Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Eat More Chikin... Lessons from the Folks at Chick-Fil-A

As a part of the strategic focus of our companies, we are continuing to evolve from an organization that has traditionally focused exclusively on business-to-business marketing to becoming more of a consumer marketing company. That is, while we serve consumers through our business clients (mostly financial institutions), we need to design our products, services and customer experience around the end consumer need. In the competitive financial services marketplace, there is no other choice – if you are not meeting the current and future needs of consumers, you are toast in the long-term.

Through a connection of the marketing director at TMG, we were able to have Tina Murray, a regional marketing director from Chick-Fil-A, spend the majority of the day with us this past Wednesday. Chick-Fil-A is a unique company, in that they have created a brand that has true raving fans, as well as their focus on an internal corporate culture of quality food and outstanding service.

While you will not benefit from all of Tina’s presentation, these were a few of my takeways from her presentations.
  • There is value in history and stories in corporate culture. Many of the values that remain important to Chick-Fil-A are because of the history and background, particularly that of their founder, Truett Cathy. There is recognition of those that came before and a willingness to celebrate their accomplishments during more than four decades. The accomplishments are celebrated and remembered for future generations.
  • While Chick-Fil-A sells food, they deliver service. Food is only the platform to deliver service.
  • Many companies often talk about being in a commodity business where quality is not appreciated and price is the most important thing. There isn’t much more of a commodity business than quick service restaurants and yet Chick-Fil-A has distinguished themselves on quality (food) and service with a price point that is still competitive with other choices. How can every company do this?
  • Second mile service. This is one of the keys to the Chick-Fil-A experience. The first mile is the transaction (you pay me, I give you quality food). The second mile is what makes the difference – it is the 3-foot pepper mill for salads that you would only expect in a fine-dining experience; the team member refreshing a drink for a customer in the dining room; carrying the things to the table for a Mom with three kids; shuttling customers to and from their cars with umbrellas when it is raining. Every individual has the power (maybe even the responsibility) to make someone’s day.
  • Work on the little things and share them across the organization. The idea of having umbrellas and helping customers stay out of the rain spread across their company because an owner/operator (who works usually just in one store) was focused on the little things of service and then the word spread through formal and informal means.
  • Chick-Fil-A is nearly a completely aligned culture. While their values are not the values of every company, top to bottom they seem to understand what it means to be a Chick-Fil-A employee and what Chick-Fil-A stands for as an organization. It starts with the top and you can see it in 16-year old team members in the restaurants.
  • Focus on hiring great people with their 3 “Cs” – competency, character and chemistry.
  • They are about creating Raving Fans who come more often, pay full price and tell others.
  • Who is your competitor? Chick-Fil-A thinks about their competitors as Panera Bread and Jason’s Deli, not just McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s. While their customers might not always put them in that category, what does that mindset do for their expectations of the food and service?
  • Their training is focused on empowering their employees, but within a framework of what service means to Chick-Fil-A (Saying “my pleasure” when a customer thanks you or delivering Second Mile Service).
  • Give it away. They focus on having customers and prospective customers experience their food and service by “Be Our Guest” cards. These cards are good for free sandwiches and are given away by operators and other team members to potential customers. Their marketing focus is in a 3-5 mile radius around the restaurant and integrating into the community. How could you give something away to demonstrate your value?
  • Communication to the frontline is critical. You can’t spend a ton of marketing dollars for a promotion like “Free Breakfast Thursday” and not have your front line people know what you are doing. Have a platform for over-communicating to front-line team members.
  • Leadership happens by example. Tina told a story of the CEO picking up trash in parking lot during a store visit. This creates a culture where no one is “too good” to do any task and people feel like they should follow the example of leadership, which makes the business better.
  • Leadership is more than going it alone. If you finish your leadership journey and there is no one with you, you just took a long walk alone. When you have a new opportunity, take someone with you to help them grow. Make it a conscious part of your professional life.
  • Operators are often “dream makers.” By working in one store, they often know the goals of their employees and help make them a reality, even if that’s not within Chick-Fil-A.
  • By allowing customers “backstage” you not only provide transparency to customers but employees are “on” everyday, even in the back of the house. Chick-Fil-A allows their customers to touch and feel the aspects of the business by taking a tour of the kitchen, which is likely to engender more loyalty. How could you do this in your organization?
  • Take a couple of 30 minute time slots for “white space,” where you think, read, refocus.
  • When does someone need encouragement? When they're breathing.
  • Their company gave the opportunity for each owner/operator to spend $100 fine dining and asked them to take one thing back into their store. If you do the math: 1500 restaurants x $100 = $1.5 million. That’s a lot of money and would have been easy to be on the cutting block during budget time (well we could make our numbers if we just cut that $1.5 million expense on sending our operators out to eat…) Yet they didn’t. What was so important about that experience that it was worth the money?
  • Truett Cathy’s saying: Be your best (Jeff) today. Why not give your best?
I thought these were worth sharing. I’m sure that Chick-Fil-A has its struggles, just like each one of us do everyday. Yet they have built a company and culture around quality food (and an unwillingness to take shortcuts even when it costs them real money), as well as around outstanding service. I was inspired by their attention to detail from top to bottom. Just a few nuggets (pun intended) for your thought.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why Be the Devil’s Advocate?

