Winning with Small Favors

Much of Hooversworld is about the big picture – from positioning in marketing to the future of Mexico and Russia. So you may get the idea that I spend my whole life at “30,000 feet,” as they say. But as a retailer, I know that much of what matters, what differentiates you from your competitors, is at the mundane detail level.
However, giving you my dear reader advice on such details can be a challenge. Because only by talking to you one-on-one and learning about your enterprise and your customers, could I come up with ideas that might be helpful. (Whereas broad comments about Mexico apply to all of us.) But I can tell some stories, yielding examples that might be helpful. Here goes:
This week I spoke at a wonderful conference for community banks. Those are the independent banks which are in your community, which did not go crazy with collateralized debt obligations or derivatives, which are not run by a bunch of short-term financial engineers, which are still trying to make loans and take deposits at the human level. This particular conference drew the best of the best – or those who desire to be the best, which is where you have to start. The other speakers were great, combining inspiration with the hard realities of the financial services industry in these tough times. My reaction was, “I wish one of our Austin banks was smart enough to attend this conference.” It was a great experience.
As I attended the sessions, one thing I noticed was that soft drinks were not on offer at the morning breakfasts, or at any other time. Now I know some of you may say, “Who would want a Coke at 7AM?” but you probably live north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Down here in Texas, it is HOT – sometimes even in the AM, and we want our cold drinks! Over the years, I have observed a trend from no conferences having Cokes (or Pepsis) on offer in the AM, to more and more conferences giving attendees the choice. 
I have a long history of having to bring my own Coke or find one in the hotel or on the way to the meeting, so I did not complain. And I could not be sure that others at this particularly conference also wanted Cokes.
So I watched the attendees – there were about 100. I observed what was on the tables in front of them. At breakfast, three others had found a Coke and brought it to the meeting. And one Mountain Dew (must be Gen X!). An hour later, at 9AM, 4 more people had dug up a Coke.
In each case, these folks had gone to great lengths to go “around the system.” Finding a Coke in this hotel was not always the easiest thing to get done.
I figure if 7% of the audience went to that great a length to meet their own needs, the real number of people who wanted a Coke, who would have taken a Coke if offered, was probably 2-3 times that – say 10-20%. Maybe more.
This is the kind of thing the meeting planners had clearly not anticipated, and probably had not noticed.   I am not blaming them – we all fail to observe every day.
But the devil is in the details. Or, if you believe the great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, known as Mies, “God is in the details.”
All around us are subtle signs, usually evidenced by behavior, about what our customers want or are seeking. Even in surveys and focus groups, the best researchers know how to draw out these sometimes subsurface desires. Most of the time they go un-noticed.
Another example:
My friend Steve Mathews is one of the best book buyers (for a bookstore) who ever practiced the profession. I had shopped the big independent store where he worked (Taylor’s in Dallas) and concluded I needed to get him to join me in my book superstore venture, BOOKSTOP, if I were to succeed. All of which came true.
As he was teaching me the book trade, I learned hundreds of tricks. 
One trick of his was that he had the clerks write down on a list every book that customers asked for that we did not stock. Not just the ones they special ordered, but every one they asked about. His rule was that if two customers asked for the same title, he would add it to our stock. He didn’t require that the customers order it, or that we have a specific customer in mind. 
What he knew was that if two people in the same community asked about a book, then someone was out there talking about, somehow in the vast social network (in the 1970s and 1980s) the book was catching some attention. The demand was probably much greater than two. (Most people will just give up and leave if they do not find what they are looking for, not asking you about the book.) Enough likely demand for a book superstore to pay attention. 
He used this system at the independent store where he worked and again at BOOKSTOP. And it worked! People continually came in amazed that we had titles they were looking for that no other bookstore had, and we won their loyalty “for life.” Having the latest bestseller in stock, even at a deep discount, may have made the cash registers ring but never had the customer glue power of Steve’s little trick.  

Do you notice the details? Do you see the signs your customers are giving you all the time, every day? Do you pick up on the smallest hints that could lead to exceptional opportunities? Do you see them “working around the system?” Do you know how to combine your brain with that of your customers to beat the competition? Even the smallest edge, doing the smallest favor for your customers, can make a difference. You will rarely find such advantages sitting and talking in a company meeting or in the Board room. You will find it “out in the store, on the selling floor” – or at your enterprise’s equivalent of the selling floor.