business

ignoring the success stories

There’s two kinds of business success stories that everyone talks about and then learns nothing from.

The first is the upstart business that is just doing things disruptively different. Their organizational structure and processes go against the cookie cutter business school best practices. Companies like Valve with its completely flat org chart and BrewDog with their “Equity for Punks” customer ownership program come to mind. We all marvel at their ingenuity and then insist that it’ll never work anywhere else or dismiss it as being only viable for startups. We think that putting meaning or innovation ahead of the Wall Street Quarterly Numbers Game is somehow poor business.

The other is the upstart that hits it big: Apple, Amazon, Google, Zappos. We churn out the stories about their cultures and benefits and all the quirks of their leaders and then promptly focus on all the wrong lessons. Tire swings in the lobby won’t give you Google’s profit margins. Being weird for the sake of weird won’t give you Zappos’ customer retention. And wearing turtlenecks and screaming at people won’t give you Apple’s innovation and iconic status.

Steve Jobs’ gift wasn’t for leadership. His brilliance was in his unrelenting focus on design and the customer above all else. He thought long term and insisted on getting right all the details that no one else realized were details. I believe the single most important lesson we can take from Steve Jobs legacy is summed up in a quote from him:

“If you keep your eye on the profit, you’re going to skimp on the product. But if you focus on making really great products, then the profit will follow.”

This could be re-written for Zappos, just replace “product” with “customer service”. Or for any of the businesses, big or small, that succeed doing things disruptively different.

The magic “different” is almost always a relentless priority focus on creating meaningful products or services that customers value, love, and rally behind. Profits are important but seen more as a way to keep the doors open and create better products and services versus the end all be all. Profits are a means, not an end.

We admire the innovation, the ingenuity, and – yes – their profitability and then we all go back to focusing on profits over products, dollars over meaning, creating unhealthy dysfunction and disorder.

Consider it this way. Elite athletes are thin, skinny even, but not because they want to look like runway models. Athletes aren’t lean out of fashion or vanity; they are lean out of necessity. Extra weight on an athlete isn’t unattractive, it’s a crucial few extra hundredths of a second, it’s reduced performance, it’s finishing second. Being lean is the byproduct of focusing relentlessly on fitness and performance; it’s the means, not the end.

But what if we, in our emulation of athletes, got it backwards? What if we just focused on being thin first and foremost and slashed our calorie intake to survival levels? If an athlete were to focus on being supermodel thin, their performance would drop immediately and drastically. They wouldn’t have the necessary muscle to perform and the muscles they did have wouldn’t be receiving enough fuel to excel or even train and develop.

Now, let’s look back at companies. We want companies to perform at the highest level, but so often we focus on profits as the end rather than the byproduct of performance. It’s when we get those confused that the problems start.

We start cutting expenses to the bone and don’t invest in the things we need to be profitable in the future. No athlete in the world would stop training because they were worried that the muscle they were adding would hurt performance. Yet, one of the first things cut in organizations is learning and development. When performance is down, we eliminate one resource that helps improve performance (whaaaa?). The next to go is staff – those people who create, deliver, and support the products and service the customer pays for). So we end up with fewer people who are less skilled and somehow consider that better than having more people who are more skilled. (Please show me one successful sports team that’s run this way. Just one.)

Or we start binging and purging with hiring and layoffs. We focus on the image in the mirror (or in the spreadsheets) instead of how fit and healthy we are. We get corporate liposuction by selling off assets or radically cutting costs, making the company look good temporarily but without addressing the long-term decisions and habits that made the company overweight or underperforming in the first place.

We start asking, “What costs can we cut?” instead of “What resources should we invest more in?” We ask, “What can we offer that we can charge the customer more for?” instead of “What would our customers really value?” We ask, “How can we improve our numbers this quarter?” instead of “What do we need to do to be a thriving company ten years from now?”

Company performance and meaning aren’t mutually exclusive. Done right, profits help us create even more meaning, leading to more profits. Done wrong, a singular focus on profits kills meaning and, ironically, hurts long-term performance.