There has been quite a bit of buzz in the media and social networking sites about the potential for the world ending this coming Saturday. I am curious what time, because I have a really busy day! If it going to end at breakfast, there are a whole lot of things I won’t do on Friday.

That being said, the world ending brings up connotations of the afterlife – heaven and hell. This reminded me of one of my least favorite sayings, “The Devil’s Advocate.” Usually this advocate is brought out in the middle of a conversation regarding a new initiative or a product/service that someone wants to launch. A person will say authoritatively, “Well, let me be the devil’s advocate here.” What they really mean to say is, “If you don’t mind, I am going to take the license to totally trash everything you just said and let you know how stupid you really are.” Of course we are all too polite to actually say that, so we wrap ourselves in this role of being an objective questioner and looking at the downside of the proposal or situation.

No one wants to be Polyanna and just see the bright and shiny side of the world. But too often we let ourselves drift into the possibilities of the dark side. When someone becomes the devil’s advocate, they have a license to question every piece of logic and assumption proposed, without any responsibility to find a better solution. It’s like sitting on the side of the road throwing rocks at the passing cars from a hidden spot.

In the Plan B Philosophy, the focus is on adapting to the changing environment, while remaining true to the original vision of the product, service or business. This does not mean to ignore the situation or to not face the brutal reality, as Jim Collins would call it. Adaptability is about looking for possible ways that an idea could work, not in ripping down the ways that they currently work or might work in the future.

In all fairness, I have played the role of the devil’s advocate in my professional life. I called it skepticism and wore it like a badge of honor. “I am a realist,” I would say. Or “I am a pessimist – either I’m right or pleasantly surprised.” What I realized is that these comments were not helpful in moving things forward. Most often I blew up the conversation before it got going. It took an active and conscious thought process to begin to see the world differently and look for possibilities where others only saw obstacles and hurdles.

So, here’s my personal formula for helping an idea along:
  1. Listen carefully and with curiosity. Why would someone think this was a good idea? What is the core of the idea that could meet a customer need? Quiet your thoughts of “this can’t work” and start to think about “how could it work – what are the things that would be needed to make this wildly successful?”
  2. Ask good questions. Don’t assume you understand the other person’s perspective on the idea. Make sure you understand the core idea they are proposing. Many times we tear down an idea before we really understand it. I can’t even imagine how many great businesses were destroyed before they ever started by someone dismissing an idea before they even understood it fully.
  3. Look to build on the idea, rather than tear it down. Use phrases like “what if we did x” or “how could we make it do y” rather than “I don’t think it will work” and “haven’t you thought about…” Anyone can take an idea and tell you why it can’t work. It takes a special person and thought process to take the core of an idea and propose new components that make it better and more sustainable for the future.

In the end, my perspective is that the devil doesn’t need any advocates. What we need in our business and personal lives are people who build on ideas rather than tear them down.

