Posted by: kevinliebl | June 19, 2011

The Value of Collaboration

teamworkThis past week, I got into a discussion with a colleague about the differences between collaborative and dictatorial management styles.   I have had managers who were at both ends of the spectrum and also some who were in the middle.  I once worked for a CEO who’s favorite line was, “Everyone has the right to their own opinion, no matter how wrong it might be.  Now go do what I asked you to do.”  While it made everyone laugh, he clearly wasn’t interested in anyone’s input.  He simply wanted to direct and have blind followers.  There are certainly case studies where this has worked well.  However, brilliant managers who have all the answers are few and far between.  Additionally, building a company of “lemmings” who are not allowed to have vision or any form of opinion isn’t the recipe for a successful business.

I have always been a manager who has worked hard to create collaboration and alignment.  I’ve found that allowing teams to gel and share opinions has always worked well.  I like to build a staff of smart people who are experts in their specialty and then facilitate success.

This philosophy is even more important today when we have virtual teams.  It is rare that members of teams work in the same office or even in the same state.  In many cases they live in various countries.  The rich diversity of skills, education, experience and culture bring different perspectives to the team.  Everyone brings a unique set of ideas.  The combination of thoughts can create new ideas that bring tremendous competitive advantage.

The management skill that needs to be developed is the ability to “orchestrate” the noise to create music rather than conflict and chaos.  Many managers feel threatened by teams who offer new ideas or constructive feedback.  It is important to remember that the rich resource within the team is what creates the strongest solutions.  One must be willing to accept input from the team and then coordinate that input into a unified solution.

While not an actual business case study, I would like to share a video that illustrates the concept of collaborating diversity extremely well.  As a Rolling Stones fan, Gimme Shelter is one of my favorite songs.  I would never have thought that the collaboration of artists from around the world would have “crowdsourced” a version of the song that rivals the original.  However, this video brilliantly demonstrates the value of unique approaches to the same problem and the resulting solution being as good, or possibly better than a true classic.  Enjoy…

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Posted by: kevinliebl | April 24, 2011

The Importance of Staying Balanced

Importance of BalanceWhen I was in high school, there was a popular song by Jackson Browne called “The Pretender”.  In it, he spoke of being “caught between the longing for love, and the struggle for the legal tender”.  This week, while traveling on business, I was reminded of the song as I spoke to a middle-aged woman sitting next to me on a flight between Dallas and Austin.  She explained that she was in pharmaceutical sales.  She was very successful, but as she put it, “had sold her soul” over the past 20-years of her career.  She was now between jobs and trying to “heal herself” since she was financially secure, but emotionally bankrupt.

Most of us struggle with this issue of balance in our life at some point.  It may be work vs. family.  It may be family vs. personal hobbies.  It may be personal hobbies vs. spirituality.  It could be any activity in our lives.  The result may manifest itself in obvious ways such as an addiction (e.g., alcohol, drugs, work, exercise), or in more subtle ways such as suffering relationships or excessive stress.  In most cases, it is simply a question of priorities.  Is it worth missing my son’s basketball tournament to be present at my company’s sales conference?  Are the physical and mental benefits of my exercise regimen worth giving up time I could be spending at the office or with my family?  The answer is different for everyone.

We all strive to be the best spouse, parent, child, neighbor, provider, student, athlete, and so forth that we can be.  However, the truth is that we can’t excel at everything.  Something always suffers.  There have been times when I put too much emphasis on certain aspects of my life and let those activities control me.  As a result, other interests suffered. There have been times when my social life took precedence.  There have been times when athletics – in my case cycling – has dominated.  For years, my career was all consuming.  In each case, I was lucky enough to recognize that I was out of balance and forced myself to re-center.  My wife continues to remind me that the right answer is, “everything in moderation”.

We first learned this lesson when we were children.  We quickly learned that too much ice cream or candy would lead to a stomach ache.   We learned that too much television would give us a headache.  Throughout our lives we are reminded that too much of anything is a bad idea.  However, we live in a society that glorifies excess.  The benchmark for what we consider “success” is often unachievable for most people.  This causes many of us to stay on a treadmill and not only feel like a failure in our area of focus, but clearly feel like a failure in the areas that we have chosen to sacrifice and ignore.

