Weiss Advice Issue: 210, January, 2021
The opposite of success isn’t necessarily failure, it’s often mediocrity. Failure is usually readily identifiable: the Mars lander crashes, the prospect rejects the offer, the dog food doesn’t sell.
But mediocrity is invidious. You haven’t succeeded, perhaps, as much as you had planned, but you’re doing “okay.” You’ve come closer to your ideal.
Of course, we’re often using the wrong metrics. This is one of the reasons I urge my clients to look internally for best practices rather than externally. When Mercedes Benz North America was a client of mine many years ago, they wanted me to research Lexus and other brands which received much higher service marks on surveys than Mercedes.
Instead, I suggested we compare the best Mercedes dealerships against all the others within the company, with the understanding that there was a strong probability that every one of them could be equal to the best at the moment. And that’s exactly what transpired.
We’re fond of recording calls for “quality purposes” and of sending the ubiquitous surveys after every dining experience, hotel stay, and oil change. But surveys are incredibly self-selective in terms of response (only the very unhappy and the very happy reply, not the middle group, who may entirely apathetic—the real danger) and I’ve never observed a company improve its customer service, no matter how many calls they’ve recorded (which are really only to protect them legally).
Thus, businesses land in the falsely blissful “average” where no one is complaining inordinately and no none is so ecstatic with the products and services that they are sending referrals to you (which is THE huge marketing advantage in businesses such as automotive, insurance, and realty, for example).
Once it’s discovered that someone else is delighting customers, it becomes a usually-losing game of “catch-up.” United, Delta, and American Airlines were accustomed to dominating the US market, but then Southwest Air provided a great, low-cost alternative, and later Jet Blue has provided far better service in both first class and economy travel. On every Jet Blue flight I’ve found happy, positive people. On American, it’s a crapshoot.
Success isn’t about solely to whom you’re listening at the moment, as counterintuitive as that might sound. To escape the threat or onset of mediocrity, you have to question to whom you should be listening in the future. In other words, who is your ideal future buyer?
Harley Davidson has just abandoned the Indian market, a huge democracy with the second greatest number of people on earth (and 17 percent of the global population as a whole). They couldn’t rely on manufacturing there, they claim, but more importantly, neither the streets nor the economy support large, powerful, expensive motorcycles.
In the US, the largest economic market in the world, Harley’s traditional buyer demographic has aged to the point where many can no longer straddle a bike, or lift one up if it has fallen on its side. So Harley produced “trikes,” three-wheeled vehicles that can support an older and much heavier rider, a vehicle that the bikers themselves would have laughed at when younger.
But they haven’t produced a product that appeals to younger generations or a global population. Motorized scooters for rent on a smart phone app are being used worldwide. Why didn’t Harley enter and dominate that market, for example?
This is why: they’ve been breathing their own exhaust.
Mediocrity is worse than abject failure. We know the Mars lander had to be fixed for the next try (it turned out the scientists had mixed centimeters with inches in their calculations), the sales presentation has to be changed based on the rejections, and we need to bring in the dogs to sample the new food, not just the marketing people.
We can avoid mediocrity by using disruption and volatility as offensive weapons, and shake up our markets by claiming the innovative lead. When I introduced value based fees for the consulting profession in the mid-90s in Million Dollar Consulting, it created what became a seismic shift. Today I have the strongest brand in the world in solo consulting, because I’ve continued to introduced “radical” concepts (such as the fact that a quality 20-hour week is superior to a quantitative 40-hour week, the latter merely perpetuating mediocrity).
If you consider Netflix, Amazon, Uber, Apple, Emirates Airlines, the Mayo Clinic, FedEx, and so forth, they are organizations which constantly innovated, gladly accommodating failure in order to pursue excellence. Sears, an early innovator, never morphed into Amazon as might have been expected, because it gave up innovation in favor of short-term profits. It became mediocre and is largely gone.
Your business, and your customers or clients, can attain excellence in turbulent, volatile times, if you can learn from failure instead of tolerating mediocrity. That’s the royal road to success.