In the end, what every business seeks is commitment – from our customers, our staff, our partners, and our entire collaboration universe. Commitment erases friction, creates momentum and drives substantial profit.
tornatore via Flickr
But in a world where most everything our companies offer can be acquired somewhere, perhaps even from our own company, for free, how do you create the kind of company, product or service that drives people over the edge to commit – to pay for something that’s available for free, to evangelize something for no tangible gain, or to pour their heart and soul into building something that yields far more than a paycheck or a promised result?
Those are the questions I’ve begun to explore of late. It’s easy to look around and cite Apple or Zappos as shining examples of the kind of commitment I’m describing, but what about the company of two that’s not quite crossed over the million dollar mark or the start-up or the company that’s toiling away building a remarkable business completely out of the spotlight of the media.
I wanted to know if there’s a formula, system if you like, for building that kind of company – the kind or commitment that you’re seeing towards a service like Evernote or the kind of customer passion I’ve witnessed towards Shatto Farms, a small local milk producer that’s bucking the system of corporate co-op milk production.
As I’ve ventured out into this exploration I’ve become convinced that there is indeed a systematic path to building commitment into the DNA of an organization and it’s an active, intentional and strategic approach that involves the careful blending of a set of characteristics that I’ve started calling the 7 Verbs of Commitment.
The interesting thing about these verbs is that none of them would be readily applied to the kinds of things we think about when it comes to building a product or service. In fact, the companies that embrace these characteristics at their core often do so in spite of what they happen to produce.
Companies that enjoy the highest levels of staff and customer commitment focus almost entirely on why they do what they do as opposed to simply trying to do what they do better.
The product is almost secondary to this single-minded purpose – we bring a return to what’s good about creating all natural products in small, hand crafted batches and, by the way, we sell dairy products.
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, has said repeatedly that Zappos is a customer happiness business that happens to sell shoes.
I submit that the following 7 characteristics can be found to some degree in most every company, large or small, that enjoys raving fans and zealous employees.
Simplify – Life’s too complicated, instruction manuals and return policies and messages and mission statements and features and design are all too complicated. One of the most attractive features of organizations that enjoy high levels of commitment is a lack of features. Simplicity is the most appreciated attribute of the products and services we love to love. And yet, it can be one of the hardest to actually achieve. This can’t really be achieved by simply stripping out features, this is a way of life that must inform every decision. Many business that have instantly built a committed fan base, such as 37Signals, were started to simplify something in the life of the founder.
Hear – It’s often said that a person is a great listener and that we need to listen to markets and customer and while I think this is great advice, particularly in the age of instant social communication, the true skill goes beyond listing to hearing what’s being said in a way that can be applied to overall vision of the business. This actually takes a special filtering device that starts with a question – How can we hear and view everything through the vision of our business?
Surprise – Few things enamor like exceeding someone’s expectations. This might end up sounding more like a personality trait, but companies that turn customers into volunteer sales forces fully understand and use the power of giving more than was promised and surprisingly beating expectations. Who doesn’t like to get little unexpected gifts, free overnight shipping, and hand written notes? And yet, when was the last time you got any of those?
Resonate – If I were going to point to a requisite characteristic it might be this one. When a company is built with a single-minded purpose and can communicate that “why we do what we do” in a way that makes meaning in the lives of its customers and prospect, magic can happen. This is a tricky one too. A customer can resonate with the fact that your mission is to bring peace and harmony to the world, but it’s just as likely that there’s a market hungry to commit to a company that believes bringing beauty to the world through incredibly simple design is why they do what they do. The key is a thorough understanding and simple and consistent communication of the why. It’s kind of hard to fake this one.
Play – In Pine and Gilmore’s great book – The Experience Economy there’s a line that has always stuck with me. “People will give their last dollar to be entertained.” I believe this has never been more true than it is today. If so many of the products, services and ideas we sell can be acquired for free, then the money’s in the package and the experience. Fun, joyful, theater and stage aren’t words that are always connected with business, but bring them in and a new world opens up. I had reason to spend a day at Google recently and they get this one very well. Work is often long, hard and boring, but when do we ever tire of play? Make yours a business that’s fun to go to work in and fun to do business with and people will commit to the game.
Inspire – People want to go on journeys they feel are epic in nature. Now this may sound a little far fetched if you’re simply building a small law firm focused on small businesses, but every business can inspire. We can inspire by telling stories, by communicating the why, by standing up for simplicity and by bravely connecting our own purpose in life with that of the business and that of the goals and objectives of our clients. Leadership, the kind that’s drawn from from deed and word, the kind that understands that the best way to get more is to want more for others, is inspirational. Firms that draw commitment from customers and staff give them a way to sign up for something that can allow them to be their best self.
Easy – This one goes hand in hand with simplicity and surprise, but it’s something different entirely. Some businesses are actually hard to do business with. We may love what they do, but scratch our heads at how they do it. This one is all about non friction, speed of change and a mentality of yes. Take down the barriers to communication, give people the tools to do what they want, rethink meetings, eliminate the policies of control, trust your customers and staff and, above all, use technology to enhance personal relationships rather than wall them off.
So, you can expect a great deal more on this subject from me over the coming months as I believe that while every marketing strategy and tactic that we employ can take our businesses one step in right direction, the idea of systematic commitment is indeed the difference maker for those trying to fully realize the incredible journey that building a business is.