It is interesting that while we all understand the issue and know the answer, we chose to ignore the solution.  Most of us recognize we would be much happier having a healthy balance in our lives of work, family, education, spirituality, exercise, and so on.  I would rather be good in all areas, then great in one and poor in all the others.  The best answer is – almost always – a healthy balance.

I will close with a story attributed to the Dalai Lama that summarizes the point very well…

A question was posed to the Dalai Lama – “what one thing about human nature surprises you the most?”  His answer – “Man”

 “Because he sacrifices his health, in order to make money.
Then he sacrifices his money, to recuperate his health.
And then he is so anxious about the future, that he doesn’t enjoy the present.
And as a result, he doesn’t live in the present or the future.
And he lives as if he’s never going to die, and then he dies having never really lived.”

Find your balance and enjoy the ride – all of it, not just one part of it.

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Posted by: kevinliebl | April 10, 2011

The Value of A Simple Red Light

Smoke DetectorMost companies are continually managing the lifecycles of their key products.  Marketing teams are researching industry trends, looking for new opportunities.  Engineering departments are developing new products to satisfy market requirements.  Product teams are sustaining existing products by introducing incremental enhancements.  Finally, older products are being removed from the market to make room for newer models.  The cycle never ends.

Unfortunately, this ongoing cycle often becomes unmanageable.  Watching companies manage their product life cycles is often like watching a dog chase it’s tail.  More and more products are pushed into the development pipeline to where the engineers can never deliver on time.  The cycle times are compressed and a proper product launch program never seems possible.  Products are removed from the market before they reach maturity and are fully accepted by the consumer.  The result is that companies deliver products that are of marginal success.

Companies often talk about “product velocity”, or the ability to introduce products on a steady cadence – and most importantly – faster than their competition.  I would argue that most customers don’t care about product velocity.  They are more interested in getting product value and solutions that solve their problems.

As an example, most of us have smoke detectors in our houses.  We have a total of eight in our house.  Every time a battery needs to be replaced the unit creates a beep to indicate that the battery is low.  One would think that this simple chirping would help isolate the unit in question.  However, most of you know exactly what I am talking about.  I have honestly had my entire family stand in different locations of the house in complete silence waiting for the alarm to chirp, trying to identify which unit needs a battery.  It is one of the more frustrating challenges in life.

I would like to meet the marketing/engineering team that designed the chirping mechanism.  I would ask a few questions:

  1. Why don’t the alarms chirp on a regular interval?  I’ve stood for 10 minutes waiting for an alarm to chirp.  I leave the room and then it chips multiple times within a 2-minute period.  Other times the chirping has stopped for hours.  The interval seems to be entirely random.
  2. Wouldn’t it have been logical to have the chirping continue for more than 3 milliseconds so that the consumer had time to find the failing unit?  A 5-second chirp would have been very useful.
  3. How were you able to design a chirping noise that has no sense of directionality?  Almost every other noise known to man can be identified by location.
  4. How were you able to design a unit that would run out of battery power at 2:00am – every single time?  Wouldn’t the laws of random behavior allow it to begin chirping mid-day – just once?
  5. Putting an expiration on the unit was probably a smart move.  I am sure that this improves the life-saving capability of the product (as well as helps you sell more units).  However, making the 8-10 year automatic expiration chirp the same tone as the battery-low indicator was just cruel.  After replacing the battery in every unit in my house, I finally found an article on the Internet telling me that if the unit continues to chirp after inserting a new battery, then your unit may have reached it’s expiration date and need to be replaced entirely.  Couldn’t you have used a different sound to indicate this?
  6. Most importantly – Is it too much to ask for the unit to have a red light indicating that the battery is low?

Using very rough calculations, I figure that most families have five or more smoke detectors per home.  Lets assume that one of these units needs a new battery every year.  I would estimate that I waste about 30 minutes each time I replace a battery trying to figure out which smoke detector is chirping.  The U.S. Government Census estimates that there are 114,825,428 households in the U.S. alone.  A simple red light would save 57,412,714 hours of time.  If we calculate the value of time using minimum wage ($8.00/hour in California), then adding a red light would save U.S. households a total of $459,301,712.  Maybe you don’t agree with my math, but you get the point.