It’s fascinating how we have examples of the philosophies and attitudes that help create standout companies. We study them, give them a hero’s status, and then quietly return to doing what everyone else is doing.

What thinks you?

 

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comfort zones are so… comfortable

Us humans can talk about pushing boundaries, thinking outside the box, or getting outside of comfort zones all we want. Deep down we know that there is no growth, development, change, or improvement without discomfort. But we hate that. We really do. We want to believe the marketing hype that says change and improvement is easy and effortless and fun.

Picture a cold, wet, stormy winter night and you’re snuggled in a soft, plush, fleecy blanket by the fire while drinking hot chocolate and watching your favorite movie. That’s your comfort zone – it’s all warm, cozy, and oh so gloriously relaxing.

Now, picture that same winter night and your spouse comes into the room and inexplicably yanks the blanket off, turns on all the fans and A/C, and changes the channel. THAT’S what stretching your comfort zone feels like. Not life threatening, just really, really irritating. And we want to fix it immediately and return to our blissful cocoon.

Deep down inside the lizard brain we’re wired to avoid discomfort. It’s a survival trait that goes to the roots of our existence. Hypothermia, starvation, and injury are kind of a big deal when you’re 75,000 years from the nearest heated house, stocked fridge, and health clinic. Pain is a fabulous instructor because it teaches us to not do things that might result in injury, dismemberment, or death.

The problem is, we’re also wired to survive one more day. Our lizard brain only worries about right now, not 20 years out. The mechanisms that keep us from freezing or starving to death don’t work well to protect us from the long term dangers brought about by sloth, overconsumption, or NOT changing with the world. Our bodies are great at telling us to eat, but not so good at telling us to back off; great at teaching us not to stick our hands in the fire, but lousy at encouraging us to seek out new skills, knowledge, and people.

Related to all this, us humans also hate, hate, hate to be denied something we want. It becomes a tickle in the brain that we’re soon obsessing over until we HAVE TO HAVE IT!!!! Again, it’s a great survival trait when our bodies are trying to get us to go hunt something so we can eat for another day, but counterproductive when we’re trying to create long term behavioral change like eating less, saving more, getting up earlier, learning new skills, etc.

The longer we stay in our comfort zone, the more it starts to shrink. We step back from the edge to provide a cushion of comfort and the edge moves inward. So we step back again. Pretty soon we find we’ve trapped ourselves in a very small, very tiny, very restrictive place. And we wonder why our lives and careers aren’t where we want them.

Worse, yet. When faced with danger – physical, emotional, mental – we retreat to what we know. The more uncertain the situation, the more dogmatically and desperately we cling to the things we are certain about. Ironically, the moments we need to change the most are the moments we are most resistant to change.

All of this has huge implications for leading change, training and development, and personal and professional growth. It’s not that we can’t or won’t push on those self-imposed boundaries, it’s just that we’re highly resistant to discomfort.

How often do we put off the diet or fitness or savings plans until “tomorrow”? How often do we delay going back to school or seeking out new training until “the time is right”? How often do we dangerously delay important decisions until we “have more information”? How often do we dismiss new approaches out of hand, preferring to stick to “tried and true” and “best practices”?

What thinks you?

 

humane, resourced

Humane ResourcedFeeling pretty awesome this morning. I can now officially lay claim to contributing to an internationally best-selling HR and Business book.

The Kindle book Humane, Resourced was released just the other day and is already climbing the charts. As of this morning, I’m told it’s at #21 for HR books in the US Kindle store and #2 in the UK. It’s also sitting at #8 for Business books in the UK. I’m sure these numbers will be out of date by the time I post this. Buy your copy now – all proceeds go to charity.

