Dying a thousand deaths

It’s been said, “Life isn’t
always fair,” when it comes
to how we’re judged.
Profound words, but no great revelation for anyone in business. Even the glory of unique
innovation and head-turning
results is ephemeral, evaporating all too quickly as it becomes
yesterday’s news. The public’s
mindset today is, “What have
you done for me lately?”

Thomas Edison invented the
light bulb, but when was the
last time you acknowledged this
life-altering invention? Have you
ever exclaimed, “Let there be
light,” as you entered a dark
room and flipped the switch,
while giving thanks to this holder of more than 1,093 patents?
Conversely, when you flip
that same light switch and
night does not instantly turn
into day, you’re likely to
mutter expletives about
the unreliability of this
basic utility.

Then there’s the example of the company that paid
200 consecutive quarterly dividends with the precision of a
fine Swiss watch. One day, out
of the blue, that company has
a shortfall, and the dividend
is reduced or eliminated.

The morning paper will
plaster this “omission” in a banner headline, followed by predictions of gloom and doom
for the offending company. No
one cares that for the previous
50 years, the dividend was
barely noted with a one-line
notice hidden in the back
pages of the paper. Worse yet,
when each dividend check was
received by the shareholder, it
probably rated a big yawn, if
any reaction at all.

We’re constantly being
measured by what we
don’t do or neglect to do. Companies spend billions of dollars devising programs simply to meet customers’ expectations.

Some of the most successful
businesses really don’t deliver
anything very astonishing. Instead, they provide consistency,
be it a good hot cup of coffee
or a safe, clean hotel room in
every location around the corner or around the world.

When these companies miss
one time, the customer goes
bananas. Vitriolic correspondences are launched, accusing
the company of incompetence
and apathy.

How can your business minimize the risk of being chastised
for what it doesn’t do? First,
you need to set standards
below which the company cannot fall — no way, no how.
Second, promulgate these goals
as the holy grail of your company’s entire reason for existing.

Make them part of your mission statement, ensuring that
everyone from the janitor to
the CEO knows what is
expected and, more important, what role each plays in
delivering on the promise, all
the while knowing that being
taken for granted is the price
of admission.

Fail once, and you will die
1,000 deaths for what you neglected to do. The harsh reality is
that if you do it right 99.99 percent of the time, no one gives it
a second thought. Do it wrong
once, and your customers will
indelibly etch the transgression
into their memories.

Organizations can improve
their odds of survival and success by paying attention to
basics and by dealing with
details. For example, as a
salesperson, you make a
prospecting call on a potential
new client, and the next day,
you send a thank-you note.

You won’t get much credit
for doing this. It is a zero sum
game. You’ll be remembered
only for the note or call you
didn’t make when your competitor sends the thank-you
letter or follows up verbally.

Here’s another scenario: A
subordinate’s 90-year-old
great-grandmother passes
away, and your company forgets to send flowers. If you
send the flowers, they’ll blend
in with the others, but if you
neglect to do so, your missing
bouquet will be conspicuous
by its absence.

This same discipline applies
to your personal life. Have you
ever missed sending a lousy
$2 Valentine’s Day card to your
spouse or significant other? If
you do participate in this ritual
and you’re lucky, you might get
a peck on the cheek. If you
don’t, be assured it’s the start
of World War III, and your partner will never let you forget it.

Make your own list of must-dos and have your employees
do the same. Sometimes, the
big winner can be the company that doesn’t stand out for
the wrong reasons.

Many great businesses have
been built on reliability, and too
many companies have ultimately failed for errors of omission.
Being invisible at the right times
can be a strategic advantage.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual
sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise
Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products
venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves
on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and
building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at [email protected].

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