Most company’s product strategies focus on outflanking the competition and forget to listen to the customer.  Sometimes all the customer really wants is a simple red light indicating that a battery needs to be replaced.  One day a young marketing trainee will make this suggestion and put all the other smoke detector companies out of business.  We will tell our grandchildren stories about how we used to run around the house cussing at the smoke detectors trying to find the one that is beeping.  And they will respond with, “That’s silly!  Didn’t smoke detectors always have a red-light?”

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Posted by: kevinliebl | February 6, 2011

Success – The Value of Relevance and Longevity

Success and LongevityI have been lucky enough to know, and work with, a lot of “successful” business people in my career.  I was able to meet and work with the founders of Network Appliance (NetApp) when they were just a small startup in San Jose, CA.  I worked for a company who had Ray Noorda (the founder of Novell) as the chairman of the board and was able to interface with him many times.  I worked with many dot-com startups who made millions “overnight”.  I also worked with many other successful business people who never had home runs, but were able to string together a series of singles, doubles and triples and do just as well as the dot-com overnight successes.

I’ve tried to learn something from everyone I worked with.  The obvious question is what makes someone successful?  The truth is that it is often simply being in the “right place at the right time”.  However, I firmly believe that luck is simply preparation and opportunity coming together at the right time.  If you aren’t prepared and you don’t create opportunities, then “luck” or “being in the right place at the right time” never happens.

However, the more interesting topic for me, is how best to define a “successful” career.  The people I have come to admire the most, are not the “overnight successes”.  Certainly, I have known some very successful individuals who have built valuable startups, sold them, and essentially retired before they were 40 (or in some cases before they were 30).  While impressive, many of these individuals spent the next decade or so miserable because they couldn’t repeat the same success.  I know a few who felt that they could easily repeat the earlier accomplishments.  They put their fortunes back into startups – or other investments – and lost millions of dollars very quickly.  Others simply bounced from project to project and slowly spent their fortunes.

My point is that a single home run in one’s career, is not nearly as impressive as a sustained record of ongoing singles and doubles.  Everyone’s career will have peaks and valleys.  The ability to fail, pick one’s self back up and have another success is what makes you successful.  It takes intestinal fortitude.  A career is not a sprint.  It is a marathon.  As every endurance-athlete knows, you have tremendous peaks and valleys during your event.  There are times you want to quit, and times you believe you may set a record.  The key is to keep going.

The business people that I am most impressed with are the ones who remain relevant over the long term.  They are the ones who have longevity.  I have a business colleague who I am proud to call a friend.  We will call him “Al”.  I met him in the mid-90’s.  He was a consultant to a company I was working for.  Everyone in the company respected him and recognized we were lucky to have him working with us.  Most people expected him to be retiring at any time, but we hoped that he would continue to work with us.  I spoke to him recently and he told me that he was finally retiring – not because he wasn’t in demand, but because he had other personal projects that he wanted to focus on.  He is now well into his 80’s.  I have tremendous admiration for people who can continue to add value and be relevant late into their career.  This most difficult today when business processes are changing so quickly.

In closing, I can’t think of a better example to illustrate my point of longevity and relevance than Johnny Cash.  It is well documented that Johnny Cash’s career was filled with tremendous successes and failures.  He struggled with self-doubt.  He struggled with legal issues.  He struggled with relationships.  He struggled with drugs and alcohol.  However, he continued to pick up the pieces and work.  He continued to find a way to be relevant.

At 71 years of age, Johnny Cash did a remake of the Trent Reznor (of the band Nine Inch Nails) song, “Hurt”.  Cash found a way of using his musical genius to make the song his own.  His video is both gripping and haunting as he looks back on his own career.  Both the song and the video were a tremendous success for him, receiving both critical and public praise.  Johnny Cash died 7 months later.  In his last days, he proved that he was still relevant, not only to his existing fans, but to a whole new generation.  He also set an incredible standard for career longevity.

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Posted by: kevinliebl | January 16, 2011

May the Tradesman Rest in Peace, Long Live the Handyman

Christmas LightsI noticed something very interesting this Christmas holiday.  Many of my neighbors were putting up their own Christmas lights.  This was a big change for our street.  When we first moved into the neighborhood over ten years ago, everyone put up their own lights. But fairly quickly advertisements arrived offering inexpensive services to install and remove the Christmas lights.  No one enjoyed getting up on the roof, and the economy was good, so most families started using local vendors to put them up.  However, this year more people were out decorating as a family.  It is something I am noticing a lot more of lately.  Less people are using vendors and tradesmen, and more people are learning to do things themselves.

