Archives for November 2011

You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 2)

Today I conclude the article on product driven versus market driven companies. I began by discussing the cultural differences between the two. Product driven companies concentrate on achieving and maintaining technical superiority. Market driven companies devote resources to brand development and customer communications.

Companies and industries sometimes attempt to adapt their marketing strategy in response to changing competition and other market forces. For example, conditions slowly but dramatically changed for the entire American automotive industry over the next 50 years. Detroit’s response to the 1973 oil embargo was a textbook case of a failed attempt to adapt. Faced with the first ever non-wartime limit on the availability of cheap gasoline, the American consumer suddenly became very conscious of gas mileage.

At the time, Japanese and European companies dominated the market for fuel-efficient sub-compacts. American manufacturers’ knee-jerk response was to jump headfirst into a market they had ignored until recently. They stepped up production of the notoriously undependable Ford Pinto (voted the worst car of all time), the Chevrolet Vega and the AMC Gremlin.

Detroit’s failure took a personal toll on an entire generation of consumers. My first car was a red, white and blue Pinto. It was a cornucopia of expensive mechanical problems, unrelenting frustration on a 94-inch wheelbase. I sold it just before a massive recall for an exploding gas tank problem that would eventually cost Ford millions of dollars in legal settlements.

My next car, a Toyota, sparked a love affair with foreign cars that continues today. It was 30 years before I bought another Ford, a pickup truck for my son. It took almost as long for American manufacturers to overcome the image of producing inferior cars. It remains to be seen whether they will ever regain the world market share they once enjoyed.

How have things changed since I bought that damn Pinto?

A national chain of men’s discount stores advertised, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” For a product driven company in 2011, an educated consumer might be more aptly described as their worst nightmare. Service industry executive and strategic planning expert Michael O’Loughlin recently summarized the reason. He said, “Thanks to the Internet, the consumer has come to believe that no concessions are ever necessary. They expect unlimited choices in meeting their needs.”

Potential customers are only a few clicks away from a myriad of rival goods and services. A consumer with a smartphone can compare competitors’ prices on the spot. Any business, even the smallest local operation, ignores those powerful market realities at their own peril. Broadening your product line or services can help fend off competition by better addressing market needs, and improve customer retention in the process.

The men’s store chain recently filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. One analyst said they had failed to keep up with the increasingly competitive off-priced clothing market.

My final point is that few successful companies employ an entirely one-sided strategy. They operate along a moving spectrum on which there are few absolutes, and no strategy guaranteed to bring success or failure.

Consider Ford one last time. Product limitations notwithstanding, they still managed to sell over 15 million units between 1908 and 1927. At one point, half of all the cars in the world were Model T’s. That production record stood until the Volkswagen Beetle finally surpassed it in 1972.

The correct strategy for your business is the one that is executable within the constraints of your cost structure and marketing budget, and that produces the highest net cash flow given all the relevant factors at work in your market and your competition.

I began this article with an old quote. I end with another. A marketing adage says, “You have to sell from your own wagon.” It refers to a bygone era when merchants plied their trade by pushing handcarts up and down urban streets. The adage may be true. However, today you get to decide how big your wagon is, and what products or services it carries.

Go forth and sell!

 © 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

You Can Have Any Color You Want, As Long As You Want Black (Part 1)

This week, I get to incorporate two of my favorite topics, history and old cars, into a two-part article. My title is one of Henry Ford’s most quoted statements. He actually said, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”.

He said it in 1909, ironically at a time when black was not available. The Model T originally came in grey, green, blue and red. He did not implement his all black policy until 1914. However, He could have accurately said customers can have any model they want so long as it is a 2-door. But his quote sounds better, so I’m throwing journalistic accuracy to the wind and going with it!

I use it to introduce my real subject, product driven versus market driven companies. Henry obviously believed in a product driven strategy.

My first goal is simply to understand the difference between the two strategies and the corporate cultures that define them at the most basic level.

