I am the Pope

“It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember I am the Pope.”

- Pope John XXIII

We don’t suffer from a shortage of people who are happy to point out all the problems in the world. They regularly remind every one of the great harm being done to us, by all of them. A lot of their sentences start out with some variant of “if only they would just…” Problems have a way of finding them.

It turns out that if you throw a pity party it’s always well attended.

It turns out you can build a “news” network rooted in telling the world about all the problems with the other guys. And it turns out a lot of people will watch. Because it’s so easy to do only that. Watch.

If we kept score in this little game it would be something like Victims 55, Doers 2.

Now I have no illusions of papal grandeur (note to self: great band name!). And I engage in plenty of thinking and telling. The irony of this post is hardly lost on me.

But when I let my ego seduce me into thinking that I am actually accomplishing much by being the judge, jury, critic or analyst, then I am living a delusional life.

There may be only one Pope. But there are a lot of us who would benefit from waking up completely to the reality of what we all can go do.

 

 

Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept that finds beauty in imperfection and the universe’s natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.

Embracing wabi-sabi means eschewing the unnecessary, getting rid of the clutter and valuing authenticity above all else.

Wabi-sabi requires us to accept the reality that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. It requires us to not only believe that this is okay, but to see that there is great power and serenity in the practice.

For me, it is precisely my wrong-headed attachment to a concept of perfection that keeps me spinning, stuck in my fear of shipping.

For me, I can easily get distracted, adding complexity to a project or adorning an idea with superficiality, when it’s more than good enough just as it is.

For me, it’s so easy to see the risk in being wrong, without seeing the risk of inaction and the uselessness of endless worry.

When I inject wabi-sabi into my creative process, I produce more and stress less.

When I practice wabi-sabi I am able to fail better.

And that’s perfect enough for me.

 

 

 

Push “blend”

It wasn’t very long ago that engaging with most brands meant dealing with their disparate pieces. One 800 number for order status, a different one for delivery. Websites and physical stores that often bore only a passing resemblance to each other. Getting bounced from one department to the next to resolve a customer service issue or get a question answered. And then needing to start over again with each person with whom we spoke.

Then–slowly at first–some companies began to realize that customers didn’t care how we were organized. Customers didn’t want to hear about the limitations of our “legacy systems.”  We may talk about channels, but customers don’t even know what that means. And they don’t care.

Upstart brands challenged the incumbents by attacking the friction in consumers’ path to purchase. Companies as diverse as Nordstrom, Amazon, Bonobos and Warby Parker made it their job to integrate the critical pieces of the shopping experience on behalf of the customer. They challenged the traditional verticality in retail and embraced the notion that brands are horizontal.

They assembled great ingredients and then they pushed “blend.”

As retailers we may be organized by the parts and the pieces. We may make decisions on discrete components. We may measure and tweak each variable in the equation.

But at the moment of truth, when the customer decides to enter our store, click on an ad, put another item in their cart or recommend us to a friend, she’s thinking about the whole blended concoction.

 

 

Attraction, not promotion

If you are familiar with 12-step recovery programs you know that most employ the Eleventh Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous, which goes as follows: “Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion.”

The obvious reason for this practice is that 12 Step programs have the anonymity of their attendees at their core. Moreover, AA–and its many spin-off programs–reject self-seeking as a personal value. But it goes deeper.

Most people do not wish to sold to or want to heed the clarion call of “pick me, pick me.” If I have to hit you over the head again and again with my message, perhaps you are not open to hearing it. Or maybe what I’m selling isn’t for you. Constantly reducing your price or pitching me all sorts of deals may be an intelligent way to clear a market, but all too often it’s a sign of your desperation.

12 Step programs are among the first viral programs to scale. They gained momentum through word of mouth and blossomed into powerful tribes as more and more struggling addicts came to be attracted to and embraced the lifestyle of successful recovery. No TV. No radio. No sexy print campaigns. No 3 suits for the price of 1. When it works it’s largely because those seeking relief come to want what others in the program have.

In the business world, it’s easy to see some parallels. Successful brands like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus run very few promotional events, have little “on sale” most days of the year and have very low advertising to sales ratios. Customers are attracted to the brands because of the differentiated customer experience, well curated merchandise and many, many stories of highly satisfied customers. Net Promoter Scores are high.

Contrast this with Sears and JC Penney who inundate us with an onslaught of commercials, a mountain of circulars and endless promotions and discounts. How many of their shoppers go because it is truly their favorite place to shop? How many rave about their experience to their friends? Unsurprisingly, marketing costs are high and margins are low.