When I was growing up, my father had very little disposable income.  Because of this, we learned how to do a lot of things ourselves.  He taught me how to paint the house, how to repair plumbing problems, how to work on the car and obviously how to mow the lawn.  While I complained a lot at the time about having to do all these projects around the house, I actually really enjoyed the time with my dad.  Over the years, we developed a pretty complete workbench and a nice set of tools.  Most of those tools are now hanging in my garage.  When there was a task that we didn’t know how to accomplish, we would find a neighbor who would help, or talked with the manager of the local hardware store (this was a long time before Home Depot).

During the past few decades, we all have enjoyed healthy economic growth, which in turn has provided more disposable income.  Most of us quickly recognized that it was much more practical to hire someone to handle household repairs than to struggle with them ourselves.  It was also more cost-effective to hire a gardener than to spend our Saturdays working in the yard.  We took our cars to car washes or used the mobile car wash rather than spending the time ourselves.  The bottom line is that we outsourced much of this work – simply because we could.  We rationalized that it gave us more time to spend together as a family.  Ironically, we ended up spending more time on our own personal activities rather than spending quality family time.

However, the extended economic downturn has caused all of us to rethink this approach.  We all have less cash at the end of the month, and are trying to save more in case things don’t improve soon.  I have also noticed that the other factor impacting the use of tradesmen is that we now have unlimited access to free tutorials via the Internet.  I recently had a leaky faucet and having lost most of my plumbing skills that I had acquired from my father, I stared at the faucet for 10 minutes trying to figure out what to do about it.  I finally grabbed my notebook computer, sat it next to the bathroom faucet and searched on Google for “How to repair a leaky faucet”.  In less than a minute, I found a 5-minute video that graphically showed how to fix, not just any faucet, but my exact model.  Like most of you I have found videos for almost every household task imaginable.  I now know how to: 1) clean my coffee pot, 2) fix a leaky window sill, 3) repair a broken light switch, 4) get rid of crab grass, 5) replace a glass shower door, 6) repair a toilet flush mechanism; and so on.

I am not here to forecast that tradesmen should all find new forms of income.  However, it does seem to me that we are returning to a time when more people find ways to become generalists and learn how to do more for themselves.  The combination of tougher economic times and the instant access to instructional information are creating a shift in behavior.

I also believe that there is a tremendous upside.  You have no idea how much fun it was to wash my car with my younger son.  Sure, I could have sat alone at the car wash and read the news on my iPhone while he watched SpongeBob SquarePants at home on television.  However, l think the benefit of doing it together went way beyond the $20 I saved by not going to the car wash.  As my older son and I took down our Christmas lights this year, I actually heard him say, “Dad, this is fun working together.  Thanks for teaching me.”  No, you can’t put a price on that comment.  I am realizing that this shift may have much less to do with saving money than I thought.

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Posted by: kevinliebl | December 22, 2010

Sizzle vs. Substance

Your Name HereSizzle vs. Substance – it is a classic marketing debate.  When putting together a marketing campaign, what is the right balance of sizzle vs. substance?  This issue also translates into press releases, trade show strategies, advertising, internal business presentations, speeches, resumes and almost any form of communication.  The obvious answer is that it depends on the message itself and the vehicle used to communicate the message.

Early in my career, I was asked to put together a direct mail campaign.  The objective was to get customers to extend their service contracts.  I put together a series of direct mail pieces that clearly communicated the value proposition.  I was able to overwhelm the target audience with facts and logic, showing mathematical calculations that demonstrated the clear return-on-investment (ROI).  I created four different mailers that were scheduled to be mailed over a four-week period.  I thought I had nailed the project.  My boss hated it.

He reminded me that regardless of how compelling the message was, if no one reads it, then the entire campaign was a waste of time.  You need to draw in the audience with an appropriate amount of sizzle.  In a word, my campaign was as interesting as reading a calculus textbook.

