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.

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.

On average, you’re out of business

Walk through most shopping malls today and much of what you’ll encounter looks pretty similar. Average products for average people. Undifferentiated sale banners screaming at us from storefront windows. Copy cat promotional signs atop virtually identical racks. A sea of sameness.

Go online and not much is different. Navigation and shopping carts across most websites feel quite familiar. Take the logo off the site and you’d be hard-pressed to identify the brand. In our quest to improve conversion and cart abandonment rates we most often choose what we know works–the “best in breed.”

Our physical and virtual mailboxes are chock-a-block with one-size-fits-all marketing messages employing tried and true, but mostly tired, techniques. And much of it touts discount, not relevance.

When we’re afraid to take risks, when we seek efficient rather than remarkable, when we mostly mimic known best practices, our tendency is to regress toward the mean. And slowly but surely, we shave off the interesting and polish the customer experience until it feels safe, but is often utterly boring.

When scarcity of choice and access existed–and brands were in control–it wasn’t terribly difficult to get away with being average.

But as the power continues to shift to the consumer, as she has an endless aisle of choices and access to almost anything imaginable 24/7, average is no longer safe. In fact, it’s precisely the opposite.

Imitation may be flattering, but in the battle for the share of attention that ultimately drives long-term success, well, not so much.

The drip method of irrelevance

At first, the shift is almost imperceptible.

With quarterly earnings expectations to hit, we tell ourselves we can easily save a few bucks by automating some of our customer service functions. Or perhaps it’s through simplifying our organizational structure or eliminating “non-essential” positions. Better yet, let’s close some “unproductive” stores.

And obviously technology enables us to take away a bit of decision-making from the front-line staff. After all, human beings are notoriously misled by their own intuition. And whoever got fired for praying to the God of Efficiency?

And running all those different marketing campaigns adds a lot of complexity. It would be much easier to boil things down to just the major stuff that we know moves the dial.

And our product line is just too diverse. Sure it’s interesting to have something fresh and innovative, but doesn’t that just increase the risk of slowing down inventory turnover and increasing markdowns? Safe is smart right?

Of course, over time, the top-line stops growing and the only way we know how to drive profits is through cost-cutting.

Over time, we’re proud of our low average talk times, yet customers can’t speak to a human being and our Net Promoter Scores continue their inexorable decline.

Over time, our one-size-fits-all marketing is, at best, indistinguishable from the competition and, at worst, a dim signal amidst all the noise.

Over time, the sad reality is that all we sell is average products for average people and there’s no reason to pick us over the guy with the lowest price.

Sears, RadioShack and a host of others that are on a long inevitable march to the retail graveyard didn’t get trumped by a disruptive competitor that emerged out of nowhere. An oppressive government didn’t regulate them out of business. They weren’t crippled by a series of specious lawsuits or hobbled by natural disasters.

Usually the brands that become irrelevant have made hundreds of seemingly small decisions, over many years, that prioritized the short-term ahead of the long-term, the numbers instead of the customer, mass rather than personal, safe not remarkable.

And once they are gone, once their fate is sealed and their previously storied histories are part of the record, we’ll look back and realize it happened gradually, then suddenly.

The problem with saying “no”

During the past 25 years Sears had at least three opportunities to transform itself by entering the home improvement warehouse business (I worked on two of them). This was probably the only way Sears was going to ultimately survive and unlock the value of its franchise Kenmore and Craftsman brands. Each time the answer was “no.”

When I headed up strategy at the Neiman Marcus Group (2004-08), we evaluated building a leadership position in omni-channel by consolidating our disparate inventory systems, we recommended moving from a channel centric marketing organization to a customer and brand focused one, we proposed aggressively expanding our off-price format and, having understood the share lost to competitors like Nordstrom, we analyzed improvements to our merchandising and service models to become a bit more accessible. Ultimately we said “no” to moving ahead on all of these. Years later, these strategies were ultimately resurrected. But the opportunity to establish and extend a leadership position may have been lost.

Obviously there are plenty of times when either the smart or moral thing to do is to say ‘no.” Obviously it’s easy to look back and say “I told you so.”

Yet systemically, most organizations are set up to reward the status quo (often cost containment and driving incremental improvement) and punish the well intended experiment. So it’s easy to say “yes” to the historically tried and true and “no” to just about everything else.

Of course we don’t have to look very hard to come up with brands that have been struggling for many, many years (Sears, JC Penney, Radio Shack) or have completely imploded (Borders, Blockbuster, etc.). All of these said “no’ to any number of potentially game-changing strategies along the way. Care to hazard a guess at how many long-term Board Members of these perennial laggards and outright losers got pushed out for saying grace over a series of crippling “no’s”? How many CEO’s had their compensation whacked for never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

In a world where change is coming at us faster and faster, we need to be challenged just as much on what we are saying ‘no” to as we are on what gets a “yes.”

And If you think there is always time to fix the wrong “no” decision, you might want to think again.

You know what’s hard?

Customers say they want a more seamless experience across all channels and touch-points. “Sure” you say, “but it’s very expensive and complicated to implement that level of integration.”

Silo-ed data, systems, organizations and metrics are keeping your brand from being more customer-centric and relevant. “I know” is your response, “but greater centralization would be very jarring to our culture.”

In an increasingly noisy world, mass marketing and one-size-fits-all approaches fail to gain share of attention, becoming less effective by the day. You respond, “you’re right, but treating different customers differently is difficult to scale.”

Relentless price promotions and layering of discounts and reward points deteriorate profit margins, teach customers to only buy on sale and accelerate an inevitable race to the bottom. Your defense is to say “well that’s what moves the top line” and to point out how hard it is to justify full price.

In the inevitable battle between denial, defending the status quo and rationalization vs. acceptance, leaping and innovation, we tend to choose the former. And our fate is sealed.

Many of the things we avoid as too risky are, in fact, often just the opposite. The risk is in the failure to change, in the lack of passion to become intensely relevant, in being stuck in “me too” instead of choosing to become remarkably different.

What’s hard is to move where the customer is headed after the competition has already established a beach head.

What’s hard is to break through the clutter with undifferentiated products and tired messaging.

What’s hard is to acquire, grow and retain the right customers with average products for average people.

What’s hard is to catch up when you’ve fallen behind.

Mass or built for me?

All about price, or all about unique value?

Average or remarkable?

My guess is that every brand that’s gone through the work of closing stores, firing people and liquidating inventory might have a different view of what’s hard.

Not quite my tempo

Every individual has a pace at which they prefer to work. Of course it can vary given the circumstances. We can pick up the tempo in a crisis, or slow down when faced with uncertainty. But there is a rhythm that feels most natural to us and, often, folks that consistently work faster or slower than we do can frustrate us.

Organizations are similar. Some are constantly on the balls of their feet, poised for action, working briskly through issues, taking risks, experimenting. When a new opportunity arises, they are ready to pounce. They’re passionate–and in a hurry–to be part of the next big thing.

Others are at the other end of the spectrum. They sit back and observe. They are cautious, timid even, moving deliberately to scope the situation out. They’re more afraid to make a mistake than to fall behind. They constantly need to be pushed into making any meaningful change.

There are problems with going too fast, just as there can be issues with going too slow. This clip from Whiplash brilliantly illustrates that one challenge is knowing and accepting your tempo.

In case you haven’t notice, the pace of innovation is accelerating. Customer expectations are being transformed, seemingly overnight. Whole industries are being disrupted like never before.

Which is why it’s a good time for a tempo check.

And when in doubt, it’s probably better to rush, than drag.