Customer / Leadership: What Is The Access To Cultivating Greatness?

It is the time of the year that many are pushing out their predictions for 2015. I am not in that business: I lack a crystal ball.  Further, I say that the future is not already made. The future is unborn and how you/i/we show up and operate in this world will shape how 2015 turns out.  So in this final conversation of 2014, I want to share with you my thoughts on what it takes to become great; greatness necessarily involves effecting significant and substantial change.

Let’s assume that you wish to reshape your organisation – to effect significant, substantial, change in the way that the organisation operates.  Perhaps, you wish to transition your organisation from a product-centred orientation towards  customer-centred orientation. And/or shift the fundamental stance of your organisation from ‘extracting value’ from your customers to being generously rewarded (by customers) for simplifying-enriching the lives of your customers. It could be that you want to move from treating your employees as resources (things) to treating them with dignity as fellow human beings…..

What is the access to that?  Is there an organisational equivalent to Ali Baba’s “Open, Sesame!”? You know some kind of hidden magical recipe that provides you access to untold riches, instantly, without significant effort, discipline, and/or sacrifice?  I invite you to answer that for yourself. How has all the strategy stuff worked out? What about all the process change / six sigma stuff? Or the customer journey mapping? What about your investments in CRM systems and other technologies (e.g. IVR) have they taken you to the heights of sales effectiveness and/or customer service delight?  Let’s not forget the VoC feedback- has that unlocked the door to customer loyalty riches?

Greatness does not lie on the road well travelled, greatness lies on the road less travelled. Greatness requires dedication – the kind of dedication that flows from total commitment; this kind of commitment arises in response to a possibility-call that resonates with the very core of your being. Greatness requires the ultimate sacrifice: yourself – your way of showing up in the world and the manner of your travel in this world.  Allow me to give life to this through a story (bolding mine):

There was an artist who was so devoted to her art; nothing else in the world had any attraction for her. She had a studio, and whenever she had a moment to spare her first thought was to go to that studio and work on the statue she was making. People could not understand her, for it is not everybody who is devoted to one thing like this. For a time a person interests himself in art, at other times in something else, at other times in the home, at other times in the theatre. But she did not mind; she went every day to her studio and spent most of her time in making this work of art, the only work of art that she made in her life.

The more the work progressed, the more she began to feel delighted with it, attracted by that beauty to which she was devoting her time. It began to manifest to her eyes, and she began to communicate with that beauty. It was no longer a statue for her, it was a living being. The moment that statue was finished she could not believe her eyes – that it had been made by her….. She felt exalted by the beauty of the statue.

She was so overcome by the impression that this statue made on her that she knelt down before this vision of perfect beauty, with all humility, she asked the statue to speak, forgetting entirely that it was her own work…… there came a voice from the statue: “If you love me, there is only one condition, and that is to take the bowl of this poison from my hand. If you wish me to be living, you no more will live. Is it acceptable?” “Yes,” she said, “You are beauty, you are the beloved, you are the one to whom I give all my thought, my admiration, my worship; even my life I will give to you.” ….. She took the bowl of poison, and fell dead. The statue lifted her and kissed her by giving her its own life, the life of beauty and sacredness …..

– Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Art of Being and Becoming

Let me end this conversation by posing this question: What possibility (or cause) matters to you such that you are willing to be and do as the artist (in the story above)?  It occurs to me that this is question worth pondering and answering as you/i head into 2015. I wish you a great beginning and the very best for 2015.

Better World Books: the power of engagement through cause and not gimmicks

Forrester says we live in ‘the Age of the Customer’

Yesterday I came across this post by Josh Bernoff (Forrester) where he states that we are living in “the Age of the Customer” and asserts “that companies must be more than customer focused, they must be customer obsessed”.  He then goes on to set out the changes that companies need to make to become customer obsessed.   In the video Josh says “The only source of competitive advantage is knowledge of and engagement with customers.”

I say that ‘Cause Obsession’ trumps ‘Customer Obsession’

I beg to differ.  There is something more compelling than customer obsession.  What is that?  A obsession with a cause that touches the human heart and inspires customers, employees, volunteers, suppliers and the community to come together and live/further that cause.  It is one thing to engage customers it is something else when you can engage all the stakeholders. It is one thing to engage through gimmicks and something else to engage through an uplifting cause.

BetterWorldBooks is an excellent example of company that is engaging a range of stakeholders through cause. BetterWorldBooks landed on my radar back in December and prompted me to write ‘Better World Books: a great example of customer centricity being practiced’.  And then again last month prompting me to write ‘Better World Books: a great example of hi-touch relationship marketing’. So I decided to dig a little deeper to figure out what makes this organisation special.

A few facts on BetterWorldBooks

The company was founded by three friends and graduates of The University of Notre Dame in 2002.  They started by selling unwanted (and used) university textbooks online.  The cause and the social mission was built into the company right from the start – the very first book collection drive and sale at Notre Dame.  You can read more about the founding of the company here.

BetterWorldBooks has operations in the  USA and the UK, employs some 380 people, has some 1200 volunteers doing book drives (to collect unwanted books) and has some 3.5m books sitting in a huge warehouse at any one time.

Today, BetterWorldBooks is a global bookstore which turns up at number 261 in the Top 500 list of internet retailers.  It sells both new and used books.

Here is what the revenue picture looks like: $20m (2008); $31m (2009); $45m (2010); and $55-56m is expected for 2011.

BetterWorldBooks has raised over $9.7m for literacy and libraries and saved almost  56m books from lying around not being used and/or ending up in the trash cans.

They have shipped over 1.4m books (valued at $10.9m) in 58 sea containers to Africa. If you want to read more you can find their blog here.

What does BetterWorldBooks success rest on?

I am clear that the success of BetterWorldBooks is its cause.  The cause enables it to build a network of strong relationships with all of the stakeholders.  The students and libraries (suppliers) that donate used books.  The volunteers who do the book drives – collect the books.  The partner organisations (Books for Africa, Invisible Children, Room to Read…) which do the work on the ground of improving literacy.  Customers, like me, who buy the used and new books.

Why would anyone donate their time to collect books or donate their books for a profit organisation?  Because they believe in the cause – what BetterWorldBooks stands for.

Why would a customer like me make a return visit to BetterWorldBooks?  Simply because a core part of their Mission and Values is to flabbergast customers with great service.

Does BetterWorldBooks have an advantage over Amazon?

How does BetterWorldBooks turn customer like me into advocates?  Through a combination of outstanding customer service and cause.  In my world BetterWorldBooks has an advantage over Amazon.  I am an advocate forAmazon yet Amazon does not stand for any cause that touches, engages and inspires me.   In a world where all the other things are  increasingly becoming equal, cause is the difference that makes a difference.

What do you think?