Once upon a time, there was a groundbreaking fellow named Harry Cunningham. Harry had a super-easy strategy — call it a secret, if you will — that pushed his business profits through the roof. You can incorporate it into your business if you haven’t already, but most people don’t… which is why focusing on this strategy can be a windfall for your business.
So who was Harry Cunningham? He was the man responsible for starting Kmart, which he built into the biggest discount retailer in the country before Wal-Mart took away that title. It began when he took over a failing store in Gross Pointe, Michigan. Then he incorporated this brilliantly simple strategy that ended up doubling that store’s sales… and suddenly it wasn’t failing anymore. So how did he do it?
Easy. He had his sales clerks make a note anytime a customer requested something specific. They’d write it down on an index card, and Harry would find a way to get that item into his store. It’s amazing how the simple ideas are so often the most profound. The person who owned that store before Harry could have done that, but didn’t.
In fact, there are a lot of simple ideas out there that people could use to transform their businesses — but not too many people are using them. Sometimes you hear a marketing secret and say to yourself, “Eh, that’s not such a big deal.” But the reason that it’s a secret is that no one is using it. Harry’s strategy was profound because it made his store a one-stop shopping experience. That had an amazing and immediate impact on its profits, just because he gave people what they wanted. All he had to do was ask. Isn’t that the simplest thing? But what a profound impact it had!
How can you incorporate this kind of strategy into your business? You can just ask, too, but it’s even better to anticipate what people want in advance. I like to use what I call the “perfect world scenario.” In a perfect world, if it were possible to give your customers the one thing they wanted the very most, what would it be? You may generate lots of crazy ideas doing this, but, sometimes those crazy ideas can work. Sometimes they’re not workable, but you can accomplish the next best thing.
One of the things businesspeople tend to suffer from is pessimism. We consider the worst-case scenario instead of the best. So we shoot down ideas, sometimes thinking we’re just being realistic, especially if these ideas are new or untested.But how do you discover new things if you haven’t thought about the situation from that perspective before, or at least checked to see if it might work? If you’re in a rut, you can’t just shoot down a new idea when someone offers it. Stop fearing change, even when it might force you out of your comfort zone. That attitude won’t put you ahead of the pack. At best, you’ll be among them, where you’ll all be snapping and slavering at each other.
Open yourself up to the perfect world scenario and let the ideas flow. Sure, you’ll have to come back later and figure out which ideas are workable, while realizing that even if some aren’t workable now, they may become workable in the future. When an idea is in its baby stage, when you’re just planning and thinking about all the things that could be, let it alone for a while. You never know what it could grow up to be.
If you’ve got sales clerks, encourage them to ask customers if there was anything they were looking for that they didn’t find. Maybe they just didn’t see it, or maybe you haven’t thought to add it yet. Maybe you can order it right then and there for them. You can do surveys, if your business model supports them. However you handle it, let them tell you what they want — and then set out to give it to them.
My mentor used to own a small chain of bookstores in San Diego County. He’d owned a couple of stores in Minneapolis/St. Paul before moving to San Diego, and says that while he gave his Minnesota customers what they wanted when they asked, he didn’t make as much of an effort to find out what that was as he did in San Diego. That’s when he decided to put a suggestion box in the store. He knew he could make money on bestsellers, and he liked science fiction, westerns, mysteries, and historical novels, so he had all of those. He also had a moderate romance section. After he put that suggestion box in, it didn’t take him long to realize that the customers wanted lots more romantic novels. He started to pile in the Harlequin, Dove, and historical romances. He had no personal interest in them, but he wasn’t his own customer, and they became bestsellers in the store.
Regardless of what your business is, I recommend a suggestion box — even a virtual one if you’re mostly online. Let people make suggestions about what they want to buy. It’s easy to set one up. Once a week you can open it and take out the suggestions. You can enhance this, and get more people to participate, if you offer a weekly drawing. My mentor started with $25 worth of books and took it up to $50 worth by the end. Your customers will love this, and will tell you exactly what they want to buy from you.
You can lose a fortune if you ignore this principle.
Take Henry Ford, for example. He revolutionized the automobile industry — he created it, really. His Model T was the first affordable car, making it possible for virtually everyone in America to own an automobile. They sold so many that at one point, it seemed like everyone had one. Then, bam, the market changed. All of a sudden, people didn’t want cars that looked identical — so they started asking for simple variations, like different colors. Ford’s response was the famous, “They can have their Model T in whatever color they want, as long as it’s black.”
Frankly, that reminds me of Marie Antoinette’s comment when told that the poor were upset because they didn’t have any bread: “Let them eat cake.” Some historians argue that she wasn’t being nasty when she said it; she was simply raised in privilege, and had never eaten a meal that didn’t include both bread and cake. She couldn’t conceive of the fact that when people couldn’t afford bread, they certainly couldn’t afford cake.
But in the end, that comment got her beheaded in the French Revolution, just as Henry Ford’s flippant comment got him beheaded in the very market he had created almost from scratch. He tuned out to what the market wanted, which opened the door for GM and other competitors to offer people cars that allowed them to differentiate themselves from everyone else, to make their own personal statements. Ford lost millions because he was resistant to change.
I see this happen all the time. I’ve even been guilty of it myself. Your market is constantly changing — and you’ve got to stay on top of it.