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At the border Featured

9:35am EDT July 22, 2002

Companies today are verbalizing their visions and missions.

Some, like Continental Airlines -- "Work Hard, Fly Right" -- have even made them part of their advertising strategy. In a few simple words, it's obvious how the company thinks about its business and its customers.

There is, however, a potential downside. Once you announce it to the public, you have set high expectations.

But problems occur only when a company can't convert the theory of the vision into reality. When this happens, it's usually because the theory has originated at the top of the organization and no one remembered that the employees are the only ones who can make it reality.

Unless employees buy into the theory and are committed to it, simply putting the vision into an advertisement will not make it happen.

Get the message to the troops

Our firm was once called in by a large service-oriented company with outlets nationwide that had spent a considerable sum of money and management time developing its new corporate vision and mission. Its intent was to become much more of a customer-driven organization.

But according to the CEO, the efforts had not had the effect on the company that he had envisioned. As he put it, "It doesn't matter how much time or dollars have been put into this effort as long as the cashier in Houston still treats our customer with indifference."

This company had done a poor job of getting the message through to the troops. These were the only people within the organization who ultimately had the opportunity to turn their theories on improved customer service into reality.

The CEO had an excited management team in the Cleveland office and a nationwide group of employees in the field with little or no interest in the whole exercise. The most important part of the company's well-intentioned exercise was not given the effort it required.

The company failed to get the field troops, those that patrol the border of the company and its customers, to understand the vision and mission and to get them excited about implementing it.

Customers have a choice

I recently returned from a business trip and can attest, as I am sure many of you can, to the fact that there are many good case studies of this situation in the airline industry. As you stand there dealing with a truly nasty airline employee, you are looking right at a sign touting the airline's customer service focus and "we care attitude" slogan.

I've heard arguments that the employees' attitude should be blamed more on overwork and frustration than on poor communication of the company mission. That may be true, but isn't their frustration just another indication of vision and mission coming more from the ad agency than from the heart of the company?

In the case of an airline, we have few choices. With travel demands, we are often forced to frequent certain airlines in spite of how we are treated or how well their employees understand or buy into the vision. Unfortunately, smaller businesses rarely have that luxury.

If the promises you make as management do not translate into reality at the border with the customers, your competition is waiting to grab those customers.

It depends on understanding

To ensure the desired delivery at the border, employees must understand the company's mission, its vision and its desired way of doing business. Even more important, they must understand the importance the company places on these statements and practices.

The salesperson at Nordstroms who cheerfully waits on you and graciously gives you a refund when you return a purchase has obviously gotten the message. This person understands how Nordstroms does business and how important this type of behavior is to Nordstroms' success.

The bottom line is that everyone in the company must buy into the message and execute upon it. Otherwise, your company's strategy will be doomed from the start to fail.

Joel Strom (jstrom@jsagrowth.com) is president of Joel Strom Associates, Inc., Growth Management. His firm works exclusively with closely held businesses and their ownership, helping them set and achieve their growth objectives while maximizing their profitability and value. Contact him at (216) 831-2663.