One of my favorite quotes is from Robert F. Kennedy, who said, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” Rather than playing the role of the devil's advocate, make it a point to ask “why not?” 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Enlightened Trial and Error Succeeds Over the Planning of the Lone Genius

“Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.”

This quote comes from a Nightline broadcast more than 10 years ago on the design firm IDEO (Link to Video). I have seen the video many times which documents their process of designing something truly different and unique. But when I saw the video again a few weeks ago, this quote struck me more significantly than it has in the past.

Many times we spend countless hours crafting our message, building our plans and designing our strategies. Much like an annual report, which is said to be a document that is read more before it is published than after, our business plans and strategy documents are revised and refined to “perfection.” Yet when we go to the market, our tactics are often worthless. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."

Our competitors, the market, our customers and even the government are all changing the playing field. The idea of adaptability is what Plan B Philosophy is all about. But yet, what is “enlightened trial and error” and how can we leverage it to create success faster?

There are businesses that are driven on experimentation and data – tech firms are the best example. Companies can measure clicks and usage and transactions to determine whether the new feature was adopted. Google revolutionized this approach in the Web world. But in most businesses it is difficult to sort out the noise from the true insights as a new product or strategy is introduced. Prospective customers provide feedback and we are left to determine which demands are most valid for the market and which are merely a one-off for a particular situation. I know my company struggles with these choices everyday – there are features that can be added or modified that will meet the needs of individual customers, but it is often unclear which features will meet the need of the entire market or market segment.

So how do we effectively have enlightened trial and error?

I am reminded about the approach that Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers (and my favorite NFL team), brought to a game's first plays on offense. After breaking down the defensive tendencies of the opponent during the week, he and his offensive coaches would script the first 15 to 25 plays they would run to begin a game. They would only deviate from the script if the situation was dramatically different than the play call (3rd and 1 to go and the script called for a deep pass). Certainly their goal was to score, but they were working to see the reaction of the defensive to the plays and understand which of their offensive strategies were to be most effective. Once they understood, they could apply their judgment to the remainder of the game and the offensive plan.

Contrast that to the lone genius offensive coordinator (in my mind I visualize Mike Martz) who singularly analyzes the defense and attempts to call the exact right play at the right time based on his experience, intuition and analysis. It can work – Martz won a Super Bowl in St. Louis – but it takes the right person with the right players, experience, intuition and analysis. Clearly the structured approach creates more opportunity to learn the market, the competition and a winning approach.

In football or any sport, it’s pretty clear whether the tactic was successful or unsuccessful. The scoreboard is available for all to see and you know whether you are ahead or behind. The business world isn’t that clear. But we need to continue to work to develop a methodology for analyzing the results of our experiments. How did that sales strategy work with that market segment? Why was it successful? Was it a one-time success or repeatable?

Admittedly, I am not the best at creating process around these trial and error tests. I tend towards the improvisation approach, more like a jazz or jam band than an orchestra. In my football analogy, I personally prefer the Indianpolis Colts’ approach of letting Payton Manning make the call at the line based on what he sees in the defense. But in the midst of growing businesses, I have realized that to create scale and move beyond a single individual operating like the conductor, you need to have a feedback loop for how your adaptations are impacting the business at large.

Our businesses are certainly not perfect at this, nor do we have a magic answer, but we do talk about it frequently. We try to talk out loud about how this feature, product or solution enhances our competitive advantage and value proposition to our customers? The dialogue I think can aid in the discovery of what truly creates value and what is noise. My opinion has not always been spot on – my co-workers can cite many times when my grand vision has fallen on deaf ears in the market. But our approach of listening and adapting has usually been successful.

It’s tempting to want the answer to come from a lone genius in a locked room with a crystal ball peering into the future. However, in the end it comes back to having a compelling vision with the will to adapt your tactics to meet the needs of your customers. In the IDEO video, there is a moment when the self-appointed “adults” decide which customer needs to optimize and then send their teams off to determine the best way to design their features to meet these needs. Similarly our teams need to continue to look for which needs to focus on and then make sure they are meeting those needs. Enlightened trial and error vs. lone genius. I would put my money on an innovation process than timing the innovation market.