Winning and losing inside the box

Features - Business Management

Concentrating on the boring basics can mean more to customers than being unique.

June 3, 2013
Joe Calloway

Editors note: This is an excerpt from Joe Calloway’s book, “Be the Best at What Matters Most: The Only Strategy You will Ever Need.”

In a tough market, it’s tempting to look for short cuts. Reality check – there aren’t any short cuts. The one business strategy that creates and sustains success is to be the best at what matters most. What an audacious idea – outperform your competition on those things that create real value for your customer.

Deliver on your promise every time. One of the most popular concepts in business over the past 10 years has been that of the “wow” factor. It seems that everyone’s focused on surprising the customer with something different. That’s all well and good, but understand that the ultimate and most powerful wow factor is to deliver on your promise every time, with every customer, with amazing consistency.

They’ve taken their eyes off the ball. For years we’ve all talked about the need to think outside the box. I take that to mean that we need to be open to new ideas, new ways of doing things, innovation and creative thinking. I’m for it. Count me in.

The trap that many have fallen into, however, is being so enamored with the idea of thinking outside the box that they’ve taken their eyes off the ball. They’ve started spending so much time outside the box that they’re losing the battle where it’s being fought, which is squarely inside the box.

If you win on the basics, you win it all. Let me explain what I mean. You want to constantly innovate and improve for one purpose, to win inside the box. By inside the box, I mean those things that matter most to the marketplace. These are the basic expectations of your customers. These are the things that your customers value most. I go back to my core premise, which is that if you can clearly win on those basics, you win it all. It’s how every market leader succeeds.

Throughout this book there are examples of companies that win inside the box. I use that term to get your attention and to challenge the idea that the more “out there” the idea is, the better it is. It’s not about how outside the box your idea is. It’s about how useful and effective your idea is. Sometimes that can be something you come up with that’s radically different and edgy. Great. Go for it. The bottom line test, however, is how your idea affects the bottom line.

In many ways, the thinking in this book is radically contrarian. It seems that the conventional wisdom in business today, and what we hear from business authors, speakers and consultants is that, above all, you must be unique. They say that to compete and win you should focus your efforts on being different and doing things that absolutely none of your competitors are doing. They back these ideas up by telling really cool stories about really cool companies.

Barney’s vs. Nordstrom. A couple of years ago, I heard a marketing consultant tell his audience that they should emulate Barneys New York because it was the hip, edgy way of the future in retailing. His example of the kind of business model to avoid was tired old Nordstrom. He said that Nordstrom was, in effect, a dinosaur of retailing and simply wasn’t cool enough to survive.

Flash forward to today. Nordstrom is booming and The Wall Street Journal recently reported that oh-so-cool Barneys New York “skirts bankruptcy.” You know what’s cooler than Barneys New York? Making a profit and staying in business.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that being “hip, cool and edgy” won’t work. It may be exactly what you need to do in order to be the best at what matters most. My point is that all around us are books and articles and speakers and experts who are telling us that to succeed in business today we have to do the unexpected, the unique, and the outrageous.

What I’m saying, based the facts of who is winning and who is losing in the marketplace, is that you win not by being the most unique, but by being the best. Imagine that.

It’s a sucker’s game. Beware of anyone who says that the key to winning in this market is to focus on being different by over-the-top acts of uniqueness. It’s a wild goose chase. It’s a sucker’s game. It will throw you off course.

The best way to be different is to be demonstrably better than your competition at the basics, at what matters most to customers. Don’t agree? Read on. The evidence today is overwhelmingly on the side of quality performance as the only sustainable success strategy.

I’ll happily take the doughnut.
But Joe, what about pleasantly surprising the customer? Sure. Bring it on. Give me a doughnut the next time I’m in the bank. Run out to my car with an umbrella when it’s raining. I love it. But what I love even more is for you to do your job the right way every single time. That doesn’t mean that consistency and giving something extra are mutually exclusive. Of course they’re not.

What it does mean is that you should take another look at the basics of your business and be sure that you are hitting 10 on a scale of one to 10 inside the box before you start thinking about how you can surprise your customers.

Your “table stakes” aren’t working. I had a bank client once tell me that good service for customers in the branches was just “table stakes” and that they were interested in playing above that level. I did a little mystery shopping and visited twelve of their branches. I just walked in and waited in the center of the branch. In eight of the branches, it took over five minutes before anyone even asked if I needed help.

Going beyond table stakes is all well and good, but if you are lousy at table stakes then you’d better focus there before you start thinking up what cool little surprises you can offer to win business. The battle is won and lost inside the box.

The new reality in business today is that quality and consistency rule. Hype and gimmicks are dead. The internet and an infinitely more sophisticated and informed customer killed them.

More to come on how the internet killed hype. But in a nutshell, it’s that if a business is all hype and can’t deliver the goods, the word that the emperor has no clothes gets out at the speed of a few strokes of the keyboard. You can’t fool any of the people any of the time anymore, because they’re online busting poorly performing companies right and left.

Bells and whistles wear off. 37signals develops web-based collaboration apps for small business. Their mantra is “Bells and whistles wear off, but usefulness never does.” What matters most to them are quality, usefulness, and attention to detail. 37signals is a cutting edge, incredibly cool company. That’s nice.

What’s nicer is that they are a very, very good company that succeeds. They are an example of a business that uses innovative thinking to win inside the box.

Glitz or profit? It takes real determination and perseverance to simplify your business, get focused on what matters most and be the best. It’s not easy. The fact is that most people can’t do or won’t do what I’m advising you to do. It’s much easier, albeit much less profitable, to pursue the glitz of gimmicks that will supposedly set you apart.

But the huge payoff for your effort comes when you begin to make being the best at what matters most your natural way of doing things. Then it does make work and life easier. You’ll reach the point where you look at your business and think “Why didn’t I always do it this way?” It changes everything.


The author is a consultant based in Nashville.