I'm kidded by my colleagues a lot because I'm always telling them to keep things simple by staying with the core business. But sometimes it's tough to adhere to such advice. After all, when you're young and full of enthusiasm it's natural to want to tackle new things. Nobody will admit it, but the reason many companies launch new projects is simply because many of their young executives are bored. To give everyone an infusion of energy and a new outlook, along comes a proposal that seems to hold a lot of promise. Obviously, without bold, new ideas, companies will never grow, but in too many cases new projects-if they're not well planned-turn out to be an albatross. A few months and even years down the line, the new project is killed because it's not working out and isn't making money. This usually happens, however, after the company's core business starts to suffer. Sometimes it can be disastrous. Once a business loses momentum it's hard to turn things around.
When I talk about keeping things simple it's because nothing should ever supersede what being in business is all about-taking care of the customer. In his new book, Stop Paddling and Start Rocking the Boat, Lou Pritchett, former vice president of sales for Proctor & Gamble Co., tells a story that shows what can happen when customers are taken for granted. You've heard of Wal-Mart and how well that company has done over the years. Back in 1987 it was a big account for P&G. But no one at the company seemed to be paying attention to it, at least not in the executive ranks. So one day Pritchett called Sam Walton, the company's legendary founder, and asked him if he would like to take a canoe trip down the Spring River near Hardy, Ark. What Pritchett had learned was that out of arrogance or stupidity, P&G hadn't been paying much attention to Walton and his rapidly expanding chain of stores. A few years earlier P&G was named vendor of the year by Wal-Mart, but nobody from P&G ever showed up to claim the award. There just wasn't any meaningful contact between P&G execs and Wal-Mart execs. No joint planning, no coordination of operations and virtually no compatibility. Unbelievable is the word that comes to mind. When Pritchett and Walton met at the beginning of the trip, Walton asked Pritchett if he was ever an Eagle Scout. Pritchett answered yes, offered the Scout handshake, and from that point on Pritchett and Walton were good friends. Together they worked out a much closer relationship between their companies.
That's a classic account of how even the most sophisticated companies can forget the basics of doing business. Pritchett, who retired from P&G in 1989, makes some other remarks in his book that should be on the wall of every CEO and sales manager. His philosophy is simple: "One of the first lessons in selling is, make it easy for the buyer to buy. Don't make 'em have to do a lot of things. Don't make 'em have to think. Don't make 'em have to make decisions. Always give them a choice between something and something. Never give them a choice between something and nothing. Because 50% of the time they're going to take nothing." And in this impersonal age of the fax, Internet, e-mail and voice mail, Pritchett says this about the future: "I think what we are going to find out in this new age is that intuition, enthusiasm, the people part of the equation-all of those are absolutely essential. The job of the corporate leader is to help unleash the talent of each individual worker for the good of the employee and the enterprise as a whole." That's excellent advice for anyone in a leadership position.
When people tell me they want to try something new, I always make sure they know what they're getting themselves into and that they aren't pursuing the new project for all the wrong reasons. Take a realistic inventory before heading into unfamiliar territory. It's better to be sorry now than later.
Think it through,
Charles S. Lauer