I am keen that every business should be seeking to improve every day. Learning from what works well, listening to customers, looking for innovations, testing new products and services, finding new partners and employing the right people to be the best that it can be. Exceptional performance today differentiates businesses, it gives them an edge over their competitors and they thrive, for now. Yet what they do that makes them successful is copied, improved, enhanced and before you you know it, it is just an everyday expectation.
For a long time perishable foods have been give a ‘Best Before’ or ‘Use by’ date. ‘Best before’ dates are about quality, food which is beyond its best before date may have lost some texture or taste, but will generally be safe to eat. ‘Use by’ is about safety, not quality. It’s generally only used on very short shelf life products and those for which bacteria that cause food poisoning may not be apparent from the smell or look of the product.
In general, a business which works today, will still work tomorrow, but just like long shelf life food the world is changing all the time and your system may gradually stop meeting customer needs. Imagine a business in the 1970’s developing a system for communicating with customers. It gave staff dictaphones, and had a typing pool of experienced and accurate transcribers. Each letter would then be checked and signed in ink, put in an envelope and sent to the post room to be sent to the customer. Accuracy, brevity, relevance, and speed may all have been measures of that system. It cannot deliver in today’s internet connected world.
Building Better Business isn’t for the short term. If we focus on permanence (as far as anything is) then we have to also focus on designing a business that evolves as the world changes.
“The world changes as we walk in it”
If we are to have a long term view of our businesses then to make sure that we are always Building Better Business we also have to have effective systems. Part of the strategy has to include a system for reviewing what is changing. Then using those insights as a framework to guide our choices about how to adapt the business. When a business is listening to its market, and understanding the changes around it, it will know what customers will want soon, as well as what they do want now, and be ready.
Better Business produces consistent, reliable results that endure even in times of significant change.
Regardless of what you define as ‘better’ it’s obvious that an improvement you make to your business doesn’t really make it better if it only changes things for a few days or months.
Part of the challenge for any business is that our customers don’t know, in detail, how to make best use of the product or service we are offering. They have a hard to open paint can, and a screwdriver to hand, so use the screwdriver to lift the lid. It works, but it may damage both the lid and the screwdriver. Better would be to use a lever designed for the job and with the strength needed. That’s true of any product or service too, a customer may look at what they need, and what is to hand and use one to support the other, even when the fit is imperfect.
I’ve seen people applying something they have had sold to them in an unintended way, all the time. Sometimes it is a compromise, but sometimes it has an unexpected benefit that changes the product beyond all recognition. Not a bad thing necessarily, after all that is how low-tack peelable glue created the post-it note.
A business can’t control how customers will use or apply the product or service.
However, they can learn from those unexpected uses to improve.
Sometimes it is important to be clear about how the product or service you are selling is intended to be used. That may be because of safety (the quick stop on a chain saw should never be disabled for example) or because the value won’t be realised if you don’t follow a particular use case. Taking time to understand how customers approach using your product can help it to evolve a better design. Over many years the tendency has been to move away from detailed manuals to making the use case obvious. Whole industries have developed around customer experience and design around digital products. The aim for them is to make the value truly clear so that most customers get exactly what they expect most of the time. The clearer that usage is made by design the more likely it is that customers will get the value you provide and return many times.
Making the value clear ensures that the value remains.
Our role as business owners in this evolving world where we are on a journey of Building Better Business is to focus on the processes we need to apply to stay ahead. I think these boil down to three key things.
- Be as clear as we can be when we communicate;
- Listen well when others use, or talk about using, our products and services; and
- Reflect on what we learn and redesign.
I often see business owners becoming defensive when their customers don’t use their products in the “right” way or who seem to have misunderstood. When a business has a focus on forever then it knows that it will have to keep changing. The insights it can get from misunderstandings and misuse of its products and services provide valuable information that highlight where we have not been clear, or where the customer needs are different, and then making change happen and reviewing its effectiveness. It takes endurance, persistence, and commitment.
When you focus on forever, your endurance is your business’ strength.
Focusing on forever means reflecting regularly and being willing to change and adapt and improve and, perhaps every, aspect of your business. The Model T Ford would not meet today’s customers needs but Ford’s focus on forever means it remains one of the worlds largest mass producers of personal transport. They have a focus on forever, endurance, and a willingness to change. You should too.
Image by: William Buist © 2020