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A Sure-Fire Shortcut to Competitive Advantage
by Paul Levesque

All businesses that outperform their competitors have two key characteristics in common: a highly-energized workforce, plus hordes of delighted customers that keep coming back. Two nice things to have - but of course everyone knows the reason so few businesses enjoy a clear competitive advantage is precisely because these two things are so difficult to achieve. But wait. If it’s really as difficult as all that, shouldn’t those few businesses that manage to pull it off be absolutely exhausted by the effort? When you take a close look (as I have) at those rare businesses that consistently achieve both objectives - flashpoint businesses, as I refer to them - what you invariably see is just the opposite. Employees at all levels seem perpetually fired up, as if every day they’re engaged in some kind of fun group activity. Is there some big secret about "energized workers" and "delighted customers" that these flashpoint businesses understand, and everyone else seems to have somehow missed?

There most certainly is. And it has to do with what most people consider the basic difference between "work" and "play". The first step on a shortcut to competitive advantage is to understand the specific elements that make play so much more satisfying than work.

Play Element 1: Challenge
Achieving better bowling scores would be so much easier if the bowling pins were closer. On the other hand, who would pay to go to a bowling alley where anyone could knock down all the pins every time with ease? Knocking them all down over and over again would quickly begin to feel like the kind of repetitive, pointless activity most bowlers experience at their jobs, and go bowling precisely to get away from. To be fun, it has to be a real challenge—that’s key.

In most workplaces, there is no one single well-defined “mission” that takes precedence over everything else. Instead, there are all kinds of tasks and objectives and deadlines that often make workers feel they’re being pulled in a dozen directions at once. For many, the only real challenge on the job is resisting the temptation to quit.

Contrast this with flashpoint businesses, where the one crystal-clear overriding mission is to draw business away from competitors by attempting to delight every customer every time. In these businesses, the reason it looks like workers are having fun is because in many ways their work feels like a game with a single, challenging, shared objective.

Shortcut to Competitive Advantage, Part One: Challenge everyone in your business to think of -outperforming the competition through superior customer care” as the primary objective that overrides all others at all times.

Play Element 2: Rules
Every play activity has it own elaborate set of rules. In a new game, even before play begins, all the rules are carefully spelled out. These rules add to the challenge, and keep the game fair for all.

In the work setting, the rules are often vague and unclear. They may even seem to shift and change from time to time, based on different situations as they arise. Workers often feel reluctant to take initiatives, unsure if doing so will later earn them praise (for “thinking outside the box”) or rebukes (for “breaking the rules”). They tend to adopt a play-it-safe approach.

By comparison, most flashpoint businesses spell out their values and their priorities—the rules—over and over again. “Your goal is to delight the customer, but not by doing anything that harms the organization in any way.” “We want to pull business away from our competitors, but never in an unlawful or underhanded way.”

Shortcut to Competitive Advantage, Part Two: Ensure that your workers understand how the game is to be played—how, for example, you will be giving them opportunities to come up with their own ideas for enhancing the customer experience. Clarify what constitutes a “foul” or a violation of the rules.

Play Element 3: Scoring
In play activities of every kind, there exists some sort of scoring mechanism that lets the players know immediately how well they’re doing. This immediacy is critical. How popular would bowling be if the pins were in the dark, and players never found out how well they played until their scores arrived in the mail weeks later?

This is what it feels like for most workers on the job. They don’t find out how well they’re doing until the “quarterly reports” come out, or until their annual performance evaluation meeting.

Things are different in flashpoint businesses. There, spontaneous positive feedback from happy customers becomes the number-one scoring mechanism. At the same time it also serves as the number-one employee motivator, the basis for endless internal celebration and recognition.

Shortcut to Competitive Advantage, Part Three: Harvest immediate positive customer feedback by every means at your disposal, (especially informal face-to-face conversation), and direct as much of this feedback as possible to your workers.

Play Element 4: Satisfaction
Bowlers know before every game that they won’t succeed in knocking down every pin every time. Players in every kind of game know they’ll never achieve a perfect score—but this does nothing to diminish their attempts to do so. And when their score tells them their performance has moved closer to the unachievable goal, their feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment is profound. There’s shouting and high-fiveing and every kind of exuberant victory dance imaginable.

Flashpoint businesses also know they won’t succeed in delighting every customer every time. But when the feedback indicates they’ve moved closer to that unattainable objective, the same kind of cheering and celebration erupts. It’s something that’s almost never experienced in the majority of workplaces, and it’s something that’s almost routine in flashpoint businesses. They’ve once gain beat the opposing team, and once again the dance of victory unites all of them in their shared accomplishment—and in their shared determination to play the game again, and strive together to win another round.

Shortcut to Competitive Advantage, Part Four: Create a culture of celebration that maximizes workers’ sense of accomplishment with every “rave review” from delighted customers. This is the motivational fuel that quickly gains the most powerful competitive edge in any business—and helps sustain it over the long term.

Customer-focus consultant Paul Levesque’s latest book is Customer Service From The Inside Out Made Easy (Entrepreneur Press, 2006).

Copyright Paul Levesque. All Rights Reserved.

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