Later in my career, when computer animation was becoming cost-effective, I put together another campaign that had brilliant animation.  We designed a series of animated visuals that could be mailed on CDs.  Everyone on the team became so enamored with the technology that we failed to build a compelling message.  While everyone loved the animation and ended up sharing it with their friends because it was so state-of-the-art, no one walked away understanding what we were trying to sell.  Clearly, a project too skewed toward sizzle and not enough content.

To illustrate the point, I would like to share with you two videos that are very appropriate for the holiday season.  The first is a commercial produced by the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) of Australia.  It is a public service announcement intended to reduce the number of alcohol-related accidents, by reminding people of the consequences of drinking and driving.  In my opinion, this is one of the best videos on this subject and has an outstanding balance of sizzle vs. substance.  The “sizzle” is gut-wrenching and shocking, and the “substance” (or message) hits you over the head in every frame of the video.  A warning – this is a powerful, yet graphic commercial.

On the other end of the spectrum is a unique view of the nativity story told through social media.  This is a promotional video by a web development firm.  It uses a very creative approach to demonstrate their marketing and web services.  Again, this is an excellent balance of sizzle vs. substance because they entertain you while demonstrating their ability.

Remember to focus first on the message.  Make sure that you are communicating the top 1-2 messages in an easy-to-digest format.  It is always good to use the old technique of 1) Telling them what you are going to tell them, 2) Then tell them; and then finally 3) Remind them what you told them.

Once you have a clearly defined message, then identify a unique way of telling the story that engages the audience.  Always make your message memorable by finding your own unique balance of sizzle vs. substance.

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Posted by: kevinliebl | November 28, 2010

The Ingredients for Success

Ingredients for Success

Luck is when preparation meets opportunity
– Seneca, Roman dramatist, philosopher, & politician (5 BC – 65 AD)

My 8-year-old daughter taught me an important lesson about success recently.  For weeks, she had been asking my wife to French-Braid her hair.  My wife didn’t know how to French-braid hair and wasn’t finding the time to learn, and so my daughter became more resourceful.  She asked her girlfriend’s mother to teach my wife.  The mothers got together and talked about a lot of topics, but in the end, my wife came home without any new French-Braiding skills.

Again, my daughter wasn’t satisfied, so she found a video on YouTube and shared it with my wife.  After about 15-minutes, my wife gave up and told my daughter to talk to me about it.  One of the reasons I love my wife, is that she knows her limitations.  Being someone who: A) Loves a challenge, B) Enjoys bonding with my daughter; and C) Is comfortable with my masculinity – I decided to try to French-braid her hair.  To be fair, I made the attempt in a 20-minute window between paying bills and needing to leave for my son’s basketball tournament.  I figured I had plenty of time, but completely misjudged the learning curve.  Feeling like a failure, I told her that I couldn’t do it now, but would try to do it later in the weekend.

That evening, while my wife and I were watching television, my daughter sat in front of the computer and taught herself how to French Braid using her All-American Girl doll “Molly” as a model.  She came into our room and with a huge smile and showed us a perfectly braided doll.  I was both embarrassed that I had let her down, but also unbelievably proud that she had taught herself a skill that both my wife and I had been unable to master.

The lesson I learned is that while both my wife and I had the ability, we lacked the opportunity, and honestly, the desire to succeed.  In both cases, we didn’t give ourselves enough focused time to master the technique.  When the task became sufficiently challenging in the short timeframe, we chose to quit because it just wasn’t that important to us.  In my daughter’s case, quitting was not an option.

My daughter reminded me that success requires you to have all three of the following characteristics:

Ability – To be successful at a given task, we need to have the skills necessary to complete the objective.  However, we also need to believe that we have the ability.  This often manifests itself as unrelenting optimism.

Desire – The goal must matter deeply to us.  Passion drives individuals to overcome tremendous obstacles.  Conversely, a lack of passion causes people to quit too early.

Opportunity – Ability and desire cannot succeed without opportunity.  Depending on the task at hand, there are various resources (e.g., time, human, financial) that may be necessary to meet the specific goal.

If you are having trouble completing a specific task, ask yourself which of these characteristics you are missing.  Then put a plan in place to give yourself the opportunity to succeed.

Based on your experience, are there other ingredients to success that don’t fall under these main categories?

