How to Remain Relevant

Editor’s Note: This article was authored by Ross Shafer, who will be speaking at Winter Management Conference 2017 in Puerto Rico, February 5-9.

rossWhether you own a company or work for one, we all want to be important to our constituents. That’s called relevance. It’s worth noting that remaining relevant is very different from “staying current.” Remaining relevant means we truly matter to our customers and our teams. Remaining relevant means that our products, services, and expertise are in demand.

However, once we become irrelevant, our customers will take their money to our competitors and our team members will look for jobs elsewhere. 

So, after studying 18 different industries, here are my top four ways to stay relevant in any economic climate.

1. Kill complacency. Behave like a startup again.

Every successful company started out as a shoestring startup. But, as they become more successful and financial and talent resources are increasingly plentiful, complacency can creep in. Urgency starts to languish. In fact, many legacy companies will slow down processes; thinking “perfection is worth waiting for.” I can’t argue with the spirit of that thinking but the legacy company can’t be too slow-to-market. It’s too easy to have your lunch eaten by a young energetic startup.

 Startups haven’t learned complacency yet. They are quick-to-market and often launch in “beta mode.” For the uninitiated, beta mode signals to the customer, “we still have some bugs to work out but we want you to have our newest version anyway.” Take a look at the apps on your smart device. If the app isn’t perfect, you know you’ll get updates from the cloud soon.

Startups make decisions quickly and they bend over backwards to please their customers because every tiny ‘win’ is critical to their survival. Each person likely performs several jobs, which allows everyone in the startup to be savvy about disparate operations. Startups don’t fret over losing long term relationships because they don’t have any yet. Instead, they tackle every new client with enthusiasm and creativity. They will do anything to get the sale.

So, how can you infuse your legacy company with the startup mentality?

First, restore your corporate sense of urgency by reacting to market conditions much more urgently than you have been. Challenge everyone to think in faster launch cycles. Try to remember that, these days, perfection is a work in progress.

Second, ask yourself, “What are we doing that is causing customers/clients/members to complain?” Complaints are the first red flags for where your company is “leaking money.” Understand that we all operate in a recommendation economy. If we don’t curate our complaints our customers will jump to social media as a public service to their friends…your other customers. That’s why a startup responds immediately to every complaint. Their mantra is, “Before I let you go is there anything else I can do for you.”

Third, go beyond the complaints and ask yourself, “Where are the friction points when people buy from us?”  Examine every sequence/step in your sales, order, and delivery processes. Look for ways to streamline everything. If a process is clumsy or requires too many steps (or paperwork), your revenue is at risk.

I would urge you to get out of the office and physically watch your buyers as they go through the process of buying from you. If you can do it anonymously – like the Undercover Boss TV show - that’s even better. You’ll see first-hand if buying from you is easy and fast…or confusing and slow. You’ll see what training has been neglected. You’ll see if your website has glitches that prevent people from finding what they want. In the flurry of running a business, these kinds of problems can go on for a long time…right up until you bump your head on Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

2. Embrace Disruption

Disruption is a very different market force than change. Think of disruption as a tidal wave. Change is merely a cross current.

For me, the definition of business disruption is when an industry is flipped on its head so violently by a new product or process that the very existence of a legacy company is threatened. Microsoft disrupted IBM when it made personal computing available to everyone. FedEx overnight delivery was disrupted when broadband Internet made it possible to email large documents within seconds via FTP sites. 3-D printing has disrupted almost every manufacturing segment. Today, 3-D printers are so sophisticated they can “print” everything from high tensile strength auto parts to dinosaur-shaped showerheads.

So how do you remain relevant if you sense there is a sharp disruption in your industry…one that might forever alter the way you do business? You have two choices: (1) You can notice that a disruption is taking place in your industry and embrace it or (2) YOU can become The Disruptor. You suss out how your industry SHOULD or WILL change - and YOU lead the charge. It is always better to be The Disruptor before somebody disrupts your world for you.

3. Do not be intimidated by larger competitors

Whenever I talk about this subject I get initial pushback because it sounds counterintuitive. How is that possible? Big companies are supposed to have more resources, more buying power, and able to attract the best employees, right?  Well, from my 20 years of experience studying and consulting enterprises of all sizes, BIG enterprises most often fear the SMALL ones.

Here’s how it works. If you operate a business within your local community (from a smaller office or plant, or even your home) you can have an enormous personal connection with your customers. You are a name, and a face, and a place of business your community can witness firsthand. You know people and people know you; which makes you someone your community sees as accountable. People assume you care about where you live and that you wouldn’t risk your reputation by messing up. Furthermore, if you are a member of your local chamber of commerce or a service organization, you have the opportunity to offer a direct contribution of time and energy to help make your community better. THAT matters to people. I’m not just talking about writing a check for softball jerseys. I’m saying that your personal participation can build trust and cement an emotional commitment with your neighbors.

4. Make excellence a relentless pursuit  

You will always stay relevant if you are perceived as “world-class” in execution. Your customers feel safe in your care and have the belief that you will keep evolving as their needs evolve. To illustrate how this practice pays off, I want to introduce you to Dave Hopla. He’s the world’s greatest basketball shooter.

Dave Hopla was very deliberate in achieving his dream. For years he would shoot 1,000 free throws every day. Eventually he was hired by schools to teach young ballers how to shoot. Today, Dave is the shooting coach for the New York Knickerbockers NBA team. Dave is such a world-class performer that he has sunk 1,127 consecutive free throws without missing. As outstanding as Dave is as a shooter, it’s his profound observation about consistent success that inspires me.  Dave says, “Maintaining world-class expertise is a daily challenge because once we have a certain amount of success, we have a tendency to eliminate the behaviors that made us successful.” I think that’s profound. Dave’s process of excellence applies to how we should all approach our jobs. When you get good at your job you start delegating to someone else…usually to someone who isn’t as skilled as you. This is a bad move because performance is bound to slip. This kind of relapse applies to the 50 pounds you lost last year. Once you hit your goal weight you slacked off and the weight came back. It applies to getting the education degree you wanted. Once you stopped taking classes to learn new things, the world left you behind. It applies to romancing your mate.  While you were dating, life was perfect. But soon after the two of you became an official family, the courtship began to have problems.

So how can we avoid slipping back into our old ways? Dave Hopla has an answer for that, too. Dave never falls into this relapse trap because he never fails to execute his daily shooting fundamentals. He still shoots a minimum of 1,000 shots a day. He never takes a day off because he won’t risk losing what he’s worked so hard to achieve. Think about how Dave’s method applies to your life – and your career. If your success is stumbling, it’s probably because you’ve let your fundamentals atrophy. I realize some of you have to delegate some of your duties and responsibilities. But make sure your ‘chosen delegate’ has achieved your level of excellence.

About the Author

Ross Shafer is the author of nine popular business books on leadership, innovation, market share, customer experience, and personal performance. to download his free e-Books and watch his YouTube channel.