Beyond the Executive View
When I was raising money to build retail chains, one of the most frustrating things I ran into was that so many investors, venture capitalists, and institutional money managers were out of touch with the real world. If I was lucky, they had at least been inside Saks Fifth Avenue, or maybe Nordstrom — but you can’t fully understand retailing today unless you’ve spent time wandering the aisles of Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buy, and Home Depot. You need to know what it feels like to stand in line at a checkout counter, to have your check turned down or your credit card rejected, to get lost in a big store on your first visit. If you understand these things, then you see a store like Target — one of the best-run major retailers in the United States — through completely different eyes: eyes of appreciation, of respect, even of wonder.
I recently met some upscale folks from Manhattan who are intent on trying to stop merchants like Wal-Mart and Target from coming into their neighborhoods. Perhaps they don’t know what it’s like to scrape by on less than $25,000 a year, or how important it can be to pay $3 instead of $5 for a hammer. Perhaps they don’t realize that people to whom it makes a big difference live just a few blocks away from the posh apartments they inhabit. Most of the world’s people would give anything for access to a Wal-Mart.
Last year, I came home late one night from a grueling business trip. At the airport, I realized I didn’t have enough cash to get my car out of the parking lot. Spying an ATM machine across the airport, I trudged over to it, lugging my bags (which, as always, were full of books). After the usual pause, the machine flashed a message “OUT OF SERVICE.” As it happened, a passing security guard pointed out another machine some distance away. From where I was, I could see the glow of its well-lit screen, and it looked like that machine was working. So I lugged my bags and tried again. No luck.
By now, I was not in a good mood. I thought, why should the next poor fool have to walk all the way across the airport only to discover this machine wasn’t working? I reached down and unplugged it from the wall, darkening the screen.
But this story is not about a malfunctioning machine, it’s about malfunctioning management. When I came back through the airport several days later, I checked the machine once more. Lo and behold, not only was it not fixed, it was still unplugged! I know that many of the bank’s executives pass through that airport daily. But would it ever occur to any of them to check their ATMs? No, that would not be their department.
I can assure you that if I had pulled a similar trick at a Taco Bell—say, tinkering with their signs—it would have been fixed very quickly. The people who run Taco Bell are always looking at every detail of their operation — they are people who believe what they are doing is worth doing right. I suspect that Taco Bell executives, dashing through an airport with a Taco Bell outlet, stop and check out the burritos.
How many managers at a big bank cash their own checks? How often do they wait in the drive-up lane? Do their assistants always take care of these things for them? Are their paychecks on automatic deposit?
I understand that the executives of some big auto companies get a spiffy new car every few months. It’s a nice perk—and a terrible idea. How are they ever going to know what it’s like to reach 100,000 miles? How will they know what it feels like to lose your car to the service department for a week each year as it ages? How will they ever understand what the competition is up to or what their own company is up against? I always marveled that Cadillac did not build coin holders into their cars until years after Honda. Did the Cadillac people not know about parking meters and toll roads? Neither is a Japanese invention.
If you’re in the insurance industry, do you really know what it’s like for the typical customer to deal with your industry and with your company? If you work for a university, do you know what it feels like to be a high-school senior filling out applications or a grad student looking for a grant?
When the CEO of one retail chain I worked for – I’ll call him Jack – finally talked his board of directors into getting him a corporate jet, I felt it was the beginning of the end for his “connectedness.” When Jack flew on commercial airlines, even in first class, he at least ran into a few customers and had to sit there and listen to their comments: “What I don’t like about your stores is . . . ” But that era ended when Jack got into the company jet. A corporate pilot isn’t likely to come back to the cabin and say, “My wife hates your stores because . . . ”
Putting yourself in the shoes of an average customer sometimes takes work. Travel agents, especially the high-volume producers, receive perks from the airlines and hotel chains. Thus, when these high-achieving travel agents travel, they usually stay in plush hotels and resorts and pay reduced rates — from one-third off to free. A side effect is that you will almost never meet a travel agent (except a beginner) who has stayed in a Motel 6, or who has actually paid $300 of their own money to stay in a luxury room. Travel agents avoid coach-class seats like the plague. As a result, many don’t really know what it is like to be a typical traveler.
Seeing Things in Their Normal Context
Another important exercise is something I call “contextual observation” — seeing things the way others will see them, in the same order and environment. For example, if you’re a typical company executive and your company has just produced a new TV ad, the standard way to see the finished ad is in a viewing room — a comfortable room at the ad agency or video production center with giant, high-quality monitors. Everyone is very quiet, there’s a “Ten, nine, eight . . . “ countdown, and you see your ad in all its glory. Then everyone reacts — either by getting upset, by saying it’s great, or by saying nothing.
But no viewer of your TV ad will ever see it this way. She may see it in a house with kids running around, she may see it on a hotel TV, or she may see it while relaxing in front of a big-screen TV in her family room. In any case, she will certainly see your wonderful creation sandwiched between a million-dollar Nike ad and a “Sam’s The-Devil-Made-Me-Do-It Low-Priced Car Lot Next to the Giant Chicken” ad. These surroundings impact how the viewer will experience your ad.
When retail executives travel around looking at their stores, they usually go from one location to the next — from Circuit City #312 to Circuit City #499 to Circuit City #800. But most of their customers experience the stores in a very different way. When comparison-shopping for a new stereo, they go from Circuit City #312 to Best Buy #499 to Mom & Pop #1 to electronics.com to the Sharper Image catalog.
If we try to understand things out of their natural context, we may never understand them the way our customers do.
The more we can see things the way others see them — our work associates, our community, and (most important) our customers — the more we can build a comprehensive view of what matters.