Local Business

Bob Sandidge & Anne Ward: Notice what’s working, then ask why

Let’s say you want to grow your business. Maybe you decide to get more engaged with your customers by interviewing them about what you’re doing for them and how you could be doing it better.

You notice that several customer accounts differ from the norm. You look closer. You note, with satisfaction, that there are eight customers who ordered more from you in the past six months than all of last year. Never having been one to leave well enough alone, you keep scrutinizing. That’s when you see the eight customers who have ordered significantly less over the last six months.

You know that six of those are still in business and doing well, so they must be ordering from someone else. The nerve! You’d like to see what’s up with your outlier customers, so you decide to call all 14: the eight increasing and the six decreasing. Where do you put the most energy? Which list do you call first? Who has the information you need most?

Many would advise you to really concentrate on the six that ordered less. That makes sense. At the same time, let us encourage you to put the same rigor into your interviews with the customers who have increased their business. You know what’s working: these customers are doing more business with you than ever. Why? It’s tempting to think you know the answers, but we suggest you question those assumptions. Only when you know why what’s working is working can you make solid decisions that lead to profitable growth. There is a second reason you need to know why and how what’s working is working. Simply, it might not actually be working at all.

Let’s explore the first reason for asking why: doing more of what works. Knowing how something works allows you to align resources in favor of success. In 1999, the Gallup organization published the results of their decades-long intensive quest, studying management practices in the trenches. They interviewed eighty thousand managers who were ranked according to performance results.

What they learned inspired the title of the book that carried their findings to the business world: “First Break All the Rules.” The managers who turned in top profits turned out to behave in ways not taught in business school. Asking “Why?” changed best management practices. 

Now, let’s look at the second reason to dig into the why and how of what’s working. There actually are two reasons to get behind the numbers in this case. First, what’s working might not actually be working. Remember Al Dunlap? Also known as Chainsaw Al? Sunbeam posted record profits within a year of his becoming CEO.

He lost his luster when it was discovered that he accelerated and inflated sales orders to make the current quarter look good for Wall Street. Second, what looks to be working might be working at the expense of another crucial part of the system, making the entire system suboptimal.

We remember a nonprofit organization that served people with disabilities. They had dozens of group homes where people lived and worked in suburban communities. One of the managers had lower expense numbers for several years. It looked great on paper. 

Fortunately, the organization’s executive team visited every group home at least once each year. They soon realized that the lower furniture and maintenance numbers actually meant that the manager wasn’t making the investments required to maintain the value of the organization’s assets. Not only that, but with continued deterioration, the organization could suffer a loss of reputation which had taken decades to build.

Notice what is working. Celebrate. Then ask, “Why?”

• Anne Ward and Bob Sandidge, of CreativeCore Media in Algonquin, are marketing, communication, management and training consultants. Reach them at annebob@CreativeCore.com or go to www.nlpeople.com. 

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