When long-successful brands begin to flounder—losing customers and market share, suffering high employee turnover, and seeing relationships with suppliers go sour—they often turn to consultants to help them figure out how to turn things around. It is often wise to bring fresh eyes to a problem.
However, the challenge with traditional consulting approaches is that they are primarily tactical, taking a narrow view of problem solving and suggesting highly focused fixes, like new accounting systems, tracking software, or recommending geographic areas for expansion. (Does it make sense for a struggling company to expand before they figure out how to turn things around?) Or they make suggestions that are difficult to execute at scale quickly.
And most importantly, in their solutions and suggestions, most consultants overlook the single-most important element for business success: Trust.
One reason legacy brands survive in the long term is because over time, constituents have come to trust that the business will treat them with respect. Consumers trust that the company will meet their needs consistently; employees trust that they will be adequately compensated as important assets to the company, and suppliers trust that they will be treated fairly.
What do customers see when they enter the store? Is it neat and inviting or chaotic and dirty? How are they treated when they call customer service? Are their needs met quickly or do they get stuck in an endless automated phone loop? Are your business hours convenient for your customers’ lives? Is the company responsive to the marketplace, providing what people need when they need it?
How your employees? Are their work hours steady and dependable or do they change up week to week, making planning difficult or impossible for the workers? Are you sensitive to the needs of parents and caregivers, perhaps even providing day care? Do you offer perks that improve their quality of life, such as health insurance or continuing education, or do you think the occasional pizza party should suffice? Does the company pay a living wage?
Your suppliers are also integral to your business’ success. Can they rely on receiving orders in a timely manner or is everything always we need it yesterday? Are you paying market value for their contributions or squeezing them just because you can? Do they have to chase payment down or are checks cut on a reliable schedule?
All of these things add up to whether or not yours is a trusted business up and down the line.
So what is the most important question a consultant can ask of a business’ constituents?
If the CEO were sitting right here, what would you tell them about the company?
To ask this question effectively, you’ll need to dig down to who your constituents really are—going to them if necessary. If your customers are likely to be in lower income brackets, an online survey might reach only a fraction of them. Can you reach them at home? Can you talk to them in your stores?
Your employees might be reluctant to speak candidly if they are not allowed anonymity, and you’ll want to reach a representative sample; parents will have different things to say than recent college graduates who will have different concerns than mid-career employees.
And your suppliers will need to feel assured that airing complaints will not endanger their relationship with your company. Your goal is to strengthen trust, and that starts with letting them speak with no fear of retaliation.
If your business is truly struggling, there is a very good chance the responses you get will sting. In that case, having a consultant doing the asking—rather than company representatives who might find themselves getting defensive—can be helpful. And you must go into this investigation with the understanding that rebuilding trust is neither a quick fix nor an inexpensive one. You are not just adding wallpaper and repainting the trim; you are shoring up the foundation of your company to ensure that it stands strong for decades to come.
Successful business transformation doesn’t come from the top down, it comes from the bottom up. By really listening to stakeholders talk about their experience of the company, steeling themselves to hear unpleasant truths, and taking complaints seriously, company leaders can target changes that will enhance everyone’s experience, ensuring that employees want to do their best, suppliers are invested in the company’s success, and customers want to return again and again.
A visionary leader, business accelerator, and industry futurist, Zain Raj, author of The Pyramid Puzzle, combines innovation and creativity to create new business models for the future. Chairman and CEO of Shapiro+Raj, an independent research and insights company. Zain is also the founder and CEO of zednext, an ideas incubator that takes an objective and disruptive look at issues and trends to help marketers and business leaders realize their full potential in a data-driven, digitally-led, and insights-driven world. Raj is also the author of Marketing for Tomorrow, Not Yesterday and Brand Rituals: How Successful Brands Bond with Customers for Life.
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