“Humane, Resourced” is a collection of contributions from over 50 business, HR, and L&D bloggers, each bringing their own unique perspectives and voices to the loose topic of people and work. Given the contributors, thought-provoking kicks to the head are inevitable:

1.    Simon Heath (@SimonHeath1)
2.    Doug Shaw (@dougshaw1)
3.    Sukh Pabial (@sukhpabial)
4.    Ian Davidson (@ianandmj)
5.    Bruce Lewin (@fourgroups)
6.    Ben Morton (@Benmorton2)
7.    Richard Westney (@HRManNZ)
8.    Lembit Öpik (@Lembitopik)
9.    Emma Lloyd (@engagingemma)
10.  Gemma Reucroft (@HR_gem)
11.  Stephen Tovey (@StephenTovey13)
12.  David Richter (@octopusHR)
13.  Amanda Sterling (@sterling_amanda)
14.  Wendy Aspland (@wendyaspland)
15.  Peter Cook (@AcademyOfRock)
16.  Julie Waddell (@jawaddell)
17.  Leticia S. de Garzón (@letsdeg)
18.  Vera Woodhead (@verawoodhead)
19.  Nicola Barber (@HRswitchon)
20.  Tim Scott (@TimScottHR)
21.  Amanda Arrowsmith (@Pontecarloblue)
22.  Inji Duducu (@injiduducu)
23.  Anne Tynan (@AnneTynan)
24.  Neil Usher (@workessence)
25.  Louisa de Lange (@paperclipgirl)
26.  Megan Peppin (@OD_optimist)
27.  Ian Pettigrew (@KingfisherCoach)
28.  Steve Browne (@stevebrowneHR)
29.  Kate Griffiths-Lambeth (@kateGL)
30.  Tracey Davison (@mindstrongltd)
31.  Jason Ennor (@MYHR_NZ)
32.  Bob Philps (@BPhilp)
33.  Kat Hounsell (@kathounsell)
34.  Simon Jones (@ariadneassoc)
35.  Mervyn Dinnen (@MervynDinnen)
36.  Alex Moyle (@Alex_Moyle)
37.  Julie Drybrough (@fuchsia_blue)
38.  Susan Popoola (@susanpopoola)
39.  Ruchika Abrol (@ruchikaabrol)
40.  Simon Stephen (@simonstephen)
41.  Damiana Casile (@damiana_HR)
42.  Honeydew_Health
43.  Malcolm Louth (@malcolmlouth)
44.  Perry Timms (@perrytimms)
45.  Sinead Carville (@SineadCarville)
46.  Jon Bartlett (@projectlibero)
47.  Jane Watson (@JSarahWatsHR)
48.  Broc Edwards (@brocedwards)
49.  Sarah Miller (@whippasnappaHR
50.  Meghan M. Biro (@MeghanMBiro)
51.  Anna Lloyd (@buggilights)
52.  Luke Thomas(@springccr)

“Humane, Resourced” was conceived, organized, and promoted by David D’Souza (@dds180) over in the UK. He gets massive kudos for making this book happen. Can’t wait to see his next project.

networking for introverts?

The other day, Tim Mushey of Sell, Lead, Succeed fame raised a question about networking. It was a great question because it made me stop and think and I realized that even though my connections with others are really important to me, I spend almost zero time thinking about “networking” or “my network.”

I should be the world’s worst networker: I’m terrible at small talk, I can’t “work a room” to save my life, and if I’m at a party I’ll spend most of my time in the kitchen talking to one other person about books or bicycles. Life of the party I’m not.

Yet, somewhere along the way, something happened and and I find myself in the middle of a great network of really terrific people. Enough so that my wife insists I should write a book about networking for introverts. I don’t think I have that much to say about it, but I do have a few tips I could share – just observations from my own life. Your mileage may vary.

1. Forget all about “networking”. I’m not a big fan of the word because it makes it sound like a separate activity. Just live your life. You already have a network of people and relationships, now just start thinking how you can broaden and deepen it.

2. Focus on meeting interesting people. This is my biggest piece of advice. Don’t worry about meeting everyone, just seek and find people in your field who are up to interesting things and build the relationship from there. The really, really cool thing is that interesting people by their very nature know lots of other interesting people.

How do you meet them? Ask around. Seriously, just ask, “Who else is doing cool things that you’d suggest I meet?” You’ll get some great answers. The second is social media – it’s an amazing shortcut to fascinating people around the planet. Follow someone you admire in your field on Twitter (or whatever social media you prefer) and start looking at what blogs they read, who they’re connected to, etc. and begin following and connecting with those folks.

