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Who’s Your Customer Conscience?

Mike Lessiter

Few realize how close we came to nuclear war in 1962. Nor do they know the name of the one person responsible for stopping it — Vasily Arkhipov.

On October 27, 1962, 11 U.S. Navy vessels surrounded a Russian submarine near Cuba. Not knowing the Russian sub was carrying nuclear warheads, the U.S. began dropping depth charges to force it to surface. By the way, the three Russian officers aboard the sub were instructed to fire the warheads if all three officers agreed.

Now keep in mind that, as the Russian sub reeled and rocked from the charges, all communications with the Kremlin were cut off. Thinking that the explosions meant world war had erupted, two hot-tempered Russian officers argued with the third, Arkhipov, to launch. But the steadfast Arkhipov refused to budge. And just maybe you and I are around today because of him.

This reminds us what a perilous line we can walk — unknowingly at times — each day. However grounded you are in your mission, one decision can take you off course, and the tide can carry you places you never intended. That’s why, like Arkhipov, you’ve got to fight for and protect what defines you.

As shared here before, our 29-year-old company has grown swiftly over the last 6 years, more than doubling in size and productivity while taking on acquisitions and launches in new markets. At this kind of pace, some key decisions must occur in less time than it takes to down a cup of coffee.

Some time ago, my dad, Frank, announced himself as our company’s official “Customer’s Conscience.” The best way I can describe this is to say that issues that would never get a second thought elsewhere can be hotly contested at our place. Things like the readability of a typeface, a minor change in a pricing or subscription policy, the shipping method of a special management report or an article’s alternative view that should be shared, even if we’re on deadline. It’s long been ingrained that we need to pass the customer “sniff test.” We’re a stronger company because of it, I must admit, and our people end up being prouder of their finished work.

In a recent memo to staff, I commented that a business can truly differentiate itself by care and pride. I say this because I’ve seen business pressures weaken the core principles at firms whose founders never would’ve let it happen. Unfortunately, it’s a natural consequence that will likely continue as the entrepreneurial generation fades.

Examples are all around us. Things like suppliers trying to force systems and policies with little regard for its effects on you (the first customer) or the farmer. Or the salesman who pushes a not-quite-ideal piece of equipment on a customer because of a manufacturer spiff. Let me ask you, are these sorts of things happening more, or less, than 20 years ago? And doesn’t one crack in the iron usually bring another?

Entrepreneurs thrived because of their commitment to doing business a certain way, which stemmed mostly from their own personal pride and satisfaction. When you canvass the best operations in our business today, you find that they’ve protected these ideals — they maintain a strong customer focus (they know who they’re in business for), possess an empowered, engaged team, and don’t measure success by numbers alone.

If you’ve veered off course, you can right the ship. But it takes work. It starts with a team that cares about the “little things” — who want to do things right as much for themselves as for the customer. If, from top to bottom, you can execute with this kind of care and pride, there’s no reason not to expect success. In fact, more so than ever, it’s where you can outshine your competition.

Posted April 13, 2010


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