Market View: Look for base hits, too

'Swinging for the fences' shouldn't come at the expense of hitting singles.

By John L. Stanton, Contributing Editor

A friend of mine did a consumer research study on grocery store customer service. He asked customers what was really most important to them; what would make them shop at that store more often. He expected them to say things like a smiling staff, courteous personnel and the things that make a store friendlier.

He was surprised by the results. Consumers seemed to want only the most basic things. They wanted the store to open when it said it would open; have products on the shelves and not out of stock; scan prices correctly; make sure sale items are available; and, most importantly, not to have to wait in line to pay. It wasn't the sophisticated things the consumers wanted; it was the simple things.

Management guru-author Tom Peters once said, "Marketing is just finding out what people want and giving it to them and doing it right the first time." Not only does failing to perform the basics hurt a company's reputation, it also hurts the bottom line. The costs of following up, sending special deliveries, losing sales and correcting out-of-stock backlogs are huge in our business.

There are other examples of how we make our businesses more complicated than they need to be. Not the least of which is the high new product failure rate, which speaks to the manufacturers' inability to know what consumers want. Have we tried to show how smart we are with these fancy plans and strategies? How can we be so far off?

Why do we try so hard to do the fantastic things and yet fail to deliver the basics? I believe the reason is we all want to hit home runs. We want to "go for the fences," as they say in baseball. There is nothing wrong with developing the next blockbuster product, but there is something wrong with a process of doing business that tries to get the big hits at the expense of the singles.

I once worked on a project for a food retailer that wanted to improve store sales and profits. The company created an elaborate internal incentive program that involved store managers improving on 18 different performance measures, most of them very complicated. Store managers just rolled their eyes when the program was introduced. "Here we go again," you could imagine them saying. You might have guessed there were no measures for cutting checkout time.

There is a reason why sports teams continue to practice the basics, including bunting and base-running, every week during the season. Even the perennial league leaders. We need to follow the same plan. We need to improve basic execution and work on getting the small things right. There is so much excitement and involvement in looking for the next big ideas -- be they new products or new distribution channels, that we can be distracted from the small things that make our businesses work.

Even when we hit home runs, we can't stop practicing. I recall a company that co-marketed a "big idea" food product, a product so good it was voted new product of the year by some group. The product exceeded both profit and sales projections. However, by the time year three came around, its sales and profits became "expected" while the management team was off looking for the next growth vehicle.

This was not bad in and of itself, but that earlier success was no longer receiving the attention it needed. Soon this former "new product of the year" had sagging sales. Then its advertising budget was cut a little to accommodate the next star. Other little things fell by the wayside. Eventually, it became has-been.

An astute scholar once said, "It is more important to do 100 things 1 percent better than to do one thing 100 percent better." Basic execution of the simple things makes it possible to do the great things.

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