What’s your key strength?

There’s a fascinating case of a business transformation, following and adapting to changing market conditions, in the history of Whitbread.

I grew up knowing Whitbread as a traditional brewer and pub operator, back in the days when almost every street had a local public house. The company had been in brewing since 1742.

That business model was one of vertical integration. The company made its own products – in this case, beer – and then sold them through its own outlets – the pubs. The great benefit of such a model is that all the margin from the end user sale right back to the manufacture flows to the business.

Whitbread were faced with intense competition in the brewing market and decided to sell that part of the business. The market forces that drove the sale of the brewing business left in question the operation of the pubs and they too were sold a couple of years later.

At that point, Whitbread recognised their strength was in the hospitality industry. It wasn’t really anything to do with beer!

They’ve leveraged that strength with two brands that you will know today in Costa Coffee and Premier Inn (the name of the latter is undoubtedly a nod to the history of its owner) and the business is going from strength to strength.

Both Costa and Premier were businesses acquired as part of the transformation strategy, but the key word is strategy. The acquired businesses were elements of the overall plan, tools to enable the company to deliver the hospitality services it had identified as a key strength.

In a different world, St Ives Press was a very successful commercial printing business that invested in new print technology. The business moved into publishing services and acquired a book printing company. The key acquisitions were direct response printing companies – producing flyers and direct mail pieces. St Ives is now a digital marketing services company – oh, and they still do print things!

St Ives recognised that they were in the communications business, and specifically in helping their customers communicate their messages.

What’s your key strength? What is it that you do for your customers?

Put your problems in context

It is really easy to become very concerned with a problem that in the end is just a little problem.

You uncover the issue, and it nags at you. There’s a voice inside your head crying “fix me” and you find it difficult to focus on other things and get things done.

My son has been living and working in Tanzania for a few years now. He’s Head of Physics in a private school and it is a very different world to the one we know. There is very limited internet, restricted water supply during the dry season and frequent power cuts. On the more positive front, he is on the doorstep of some of the most famous safari parks in the world and occasionally has monkeys in the garden!

One phrase that has come from his experience is “first world problem” which is used as a response to a complaint about something minor. We might say “there’s nothing worth watching on TV tonight” and the response would be “first world problem. You have a TV, power supply….!”

So does the problem you are obsessed with really matter?

Is the coffee machine broken? Perhaps the printer is not working as it should be.
There’s a problem with the sandwiches? (That was always my favourite. A business I ran provided subsidized lunches. They were the subject of so many complaints it was almost a relief to get rid of the perk when we had to save some money)

Is it affecting your customers?

If the answer is no, that makes it a bit like a “first world problem.” It might be an irritation, perhaps it is hampering your efficiency but in the end, you are working around it and the customer never knows.

If the answer is yes, then you are right to obsess over it and get it fixed. It affects your customer – so it really matters.

How do you talk to your customers and prospects?

Not that long ago we were all getting lots of promotional material through the post – junk mail. Now, we get lots of promotional emails – so many in fact that Google have introduced a filter in their email system so they are pre-sorted into a folder labelled promotions.

Guess how many of those you would actually read?

We are told we have to use social media to promote our businesses, but the variety of platforms is amazing. It’s not just Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter but Google plus, Instagram, You Tube, Xing….I could go on and on.

Some marketing gurus are advocating a return to physical mail to stand out from the crowd.

Often, you’ll see a “chat” system available on a website. Click here to “chat” to us and you can exchange a series of messages with an operator.

You might also consider mobile messaging. I know some of my contacts prefer a text message to any other form of communication!

Finally, or course, there is the other use of a telephone – to actually make calls!

The questions should not be “Which method do I choose?” but rather “Which method does my customer / prospect choose?”

There is no point sending emails to someone who doesn’t read or respond to them. You may have a wonderful Facebook presence, but if your target audience doesn’t use Facebook, so what?

If your customer prefers to communicate using a text message, that’s what you do.

If they’d rather talk to someone, pick up the phone.

Make sure you have enough capacity to provide a prompt service. No one will be impressed by a long wait for an operator – either on the telephone or on the web, and unanswered messages on social media will just do more harm than good.

Whatever channel your customer chooses, that is where you go.


Actions have consequences


“What’s the use you learning to do right when it’s troublesome to do right and ain’t no trouble to do wrong, and the wages is just the same?” Mark Twain, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

We all want to do the right thing, but from time to time the temptation is there to take a shortcut, because we are feeling under pressure., or because it is just easier.

Perhaps it is the quality department, who are being pressured to get stuff out to the customer. They can do it if they take a short cut and inspect fewer widgets – it is just this time, and it won’t matter.

Perhaps it is that proposal you are writing – it is easier just to cut and paste some content than do the hard work of creating the original content.

Maybe it is in sales, when the customer asks “Can I have it by this date?”

Or is it in customer support, where the documentation from the last version will do just fine.

The trouble is that shortcuts have a nasty way of coming back to bite you.

The extra inspection might have found the problem, but instead the customer found the problem and suddenly you are no longer a supplier.

That proposal didn’t meet the requirement, and you lost the opportunity

We didn’t meet the delivery date the sales team promised, and the customer is very unhappy.

The customer found a problem and the solution in the documentation doesn’t work – it did in the last version, but there’s been a change.

These shortcuts can appear to be nothing more than a quick fix, sometimes it doesn’t even feel like you are making a decision but actually it is a positive decision not to do something.

Like any action, consequences flow.