If you were involved in Ford’s marketing efforts back then, your job was to convince potential buyers they needed a black Model T, period! Your marketing approach was something like, “Here is what I have to sell, and this is why you need it.”

Contrast that to a market driven strategy that asks, “What do you need, and how can I best meet that need?”

The cultural differences between product and market driven companies run deep. Product driven companies will spend relatively more resources on product development. Their primary goal is to achieve and maintain technical superiority. In extreme examples, they believe their products are so good they simply sell themselves. Engineers will always outrank marketing in the corporate pecking order.

Market driven companies will devote more resources to brand their company and products, and on customer communications. Technical superiority is secondary to understanding customer needs and anticipating market changes. Product development is less mission critical than advertising, since the marketing department rules the roost.

My second point is that if you are going to sell a limited product or service line, you need to be very good at it. Ford was fanatical about producing cheap, dependable cars. He managed to reduce the original $850 sticker price to $290 by the 1920s. At that price, he owned the working family automotive market. He was so confident that the cars’ features and low cost could generate sufficient sales that he did no corporate advertising from 1917 to 1923.

Unfortunately, being first to market with a technically superior product offered at an affordable price is no guarantee of long-term success. As Ford Motor Company subsequently learned, competitors (increasingly on a global basis) have a long history of unseating early market leaders who grow complacent about ever-changing customer needs and wants.

Being a product driven company is certainly easier if you exercise some degree of control in your relevant market, and if consumer tastes are stable and predictable. Perhaps Ford was lulled into a false sense of security by assuming past market conditions, under which they flourished for decades, would continue indefinitely.

Car buyers in the 1920s were unsophisticated by today’s standards. They could not have imaged, let alone demanded the range of choices, options and features currently available. Ford was not the first company to replace dangerous hand cranks with electric starters. Cadillac beat them to market by seven years. However, when the world’s largest car manufacturer finally made the change in 1919, consumers and the rest of the industry fell in line. Ford defined the new standard, not Cadillac.

I will conclude this article on Friday, when I write about how companies sometimes attempt to adapt their strategies to changing market conditions.

Until then, best wishes for a joyous Thanksgiving holiday.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Curiosity was Framed, Ignorance Killed the Cat

My first job after public accounting was as Director of Internal Audit for a large regional insurance company. Given free range to determine my own assignments, I immediately launched a review of the claims processing operation. As Willie Sutton would say, “That’s where the money is.”

Back then, mainframe computers housed in cold rooms that took up an entire floor were the order of the day. Reports printed on large “green-bar” paper with perforated edges, bound together between heavy cardboard covers using bendable wires.

On my second day on the job, I was flipping through a report of claim payments. It listed basic information like policy and claim number, payee, amount, dates and so forth. The report probably had 50 to 60 claims per page, and was several hundred pages long.

I spotted something strange. About every 15 or 20 pages, a claim would show a negative payment. Based on my understanding of the system, there was no logical explanation for negative numbers. I started asking questions, lots of questions!

To make a long story short, I had stumbled across an internal control weakness that allowed certain claims to be paid twice. As best I can recall, I found about $125,000 of duplicates. That was not a lot of money to a billion dollar company, even in 1978 dollars. Still, with an annual salary of $22,000, I cost-justified my first five years’ compensation the second day on the job.

My point in recalling this story is not to take you with me on a boring stroll down memory lane. OK, that is part of it, but a very small part.

My point is that other people who had worked with the claim report every day had undoubtedly noticed negative amounts before, yet had failed to follow through with a few simple questions. If they had, they might have closed the control weakness years earlier. Why?

I offer two words: human nature.

People seem to have a natural tendency to accept most things as they are. Asking questions and challenging the status quo is actually considered rude in many cultures. Sadly, it is career limiting in many corporate environments. Relax and remember what happen to the mythical cat! I heard it was a mid-level manager in a Fortune 500 company somewhere on the east coast.

