Monday, April 21, 2008

Hammer or Swiss Army Knife?

It has been said that to the hammer, everything looks like a nail.

When I first heard this said by a business associate I had to think very hard about the real meaning of it. The context of the conversation was a discussion of how some attorneys in a law firm approach every case the exact same, no matter the differing facts of the cases. To those attorneys every situation appears the same, thus should be handled the same.

In today’s world this could be a recipe for disaster.

Treating every client, every employee, every student, every customer, and every circumstance the same doesn’t take into consideration the needs of the individuals involved in the process. Sure we could look for only the individuals to employ, teach or serve that exactly fit our wants and needs, but is this really practical? What we should look for is not the hammer but the Swiss Army knife. This instrument has more gadgets than a few. It is adaptable to multiple situations.

As the leader of an organization or business, adaptability is an enviable trait. I have never heard it said that a single ridged business philosophy will conquer the market. Flexibility and being adaptive to change more likely tips the odds in your favor.

“Bear” Bryant, one of the winningest coaches in college football, admitted in his autobiography, Bear, that he made the mistake, early in his career, of treating all of his players the same. He also admitted to losing some kids due to this belief and behavior. Kids , he became to believe, which could have really helped his teams had he been more flexible. Later in his career, during the time he was winning the most, his philosophy regarding coaching became more adaptive to the individual. He said, “You just have to know who will react best to a kick in the butt… or a pat on the butt.” I believe it was this understanding that lead to his success and to a rival coach saying, “He can take his’n and beat your’n or take your’n and beat his’n.” (Obviously that rival coach was from the South!)

So how can this translate to business? Just as coaches teach and inspire youngsters to perform at the top of their ability in sports, business owners should teach and inspire their teams of employees to perform at their best. To do this a business leader should work to discover the individual wants and needs of his team members. What is it that will inspire them? It is easy to assume that more money in the paycheck is the answer.


Money could be one of the things that inspire, but I propose that reasonable compensation is only a table stake, a method of getting in the game. Employee team members usually want to feel like part of a team, to know they are appreciated for their part…no matter how small a role. In our consulting practice, we often perform an exercise with a management team by asking them what is the most important part of a vehicle. The most common answer is the engine. This is hard to argue with, until you begin discussing the challenges of trying to drive anywhere in a driving rain without windshield wipers! The “stars” on the team are important, but the team itself is paramount. It must all come together.

Recognition, a fun working environment, and strong, trusting relationships with co-workers could be as, or more, important as the size of any paycheck.

What about customers….should we treat them equally? Absolutely not! Choices, choices, and more choices seem to be the mantra of the American consumer. Those institutions that have become adept at serving many customers in an individual (not equal) manner tend to be the most successful.

Professionals charging by the hour for their services are one of the most offensive methods of treating customers equally. I propose that this understanding by professionals that being treated equally is what the consumer wants is 100% false. I also propose that the consumer wants to be treated individually. He has unique wants and needs. Why should he be forced to go through the same meat grinder as everyone before him? Also, this hourly method of pricing services presupposes that every hour of a professional’s time has the same value as any other hour. Again, this could not be further from the truth.

Now, let’s consider Starbucks, a champion of treating customers individually. (One of my friends calls it 4 Bucks..because of the pricyness of the coffee.) The actual process the employees use to greet customers and make the coffee is fairly standard. At the end of the line the cups look pretty much the same. But oh… the content of that cup can be drastically customized! I call it “customerized”. Starbucks also is wonderful at explaining to its employees that value of customization. I have a friend whose name is Eric and he sometimes goes by “E”. E frequents Starbucks. The team at his favorite store greets him by name and has even named his customized coffee concoction an “E”. Given a choice, where do you think E will go to purchase his $4 cup of coffee?

And Starbucks profit margin on the $4 cup….about $3.60! Starbucks is a Swiss Army knife…not a hammer. They have mastered the art of extreme customerization.

How does your business or organization stack up? Is a customer just a number, or do you take the time to understand what they each prefer and appreciate? Consumers are looking for value, not necessarily the lowest price. And value, remember, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. You can get a cup of blah coffee at the Quick Stop for about 75 cents or you can get a double latte, with double chocolate syrup, Splenda, fat-free creamer, and whipped cream at Starbucks.

What is your cup of Joe, Joe?

Are you a hammer or a Swiss Army knife?

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