walking behavior by assessing the ability of people to maintain a fixed course while blindfolded. Under these conditions, participants walked in often surprisingly small circles (diameter < 20 m), though rarely in a systematic direction. These results rule out a general explanation in terms of biomechanical asymmetries or other general biases. Instead, they suggest that veering from a straight course is the result of accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system, which, without an external directional reference to recalibrate the subjective straight ahead, may cause people to walk in circles.

It’s easy to see the parallels in our business environments. Without a clear vision of where we’re going, it’s easy for “accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system” (I love that phrase) to send us off course. In the world of retail, we’re constantly bombarded by internal and external demands for short-term change. Those demands are often driven by overly narrow data analysis (such as daily or even hourly comps), emotional reactions, gut feel, wild ideas, competitive shifts and more.

So what do we do about it?

We can’t stop the noise, but we can provide ourselves some solid focal points and guide rails to keep us on a straight path towards ultimate success.

  1. Write a meaningful, compelling, and easy-to-remember vision statement

    I’ve often personally had negative reactions to even the idea of vision statements because so often they are overly wordy and meaningless to everyone in the company who wasn’t in the room when they were developed (which is generally almost everybody). A particularly bad example would be something like: “We are committed to achieving new standards of excellence by providing superior human capital management services and maximizing the potential of all stakeholders – clients, candidates and employees – through the delivery of the most reliable, responsive, flexible, and cost-effective services possible.” Too wordy. Too many buzz phrases. Not enough inspiration. Not enough meaning to most people in the company or its customers.

    All too often, vision statements like the previous example are created in a boardroom, printed on posters hung all over the company and almost immediately ignored. And then the business runs in circles.

    But it doesn’t have to be this way. A carefully created vision statement can be the focal point that drives all business decision and keeps the entire company moving in a straight line to success.

    Consider the following excellent examples and how they might guide your decisions:

    Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

    Google: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”

    Ritz-Carlton (they call theirs a “credo”: “The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission.

    We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience.

    The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

  2. Develop measurable goals that lead toward the vision
    There are millions of articles online (according to Google it’s more that 3 million) that explain how to set good business goals, so I won’t go into all of that.

    But I will say just creating “SMART” goals is not enough. The goals have to also be aligned with the vision and serve as milestones along that straight walk to success. It’s entirely possible to create a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely goal that doesn’t progress us towards our vision. I suppose you could argue that “relevant” should be the attribute that aligns us with the vision, and it should be, but I’ve seen “relevance” twisted to individual agendas too often to rely on it without comment.

    So the goal has to lead us toward the vision. For example, a Ritz-Carlton hotel manager might have a goal that says “Improve lobby ambience scores on guest satisfaction scorecard from 83 to 85 by December 31, 2011.” That would be something that specifically aligns with the vision and tells the manager how well he’s walking the straight line to the success.

  3. Implement brand  and service guidelines to establish boundaries
    Brand guidelines are also critical to help us understand what boundaries we can work within on our straight line to success. I think of them almost as swim lanes. We might not swim perfectly straight, but as long as we stay in our lanes we’ll have the latitude to deal flexibly with changing conditions while continuing to head toward our vision. Consider Ritz-Carlton’s 12 service values:

    1. I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life.
    2. I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.
    3. I am empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences for our guests.
    4. I understand my role in achieving the Key Success Factors, embracing Community Footprints and creating The Ritz-Carlton Mystique.
    5. I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve The Ritz-Carlton experience.
    6. I own and immediately resolve guest problems.
    7. I create a work environment of teamwork and lateral service so that the needs of our guests and each other are met.
    8. I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.
    9. I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me.
    10. I am proud of my professional appearance, language and behavior.
    11. I protect the privacy and security of our guests, my fellow employees and the company’s confidential information and assets.
    12. I am responsible for uncompromising levels of cleanliness and creating a safe and accident-free environment.

Of course, the entire process is not as simple to implement as it is to write about. But I’ve found over the years that dedicating considerable thought to providing clear, compelling direction for all employees to follow a relatively straight line can help prevent destructive business circles and keep us on the straight line to business success.

What do you think? What types of business direction have you seen that worked best for you? Would you share some examples? How about the opposite? When have you seen it all go horribly wrong? What can we learn from those failures?

