The Four Steps to Success
In the beginning, great products were enough to guarantee business success. Product sophistication, six sigma manufacturing and zero defects clearly beat the competition.
But benchmarking, product imitation and reverse engineering soon appeared…and now everyone seems to make great products.
Next, rapid delivery arrived. Those who made, shipped, installed and served their customers faster were rewarded with growing market share and higher profits. Digital delivery, cycle time reduction and 24-7-365 access (by phone and Internet) accelerated the speed of commerce, and competition. Now everyone’s got a Website and courier services cross the planet overnight.
To stay ahead of the competition, even excellent service mindset has come back into vogue. Suddenly, being polite, competent and concerned has become as important today as it was in your grandmother’s age. And while not every company has mastered this field, competition at the high end is quite intense. Whether you stay at the Sheraton Towers or the Shangri-La, dine at the Rainbow Room or the Hard Rock Café, fly British Airways or Singapore Airlines, the service you receive today will often be quite good.
With competition so intense, winning companies are growing in another vital dimension. In addition to great products, rapid delivery and excellent service mindset, market leaders are now building stronger partnerships with their most valuable clients, suppliers and employees.
The Four Styles of Interaction
What does it mean to “build strong partnerships”? Why do you need to master this vital skill? What practical steps can you take to achieve it, right now?
First, let’s put “partnership” in perspective. There are four different styles of interaction in business (and in life) and three of them are not partnerships at all!
The One Shot Deal
The first style of interaction is characterised by a short term focus between the parties. Beyond completing the exchange of the moment, no lasting commitment is intended nor implied. Asking someone for directions, buying goods at a close-out sale, or picking up a newspaper from the corner news stand are all clear examples of the “One Shot Deal”. Many familiar phrases are associated with this kind of brief and immediate interaction: “Take it or leave it”, “What you see is what you get”, and “Here today, gone tomorrow”.
With no promise of future involvement between the parties, one more phrase certainly applies: “Caveat emptor” in Latin. In English: “Let the buyer beware”.
The second style of interaction takes more time than a “One Shot Deal”. More “moments of truth” are involved in these transactions, and additional effort is required to meet or exceed customer expectations.
Taking a flight from one city to another is a good example, including telephone reservations, airport check-in, on-time departure, quality food, entertainment and service on-board, timely arrival and speedy delivery of checked-in baggage.
If all of these “perception points” are well managed, customers are satisfied; a state of affairs called “Transaction Satisfaction” then exists. Although no future involvement is promised or required in these transactions, customers do tend to return to those vendors and suppliers who consistently meet their needs.
The third style of interaction extends “Transaction Satisfaction” into the future. Consistency and dependability are essential, as customers and suppliers count on each other for more frequent business. When done well, this can evolve into a “Reliable Relationship” where both parties consistently benefit over time.
Examples of “Reliable Relationship” include daily newspaper delivery to your doorstep, occasional purchase of office supplies on a store credit account, ongoing maintenance contracts for essential equipment, and annual check-ups with your family doctor.
The fourth style of interaction also extends into the future, but the value and importance of the interaction actually grows significantly over time. In a “Powerful Partnership” both parties learn that working well together brings new possibilities, unique opportunities and otherwise unachievable growth.
A “powerful partnership” does not grow unattended. Substantial effort and ongoing investments of time, creativity and resources are required to keep a “Powerful Partnership” going and growing.
Examples of “Powerful Partnership” may include research joint ventures, marketing, manufacturing and distribution alliances, excellent boss and secretary combinations and indeed, just about every healthy marriage.
Key Question to Consider:
Which of these “four styles of interaction” describe the current situation with your customers? suppliers? colleagues, managers and employees? Amongst the four, where are you right now? Where do you want to be?
The Four Stages of Improvement
Leaving the “One Shot Deal” aside, let’s focus on how to make your transactions more satisfying, your relationships more reliable, and your partnerships increasingly powerful.
In each of these styles of interaction, four stages can be identified for self-assessment, competitive evaluation and focused action towards improvement.
Stage One: Explore
The first stage is the domain of exploration, discovery, and open-minded speculation. Both parties must engage with a commitment to mutual disclosure and the invention of new possibilities.
In business and in personal life, robust exploration uncovers needs, wants, concerns, good and bad past experiences, present constraints, future interests and a wide range of competitive and collaborative considerations.
Traditionally this is the domain of marketing, research, and strategic visionaries. But the “explore” quadrant actually plays an essential role in launching most successful interactions. This is the time and place to build rapport, develop an open dialogue and listen sincerely for spoken and unspoken concerns.
Even contingency planning begins here with a willingness to discuss the upside and the downside of future plans, looking into what can go right together, and what might unavoidably go wrong.
How well do you explore? Do you regularly meet with your prospects and customers just to share ideas? Or do you only contact them after they call you, or after something has broken down? Do you survey your market, conduct interviews, customer focus groups and on-site visits? Do you have a methodology for doing this consistently, or is it an ad-hoc process as and when required?
And how easy is it for your customers to explore more about you? Is your history and philosophy conveniently presented in print or on the World Wide Web? Can prospects learn quickly and thoroughly about your products, competencies, capacity and directions for future growth? Do you share stories of how you helped other clients, including testimonials and references upon request?
If you do not explore well, you develop a reputation as a mere “order taker” – responding when required, but only fulfilling direct and straightforward requests.
When you do explore well, you build a very different identity as a person or organisation who listens, who is interested in the future, and who cares about your customers’ true possibilities and concerns. This identity opens vast horizons for collaboration, commitment and extended business agreements.