That is not to suggest people are by nature lazy, apathetic or any other negative adjective. It’s just how things are.

Contrast that to Thomas Edison, who said he rarely picked up an object without wondering how he could make it better. I call that the curiosity factor. Either you have the curiosity factor, or you don’t. It cannot be taught or learned, and is seldom spoken of. Yet in many professions (including internal auditing), it is probably the single best predictor of ultimate success.

Every business desperately needs someone who will leap headfirst into operations or finances with a dedication approaching a Pit bull on a pork chop. If that is not you, go hire someone with the curiosity factor.

You will be amazed at what valuable business opportunities are waiting to be discovered just below the surface.

 

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

Customer Service #101: Buddy, Can You Spare a Sandwich?

I had an experience last week I feel compelled to share. It was Friday night, the end of a long week. After fighting construction traffic for 45 minutes, I stopped at a national fast-food chain. I ordered three sandwiches. Mind you, I didn’t order drinks, chips or dessert, just three sandwiches. The bill came to $27.14. Since I didn’t have much cash on me, I handed the salesclerk a credit card. I was informed their “system” only allowed credit card charges up to $20.

Since I have previously  bought takeout from this chain many times without encountering this problem, I’m not certain whether it is a new corporate policy, a misguided rule imposed only by this franchise, or if the employee was simply mistaken.

Regardless of the reason, it points out a common business failure. The problem is creating unnecessary obstacles for people who might otherwise become loyal customers.

I have written many times that competition is based on price, product or service. Those are your only three choices.

Perhaps spurred by the current slow economy, price competition is clearly the most promoted basis of competition. It is especially prevalent in the food service industry. Witness Applebee’s “Two eat for $20” or Pizza Hut’s “$10 any pizza, any size, any toppings” campaigns, just to cite two.

Low prices are completely objective, easily communicated and quickly adjusted as necessary. Unfortunately, while coupons, discounts and sales may bring more customers through your door, they always cut into your gross profit. You simply cannot consistently sell a product or provide a service for less than your cost and survive!

Price competition also presents a more immediate challenge. In a high-tech world where any customer with a Smartphone can quickly determine if your competition is offering a better price, the strategy is certainly no guarantee of marketing success. The risk is escalated if low-price guarantees are common in your business. Furthermore, if someone purchases only because you are the cheapest available option, he or she is unlikely to develop any customer loyalty unless you are always the low-price provider. Few businesses are large enough or profitable enough to be in that enviable market position.

Competing mainly on product also carries risks. Even if you think your product or service is unique, the reality is there are probably countless options that are close enough to serve as a substitute for customer needs. A classic example is the difference between a Lexus and a comparably equipped Toyota that sells for thousands of dollars less. Product competition is also complicated by the widespread availability of on-line shopping and free shipping.

That leaves service as the only basis of competition on which your business can truly distinguish itself. It is also the only one that doesn’t have to increase your operating costs, or cut gross profits. A friendly smile and prompt, courteous service cost nothing! More importantly, superior service cannot be instantly matched by the competitor up the street.

Superior service encompasses the entire customer experience, starting with the moment they enter your facility or contact you. It continues until the product or service produces the level of satisfaction the consumer expected. It includes point-of-sales services such as allowing credit cards, answering questions, gift-wrapping and perhaps even walking packages to their car. It also includes after-sale services like satisfaction guarantees, generous refund policies and warranty service.

What’s the lesson here? Ask yourself two questions. First, are your policies and procedures primarily designed to make your life easier, or to increase customer satisfaction? Secondly, are your employees adequately trained in those policies and procedures, and are they consistently delivering a customer experience that will keep shoppers returning year after year?

I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He summarizing the essence of Customer Service # 101 with this, “Make your product easier to buy than your competition, or you will find your customer buying from them, not you.”

© 2011 by Dale R. Schmeltzle

  • RSS
  • Newsletter
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn