Jerry McLaughlin: recognizing the value of your own business expertise

Jerry McLaughlin

Jerry McLaughlin, CEO,

Tricky problems call for expert advice, but there are times when even the most popular experts can’t help you — times when you face a challenge that is unique to your business. To succeed in one of these instances, you need to know first that they exist and, second, how to find a solution that will work for you.

At my company, Branders, we found out the hard way that common problems don’t always share common solutions. For years, among our biggest challenges was one shared by many other companies: how to boost repeat sales. There was no shortage of books and consultants claiming expertise on that very topic, so we hit the bookstores and engaged consultants.

The first big idea we tested was the theory that repeat sales depend on giving customers what they really want. Survey responses showed that our customers really wanted low prices and great service, and we charted a course for improvement in those areas. Month by month, our prices came down and our customer service rating rose. Not bad — but it didn’t do enough for our repeat rates. So we kept looking.

The next big idea told us to “wow” the customer. It wasn’t enough. This theory said to give our customers everything they wanted. We also had to surprise and delight them.

We sent bouquets of fresh flowers to each new customer. And when flowers didn’t work, we tried other “wows.” The result was that we got a lot of nice thank-you notes but not a lot of additional repeat sales. So we kept looking.

Eventually we realized that the popular ideas simply weren’t working for us. That’s when we learned how to find our own answer.

We started by observing what our customers were actually doing. No surveys, no focus groups, no experts — just quiet, patient observation. When we identified customers who told us they loved us but then ordered from a competitor, we asked them to describe their most recent purchase process, step by step: what they’d done from the moment they started shopping to the moment they placed the new order. It was like watching a video replay, frame by frame. What we discovered shocked us.

To understand what happened next, it’s important to know a bit more about our business. Branders is a leader in the promotional products industry. We put logos on thousands of different products — pens, mugs, hats and countless others.

We saw that whenever our customers needed a new type of product, they looked for a new vendor. If they had a fantastic experience shopping for logo pens at, for example, they didn’t necessarily come back when they needed logo hats. Instead, they asked colleagues for referrals or turned to Google.

Now that we knew what our customers were doing, we very quickly understood why they were doing it. They weren’t unhappy with us. They weren’t being “wowed” somewhere else. It simply hadn’t occurred to them that the company selling logoed pens would also be the place to look for logoed hats and vice versa. No amount of improving customer service or “wow” was going to change that. But as simple as the answer was, it wasn’t in any business book or a part of any expert’s big idea. It was a multimillion-dollar insight, and we had nobody’s expertise to thank but our own.

You can use the same approach to solve the most stubborn problems in your business. If the popular theories and explanations aren’t helping, it might be because the root cause of your problem isn’t like most others. So make your own observations and construct your own theory because sometimes, the only expert who can help your business is you.

Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. He can be reached at [email protected]