The power of a little naiveté

questioningMost of us are experts in something. Our expertise and experience are usually significant advantages that allow us to deal effectively with complex problems and situations. But they can occasionally be Achilles’ heels when they breed the type of overconfidence that causes us to overlook simple solutions in favor of more complex and costly solutions. Injecting a little naiveté into some problem solving sessions can spur new thinking that results in more effective and efficient solutions.

In my experience, experts tend to skip right by the simple solutions to most problems. Groups of experts working to solve a problem are even more likely to head directly to the more complex solutions.

Consider this example from the excellent book I’m currently reading, CustomerCulture by Michael D. Basch (thanks to Anna Barcelos for the tip):

Hershey’s Chocolate Company had a problem on its Rollo production line. It had worked with teams of employees to improve quality and had raised the consciousness of their employees around service in all aspects of the operation. This example involves a problem where the candy went through an automatic wrapping machine, and the wrapped candy was dropped onto a conveyor that dumped it into boxes to be sold in retail stores. When the box reached the specified weight, it would be shifted to a new empty box, and the process would continue.

The problem was that, all too often, empty wrappers would come out of the wrapping machine and end up in the retail boxes. These boxes had cellophane windows where the consumer could see the empty wrappers, and, although the box was sold by weight, the customers’ perception was of poor quality and the feeling of being taken advantage of.

The company put a team of engineers on the problem, and a new wrapping machine was not cost justified. Therefore, the problem became “How to get the empty wrappers off the conveyor.” The engineers then designed an elaborate vibratory conveyor system. A vibratory conveyor vibrates, and heavy things tend to move with the force of gravity. In this way, they could vibrate the filled wrappers off the vibratory conveyor to the box filling conveyor. The cost would be about $10,000 to move equipment around and to install the new system. Of greater consequence was the time. This line was working 24 hours a day and 7 days a week and was still falling behind. A retrofit would stall production for a day and one-half.

Fortunately, part of the team inventing the new system was the production workers who worked the line every day. The engineers presented their solution for feedback. The next day, two production workers were discussing the problem just before lunch when one said, “I’ve got it.” The other asked, “What have you got?” “I’ll show you after lunch,” came a hasty reply as the man left the building. After lunch, he returned with a $15 fan he had purchased at Wal-Mart. He plugged in the fan. It blew the empty wrappers off the conveyor, and the problem was solved—no great cost, no stalled production.

In the end, the simple solution was both highly effective and highly efficient. I don’t know why expertise largely blinds us to these types of solutions, but maybe it’s because our training and our past experiences have been so focused on complex solutions that we just automatically go there. And when we’re discussing the problems with groups of experts, as was the case in the Hershey’s example, maybe we also just assume the others in the group have already considered more simple solutions.

Hence, the power of a little naiveté.

Too often, we associate naiveté with ineptitude, but the root of the word, naive, is really more about lack of understanding or sophistication. And that lack of sophistication can be just what the doctor ordered in some problem solving situations. I can think of many conversations I’ve had over the years with hard core technical folks where I asked a series of “dumb” questions that ultimately led to those highly trained experts developing simpler and ultimately more effective solutions.

Next time you have a complicated problem you’re trying to solve, rather than just gathering the best of the best (and only the best of the best) to discuss solutions, consider inviting a few “differently experienced” folks into the room. These don’t have to be inexperienced people in general, but rather people specifically inexperienced in the particular problem being solved. The main idea is to get some different thinking injected into the conversation. One of the main tenets of the Monkey Cage Sessions problem solving technique I’ve written about before is inviting people of different experience levels and backgrounds into a single session that allows views of the problem from multiple perspectives.

We need our assumptions to be questioned if we hope to find the absolute best solutions. Let’s tolerate a few “dumb” and “naive” questions and appreciate fresh perspectives on the problem. We might be surprised what solutions we come up through the power of a little naiveté.

What do you think? Have you ever encountered the power of naiveté in problem solving situations? Or do you think letting lesser experienced folks into complicated solution finding sessions is a waste of time?

The 4 Keys to a Customer-Centric Culture

customer centric organizationRetail: Shaken Not Stirred reader Sarah submitted an interesting question for today’s post:

“What does it really mean to create a customer-centric culture ? We hear companies say it all the time. I would wager that almost every retailer claims to have it. But what does it really mean and how do you know if you really have it?”

Culture is a powerful and interesting beast, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert in developing corporate cultures. However, it’s a topic of great interest for me, and I’ve had the opportunity to observe and operate within many corporate cultures. I’ve learned that corporate cultures cannot be decreed from the top as cultures get their power from all of the people within them. While CEOs and other leaders can be influential in culture development, they can also be completely enveloped by powerful cultures that are driven from all levels of the organization and formed over many, many years.

That said, I believe there are certain dynamics that drive cultures, and we can influence and shift cultures by focusing on these key areas.

Without further ado, here are what I believe are the four key facets of a truly customer-centric culture:

  1. Faith
    Customer-centric organizations believe in an almost religious way that sales and profits are the by-product of great customer experiences. They are unwavering in their belief that intense focus on creating the best possible experience for their customers is the best way to grow their businesses. Some of these organization will go as far as saying sales don’t matter, but that’s not exactly accurate. All businesses need to create profits, but truly customer-centric organizations focus on the customer experience and not on directly “driving sales.” They believe the best way to improve sales is to view them as an outcome of great customer experiences rather than something that can be directly affected.

    I once had the opportunity to meet with Yahoo and Google in back-to-back meetings regarding potential partnerships with my company, and the two discussions could not have been more different. The Yahoo team was very focused in determining how the partnership would increase Yahoo’s revenues while the Google team interrupted us immediately when we began to discuss revenue. They said they were only interested in opportunities that would enhance the Google experience for their users. Period. I didn’t take this to mean they weren’t interested in growing their business. They simply believed that Google’s purpose was to help people find all the world’s information, and they would maximize their revenue by delivering on their purpose in the best way possible for their users.

  2. Fortitude
    Relentless focus on the customer experience is not easy, particularly for public companies. Truly customer-centric organizations constantly have their faith tested by both external and internal forces who are looking for short-term sales or profits, even if those sales and profits might come at the expense of the customer experience. Customer-centric organizations focus on the value of a customer engagement cycle that relies on great customer experience as an engine that drives retention and positive word of mouth.

    There will always be pressure to run short-term promotion to goose sales. It’s not that customer-centric organizations don’t run promotions; it’s just that they run those promotions in context of their larger purposes in service of their customer. They focus on earning  sales and loyalty rather than buying sales and loyalty.

  3. Employees first (even before customers)
    It may seem counterintuitive to say customer-centric organizations put their employees before their customers, but in my experience this is true and this may actually be the most important of the four keys I’m discussing here. It’s a bit like when we’re instructed by flight attendants to secure our own oxygen masks before helping our children secure theirs. All employees play a part in the experiences we provide our customers. Some have direct contact with our customers and others make daily decisions that ultimately affect the experiences our customers have with us. Their attitudes about their jobs and the company can make or break the experience they provide for our customers. This is sort of obvious for front line staff like store associates and call center agents, but it’s also true for site developers, delivery truck drivers, mid-level managers, executives and, frankly, janitors. Even those not on the front lines are constantly making decisions that affect our customers’ experiences.

    Truly customer-centric organizations therefore provide absolutely great career experiences for their employees so their employees pass along the greatness to their customers. While decent salaries are certainly a factor, money alone is not enough. An “employees first” approach means employees are treated with great respect. They’re trusted with the authority to deliver on clearly defined accountabilities. They’re also given clear direction and clear guidelines and fully supported when they make decisions that improve the customer experience.  Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus at Southwest Airlines (a customer-centric organization), also points out that the customer is not always right. There are scenarios where the customer is clearly out-of-bounds and truly customer-centric organizations know when to support an employee over the customer. Watch a brief clip of her discussion at the recent Shop.org Annual Summit for some of her keen wisdom on empowering employees and defining an employee-first, customer-centric culture.

  4. They talk the talk and walk the walk
    As Sarah says in her question, most retail organizations profess to be customer-centric. Those that truly are customer-centric talk about customer experience internally exponentially more than they talk about it externally. Strategic and tactical discussions always center around improvements for the customer. These organizations measure the success of their businesses by metrics that represent the perceptions and voices of their customers. They spend a lot of time and effort ensuring these voice of customer metrics are credible, reliable and accurate, and they focus on them incessantly. These metrics are the first metrics that are discussed in weekly staff meetings from the executive level to the front line level. Bonuses are driven by these metrics, too, but the regular discussion of the voice of customer metrics and the drive to improve the experience on a daily basis is what separates customer-centric organizations from companies that discuss sales first and customer metrics later, if ever.

Are these attributes ideals for a perfect world that aren’t rooted in reality? I don’t think so. Organizations such as Google, Zappos and Southwest Airlines attribute their success to such thinking, and based on some of my experiences with them they seem to be living up to the promise. Is it easy? No way. While earning loyalty may not yield the immediate sales results buying loyalty can, the longer term efficiencies gained through providing great customer experiences can more than make up for the difference.

Those are my observations about customer-centric cultures. But as I said a the beginning of this post, I am not an expert. I’m very curious to hear from you.

What are your observations about customer-centric cultures? Have your worked for such an organization? Did true customer-centricity ultimately lead to solid financial results? What would you add to the keys I’ve listed?

(By the way, this is the first time I’ve had a reader submitted topic for discussion, but I would love to have more. Please email me at kevin.ertell@yahoo.com if you’ve got a topic that would be good for discussion in this space.)

Your moment of Venn

My friend Chris Eagle sent me this cartoon recently:

University expectation Venn diagram

Clearly, the cartoonist was frustrated with some recent visits to university websites. But it’s not hard to apply his Venn diagram to many of our retail website home pages (and many other pages as well).

If we were to diagram our own sites — breaking out our customers’ expectations and our own objectives — what would be contained in our overlap? How often during the internal battles for homepage real estate are customer expectations considered? And when they are, how quickly are they pushed aside when conflicting internal objectives over limited real estate means something has to give?

Does the merchant who’s in our face get priority over the customer who is not?

Assuming we’ve got a list of customer expectations or objectives, how were they determined? Would the items in our “customers’ expectations” circle be our perceptions of our customers’ expectations or would they be expectations gathered directly from our customers? You might say there’s no distinction between the two, but my experience tells me there is often a significant gap. This is because those of us who work on sites day in and day out are about the worst possible people to understand our customers’ perspectives. We simply know our sites and our business way better than our customers ever will, and our knowledge clouds our ability to see our sites and our businesses in the same way our customers see our sites and our businesses.

Oh, yeah. To add to it all, believe it or not, our customers are not of a single mind and a single purpose. It’s hard enough that we’ve got to deal with competing internal interests; we’ve also got to somehow provide a self-service experience for our customers that magically anticipates and responds to their expectations and objectives.

So, these are a lot of questions. What do we do about it?

  1. Objectively understand customer expectations and objectives, directly from our customers.
    This is, of course, not as simple as it sounds. We’re dealing with the human psyche, which is a complicated thing. It’s important we ask questions very carefully to ensure we are getting accurate results. For example, the Myers-Briggs test is a scientifically proven method for assessing personality. If you’ve ever taken it, you know how thorough and accurate it is. The results you get are very different than you would get if you simply asked someone to describe his or her personality. It’s also important that we collect this data properly, ensuring we get a representative sample of our customer base that is statistically valid enough that we can project our findings on our entire customer population. In other words, simply asking the next 15 customers we come in contact with is not enough. When done correctly, customer surveys can be extremely reliable, accurate, and predictive and can give us an excellent view into our customers wants, needs and expectations. It will come as no surprise that I am a huge (and admittedly, biased) fan of ForeSee Results’ ACSI methodology because it asks a series of well-tested questions that have been scientifically proven to draw precise, reliable and accurate information from respondents.
  2. Educate internal constituencies
    Once we understand our customers’ objectives — from their perspectives — we need to educate our internal partners in an effort to align their strategies with our customers’ needs. Ideally, they’re already aligned, but my experience tells me that daily internal pressures have a way of evolving (or should I say devolving) their individual strategies away from customer needs.
  3. Map out a strategy that responds to key personas and/or purposes
    Delivering on multiple objectives requires a lot of thought and planning. Meeting the needs of so many constituencies, customer and internal, can be tricky. I highly recommend reading Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg’s excellent book, Waiting for Your Cat to Bark, for some quality advice.
  4. Personalize and customize
    While online real estate is technically unlimited, trying to simultaneously meet too many competing objectives can lead to a chaotic mess. I won’t call anybody out specifically, but surely you’ve see the type of site I’m referencing. Companies such as Monetate and Certona have site personalization capabilities that can take what we know about the customer, where’s she’s coming from, what search term she might have used and even, in the case of Monetate, what the current and upcoming weather in her location is, to help us make some determinations about the configuration and content of the page she might see.

To be sure, filling the overlap circle of our Venn diagram is not easy. But in a world where low single digit conversion rates are all too common, focusing on discovering and then meeting customer expectations is the quickest way to improving business and gaining market share.

What do you think? What fills your Venn diagrams? How do you understand customer expectations and objectives?

Cartoon: XKCD

Why most project estimates suck…and how Monte Carlo simulations can make them better

missed deadlinesHave you ever been part of a project that was late and over budget? I’d be surprised if you haven’t. We humans are famously bad at estimating the future, and project planning is heavily dependent on our ability to estimate the future. Most of us are optimists and some of us are pessimists, but very, very few of us are realists by nature. Monte Carlo simulations can be useful in our estimation process to help us become more realistic about our estimates, and that realism can significantly improve our ability to deliver results more in line with expectations.

We generally recognize our inability to accurately estimate large projects in one chunk, so we break them up into smaller milestones that are easier to estimate. While the work breakdown process is good, the confidence it gives us in our estimates can lead to larger problems. We don’t ask ourselves often enough how accurate we think those estimates are before stringing them together to determine project due dates. If we did, the conversation might go like this:

“How accurate do you think these milestone estimates are?”

“Pretty accurate. We certainly spent a lot of time discussing them and comparing them to past projects.”

“OK. But if you had to put a number on it, would you say they are 100% accurate?”

“Well, let’s not get crazy. I can’t be sure they’re 100% accurate.”

“So put a number on it. How confident are you that they’re accurate?”

“I still feel pretty good about them. I’d say conservatively that I’m at least 90% sure.”

At this point, we’re about to discover some pretty major problems with our assumptions. We typically string together a number of these milestones, which are dependent on each other, and call them the critical path. The end of the critical path is the project due date.

But if we’re only 90% confident our estimates for each milestone are correct, the likelihood of missing our date is pretty high. Let’s say we have five major milestones in our critical path, and we’re 90% sure each is accurate. To determine the probability that all five will come in as expected, we have to multiply .90 x .90 x.90 x .90 x .90. Even with these high confidence rates, we’re now looking at about a 59% chance of hitting our due dates and a 41% chance of missing them. And that’s with only five milestones and really high (and probably unwarranted) confidence in our estimates. The numbers only get worse from here.

So we start missing deadlines and inevitably either pump more money into the effort or start cutting scope. Our original business case and ROI justification for the effort are now inaccurate because it’s going to cost more and produce less benefits. Sound familiar?

Monte Carlo simulations can help us get a better handle on the probabilities of actually delivering on our timeline and budget estimates. Just as I previously demonstrated using Monte Carlo simulations for sales forecasting, a simulation focused on project estimates can essentially become a “what if” model and sensitivity analysis on steroids for project planning. Basically, the model allows us to feed in a limited set of variables about which we have some general probability estimates and then, based on those inputs, generate a statistically valid set of data we can use to run probability calculations for the entire project.

Great. So now we know how likely we are to miss our timeline and budget. So what?

Once we have a more realistic view our our project timeline and budget, we can do far more effective planning. We can develop contingency planning with full knowledge of the likelihood of needing any particular contingency. Having a better sense of potential budget increases or scope decreases in advance of the project start date will help us make better decisions about starting the project to begin with.

We’ll also be able to better plan our needs from other groups in the corporation who might be involved with the final project but not directly involved in the project. For example, we might need to fit a new product launch campaign into an already packed marketing schedule. Will new site functionality require training for customer service? We’ll need to plan time to pull agents off the phones for their training. Setting expectations with these external groups will greatly enhance at least the internally perceived success of our effort. And that certainly counts for something.

Why go through all this complication? Let’s just take all the estimates we get from the team and double them. That should help get ensure we stay within the timeline.

The “double the estimates” approach is one I’ve seen used before. While it does help create timelines that won’t be exceeded, overestimation can also cause problems. Any coordination with external teams will still be a problem if we end up needing them before we originally planned. And over-allocating time, resources and budget can drive up opportunity costs and limit our ability to produce meaningful results over time.

Monte Carlo to the rescue

I created a free, sample Monte Carlo simulation you can download for use in project planning. It illustrates on a small scale some of the possibilities that can occur with even a minor project. We see that even a five milestone effort with 85% confidence in the estimate of each milestone is expected to be more that 20% overdue. But we can also get a sense of the probabilities of various timelines and use it to refine overall estimates.

By understanding the probability of various delivery dates and project budgets, we can better plan scope, business models and contingency plans. We can better coordinate with other teams who will play a part in the ultimate success of the project once it’s complete. In short, we can become realists and, as a result, deliver much better business results.

What do you think? Would this sort of tool help in your planning? What other methods have you used to set better expectations and plan more accurately?

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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