If you’ve been at the Atlanta Airport … past midnight … waiting for the last plane out … you know the scene. The reenactment of Hieronymus Bosch’s Renaissance painting of Hades. In the dim light of Gate 33. Twisted torso’s in sticky blue vinyl seats awaiting the ultimate horror. Three hours in a middle seat, meant for cargo, not human beings.
But not me. I’m fully caffeinated. And I am wired! Over the next three hours I have to figure out whether the business I’ve visited that week warrants investment. And I’m too sure how to get that done.
Settling under the glow of the orange-ish overhead, I started to sketch. What appeared on my yellow pad was the back of a #10 envelope.
- In the left hand triangle I wrote Customers. Not how we usually think about them … by demographics. How many live within a 12-mile radius, average income, kids, vehicle they drive, education, dogs, cats and the like? Rather, I started jotting down what I’d learned about how they thought. What was important to them. Beyond what this company sold. What they cared most about. And what might make them feel best.
- Across the envelope in the right hand triangle I wrote Needs. Which of the things its customers cared most about could the company do something about? To help their customers over a fear. Or make them feel better about themselves? The thought line led me way beyond the customary boundaries of the business and what it did. Into things that were only tangential to what it actually sold. And even into others that were entirely unrelated. Except for the opportunity that might exist, by virtue of the touch of the transaction, to do something special for them.
At that moment I started to see patterns. For doing things, in addition to what the business always had done for its customers, that would help them with a fear, or make them fee better about themselves, and build their loyalty. Turning them from average customers into zealots. Who might attract others.
- In the triangle at the top, hurriedly, I wrote Positioning. How would the company need to be seen by its customers and by its greater community to become their unarguable first choice? An adaptation of its current persona that presented the business as something more. More directly related to what its customers cared about most.
- Then in the triangle at the bottom I wrote Competencies. Did the business have the resources, and could it assemble them, to deliver on the idea hatched through the sequence of thinking differently about Customers, Needs and Positioning?
The first trip ‘round the envelope didn’t make sense. Too grandiose a scheme for the resources. But it was a solid step forward. By the fourth circuit through the logic I had something great. A way of looking at the business that was fresh, optimistic and that no one else had imagined.
We bought the business, executed the Back of the Envelope scheme and sold it three years later with a gain on sale, due to performance improvement, that was more than expected.
But most rewarding? The people running the business had turned into zealots too. They looked forward to getting to work. They gave their all, every day. And they felt like their work was more than work. An enriching part of their lives. More of a service. And a calling.
You can do the same thing. With the same results. Starting on the Back of an Envelope!
Be sure and tune in tomorrow for our podcast with Dick Cross, 9x turnaround CEO and author of the Book, Just Run It!
Dick is the founder and Managing Principal of The Cross Partnership III, a twenty-year-old, Boston-based, “hands-on” consulting and turn-around firm focused on improving the operating and financial performance of businesses owned by financial sponsors. Over the past decade, Dick has served as an interim President/CEO, leading successful business transitions in eight companies over the past twelve years.