Migrating to a strategy rooted firmly in attraction vs. promotion does not suit every brand, nor is it an easy, risk-free journey. Yet, I have to wonder how many brands even take the time to examine these fundamentally different approaches? How many are intentional about their choices to go down one path vs. the other? How many want to win by authentically working to persuade their best prospects to say “I’ll have what she’s having” rather than keep beating the dead horse of relentless sales promotion.

Maybe you can win on price. Maybe you can out shout the other guy. Maybe, just maybe, if you can coerce just a few more customers to give you a try you can make your sales plan.

Maybe.

 

 

 

 

All in

There is no shortage of business bestsellers, insightful white-papers and Harvard Business Review articles regaling us with multi-point programs to drive successful growth strategies. Consultants abound–including this guy–pushing clever frameworks to guide your brand to the corporate promised land.

Best demonstrated practices. Core capabilities. Disruptive innovation. Business process re-engineering. We’ve heard it all.

Yet despite an abundance of knowing, there is a paucity of doing. The same companies with the same access to the same information–employing high quality, well-intentioned  executives–get widely (and sometimes wildly) different results.

Having spent more than a decade working in omni-channel retail driving customer-centric growth initiatives, I’m often asked which company is the leader in this space. I usually say Nordstrom.

I led strategy and multi-channel marketing at Neiman Marcus during the time Nordstrom began investing in customer-centricity and cross-channel integration. So I can spout chapter and verse about the differences between our approaches and all the opportunities we missed. But with Neiman’s announcement this week of their new customer-centric organization (better late than never!) there are a few key things to point out:

  • Neiman’s has a lot of catching up to do
  • We knew the same things Nordstrom knew when they aggressively committed to their strategy nearly a decade ago
  • Nordstrom acted, we (mostly) watched.

We can quibble about some of the facts and the differences in our relative situations, but when it comes down to why they are the leader and Neiman’s–and plenty of others–are playing catching up, it comes down to this:

  • Nordstrom had a CEO who fundamentally believed in the vision and who committed to going beyond short-term pressures and strict ROI calculations
  • They went all in.

In a world that moves faster and faster all the time, organizations are really left with two core strategic options: Wait and see or go all in. Most choose the former and end up going out of business or stuck in the muddling middle.

Going all in doesn’t mean investing with reckless abandon or rolling the dice. Most all in companies do plenty of testing and learning. But testing with a view toward scaling up or moving on is a sign of commitment and strength not uncertainty and weakness.

Going all in must start at the top, with an executive who is wired to say yes. An all in strategy is fraught with risk. Mistakes will be made. You need a boss who has your back.

Going all in necessarily requires a supportive culture, but without complete organizational commitment it’s not nearly enough.

Going all in doesn’t pre-suppose a journey without bumps in the road. All in companies know how to fail better.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast?

Commitment eats strategy for lunch, dinner and a late night snack.

 

Okay, so what’s your plan?

It’s so easy to be the judge or critic.

It’s so easy to dismiss a new idea.

It’s so easy to do absolutely nothing. Until it’s not.

Being hesitant to adopt a radical new organization structure to address changing customer demands is understandable. It’s risky. But the problems and opportunities don’t disappear because you won’t act.

Refusing to compete against yourself makes a certain amount of sense, until you wake up to how much market share you’ve lost to the competition through your inaction.

Hating the Affordable Care Act may get you on Fox News, or make you the big man at the backyard BBQ, but it doesn’t fix the spiraling cost of health care or deal with the huge societal and financial costs of the uninsured.

Defenders of the status quo mostly get a pass. Until it’s too late. Than the day of reckoning can be pretty brutal indeed.

Fine. You see the failings in my idea? You don’t like my proposal?

Then you owe us your plan.

Go ahead, we’re listening.

 

Sears Holdings to convert most stores to indoor waterparks

After years of fighting declining sales and anemic profits, Sears Holdings (the parent company of Sears and Kmart) announced today that it would convert all of its more than 800 mall-based Sears department stores to indoor water parks. The new parks–reportedly to be called “Eddie World”–are scheduled to open in early 2015. Proceeds from the company’s spin-off of Lands’ End will be used to fund the renovations and re-branding.

In a press release, Sears Holdings Chairman & CEO Eddie Lampert said that the company worked with consultants Bain & Company for over a year to explore strategic options for its chronically under-performing stores. “Our initial review revealed that almost anything would be a better use of all that space than what we were currently doing, but I knew we had a fiduciary responsibility to get more specific,” said Lampert in the prepared statement.

According to people familiar with Sears’ deliberations, the company embarked on an extensive consumer research exercise which took longer to complete than expected as many respondents were surprised to learn that Sears was still in business. Ultimately more than a dozen different options–ranging from what one former Sears executive characterized as “bulldoze the suckers,” to repurposing the buildings as urban contemporary rental apartments (initially dubbed “The Loftier Side of Sears”)–were considered.

