Three Rules for Business Success

In 2017, I wrote my Business Rule #1.

Here’s a more complete list.

#1: Have what customers want. Corollary: They don’t know what they want.

#2: Have it where they want it.

#3: Have it when they want it.

They sound simple. Most laugh when they hear them.

But, businesses too often violate these rules.

Sometimes they violate these rules because they miscalculated.

Coke’s New Coke disaster is a ‘classic’ example of that. A key mistake Coke managers made was to assume the results of blind taste tests represented how customers would behave in the real world. One difference, for example, was that while a sweeter drink fared better without food, lots of folks preferred Coke Classic with food.

Sometimes it’s a conscious trade-off.

The chef in the linked post closes the kitchen in her restaurant when the last person who’d like to eat there finishes ordering. Most other restaurants, however, make the conscious trade-off to close the kitchen at a set time every night, because keeping it open later doesn’t pay off. They don’t get enough extra customers after that time to make it worth their while or cover their costs.

Sometimes they simply don’t understand what their customers want. There’s a shocking number of folks in business in this camp.

In the early 2000s, Walmart became so singularly focused on low prices — what they thought their customers wanted — that they let the client experience slip. Stores got sloppy and checkout lines were long as they tightly managed their cashier labor.

Even price sensitive customers, like myself, got turned off and discovered that you ‘get what you pay for.’ I found myself frequenting Target more. The prices were higher, but the stores were well kept and the checkout lines were short.

It turns out that while price matters, so does convenience and experience.

To Walmart’s credit, they noticed and responded by investing in client experience by cleaning up their stores and shortening the checkout lines, just as they are now responding to the new conveniences innovated by Amazon.

The best businesses over the long haul tend to do the best job at developing a deep understanding of these simple rules.

I should mention that when I discuss these rules, folks tend to agree and say it’s as simple as asking customers what they want.

That’s where the corollary to the first rule comes into play. Customers really don’t know what they want.

Most don’t or can’t articulate it well. If they could business would be easy.

Finding out what customers want is more of an iterative, trial-and-error discovery process than a task to be completed.

Why we do the things we do

This Marginal Revolution post reminded me of something I encounter frequently, even with myself. The post excerpts a study:

In fact our conscious brain has surprisingly little grasp of what makes us decide to do one thing rather than another.  A telling example of this ignorance has been provided by Joe LeDoux and Michael Gazzaniga, two neuroscientists who conducted a study of patients with a severed corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers connecting the two hemispheres of the brain, leaving the two sides of the brain unable to communicate with each other.  LeDoux and Gazzaniga gave instructions to these patients, via their right hemisphere (hemispheres can be targeted with instructions shown to either the left or right visual field), to giggle or wave a hand, then asked them, via the left hemisphere, why they were laughing or waving.  The patients’ left hemisphere had no knowledge of the instructions given to their right hemisphere, but the patients would nonetheless venture an explanation, saying that they were laughing because the doctors looked so funny or waving because they thought they saw a friend.  However implausible the answer, the patients were convinced they knew why they were acting in the way they were; but they were deluded in thinking so.  Their self-understanding was pure confabulation.

I often find myself in discussions with folks who can’t override their urge to start jabbing their mouth and simply say, I don’t know, why do you think what you think?

I, too, often find myself doing things that I find odd and when I search for an explanation, I find that my first explanation is usually one that would satisfy an external observer. But, then I dive deeper and find other reasons that weren’t intuitive, but were probably more important than the externally acceptable reason.

I’m cheap. I was a loyal shopper of Walmart, until Target opened across the street from it. Then I found myself in Target more often. Why? I’m cheap. I’m supposed to like the lower prices. And, at the time, there was a visible difference in most prices.

So, on several trips to Walmart and Target I “observed” myself. I asked myself questions. What’s keeping me from going to Walmart? Why am I going to Target?

Many things popped up. The Target parking lot isn’t as packed. I don’t have to walk as far. Target’s parking was clean. The store was cleaner and updated. The product displays were always in good order and the products were well presented. I would have to wait a long time to checkout at Walmart. At Walmart, it seemed like they shoved the products on the shelves.Target had some different products that I would like to browse. I wasn’t scared of the folks who shopped at Target. The folks who worked at Target seemed a bit less tired and a bit more engaged.

I came to find that it just wasn’t one reason. There were many. Some would say it was the overall experience. Maybe some mattered more than others, but they all mattered.

Walmart recognized this, too. They responded by improving on many of these things and have won me back, sometimes.

The depth and breadth of these reasons surprised me. I didn’t put conscious thought into any of these things until I first noticed my behavior was odd (not always going for the lowest price) and then decided to “observe” my behavior.

That exercise alone humbled me into being more willing to say, I don’t know, recognizing that he world is complex and the simple answer is often not the whole story. That reminds me of a favorite Oliver Wendell Holmes quote:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity. -Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Supreme Court Justice, 1902 – 1932

Not sure I’d give my life for it, but it’s definitely worth more.

A happy, former Walmart employee

You don’t often hear this side of the Walmart story (H/T Carpe Diem). Here are a few of the things this former Walmart employee had to say:

I worked hard and came back during a break from college to be promoted to work in the photo lab (more responsibility, higher rate of pay). I also saw many full-time employees that I worked with move up to become department managers, assistant store managers, and even move on to the corporate office.

Every evening I would go to a meeting with the store manager, who would tell us the stock price, how much we had sold that day, and if there were other expectations before we left for the night.

I also saw the opposite end of the spectrum. Some fellow associates seemed content to do the bare minimum and didn’t go anywhere in the company because of it. In fact, they are still at the same level.

In my opinion, these are also the employees that you hear speaking negatively of Walmart’s employment practices. They want something for nothing from the company and they aren’t getting it.

Walmart emerged from a willingness to try new things and learn

Thanks to Mark Perry at Carpe Diem for the link to this video illustrating Walmart and Sam’s Club growth.

We see the success stories after they’ve become successful and don’t often think how they got to that point.

I recommend reading Sam Walton’s book Made in America. It paints a good picture of how Walmart emerged from Walton’s constant experimentation and trial-and-error learning, in the store, store location and in the supply chain. It took him years to evolve the retailing model into something that would fund its own expansion by simply pleasing its customers.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read it (~15 years), but a few stories are stuck in mind.

Walton started his first store in a town on the eastern side of Arkansas. He grew it into a success and when it came time to renew his lease, the landlord kicked him out to take Walton’s store for himself. There Walton learned to build renewal options into his leases.

When Walton opened his store right across from a competitor in Bentonville, most people thought he was crazy, but Walton relished the competition and would try things to get people to try his store and keep them coming back, which was great for the customer. Walmart still gets a lot of resistance to this strategy — generally from people who care less about the customer.

He wasn’t too proud to borrow ideas from competitors. When he read an article about a store with a self-serve model in Minnesota or Wisconsin, he hopped on a bus (or train) and visited to see how it worked and then adopted the model in his stores and changed the retailing industry forever.

As he opened more locations, he tinkered with various ownership structures and incentives to drive the right behavior. He discovered joint ownership was the best incentive structure, which carried through all the way to employees of the eventual Walmart earning shares of stock. Early stores were partnerships between him and the store’s general manager.

Even after Walmart was getting larger, they tried new things. They took on a massive project in the warehouse in the 1980s to improve product distribution efficiency. It took years and a few costly mistakes, but it eventually paid off. I often think about that when I see companies ditch a project after the first failure. I wonder if it could be successful with some more learnings applied.

Businesses emerge from the interactions of customers and business owners. They aren’t designed by consultants in board rooms.