3. Think long term. It’s not a race. Let connections and relationships build naturally over time.

4. Social media is a great starting point, but it’s just a starting point. Build relationships in real life. This past year I made a point of reaching out and asking people I only knew through the internet to chat via Skype of phone. I got sidetracked and really need to focus on this again because I’ve been able to meet and learn from some truly phenomenal people.

5. Networking numbers are stupid. I’m baffled by the ads that claim to provide 10,000 Twitter followers for $29.95 (or whatever) because, who cares? Just because someone is following you or you are following them doesn’t mean there is any connection. Oh, you handed out 100 business cards at the last conference. So what? Numbers are irrelevant. It’s better to have a true connection with 20 people than to be largely ignored by thousands.

6. People and relationships matter. You don’t have to care about everyone on the planet (though it’s nice if you do), but it shows pretty quick if you’re not investing time and energy in the people in your life.

7. Realize people are willing to connect with and help you. Several years ago my job was eliminated. With a family to feed and an immediate need for work, I started calling up key members of my professional association and asking if I could meet with them to get their advice on job hunting in the city I was living in – who’s hiring, which companies have a great/terrible reputation, who else should I speak with, etc. No one turned me down. No one hesitated. People I’d never met before went out of their way to meet, talk, and help. On a smaller scale, people I’ve met only through social me have been surprisingly quick to respond to questions.

8. Focus on what you can do to help others. If it’s all about you or your approach is very transactional, you will have a weak, sucky network. If there is actual dialog and it’s clear that you authentically want to help others, you’ll have a strong, robust network.

To sum up, here’s everything I know about networking in two short sentences: Forget “networking”. Find interesting people and build great relationships.

 

defining and shaping What Comes Next

In a couple of weeks, on November 11 and 12 Jason Lauritsen and Joe Gerstandt of Talent Anarchy are hosting/leading/facilitating an event called The Frontier Project on “Designing The Future of Work.” More think tank than conference or training, this is a chance for you to get together with 50 or so other sharp, passionate, innovative, and curious folks to discuss, debate, and (re)imagine where work is headed, where it needs to go, and perhaps what you can do about it in your world. Joe recently wrote about about it here.

I attended their first Frontier Project back in May and am excited for the chance to attend this next one. Although Jason and Joe are both masters at giving the box called “status quo” a good and vigorous shaking, I’m most looking forward to meeting and learning from the other participants. I don’t know who will be there but I’m expecting and hoping to see a mixed group of thought leaders, forward thinkers, and everyday professionals looking to define and shape What Comes Next. Interested? Sign up here (and notice you have one more day for the early bird discount).

Yes, I wrote about this a few weeks back and I’m writing about it again. I love to think about the FutureNow of work and I’m very excited to see Joe and Jason hosting another Frontier Project. It, along with the Meaning conference over in the UK, are two standout events dealing with what work could be. I’m encouraged and hope to see more and more events like these in the coming years.

I don’t know what this Frontier Project is going to look like, but I know what I got out of the last one. Rather than giving you a link, I decided to make it even easier and have included the summary I wrote and posted on May 29 after the first Frontier Project.

 

 

don’t predict the future, declare it

Human Resources, like many fields, is at a cross roads where its future is at a disconnect with its past. Many of its reasons for being have become irrelevant, easily outsourced, or reduced to a minor function. Some predict the end of HR; others cling to it. Ultimately, the future of business and work will decide the future of HR.

The Frontier Project, held May 20 and 21 in Omaha, Nebraska had the stated purpose of “Reimagining the Role of Human Resources.” That’s a bold tagline creating huge expectations and it was an interesting mix of 40 or so HR pros, consultants, vendors, and thought leaders who attended.

Jason Lauritsen and Joe Gerstandt led the group using an accelerated decision making process. Normally, it’s a technique used to create a decision and action steps for a specific problem. Applying it to the future of a field while still creating individual actions is a bit trickier, but worth the effort.

