Micah Solomon guest post:
A customer-centered company culture is overwhelmingly resistant to being knocked off by your competition. This makes it more powerful than almost any other competitive advantage, which will likely be ripped off–sooner rather than later.
At Apple, insiders credit much of the company’s success in retailing to the cultural fit Apple looks for and inspires in its personnel. With a team that’s totally wedded to the Apple culture, Cupertino doesn’t need to sweat the imitation Apple Stores now popping up with identical furniture and Apple gear for sale. Those knockoff stores will always lack staff who have the all-crucial Apple mindset.
Or consider Isadore Sharp’s Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, regarded as one of the top five companies in any industry for service, after having innovated and thrived through many different eras and trends of customer service.
Above all else, here’s the factor to which Four Seasons founder and chairman Sharp credits the company’s success:
Over the years, we’ve initiated many new ideas that have been copied and are now the norm in the industry. But the one idea that our customers value the most cannot be copied: the consistent quality of our exceptional service. That service is based on a corporate culture.
Why is a strong corporate culture so hard to copy? In some cases, it’s a lack of knowledge. But the knowledge needed is hardly top secret. So what really protects a company culture from knockoff artists? The answer is your competitors’ entirely predictable inability to focus beyond the short term.
The curse of the short-term focus
Look around and you’ll see businesses focused obsessively on the short term: this month’s sales target or this quarter’s analyst projections. Likewise, start-ups fixate on making payroll for the first time without dipping into their line of credit. While short-term aspirations can stimulate propulsion, a short-term preoccupation can also lead to catastrophic results.
This is a human issue, manifested through businesses, and it’s not good for those businesses or for the world in which we live.
It is, however, an opportunity for you and your business–if you can pick a further focal point and start building a great company culture, one that works for you, your employees, and ultimately your customers. Your investment here will have legs, since nobody in your market is going to slow down or be patient long enough to knock it off. Trust me. I’ve been doing this for a while.
What it takes to create a strong corporate culture
Here's a list of what it takes to get there.
1. Make a decision: Somebody with power needs to decide that consciously building a culture is worth pursuing. And needs to get to work conveying that decision at every level of the company
2. Write a (short) framing statement articulating your core values: Something that says in as few words as possible what this decision is: what you stand for, and what you won't stand for. [Here's an article that covers this in detail.]
3. Review, and as needed rewrite, every part of your plans and operations to reflect your stated decision. Once you've made the decision and framed the statement in words, you need to start reflecting that decision that you've articulated–reflecting it in literally everything you do and plan to do as a company, including:
• Onboarding procedures
• Training and re-training and 360 degree training (training of quote unquote leadership about what's involved in actually doing the job)
• Practices for how to treat vendors, each other, and other stakeholders
• Standards for how to carry out most anything that may come up at your company: how to carry out such tasks in a way that reflects your decision [Here's an article with more detail on standards.]
• Appropriate quality control methodology and metrics
• Benchmarking decisions
• Decisions about job design, freedom, and empowerment that reflect your core statement. [Here's an article that covers this in more detail.]
4. Share customs, and language (not just values) Point #4 consists of items you can't really directly add to a "to do list," but they are balls you want to keep your eye on. A strong culture shares not only values, (the focus of this article), but distinctive customs and language as well [hat tip to Brad Black for this formulation]. This won't happen over time, but it will happen, if you get the rest of it right, and it will help to strengthen the power, the uniqueness, the un-knockoffableness, of the rest.