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Posted by: kevinliebl | November 6, 2010

I Didn’t Want to Ride Today

Scott BicyclesI opened my eyes this morning wide enough to see 5:45am on the alarm clock.  It was warm in my bed and it was cold outside.  People shouldn’t get up at 5:45am on a Saturday morning.  I could think of a thousand reasons to stay in bed and I could only think of one to get out of bed – to get on the road and ride my bike.  However, it was still dark outside, and it was very comfortable next to my wife under the covers.

Yet there I was, climbing out of bed, grabbing my cycling outfit and quietly going downstairs.  As I fixed myself a cup of coffee and filled my water bottles, my 8-year-old daughter walked in the kitchen and asked, “dad, are you going riding?”  I answered “yes”.  To which she asked, “why”?  For the life of me, I couldn’t think of a good reason, so I said, “Because I can”.  She said, “Oh”, and walked over and turned on the television.  While my daughter watched a DVD of “The Brady Bunch”, I finished eating, stretching, putting on my leg warmers, arm warmers, shoes, helmet and walked out the courtyard door.  As soon as the cold air hit my skin, I froze and thought seriously about getting back in bed.  I repeated “…because I can” under my breath and climbed on my bike.

My Saturday morning ride consists of 50 miles on the road.  It is a great course of tough climbing, fast down hills, winding wooded roads and some great flats where you can test your time-trial abilities.  The only downside is that the first hill comes about a block and a half from our house.  It is a short, but very steep climb and you have no chance to warm up.  As I broke a sweat, but could still feel the needles on my face from the cold temperatures, I asked myself, “why am I doing this?”

About 50 minutes into the ride, I felt my first adrenaline rush.  Every endurance athlete knows the feeling.  Some people know it as the “runner’s high”.  It is a point where your body generates enough adrenaline to offset the pain you are experiencing – and  you actually feel euphoric.  You no longer notice the pain in your legs.  You no longer feel your lungs straining for air.  And you no longer think of the warm bed back at home.  You realize that you can attack the upcoming hill and recover quickly for the next one.

I rode up next to another rider who was just starting out on his ride and said, “A great day for a ride, isn’t it?”  I could tell he was ready to say, “What are we doing out here?” but he replied quickly with, “Absolutely, we are lucky aren’t we?”  Lesson: It is amazing how a positive attitude can be contagious.

As I rode Santiago Canyon, I had one of my best rides in a long time.  I rode with passion and inspiration.  I rode harder than I have in months.  I’m not a professional rider, but I do well for my age group.  As I climbed the hills, I realized how lucky I really am.  No one was there to see my climbs or to time my ride.  However, it was reward enough to know how well I was doing.  No one needed to see it but me.Road Bike

Why do I ride?  Because it inspires me.  Because it is a metaphor for life.  It isn’t always easy to get up.  It isn’t always easy to be positive.  It isn’t always easy to encourage others.  However, when the ride is over, it feels great to look back and say, “I am proud of that one”.

I didn’t want to ride today.  But I did.  And I am glad I did…   Sometimes you just need to get out of bed.

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Posted by: kevinliebl | October 24, 2010

The Value of Delighting Your Customers

Giant Slot Car TrackIt has been raining all weekend.  This morning while I was working in the home office, my 11-year-old son came in, slouched in the leather chair, stared at me and gave me his best “I’m bored speech”.  Apparently, there was nothing on television, his brother was on the computer, and his complete library of video games was “mega-boring”.  After 5 minutes of negotiation, I finally caved in and agreed to put the bills aside and spend some father/son bonding time with him.  I decided to go “old school” and pull out the slot-car set that he received several years ago for Christmas.

Over the next 45 minutes we put together 62-1/2 feet of slot car magic.  We told stories and laughed out loud.  We worked together as a team.  We got frustrated.  We problem solved.  And when it was done, we stood back, high-fived each other, grunted like real men, and admired our work.

The whole experience reminded me just how important the “out-of-box” experience is for a product.  This slot car set is more than just plastic, metal, wires and stickers.  There is magic in that box – from the packaging, to the instructions, to the smell of the track.  It is a right-of-passage.  Every young child should have the experience of owning a train set and/or slot car set.  It starts with the simple excitement of looking at the box and fantasizing about driving the cars.  Then there is the challenge and frustration of putting the set together and realizing how much effort it takes to make it work correctly.  Then finally you have the actual car races – challenging your family and friends to the world-championship race.

