Collaboration along the Chain

I revisited Michael Porter’s Value Chain recently. I am big fan of his model and have used it for several years.

One thing occurred to me: moving along the chain from left to right requires greater collaboration. Yes, there is collaboration and effective communication throughout; otherwise, things fall through the cracks, products go out of stock and customers do not get the service they expect. But the quality of the service is wholly dependent on everything that came before as well as the support activities. That also means that as we move rightward, there can be less of a need for departments. While there is still a need for accountability, there is less of a need for staff to operate only within their given function. In fact, allowing them to flow through projects, collaborating at a high level, will offer greater insights, newer concepts and better communication.

In the end, you will be adding even more value to your Value Chain.

Be Timely

So I’m standing in front of my house this weekend, watching the kids scooter around, when we’re suddenly accosted by various people passing out flyers. One gentleman asked me if he can share some information about a local candidate. I shuffled some papers around so I could grab the brochure. Once I had it, I noticed that another candidate’s flyer was tucked inside. There was no mention of a two-for-one from the guy. I just chuckled and turned away.

As I made my way inside, I looked at the tag-along and noticed that the date stamped on the back was 2006. I get the efficiency, since it was a re-election campaign. In fact, I almost applaud it. There’s only one (major) problem. A lot has changed in the last two years—far too much to just recycle what you’ve already done. By simply reusing your old stuff you are saying one of two things: either you are too out-of-touch to recognize that things have changed, or you haven’t done what you said you were going to do the first time, so you just say it again.

The same goes for any business. A consistent message is key. Beat it like a rented mule, especially if it is good and on target. But also recognize that as you produce, address issues and evolve, you move along and tackle the next set of problems.

I don’t, by any means, advocate that you should craft your message around the latest trends. Doing so would signal that you aren’t committed to who you really are. And if you’re not committed, why should anyone else be? Being timely and consistent with your message reinforces your brand. It shows your audience that you are focused on addressing the needs of your constituents (customers, consumers, employees, etc.).

Constant reinforcement of your message is necessary for solidifying your brand. Incorporating timely needs into that message is critical to building a long-term brand.

The Window Can Be Dangerous

People want to know. Maybe not everything, but most things. There is still some bliss associated with ignorance, particularly for those messier details. So, companies are putting more of themselves “in the window”, showing the world how they function and what they actually do.

When you put yourself there, honesty and openness rule the day. With that honesty, innocent mistakes can be forgiven. Companies that insist on the constant spin that everything is perfect need only one thread to see it all unravel. Simply look to the individuals and organizations that quickly find themselves cowering in disgrace.

At the same time, having that type of transparency, especially for a company that has been around for a while, requires that you have your act together. Let me offer a personal example.

Traveling home from a business trip last week, I stopped at a familiar vendor (they have stores across the country with a good reputation) to grab a sandwich for the flight. I placed my order and could watch the staff just to the side making the sandwiches and wraps. The line of people waiting for their food grew, yet the workers showed absolutely no sense of urgency. They also looked as though they didn’t really know how to make what they were selling. They ran out of most types of bread, even though that is their specialty. And they fulfilled the orders out of sequence.

All of this is happening before 6 PM on a Friday in one of the country’s busiest airports.

There were other problems as well: inconsistency in calling out the finished order to patrons; other staff not stepping in to help; a manager trying to decide with another manager which one would stay and which would go to the other location in the terminal. And yes, everything took place in plain sight.

Take a lesson. Get your processes and procedures in place. Train your staff to be customer-centric. Create a sense of urgency in fulfilling customer needs. Then, put it in the window for all to see.

Oh, and if you’re worried about your competitors stealing your ideas, fear not. Out-execute them, and you’ll stay ahead of the game.

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Manufacturing Risks

A significant number, if not most, marketing organizations rely on others to manufacture their products for them. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Using quality contract manufacturing is perfectly acceptable. In fact, they most likely have competencies you, as a marketer, will never have.

