Most business leaders want to greatly improve customer loyalty, and I am no different.
To drive loyalty to my promotional products business, we have tried all the usual means — low prices, free shipping, membership club benefits, discounts and exclusive product offers.
Once, we even tried sending a vase of fresh flowers after each order. None of these initiatives resulted in the dramatic improvement that we sought. Over the years, we have engaged a series of expert consultants to find even more ideas to try. But in our business, customer loyalty remains a tough nut to crack.
The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly & Co. struggled with similar obstacles when it came to problem-solving in their business. Many were scientific, and — even though Eli Lilly’s substantial R&D group is staffed with talented technical experts — some problems resisted a solution for years. However, the company did invent a way to solve some of its problems quickly and cheaply.
Use expert advice — of others
Here is the gist of it: Eli Lilly discovered that it could solve a lot of the most intractable problems by giving them to experts from other fields. Simple? Yes. Counterintuitive? Yes. The surprise is that it seems to work.
The company put together an online network of thousands of scientists from other disciplines and “broadcast” their brain-stumping challenges to these experts from other fields. In many cases, the experts solved the problems by simply drawing on knowledge common in their own areas and applying it to Eli Lilly’s dilemma.
Eli Lilly’s scientists, we may presume, know just about all there is to know in their respective fields of expertise. Likewise, in my company, our experts know just about all there is to know about the industry, our products, our customers, competitors and so on. When the subject-matter experts can’t solve a problem, you need to cast a much wider net. If the specialists are stumped, then a solution, if found at all, will come from people outside the field.
Modify your individual process, if needed
Today, our company is using a version of Eli Lilly’s method in our business, which other organizations might also use to address their toughest problems. I didn’t have the time or means to put together a large team of experts from outside disciplines to work on my company’s challenges. So we use a modified Eli Lilly approach: We deliberately, routinely expose our in-house experts to nontraditional experiences and knowledge.
The idea is to see whether we can find our own answers by investing to acquire experiences outside those we normally encounter. In recent months, this new approach has involved my participation in a variety of eye-opening situations, including a meeting with the Cavalia producers, lots of museum visits, a guided tour of London graffiti and a design school workshop at Stanford University. On a personal level, I’m trying much harder to add new concepts and idea possibilities to my thinking.
I don’t know whether we’ll crack the customer loyalty problem in this way, but I can tell you that the ideas we discuss now are fresher than those we used to generate. That’s why my prescription for increasing the likelihood of solving the toughest problems is this: Live outside the box.
Jerry McLaughlin is CEO of Branders.com, the world’s largest and lowest-priced online promotional products company. McLaughlin can be reached at JerryMcLaughlin@branders.com.