“You can avoid reality. But you cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality.” – Ayn Rand
Denial is powerful stuff.
When there is something we don’t want to admit, we play a little game with ourselves. It could be an unpleasant reality we don’t want to face. Or something we have convinced ourselves we can’t do anything about just now – but we’ll get to it someday. Only, someday never comes. It just keeps getting postponed. And our little unpleasantness becomes an article of faith.
Denial of reality amounts to a mind game. Picture, if you will, a bucket in your mind. Let’s call it your denial bucket. When there is some contradiction you don’t want to face, into the bucket it goes. Unpleasant realities turn out to be pesky things, and sometimes they want to get out of the bucket, so we put a brick on top. There, we say to ourselves, that’ll fix things.
Today, let’s yank the top off the denial bucket and pull out the biggest, ugliest item in there. Let’s just call it The Big Lie. And once we look at it, let’s just see if there isn’t something we can do about it. So, here’s the whopper—The Big Lie, in all its glory: In our business, it has become customary to continually claim high retention, high sales and high customer satisfaction – and yet our numbers show low growth!
How is this contradiction even possible? Let’s be honest, we accept it because we find it comforting. We pad our egos by telling ourselves we’re doing a good job of customer retention or we’re all working hard and doing the best we can. And, that being the case, the reason for the discrepancy between intention and performance must lie elsewhere. And, so begins the search for someone or something to blame it all on.
The Big Lie’s Children.
The Big Truth is this: When we accept The Big Lie, we have accepted an arrangement in which, over time, we become our own worst enemies. We tacitly allow the nationals to define who and what we are and to dictate what we can and cannot do. We agree to become their victim, and our own bad guy.
But truthfully, the worst thing about The Big Lie is the little lies that we tell ourselves to support it, because we believe it is easier to support it – get along to go along – than to confront it. Here are a few of The Big Lie’s kids. You may recognize them.
Lie: “The national players are the low price leaders.” After all, they are so much bigger, they eventually clobber us with their superior buying power.
First, we need to agree that the nationals are “for profit” companies. Wall Street demands nothing less. The truth is that the national players play a great price game. In many cases, independents are forced to win new business or renew existing business with a low unit cost. We are forced to play the price game of low unit rates, but we hold the cost low indefinitely, in order to avoid the customer perception of a bait-and-switch pricing strategy.
We all know the stories. For example, we have witnessed a national supplier more than double their per man cost from $5.50 to $12 over a span of four years! We have seen a national brand increase the price of toweling by more than 100% over a four-year span. One might justify the higher price if the quality of service supported it. But who believes the independents are outserviced by the nationals? When the independent wins the business with low unit rates and keeps them at that level indefinitely, who is really the “low price leader”?
Lie: “Our retention rate is in the high nineties”. We’re already at 97-98% retention, so the room for improvement must lie elsewhere.
The truth is that our retention rate is not 97-98%. In order to find out a true retention rate, we would have to compute the rate based on the individual items within the accounts we lose through attrition to our competitors. And remember—our competition comes in all shapes and sizes, including wholesale clubs and retail outlets, in addition to industry competitors.
Lie: “We’re superior internal and external communicators, and sooner or later that will save us.” After all, we’re the little guys, and we intuitively understand and service local accounts better than the big guys do.
The truth is that we are not superior communicators. In fact, it is highly likely that we have no sustained communications program at all. Honestly, the emerging trend Performance Matters is seeing suggests we are allowing ourselves to become delivery agents, not service agents. And so our responses to our problems have assumed the form of delivery tactics, such as increasing route sizes, moving from five-day to four-day workweeks, and allowing our route reps to service accounts when their customer contacts are not available, resulting in little or no customer communication.
Lie: “Our customers always leave us because of price.” It comes down to price in the end, and, well, see that familiar business about low price leaders above. It’s a vicious circle.
The truth is that if our customers leave us for reasons of price, then it is because we have failed to provide them reasons of value.
A Big Lie Demands A Big Solution
Getting to an effective solution requires an act of courage. We first have to admit that we are living a lie. How many of us are prepared to do this? Our future may depend on our answer.
Secondly, let’s accept what the solution is not. The solution is not delivery-based but ineffective micro-adjustments, such as decreasing our route sizes in the name of service, putting more “feet on the street,” or pumping up the number of sales reps. Nor is the solution inserting another layer of account managers, again in the name of service.
The solution is to stop playing price and start playing value. Shifting the game is going to require some work and more than a lip service commitment. However, truly committing to building value and communicating that value to your customers is the way to deflate The Big Lie and to regain your control over your own destiny.
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