But with that contract manufacturing comes real risks. Protecting yourself against those risks is not only possible, it’s necessary. Here are a few things to get you started:

  • Ensure you have sufficient testing that the product does exactly what it is supposed to do when produced
  • If your product is going to have a shelf life (a chance of spoilage or loss of efficacy) have the stability tested before you ever go to market
  • Establish an audit procedure and timeline for your manufacturer
  • Get certification that each production lot is produced to spec
  • Maintain samples from each production lot behind lock and key
  • Set these and any other expectations with your manufacturer at the outset of the relationship; if you already have the relationship, go back and redefine the expectations

Even though someone else is making the product, it’s your name that is on it. Protect it with all your might.

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Making Something Different

I’m watching a repeat of the season premiere of Project Runway (yes, I am a fan). The challenge for the first week was to take grocery items and repurpose them into something fashionable. Many succeeded, while a few fell flat on their faces.

The most common error was taking an existing fabric—like a tablecloth or shower curtain—and converting it into a dress. Sadly, my young daughters do something similar without much thought.

The ones that proved better used unique materials to get to the same place. A few others added an artistic flair, bringing things up another notch.

Managing a brand is not much different. As Seth Godin likes to say, you have to do something remarkable, something akin to a purple cow. I recently had someone tell me that their “green gorilla” was their version of Godin’s cow. Yawn. It’s just another colored animal. That’s not creative. That’s lazy.

Do something no one else is doing in a way that no one else will. Be unique. And do it well.

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Execution Matters

I was speaking recently with my CEO, and the conversation took a rather predictable turn. For the last several years, I have held firm to the belief that ideas, in and of themselves hold no value. The real value of an idea lies within your ability and willingness to execute.

And how you execute on an idea defines the success. In other words, excellent execution of a terrible idea can produce far superior outcomes than poor execution of a fantastic idea.

Sometimes, being able to guess how well you can execute proves elusive. The idea itself may be absolutely brilliant, so brilliant that you lose sight of how to execute. You get caught up in the rapture of the concept that you focus too little attention of really making it work.

At other times, people really just “phone in” the idea simply because it is easy to execute, and they don’t want to have to work that hard.

If we were talking in theatrical terms, these most likely would be considered comedies. The real tragedy, then, is having a terrific, game-changing idea and having no way of being able to execute on it. Maybe because you don’t have the expertise or the bandwidth or the basic ability to navigate regulatory waters. Whatever the reason, it is a great idea lost because you couldn’t make it work.

When you find yourself in that situation, and at some point you will, look around at who could help. Look for friends, family, associates, similar businesses that could partner with you to make your idea the revolutionary product it is capable of becoming.

Don’t just let it be another breakthrough that dies with that next round of drinks at the bar.

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High Switching Costs

I’ve never really gotten into, nor understood for that matter, the ongoing fight between PC and Mac users. Each has its own features, benefits and drawbacks and caters to two distinct audiences. Neither one is truly better than the other. As things progress, each one is nudging closer to the other, blurring the line that separate them. It’s clear that they are targeting each other’s customers, at least those on the edges.

Apple, though, seems smarter about it.

My sister-in-law is a bit of a technology laggard. She doesn’t have cell phone and has little desire to own one. And for the first time, she bought her own computer. While looking for the right one for her, she investigated both PCs (Dell, in particular) and Macs. She found relatively comparable laptops from each, with similar pricing. Either choice would have suited her needs.

The Macbook, however, came with an additional advantage. For $99 she can take private lessons—limited to one per week—for a year. She’ll learn the ins and outs of her machine and the associated software. She essentially can learn at her own pace. In addition, at the Apple Store, she can attend free seminars. These offerings create high switching costs for Apple users. In other words, people that invest this time and effort into learning about their Mac and far less likely to switch to a PC on their own. At the same time, they are lowering the switching costs for PC users, making it easier for them to buy a Mac. It’s a rather intelligent strategy.

In your business, look for ways to make it harder for your customers to switch to another brand. I don’t mean the kind of extortion tactics mobile phone companies use to handcuff their patrons. I mean through the services you offer and the mutual investments you make with your consumers. That is what creates loyalty.

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