Sunday, March 25, 2012

What can Apple and a Street Vendor teach us about selling Quality?



While trying to answer the question, How to Sell Quality? I looked around me for examples of how other successful sellers sell their wares. Wait, this is not very creative and I have never made any claim whatsoever that I am a creative person. In most cases it is sufficient to learn from what is already being done.

In recent years one of the most successful sellers has been Apple with its range iEverything. What do we learn from Apple? Many things. But, the most fundamental lesson is – have a real good product, which is really well designed and addresses a need that even the customer may not be aware exists.

At the other end of the spectrum are fruit and vegetable vendors down the street who do a marvelous job of selling. They stock their wares in a way that is attractive and remember the specific needs of regular customers. And most such vendors have never gone to school!

So, how do we sell quality? Let’s look at some lessons from Apple and a Street Vendor.

Know who your customer is. Both Apple and a vendor down the street know their customers well. They then design their product and process to attract such customers. Apple realized that the regular retail chains would not be able to position their products appropriately. They created a unique concept of the Apple Store which by footfalls and sales has become the benchmark for all retail chains. When you know your customer you can speak her language. Street vendors do this very well. I have seen so many of them adopt the local language (and there are so many in India) to ensure they connect with customers.

How do we do this for quality? Selling quality to the Leadership requires a good understanding of what will excite the current management. Unless you are the leadership team of Enron, you are likely to be interested in good robust products, short and long term profits, happy employees, and delighted customers. If people selling quality can connect their message to these needs, leadership is likely to listen.

It is futile now to believe that quality is that nice thing to do that should be done because I want it done. Leaders could be least bothered if we can’t connect it to what leaders want done.

Package your product well. Both Apple and the vendor down the street package the product and communication really well. Now, don’t compare. I am not saying you should get your daily fruits wrapped in a box like an iPhone. All I am saying these guys know how to package the overall product and communication around it.

How do we do this for quality? Package your programs and communication. Very often I find quality professionals believing that quality is the right thing to do and anyone not doing, is out of their mind. Learn from the fruit vendor who will even tell his regular customers that he didn’t have good fruits today. He will present his goods attractively, clean each fruit and keep them fresh and watered. Why? He knows all this matters. Most quality professionals don’t.

Deliver on your promises. Apple and the fruit vendor down the lane don’t make too many promises. But they keep all of them. When Apple brings a new version of the iPhone or iPad the promise is that it will be several times better than the earlier one and they won’t settle for anything less than a WOW. Fruit vendors also keep their promise of fresh fruits daily and will deliver to your home if you are a regular customer.

How do we do this for quality? Keep your promises. Big or small. Very often I have seen quality professionals promising the moon with Six Sigma and not even delivering some dust. We all promise reports and then don’t deliver. Many of us live a life of comfort away from the pressures of Operations or Sales. Then why do we bother when we don’t have the same weight in senior management?

Don’t lose sight of the Money! Ram Charan, one of the most influential management consultants around has commented on how smart the roadside vendors are. They deal in cash and turn their money around daily. Apple also always has an eye on money. It doesn’t discount its products much and also keeps prices high till it can. And makes tons of money.

How do we do this for quality? Keep an eye on how much money are you helping make or save. If quality programs cannot help a company make or save hard cash then they are not worth pursuing.  I have earlier proposed a marriage of quality and finance and still feel that such a marriage could help the quality profession flourish. Many CEOs have wondered where is all the Six Sigma saving coming from when none of it shows up on the balance sheet. I have tried, where possible, to collaborate with finance and ensure that any benefits are real and endorsed by finance.

In summary there is a lot to learn about selling quality to leadership from people around us. Quality professionals have to give up our ‘quality is the right thing to do’ attitude and ensure quality makes a traceable difference to profit. Once this happens, no leader will need any selling to be done!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Kingfisher Airlines: You can have fun IN business but not make fun OF business.


I know it is easy to be prophetic in hind sight but in Kingfisher’s case symptoms of troubled times have been around for over a year. And this has nothing to do with government policy and everything to do with poor management and even poorer leadership.  An indicator of all this was how Kingfisher responded to my complaint about baggage damage last year.  It was a small incident but it clearly conveyed to rot that had set in.

So, what can we learn from this debacle (though I sincerely hope Kingfisher roars back soon)?

Don’t have fun all around when your business is bleeding. Kingfisher went around buying F1 team and IPL teams when their airline business was bleeding. I know Vijay Mallya will say these are separate business but employees and customers don’t see it this way. You can’t be attending parties and having a gala time and let your business bleed. Get up and do something about it.

If you have to trust your son with business, please check for competence first. Clearly, Mallya senior was blinded by love for his son who was blinded by love for a starlet. Who is going to run the airline? The lack of maturity and poor management skills were on display earlier this year when Mallya junior got into an online squabble about rude behavior of his staff with an actress. If Mallya junior has to run the airline then it would be better to have some good management support for him. Which, clearly is lacking.

Don’t ruin a model that works to push a model that ‘may’ work.  Kingfisher bought Air Deccan when it made no sense to buy. They had different aircrafts and different business models. Running one Airline is tough and Mallya tried to run two.  Soon, he had to quit one model. Question – Why did you buy Air Deccan when you did not want to run it? The basic model of Kingfisher was clearly faulty. No has won by giving gold class service at tin class rates.

Don’t run a service business if you don’t have a service attitude. An airline is a service business where customers expect luxury. If you give some they want more. They also want to be treated well, even if she comes out of Mumbai airport and waits on the road in sweltering heat for a cab. Kingfisher got this right early on but at a high price. And that set the expectation. When it wanted to cut cost it could not do so because that would mean bringing service down. In the service business you always remain humble and say sorry. Service attitude is more than throwing money at customers.

Finally, in business, Ignorance is not Bliss. Having entered the airline business after due diligence, we Mallya senior cant now say costs are high and there is no level playing field. Yes there is none but then this was the case when you entered the business.

Personally, I would want Kingfisher to do well. Just as I would like any private enterprise to do well. What can Mallya do? Will save this question for another day.