September 30, 2012

Dear Catalog CEOs: The Good News

Dear Catalog CEOs:

You go to church, and you hear a message.  Sometimes, you hear that everything you are doing is wrong, sinful.  The message makes you feel bad.  You say to yourself, "I thought I was here to 'hear' the good news".

Worse, watch Fox News or MSNBC, and you'll see an endless array of folks telling everybody what they are going wrong.  The same thing happens in our industry ... trade journalists, bloggers (me included), consultants, vendors, conference organizers ... all telling you what you do wrong, telling you that your business model is "dead".

Sometimes the messages are depressing.

So today, let's talk about what you are doing right.  There's a TON of things you do well.

You have mastered structure and discipline.  Catalogs are planned six to nine months in advance.  So many business leaders are out there making it up on the fly.  You don't do that.  Your planning process causes young employees to think.  Do you understand how important "thinking" is?  Thinking is missing today.  You require employees to merchandise a spread.  This is hard, HARD work.  You have to imagine what the customer wants.  It's different than imagining a keyword that a customer must type.  You have to get the merchandise right.  You have to get the creative right.  You have to get pricing right.  You have to get cross-selling right.  All of this must be done on a spread, on two pages.  And it is a guess, isn't it?  You have data, sure, but you don't know if what you are doing will work or not.  You're doing this on faith.

You understand the importance of people.  For some, it is an algorithmic world ... lines of computer code making decisions.  You know the first names of employees in your distribution center.  Do you understand how important that is to these hard working individuals?  Do you understand how appreciative a call center employee is to keep his job after phone volume drops and you tell him, by name, that he will now be focusing on solving customer service issues via Facebook and/or Twitter?

You have vision.  Now, the pundits will tell you that you are a cataloger, so you have no vision.  That's false.  You were the first to embrace "the cloud", right?  You moved your customer data to the cloud (think Abacus) more than a decade before it became fashionable to do so.  You embraced e-commerce long before retailers did.  You were the first to learn that mobile and social don't necessarily work, that those channels are not aligned with the interests of a baby boomer generation closing in on retirement.  You stripped a ton of expense out of the p&l statement in the 2008 - 2009 timeframe ... realizing that the world changed and you had to change in order to survive.

You understand why businesses succeed.  You thoroughly understand why a 40% annual customer retention rate is acceptable as long as you find new customers.  You do this in the face of every single marketing expert in the world who tells you that customer loyalty means everything.  Customer file dynamics are the foundation of a business, without this foundation, you don't have anything.  You understand this fact.

You understand the importance of "team".  I know this, because when I am meeting with you, you have your VP of Marketing, a Catalog Director and an Online Director, Managers, and Marketing Analysts in the room.  Everybody gets to hear what is being said.  I've watched as a Marketing Analyst says something that you clearly disagree with, but you let the individual have his/her say, you let the person be heard.  We'll go to dinner, and you invite the Marketing Analyst to join us.  Do you understand how important that stuff is to a young employee?  Your young employees tell me that when you treat them like equal team members, they feel driven to work hard for you, to help you succeed.  And many of you share profits with your employees.  I know how motivating this was when I worked at Lands' End.  You willingly give up profit that you could keep, realizing that you wouldn't have earned it without the hard work of your team.

You practice patience.  I know this, because I've been in the room when the social media enthusiast or email practitioner communicates how important it is for you to engage with your customers.  Instead of judging, like I might, you patiently listen to new ideas, often giving the employee just enough rope to try ideas without hanging herself.  When the ideas don't work, you take accountability.  When the ideas work, you give credit to the employee.  You plant seeds, seeds that bear fruit down the road, often at another company.

These aren't attributes you read about, are they?  Instead, you're told that there are seven easy steps to business success.  

Structure.  Discipline.  People.  Vision.  Customers.  Team.  Patience.  Maybe those are the seven hard steps to business success.  But you have mastered them.  

That's the good news, folks.

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