So, what’s the future of HR? I’m not telling. Not because I took a blood oath of secrecy; because I don’t know. No one does. But here’s a few thoughts I took away from the two days:

Predicting the future is really, really difficult. Particularly for experts because they know exactly how things are in the field, but most innovation and change is ignited from outside the field. If one isn’t careful, focused expertise leads to being blindsided. To prevent getting stuck in what our expertise demonstrated was right, we were told to use our “imagination, not expertise.” Regardless, it’s still difficult. Could you have imagined 2013 in 1993? Could you have imagined 2013 in 2008 before smart phones and social media took off? Another bit of advice for imagining the future: “If it makes sense today, you’re probably not pushing far enough out.”

Even people who think like me don’t think like me. Oddly enough, the future I’m convinced will happen looks different than the futures 39 other people are convinced will happen. We all have biases and, although there’s some overlap, it’s really easy to get stuck in our own reality tunnels.

When people discuss the most important things the field of HR should be focused on it sounds very buzzwordy business-speak. Lots of jargon. Lots of mention of technology, big data, etc. But when people describe what makes their job great it there is a strong emotional and personal connection. I don’t know what that schism means, but it makes me wonder.

The field of HR is so divided between administrative and strategic functions it makes me wonder if we shouldn’t identify them as separate fields. I suspect much of HR’s identity crisis would go away if we acknowledged we’ve been trying to find unifying answers for (at least) two distinct fields. Much as finance and accounting or marketing and sales are split, imagine the issues that would quickly dissolve away if we could allow HR to move in two different directions.

“Us vs them” is a powerful, powerful quirk of human thinking. It carries a lot of judgment and self-righteousness. Be very careful how you define “us” and “them”. Consider the possibility that it might really be “us and them”, or even just “us”.

Some other quick thoughts (mostly shared by others):

HR needs to stop waiting for someone to ask us to do and simply find what needs to be done and get on with it. If it requires permission, make a case for it and sell it. Stop waiting.

Technology/tools can be an enhancement or a distraction from the people/business connection. Like all tools, none are inherently good or bad, but how we use them determines how much they will help or hinder.

Statistics can’t predict the individual. Ever.

Integrate HR into the business processes instead of trying to integrate the business processes into HR.

Use imagination first to play and explore and then apply expertise to make it possible.

The future is scary when you don’t feel you have any control. The future is exciting when you feel you are creating it; it’s threatening when you want things to stay the same (or go back to being how they were); it’s liberating when you see how it could be even better than today.

I need to spend more time kicking ideas around with smart, passionate people. Really can’t do that enough.

 There’s lots more from those two great days that I’m still processing and thinking about. Joe and Jason are threatening to offer it again in the future and I’m excited to see how The Frontier Project evolves. Good, good stuff.

what if people mattered?

Imagine with me for a moment…

What if people mattered to the success of a business?

What if people were a crucial part of delighting customers and ensuring return business?

What if people were necessary to create and invent and innovate?

What if people used their experience and judgment to make decisions that affect outcomes?

What if people each had their own strengths, weaknesses, goodness, and extremes?

What if people each had their own interests, dreams, desires, and constraints?

What if people weren’t all the same and couldn’t be removed and replaced like gears on a machine?

What if people were sometimes employees, sometimes shareholders, or sometimes customers? What if they were sometimes all three at once?

What if people were complex and unpredictable and that sometimes leads to brilliance?

What if people were complex and unpredictable and that sometimes leads to disaster?

What if people had their own lives going on and didn’t live or die for the organization?

What if people weren’t all like you?

What if people were different and that difference might create strife, conflict, chaos, energy, synergy, and great leaps forward?

What if people had uniqueness that was both their biggest strength and worst weakness?

What if people were necessary to get work done?

What if people need businesses less than businesses need people?

What if people were required to interpret data and make decisions and take actions based on sound judgment, intuition, and wild guesses?

What if people invented and built all the technology that changes business?

What if people wanted to feel safe, respected, liked, and valued?

What if people made decisions and took actions based on their feelings and emotions and only used logic and reasoning to justify their decisions and actions?

What if people didn’t always act in their own best interests?

