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Are you Satisfied?

Are you Satisfied?

20090616-ostrich

    Metronome

      In September of 1960, J.F. Kennedy engaged Richard Nixon in the first presidential candidates’ debate. Kennedy’s opening statement in that debate has now become the famous “I am not satisfied” speech.

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      Besides the rhetorical power of that speech in its repetitive use of the phrase “I am not satisfied…”, what is interesting about it is how Kennedy used it to pull the rug out from under what he knew would be Nixon’s strategy for the debate: Red-baiting. While Kennedy did start by describing the communist threat of the Soviet Union and China, the main body of the speech is about the internal failure of America. Kennedy stole what he knew would be Nixon’s main arguement (the communist threat) and turned it to a debate about domestic, social, and government failures.

      What Kennedy’s team rightly strategized was that in any competitive environment, political or businesses, sustainable success starts with focusing on your own house. You will not win the race by focusing on the competition.

      There are a number of reasons for this.

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      It’s always too late.

      Competing by focusing on the competition is always a ‘trailing’ activity. Your competition moves; you react. This carries the significant risk of always being too late to the dance, and one step behind the music. Further, it breeds a mindset that looks backwards and adjusts to the agenda of others, rather than looking forward and setting your own agenda to make your customers happy.

      It is usually inconsistent with your values.

      There are three main reasons why any initiative fails: inadequate planning, inadequate time, doing something inconsistent with who you are. In my experience new strategies undertaken by businesses that are not in keeping with their values (which are written down in their mission statement, right?) are inevitably abandoned, or worse, lead to unproductive distractions. And if your competition is dictating strategies, there is a great likelihood you will be reacting from a place outside of your best values.

      Your competition is probably wrong.

      In fact from a branding perspective, they almost certainly wrong. Your brand is primarily defined by how your customers perceive you, and by the relationship they have with you. From that perspective, making marketing decisions in reaction to a competitor will throw that relationship out of whack. If your competition really were right for your customers, they would be doing business with them. They aren’t, so focus your decision-making on the customer relationships you already have.

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      Your competitors are a distraction.

      Literally. If focus is one of the absolutely key preconditions for success, to the extent your competitors are able to distract you, they are taking your focus from your customers and your own values. By staying focused on the market environment, on what really matters to you, and on the most direct lines with your customers you will keep your competitors reacting to you rather than the other way around. This is exactly what Kennedy did in 1960. He had not heard Nixon’s opening statement yet, but his team had a pretty good idea that the main thrust would be the ‘communist threat’. Kennedy was able to use his superior rhetorical skills and the brilliant strategy of identifying the greatest threat to America’s security as being internal failures which weakened the country’s ability to deal with its enemies. This worked so brilliantly because it spoke directly to Kennedy’s ‘customers’: it touched their own deep vein of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and connected it to the ‘red scare’ of the times, synthesising a message of real power.

      How do you ensure you are keeping your focus where it belongs? Here is a quick practical checklist based on my work, that will make sure that you are focusing your energies on taking care of your own house:

      1. How are you spending your time? While some time should always be spent scanning your external competitive environment (most small businesses don’t take the time they should at this), the majority of your ‘scanning time’ should be spent finding out what your customers love about your business and what more they need from you.
      2. Size isn’t everything. Just because your competition has added a new space, a new outlet, or a new merger, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do for you or for your customers*. Remember that it’s about profitability, not just sales. Smaller, targeted, efficient operations are often more profitable than larger operations drunk on the big sales figures. And when it is time to move or expand, do so because your customers demand it, not because your competition is pushing you. Like your mother always said “If your competition jumped off a bridge, would you do that too??” She said that, didn’t she?
      3. Are your customers calling the shots? Building your relationship with your customers is more important and more productive than allowing your competition to drag you into a draining battle. Great customer relationships will always be your greatest sustainable competitive advantage. If you know more about your competition than about your customers, then you’ve got your priorities wrong. You’ve also got them wrong if your competition knows more about your customers than you do!
      4. Focus on financial basics: cash flow, profitability, retained earnings. Be as conservative with your financial strategies as you are extravagant in your customer service strategies. Then when the right time comes to make that competition-killing move of expanding or changing to a stronger location, you will have the financial foundation under you to make that move decisively.
      5. Does everyone on your team know where the priorities are? Communicate your priorities and values to everyone on your team and employee group. Let them know that when they are making day-to-day decisions about pricing, products, customer service, etc. that they should be very cautious about reacting to what ‘so and so’ is doing down the street. Remind them that if they are not responding to customer demand, they should re-examine their motives for action. Reacting to changes in the environment is very important, but it should not take their focus from your customers.
      6. Keep your own house in order. Literally. Is your space as attractive to your customers, and as functional for your employees, as it can be? Does your team have the tools to get the job done? Are there any barriers to productivity in your work place? Deal with those before you invest in a fancy new ad campaign just because Acme Inc. down the street did.

      As the last year or so has shown, on Wall Street and on Main Street, the most aggressive, competitive, slickest operations fall like a house of cards if they aren’t focused on what really matters: extraordinary relationships with customers, and sound financial, operational, and human resources fundamentals.

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      “It’s what’s on the inside that matters” is more than just something your grandmother would say when you first commented inappropriately on the phenomenon of physically unattractive people. It is the real foundation of a sustainably competitive business.


      * Size isn’t everything. Want real world proof? Check out the rise and fall of the Royal Bank of Scotland, vs. the Royal Bank of Canada. Until the financial sector reboot, there was lots of crying in Canada about “how come Canadian banks can’t be big and exciting and powerful and sexy like all those European and American banks??” I think we have our answer now.

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      Last Updated on August 20, 2019

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

      Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

      This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

      The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

      Curiosity

      Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

      People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

      Patience

      Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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      When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

      Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

      A Feeling for Connectedness

      This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

      A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

      The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

      With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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      1. Research

      Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

      Learning the Basics

      Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

      Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

      What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

      Hitting the Books

      Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

      Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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      Long-Term Reference

      While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

      My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

      2. Practice

      Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

      A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

      Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

      3. Network

      One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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      These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

      Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

      4. Schedule

      For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

      Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

      Final Thoughts

      In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

      If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

      At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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      Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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