Stage Two: Agree
Robust exploration leads to new opportunities for creating a future together. Initial requests, proposals and offers are often the first step towards mutually satisfactory agreements.
In business, excellent agreements are clearly documented, with a detailed listing of specifications and expectations, including quantities, schedules, prices, service levels and warranties (among others).
In a simple Transaction, negotiations towards agreement may be conducted in an atmosphere that is competitive and highly charged. But if you are working towards a longer term Relationship or Partnership, negotiations should be infused with a shared commitment to win-win agreements and mutual, long-term satisfaction.
Contingency planning is essential at this stage. By carefully thinking through “what might go wrong”, strong and detailed “back-up plans” can be agreed to long before they are needed.
Finally, in world-class organisations, the very process of coming to agreement is itself world-class, with easy-to-understand documentation, user-friendly procedures, around-the-clock access and flexible terms and conditions.
How smoothly and thoroughly do you forge your agreements? Do customers praise how easy it is to do business with you, or do they complain about your bureaucratic systems? Do they thank you for your flexibility and understanding, or are they left cold by your rigid “one-size-fits-all” products, pricing and conditions.
Clear agreements enable effective delivery. Lack of clarity breeds suspicion, uncertainty and misunderstanding. Vague promises may get you started, but if things don’t turn out as expected, misunderstanding can quickly lead to disagreement and escalate to legal disputes.
In a world that prizes ease-of-use, saving time and maximum convenience, improving the way you make agreements can give your organisation a powerful step-up on the competition.
Stage Three: Deliver
With agreements complete, your deliver stage begins. Here you take necessary action to fulfil your promises and thoroughly execute your agreements. You serve, develop, customise, manufacture, test, ship, install, train, modify, upgrade and provide promised training and support.
Here you need people who understand what to do, and have the necessary resources to get the job done. This means your delivery team must have a crystal clear understanding of the promises made in your agreement. It also means they have the tools, time and training to successfully and completely deliver.
Throughout delivery, it is essential to track progress and keep appropriate parties well-informed. If everything goes according to plan, then frequent updates reinforce confidence amongst customers and colleagues. And if the unexpected occurs, the sooner you communicate this to others, the sooner your contingency plans can be launched and put into place.
This willingness and ability to quickly “declare breakdowns” is an important area where world-class companies differentiate themselves from the rest. While some organisations try to “hide bad news” and discreetly “put out the fires”, others pride themselves on rapidly alerting all parties so that new actions can be quickly and effectively taken – even capitalizing on unexpected or unintended opportunities.
Stage Four: Assure
In many industries, the ability to deliver has been honed to a fine art with six sigma quality controls and continuous cycle time reduction. But effective delivery does not complete the cycle – not if you are interested in continuing or expanding your involvement over time.
The final stage is called assure and is one of the most fertile areas for generating new possibilities in business. In the assure quadrant, you accomplish three vital tasks:
- Check to see if the promises made on both sides have been fulfilled. If they have, then acknowledge, recognise and reward. If they have not, immediately return to deliver and complete the job.
- Confirm that the needs of your customer have been truly satisfied by the actions you have taken. You may discover that you have faithfully completed all the terms of agreement, but the original concerns of your customer remain unfulfilled. This is not necessarily the fault of either party, and may instead be the result of further learning and clarification that has occurred. When this happens, promptly initiate a new round of exploration. Work together to uncover a more refined set of needs or expectations. Create new agreements to satisfy these needs, and move forward again to deliver and assure.
- Finally, during the assure process, find ways to work even more effectively together. How could the cycle you just completed be done more quickly or with even better results? What changes should you implement as you move forward once again to explore, agree, deliver and assure?
A well planned and sincerely executed assurance can be extraordinarily beneficial for obtaining new business. Detailed follow-through often leads to new possibilities and agreements.
How well do you and your team members assure? Do you consistently follow-up with a proven plan of surveys, interviews and on-site customer visits? Or do you subscribe to the old school of “no news is good news”, and wait for disgruntled customers to contact you…if they ever do?
Taking A Holistic Approach
In many organisations, the four stages of improvement are handled by four different departments: explore is the realm of marketing, agreements are completed by sales, deliver is domain of manufacturing, operations and logistics, and assure is provided, if required, by after-sales warranty and customer service.
Unfortunately, this approach often leaves customers with a schizophrenic experience of your organisation. Customers are told one thing by one department, but hear a different story from another. They cry out for “one face” to work with rather than an ever-expanding list of business cards, names and telephone numbers.
Inside the organisation, the fragmented, specialised approach can lead to mistrust and even outright resistance between departments.
Fortunately, the solution to this problem can be built right into the procedures and the culture of your organisation.
First, connect the four distinct stages with frequent and detailed communication between departments. Second, institutionalise shared understanding with cross-training, cross-functional teams, and longer-term attachments. The more your people understand what colleagues are doing, the better your colleagues, and your customers, will be served.
Building a Foundation of Trust
Each time you successfully complete a cycle of explore, agree, deliver and assure, another layer of trust is built between the parties. In fact, this is perhaps the only way that humans have learned to build trust together. Want a large order from your customer? Prove yourself with smaller jobs first. Want more responsibility from your boss? First demonstrate your skills and your commitment with a series of well-executed projects.
This makes good sense in business, but it can apply in your personal and social life, as well. Indeed, building trust with others is the foundation for all our successful relationships. It is the necessary glue for strong partnerships we build now and into the future.
Copyright, Ron Kaufman. Used with permission. Ron Kaufman is the world’s leading educator and motivator for uplifting customer service and building service cultures. He is author of the New York Times bestseller, Uplifting Service, and founder of UP! Your Service. For free customer service training articles and video, visit UpYourService.com.