Slot Car SetHow many products (or services) do you purchase that truly delight you the way toys did when you were an 11-year old?  Your answer is probably, “very few”.  You can make the argument that nothing gets you excited the way things did when you were 11 years old.  However, I can probably point you to a dozen or so purchases that still do.  Have you ever purchased a car that just amazed you at how wonderful the experience was?  Did you ever take a cruise or stay at a hotel that you couldn’t stop talking about?  There are the obvious examples of outstanding service (e.g., Nordstrom) and consumer electronics (e.g., Apple).  However I can think of several little known companies and products that truly made me feel like they should have charged more for the experience.

Too many companies focus on the core product and forget about the other elements of the customer experience.  There is an old real estate trick that statically works well and I am surprised more people don’t do it.  Always bake chocolate chip cookies when you have an open house. The smell of fresh baked cookies gives people a positive impression of the house.  A local plumber is advertising on the radio that they are the “smell good plumbers”.  They explain that each of their plumbers smell really good.  I think this is brilliant.  It costs peanuts to give each plumber scented hand cleaner and the mental image of a good smelling plumber is much better than one that just cleaned out your neighbor’s pipes.

What does the packaging look like?  Is it an afterthought or is it as well engineered as the product itself?  The packaging is a reflection of the product.  Apple’s packaging shows how proud they are of their products.  Often companies forget the importance of user manuals and other documentation.  What about customer support?  Is there an easy way to locate answers to your user questions?  A product can be 99% outstanding, but lack of attention to these final details can ruin the customer perception.  The out-of-box experience is as important – or more important – than the product itself.

In my opinion, every company should set a goal to literally shock their customer with a positive user experience.  Work to create an experience that delights the customer far beyond their normal expectations.  Remind them of the feeling they had opening their first slot car set, Barbie or Red Ryder BB-gun.

I should stop writing now.  My son thinks he actually has a shot at beating me in a 10 lap head-to-head race.  <grin>

Do you have examples of products or services that exceeded your expectations?

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Posted by: kevinliebl | October 3, 2010

All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten

Robert FulghumOne of my favorite business books was published in 1988.  It was a very simple book entitled, “All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten”.  The premise of the book is that the simple lessons we learned in Kindergarten can carry us through the balance of our life.  We would all be more successful and the world would be a better place if we applied a few simple rules.  Share everything. Play fair. Don’t hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. Live a balanced life. Learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work some every day.

As I have advanced in my career, I have realized how true Robert Fulghum’s words are.  The business executives who I have the most respect for, play by these simple rules.  These executives attract the best talent.  They have the strongest business partners.  And, they have had the most consistently successful careers.

I find it interesting how often I am in business meetings and we are analyzing a very complex business issue.  It may have to do with a channel partner relationship, an acquisition target, a business management process or a marketing campaign strategy.  However, after lengthy dialog, it often comes down to a simple discussion about “doing the right thing”.  The ultimate question is typically very easy to answer.

Ironically, many executives have spent so much of their career focusing on forecast models, margin analysis, manufacturing metrics and development cycles, that they have lost the ability to make simple business decisions based on common sense.

To be a successful business executive, there is always a baseline of business knowledge that is necessary.  You need an understanding of finance, manufacturing, sales, marketing, product development, as well as industry domain expertise.  Yet, the truly great executives are able to see beyond manufacturing variances, product margin, time-to-market advantage and fundamental ROI and distill the business decisions down to very a simple analysis.  They remember that customers will purchase from you if you treat them fairly.  They understand that employees will be loyal if you treat them with respect.  When appropriate, they accept the blame and apologize for their mistakes.  They understand that you can’t manage a business from a balance sheet alone.

Recently, my eight-year-old daughter asked me how my day went.  I told her that I was in a business strategy meeting most of the day.  I couldn’t describe much of the meeting to her because she wouldn’t have understood it, so I just gave her a very high-level description of the problem.  Out of curiosity, I asked her what she would have decided, and without hesitation, she gave the right answer.  I smiled and told her she was right.  It took my eight-year-old daughter about three minutes to get to the same answer that it took eight extremely well paid executives five hours to get to.  Sometimes the answer is easier than you think.  I’ve gained a new respect for “bring your daughter to work” day.

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