A place to buy things

What do your customers really think of you?

Do they have a compelling story to tell about your brand? Have they had experiences that deeply resonate with them? Do they proactively advocate on your behalf? Can they easily justify the premium they choose to pay? Would they give you another chance if you screwed up?

Or, when it comes down to it, in their minds and hearts, you’re merely a place to buy things?

And when there’s a slightly better price–or a marginally more convenient option–they jump at the opportunity, without a trace of regret.

Optimizing to extinction

There’s a growing narrative that suggests that as e-commerce grows the obvious answer for most retailers is fewer and smaller stores.

It’s nearly taken for granted that if a brand struggles with sales then it’s time to take a whack to expenses.

And, most often, it seems as if investors value a story of efficiency rather than one of effectiveness.

It doesn’t take much creativity or inspired leadership to lay people off, close stores, prune inventory, defer capital expenditures and the like. Sadly, though not too surprisingly, it’s rare to find a company that actually becomes more customer relevant by following this path.

In fact you don’t have to look very long or hard to find scores that have tried cost-cutting their way to prosperity only to end up in the retail graveyard. You might even be able to come up with a few that are in the midst of this downward spiral.

It’s typically pretty easy to rally behind optimizing the cost side of the ledger. It’s far harder to get the revenue side right–to go from average to remarkable, me-too to intensely relevant.

All I know is if you set out to optimize something you might want to be sure you picked the right thing.

If you build it, they might yawn

Through my various roles I’m exposed to a lot of new ideas and business concepts. Some come from clients looking to grow, others from entrepreneurs hoping to create the next big thing and still others, somewhat randomly, from connections within my network or who find me via my writing and speaking.

Regardless of how our worlds collide, I generally find that most proponents have a decent sense of the customers they intend to serve and almost everyone can clearly articulate the features and benefits of their idea. It’s all good, but it’s rarely enough.

While technology has advanced to the point where many ideas–including your competitors’–can be developed and scaled rapidly and inexpensively, saying you’re a “lean startup” doesn’t automatically convey any advantage. And in a world where customers are overwhelmed by information and choice, your marginally better mousetrap isn’t likely to get easily noticed, much less considered.

The real battle today, the one you need to win, is for attention and trust.

It’s helpful to have a demonstrably better product or service, but to standout out among all the noise, your signal needs to be amplified. And that happens by being intensely relevant and truly remarkable–not merely incrementally better–and by delivering a story that demands to be told, again and again.

Building trust takes time. But if you are serious about building a brand it’s completely about creating an expectation of excellence and emotional power over time. And average or slightly better no longer works.

The reason so many new products and brands struggle is they are merely slightly different rifts on the same old features and benefits. Nice, but hardly remarkable.

The reason so many solid innovations struggle as well as that they fail to connect at an emotional level. Remember, people buy the story before they buy the product.

Just because it’s easy to build the product, don’t be seduced. Just because the internet allows for seemingly easy and cheap customer access, don’t under-estimate the challenge of breaking through the noise.

It’s never been easier to be innovative. It’s also never been easier to be boring.

Away from or towards?

There are times when we’re just standing or sitting around literally without any real direction in our thoughts, feelings or actions. But most times, if we’re honest and aware, we do have leanings, we do possess strong opinions. And the road we are on may not always be completely clear, but it has a most certain vector.

Is it a path away from or toward compassion and justice?

Is it one that embraces innovation or runs from it to defend the status quo?

Is the destination a place of tolerance, respect and inclusion, or a rejection of it?

Do we see prudent risk as a means of growth or is it our enemy?

In our most important relationships, are we turned toward each other committed to build understanding and connection and work through our vulnerabilities, or have we pivoted away out of fear or self-righteousness.

There are only a few values that really matter, that advance our humanity, that bring us together, that move us all forward, that fundamentally heal the world.

Whether we have complete clarity on all that isn’t the point. Nor is doing it all perfectly.

Knowing which direction we are headed most certainly is.

Pure unicorn dust

Do you know companies that say they are all about growth and innovation, yet completely lack any semblance of a process or a modicum of dedicated funding and resources to support these efforts? Do they even possess a culture that not only celebrates taking risk, but that actually knows how to fail better?

Have you heard brands’ espouse a commitment to omni-channel and seamless integration that still operate with silo-ed organizations, silo-ed customer data, silo-ed systems and channel-driven, rather than customer-focused, metrics?

Perhaps you have a friend or a loved one who say they are full of love and compassion and who constantly speaks of making big changes in their life, but has yet to put any of it into practice?

When was the last time something worth doing spontaneously emerged at your organization? When the last time a major transformation happened without an all-in commitment from leadership and a willingness to take on the status quo? When was the last time you’ve made a big change in your life merely through talking about it?

Intentions are great. Concrete plans are better. But the work that matters is in the doing, in taking the plunge, in taking head-on the things that scare us, in making a ruckus.

Yes, it might not work. Sure, you could look stupid or reckless. And, there is a pretty good chance you’re going to piss some people off along your journey. That’s probably a clue that you’re on the right track.

Get out of the stands and into the arena. Anything else is just really good imagination.

“Actually, I’m the one who deserves an apology”

When someone says this the one thing you can be virtually certain of is that they aren’t owed an apology.

This is the language of the person who lives in the Karpman Triangle. It’s the default mechanism for someone who bounces between bully, victim and savior, who fails to take responsibility and own up to their actions. It’s the go-to-strategy for someone engaged, consciously or not, in a game of manipulation.

It’s exhausting to work with or be in a relationship with people like this. It’s exhausting to be this person (trust me, been there, done that, still struggle with it).

The world is hard enough without our getting stuck in self-righteous indignation or victim-hood. And I’m pretty sure there is no shortage of bullies or martyrs.

I know that when I shift my intention toward taking responsibility, demonstrating compassion, extending grace and simply doing the work–rather than merely talking about it–good stuff happens.

When I go on the attack, when I sit in judgement, when I wait around to be acknowledged for my noble deeds–which, of course, are far too great to enumerate here–well, not so much.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff

We live in a world of expanding choice. A world where–if we are fortunate enough to have the money–almost anything can be purchased from almost anywhere in the world almost anytime we want. With the smart phone as a growing (and often omnipresent) access point, the web provides the portal to nearly infinite information and virtually unlimited products and services.

At one level this is a consumer bonanza. Limited data can now rarely be seen as a barrier to purchase. Prices are down, selection is up. A click replaces waiting until the store opens. Products come to us, rather than us going to them. Consumers are empowered in ways never thought imaginable.

Yet, more and more, we are faced with a tsunami of stuff. A bewildering array of seemingly undifferentiated products. Look-alike websites and marketing schemes. In-boxes chock-a-block with one-size-fits-all promotions. Spam, spam, spam, spam.

This growing mass of information and options–often combined with unrelenting interruption marketing–can be overwhelming. When the distracted consumer is the norm and it becomes increasingly harder to separate the signal from the noise, more is often less.

As our customers’ world grows ever noisier our reflexive response is often to dial things up to 11. Resist that urge.

The new battle ground is for share of attention. And we earn and command attention not through shouting louder than everyone else, throwing more at the wall to see what sticks or defaulting to using price as the only arrow in our quiver.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff is to know more about our customers than the competition and to turn that insight into intensely relevant products and experiences.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff is to eschew mass marketing techniques and to move aggressively toward more personalization and customization.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff is to embrace editing and curation as a fundamental competency.

The antidote to a tsunami of stuff is to ruthlessly root out the friction in our customer experience and to distort those things we wish to amplify to the truly remarkable.


HT to Barry Schwartz and his TED talk on the The Paradox of Choice