According to the press release the decision to convert the stores to indoor waterparks centered on America’s growing interest in family-based entertainment, the convenient locations of the existing units, the relative ease of turning escalators into water slides and what Lampert referred to in the press release as Sears’ “core capability in plummeting.”

Sources with knowledge of Sears’ analysis said that the company also considered, but rebuffed, offers from both Forever 21 and Apple to acquire the stores as part of their expansion strategies. Forever 21 is reportedly interested in piloting a new concept aimed at aging baby-boomers called Forever 39. The stores would feature wildly inappropriately, but more comfortably sized, apparel and accessories than the company’s flagship brand.

Apple, under new retail store chief Angela Ahrendts, is considering launching Apple Mega Stores, where the company’s 3 products would be displayed over and over on more than 200 displays, of varying sizes and configurations, across a wide expanse and on multiple levels. The much larger units would also dramatically expand the number of Apple Geniuses, though the company does not expect any improvement in average wait times or the ability to actually solve your problem.

In a phone call with analysts this morning, Lampert indicated that Sears Holdings is also considering shuttering its entire fleet of Kmart stores. The company recently conducted pilots in Charlotte and Phoenix where it simply didn’t open any of its more than 32 Kmart units in the market for more than a week. According to Lampert “we didn’t get a single call. Not one. No one seemed to notice at all. So we have to really take a hard look at that.”

In pre-market trading Sears shares were up over 11% on the news.

 

January Christmas lights

I bet you know at least one family who leaves their Christmas decorations up way past the end of the holiday season.

Those of us who think we know the appropriate time to take things down, box them up and move on, roll our eyes or derisively mock our neighbor who just doesn’t get it. “What’s the deal with these people?” we wonder every time we walk or drive past their place.

Of course, the “guilty party” is oblivious to our judgment–or simply doesn’t care.

Of course, all of our consternation won’t change anything.

Of course, none of this is very important anyway.

So why do we care? Why can we not resist pointing the finger at the guy down the street?

I wonder whether deep down we all know that we are holding on to ideas, beliefs, practices and resentments that no longer serve us. And it is so much easier to shine the light on what YOU should dismantle or let go of, than for me to cast aside or put away MY things that are well past their expiration date.

I wonder how many things all of us–and our organizations–cling to when it is well past the time to move on.

And I wonder how many people are able to see my metaphorical list of January Christmas lights and think “what’s the deal with this guy?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grey is my favorite color

I know a lot of people who see the world in black and white. And I love you, I really do. I am a recovering black and white person myself.

A world of fair or not fair, right or wrong, this or that, may tilt toward the boring, but it is unquestionably a whole lot more simple. Once we discover the truth, our way is clear. Once we pick our side of the street, the lines are clearly demarcated. You are either with me or against me. A believer or not. Sinner or Saint. Enlightened or ignorant.

To be sure, I have my list of immutable truths about the universe, my personal moral compass and so forth. But it’s a pretty short list.

For me, the reality is that the world can almost always be seen in varying shades of grey–and yes, there are many more than 50. This no longer bothers me. On the contrary; I embrace it.

When I learn to live in the grey, I see endless possibilities, rather than limitations. Abundance, not scarcity.

When I learn to live in the grey, I’m far less judgmental and far more accepting of other’s unique journeys, personal struggles and beautiful differences. Connection and compassion are the powerful by-product.

When I learn to live in the grey, that spreadsheet analysis, marketing campaign or strategic plan, create options, not a monolithic view of a certain future.

When I learn to live in the grey, I don’t beat myself up because I fail to meet some impossible standard of perfection.

When I learn to live in the grey, I don’t delude myself into thinking there is only one way forward. My journey is a continuing series of mid-course corrections, not an ego driven quest to be “right” and to make you wrong.

 

Your customers don’t care

Your customers don’t care….

…that your e-commerce operation and physical stores division are run separately…

…or that your systems don’t “talk” to each other…

…or that you say “your call is very important to us” over and over again.

Your customers care that every aspect of the shopping experience–and that includes returns–is as close to frictionless as possible.

They care that they don’t have to re-start at the beginning every time they interact with someone from your organization–and that they don’t get a different answer based upon who they happen to speak with.

They care that if say “your call is very important to us” that you hire enough people to answer the phone quickly and that the person on the other line can actually resolve their problem the first time, every time.

Customer-centricity is rooted in an outside-in perspective and starts where the customer is, not where your brand happens to be.

Customer-centricity means a commitment to really knowing what customers want, showing that you know them and showing them that you truly value them. Through actions, not words.

When your customers stop caring about what you say, or they see a disconnect between what you say and what you do, it won’t be long before they stop caring to spend any time or money with you.

So what do you care to do now?