What if people sometimes do stupid things?

What if people were more loyal to people than to the initials inc., llc., gmbh., or ltd.?

What if people and the relationships they have with other people generated more business than spreadsheets?

What if people were necessary to dream up, make, deliver, and improve the products and services your business sells?

What if people were a crucial part of creating compelling messages, attracting and assisting customers, and growing the business?

We’re still just imagining here… But what if some – any – of this were actually true? What if people, in all their complex, irrational, unpredictable, humanness, were actually crucial to business results?

Would that change the emphasis on how much effort you put into finding and hiring the right people?

Would you put a different level of priority on your efforts to develop and improve the people you invested in by hiring?

Would the employee experience become important?

Or, if you knew people were actually a prime competitive advantage, would you pretend they weren’t and spend your time, energy, and money on other things?

not another post on change

Change has been on my mind lately. Judging by recent posts from other bloggers, I’m not alone. Change is everywhere, every day, always happening, yet handling and managing change is a persistent issue.

Connie Podesta jokes that she has a four-word workshop to help people in organizations through periods of difficult change. Here it is in its entirety: “Change. Deal with it.” Funny and true in the sense that there will always be change so we might as well just get on with our lives.

Perhaps change isn’t the real issue, though. What if it’s the uncertainty of the situation? The Holmes-Rahe Scale rates life changes on a scale of 1 – 100 in terms of the amount of stress (or “life crisis units) caused. Interestingly, many of the events are differentiated based the size of change and not on whether it’s perceived as good or bad. That is, “major business readjustment” is the same amount of stress whether you’re benefiting or not. Same for “major change in responsibilities at work”. Same for “change in work hours or conditions”. Same for “major change in living conditions”. In fact, “taking on a significant mortgage” is listed as slightly more stressful than “foreclosure of mortgage or loan”. Good or bad doesn’t seem to enter into it as much as how significant the event is.

The more significant the event, the less certain we are about how it’s going to turn out, and the more we worry about the change. Changing offices is probably not a big deal. But a big promotion pushing us beyond our comfort zone really is. So is discovering you’re now in a completely different section of the org chart.

Consider this: the people initiating change have often been thinking and debating changes for weeks or months. They’ve processed the advantages and disadvantages and understand the whys and needs inside and out. Then it all too often gets foisted on the rest of the organization and everyone is expected to fully and immediately support the changes.

None of this is to say “don’t change”. Change needs to happen, but change is never without cost or challenges. Jon Bartlett urges us to consider the real human cost to change. People are not cogs or Lego blocks that can be removed, moved around, tossed aside, or recombined instantly and without effect. Even when change is good, even when necessary, us humans need time.

We talk about managing change, but how different would things be if leaders concentrated on managing uncertainty instead of change? The change would still be there, but I suspect we’d start focusing more on communication. We’d involve people sooner, explain the whys and hows, give them time to process and ask questions, and provide clear and consistent (and accurate and true) messages throughout. We’d make sure people knew where they stood and what to expect. We all know how important it is for US to know what’s going on, yet so often don’t do a good job of communicating to OTHERS. Robin Schooling recently explained this so well when she described the ONLY excuse for poor internal communication (hint: you don’t care about the impact).

Why does all this matter? Why can’t we simply expect employees to be adults and deal with change? One reason: the most talented people always have options. People with options don’t have to suffer poor treatment, half-thought through plans, or command and control temper tantrums. Whit at HR Hardball said it well: “Strong swimmers are the first to jump ship.

 

swagger, baby!

Us humans are a walking, talking paradoxical, subjective mass of biases, prejudice, and self-delusion. And that’s ok. Except that one of the side-effects of our subjective mass of biases, prejudice, and self-delusion is that we believe that we are rational, reasonable, objective, and impartial.

I find these biases fascinating because us humans are making decisions every day yet rarely understand how we decide. Laurie Ruettimann (@lruettimann) recently had a post on Fistful of Talent that included video discussing the processing fluency bias. Watch the video, but the gist is we have a bias for ideas that are easier to process or understand even when they are inferior. (I suspect this explains 90% of marketing and political debate. Maybe 100%.)

