It is important in business to know what your competition is doing and anticipate how it might affect your business. A key strategy is to Zag when everyone else is Zigging.
Here is one of my favorite examples. In clothing retail, most businesses concentrate on their change rooms as a vulnerable point with respect to theft. To minimize theft they develop a strategy around this area. the rooms are small and uncomfortable which discourages people from spending time. They also impose rules that dictate the number of garments that a person is allowed to take into the change room.
Donald Cooper, founder of Toronto area clothing retailer, Alive and Well saw this in an entirely different way. He reasoned that the people that steal from you will find a way. The conventional approach inconvenienced the 95% per cent of customers that are honest to protect against the few that are dishonest. He designed change rooms that were spacious, and there was no limit to the number of garments a customer took in to try on.  Cooper is an example of someone who has what I call Retail DNA.
Look at your industry and identify one or two areas where everyone is Zigging. How can you Zag? Don’t Zag for the sake of Zagging, make it in an area that has meaning for your customers. Happy Zagging.

Little Things

     The only way to get out of my community is to go north. We have a Provincial Park to the south which is a wonderful feature for residents but it cuts off access to and from the community to the south.  There is a community strip mall which is located south of my home. It’s a fairly typical retail center with convenience store, liquor, dry cleaner, veterinarian & doggie daycare, dental practice, barber shop, hair salon and a neighbourhood pub. The people that run the convenience store and the dry cleaner call me by name. I don’t do a great deal of business with either retailer, but they still make the effort to remember and use my name. If I were to choose strictly on convenience I would stop at another location on my way north, but I make an effort to patronize these businesses.  Dale Carnegie says “No word sounds as lovely as our own name.”

     It’s a little thing that can make a big difference.  I am just one customer.  Imagine how much of a differnce this small gesture makes to the well being of this business.  Sometimes business owners are so focused on the big issues and the small things are ignored.  Take some time to look at small things that might make a big difference.

Jumping to Conclusions

     Here is an incident that illustrates the importance of finding out what a potential customer needs before you offer your “best selling point.” On a fine sunny Sunday afternoon we were touring a parade of homes. Each builder was showcasing what they felt was a great example of their craftsmanship and expertise. In each home we were greeted by a representative. In one home the representative handed us their “package” which included the developer’s promotional material on the area, along with the builders promotional material. While handing over the package, the young gentleman said matter-of-factly that they had the lowest cost per square foot in the area.
Apparently he felt that their claim to fame was that they could build cheaper than anyone else. He didn’t think that their quality was a selling point. With this bit of information as an introduction to their show home experience, one tends to use that to frame all that you are about to see. Hmmm, perhaps their kitchen cabinets are not as nice. Gee these bathroom fixtures are not as good. I wonder what corners were cut is inside the walls, that I can’t see.
     When someone is touring a show home, or viewing your offering for the first time, remember that you want the customer to first think “What would it be like if I owned this?” In the case of the home; can they see themselves living in a home like this? If there is some hesitation, what changes would they like to see? They have to imagine owning it before they will buy.
     Don’t jump, find out what they are thinking before you offer your best points, it might not be what they are looking for.

Up in the air.

     With the recent announcement that Sky Service has gone under, I am motivated to tell of our worst vacation experience. It is perhaps ironic that this nightmare involved Sky Service (the charter airline) and Conquest Vacations (the tour operator). Conquest ceased operations in April of 2009 and now Sky Service ceases operation in April 2010. In both cases they cite the economy as a major contributing factor but I hold that it was their past treatment of customers that did them in.

     Here’s our story. We had booked a flight to Mexico’s Mayan Riviera region which means a flight into and out of Cancun. On the day of our return, we were informed that the Calgary flight had been cancelled and all Calgary passengers were being placed on the Vancouver flight. By combining flights we had an aircraft that was completely full. We departed from Cancun in the early evening. After many hours of flying, the cabin crew announced that we must prepare for our approach into the Vancouver airport. A few minutes passed and the steward came back over the P.A. and said that he had been informed that we were in fact preparing to land in Spokane, Washington. The plane did not have enough fuel to get us to Vancouver. We were a plane load of Canadians landing in the United States in the middle of the night. We didn’t have U.S. Customs clearance so we couldn’t leave the plane. We were parked in some dark corner of the airport while the flight crew negotiated to buy enough jet fuel to get us to Vancouver. We completely ran out of supplies, there was no coffee, no soft drinks, no water, no snacks. We finally got fuel and were able to fly to Vancouver. The Vancouver passengers de-planed, the plane was refueled and the crew was changed but the Calgary passengers were not allowed to leave the plane. When we arrived in Calgary, Canada Customers hadn’t yet opened so we had a further wait. In total, we were on the aircraft for 12 hours.

     We vowed to never again do business with Sky Service or Conquest Vacations. The decision to cancel the Calgary flight was likely a move to save a few dollars. When you are in a position to make these decisions for your company, don’t just look at the money that is saved in the short term, you must also consider how it impacts the delivery of service and the experience of your customer. Calculate the lifetime value of a customer and decide if you are willing to risk that value to save in the short term.

Playing Shape

One of the things that I enjoy doing is looking at other industries or endeavours for solutions to a current challenge.  This technique can also be used to introduce learning and initiate growth.  I often refer to this as Creative Emulation.  Here is an example; when you first start playing a new game you have to focus on the fundamentals.  In pool the basic game involves sinking balls and you begin at that level.  Once you become proficient at the basics you advance.  “Playing shape” looks at not just sinking one ball, you also set yourself up for your next shot.  This involves knowing where the cue ball will go after it strikes the colored ball you are trying to sink.

Can you apply this concept to your business to take it to the next level?  When you are dealing with a new customer, rather than be focused on this purchase, can you position yourself for this while also setting yourself up for the next?  What does that look like in your business?  This is a theme that we will look at from time to time, stay tuned.