Now let’s stack on my favorite bias: the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  In short, this is when the unskilled and incompetent grossly overestimate their own skill and believe they have above average ability (you’ve worked for this person, haven’t you?).  The flip side of this is that the truly skilled tend to underestimate their own abilities. Or as, Bertrand Russell put it: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

Examples abound in both the business world and in our personal lives.

  • Who do you hire, the job candidate with confidence/bravado/swagger or the one who seems hesitant or uncomfortable talking about themselves?
  • Which book title would you buy? “The ONE Proven Way to Riches!” or “One Method to Wealth That’s Worked for Several People and Just Might Work for You, Too”?
  • Which consultant would you feel more comfortable working with: the one who matter-of-factly states they have the solution for hiring better people or the one who tells you that there are several potential solutions, but never a guarantee because no selection system can predict the future performance of individuals – it can only improve the overall chances of making better hires?
  • How many people do you know who consider themselves above average drivers? What’s the mathematical possibility of that? From your own experience, how many people do you see on the road who are above average? Exactly.

Our brains are wired to prefer pithy soundbites over complex reasoning and the untalented often believe they truly have skills.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

no refund, no credibility, no business

I can’t give you a refund. I can only exchange it.”

Welcome to 1986, except that it’s 2013. Remember when things were difficult to return for a refund? You had to have the receipt, there were forms to fill out, and you had to deal with someone who was too bureaucratically rigid to do government work. And it had to truly be defective. You wouldn’t dream of attempting to return something simply because you (or your spouse) decided you didn’t want it.

All that changed when more and more stores realized there was a real long-term advantage to having you come to the store to return things. After all: 1) you were in the store and likely to buy more; 2) it created good will that made you want to return; and 3) the few that might abuse the return policy are more than countered by everyone else.

That’s one of the real secrets to Zappos. Make it easy to return or exchange items. Reduce the perceived risk of purchasing to almost nil. Never make the customer feel bad or stupid about their purchase. Actually, that’s not a secret at all. It’s right on display for all the world to see. And to ignore. And to wonder why Zappos is doing great while other businesses flounder.

In a rare family trip to the mall this weekend, my daughter purchased a curling iron from one of the booths in the middle of the mall. The salesman had curled a bit of her hair as a demonstration and she’d liked the results enough to make a purchase. But, it didn’t work as promised and over the next hour, the curl came out. We went back to return it and were told, “No refunds”. In fairness, there was a sign declaring “no refunds” and it was also stamped on the back of the receipt. Buyer beware.

Except, so what. Let’s look at the much bigger picture:

  1. Malls are struggling – that’s not opinion, that’s business article fodder.
  2. My pre-teen daughter is just a few short years from having a job, disposable income, and needing a safe place to meet friends.
  3. She now sees the mall as a place where businesses don’t stand behind their products. And that’s my nice way of putting it. I suspect she sees the mall as a place where businesses can rip you off.
  4. She already likes Amazon.com and is in the habit of buying books with her Kindle. It’s a small jump from books to other items.
  5. She is not alone.

That last one is the most important point. Dwell on it for a while. This isn’t about her, it’s about a pattern. It’s about establishing and building credibility and reputation or allowing it to be whittled away. It’s about missing the steady drip, drip, drip that becomes a river of movement away from an already troubled business model. Thinking about it, I’m actually pretty surprised that the anchor stores and the mall management allow smaller shops to do anything that might hurt their overall credibility and reputation.

Sure, the bigger stores can fairly and logically argue that they have nothing to do with the little booths. Except, so what? It’s guilt by association. Purchases are made with emotion, not logic.

Will anyone miss the malls when they are gone?

 

 

[Note: this may seem like a lot about one stupid curling iron. Except it’s not. It’s about bigger patterns happening in the world right now. It’s about Human Resources, sales, and customer service. It’s about retail, not-for-profit, and restaurants. It’s about business and humans. The world is changing quickly and reputation matters. Being right isn’t nearly as important as your credibility and the feelings your customer has toward you.]