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Today's To-Do List: Find Meaning in What You Sell

Business owners often must do the seemingly impossible. For example, stressing quality and customer satisfaction to your employees is difficult when productivity and cost control are also critical.

Years ago I worked in what I affectionately describe as a "run-and-gun" printing production environment. Our goal wasn't to produce the highest quality product possible but to avoid customer complaints (and worse yet spoilages) while maximizing productivity.

Publicly management might have disagreed, but since there is often a difference between what is said and what is expected, on the shop floor we were well aware of the real expectations.

Understand I don't take issue with that balance between quality and productivity. Commodity production, especially when you compete on price, requires meeting quality expectations while maximizing output and minimizing cost.

Achieving that balance did have a lighter side. Questioned about a potential quality problem, one operator liked to say, "They still fit in the box, don't they?" Another said, "When in doubt... ship 'em out!" Still another operator followed the Inverse Square Principle of Quality: "When you hold it a little farther away... it looks a lot better."

My contribution, "Quality comes and goes, but numbers are forever," never caught on.

All of which explains why a customer presentation didn't make a major impact.

In the mid-eighties our plant expanded printing and binding capabilities to include bible and hymnal production. Convincing publishers we could reliably manufacture those products was evidently difficult. One publisher even sent a vice president to talk to some of us. I only remember one thing from the meeting:

"You aren't running books," she said. "You're running Bibles."

At first I assumed she was speaking from a religious perspective. Years later I realized her statement carried a larger meaning. Her point was a Bible can be more than just a book: It can also be a cherished gift, a source of comfort, or an heirloom passed on from one generation to the next. In short, a Bible can take on a meaning greater than the words it contains. Unlike a "regular" book, a Bible might be more than just a book to be read once and placed on a shelf; it could, over time -- even if never opened -- become an item that takes on real significance in a person's life.

So too can almost anything. What your business sells -- no matter how transitory -- may turn out to have a larger meaning. Your restaurant doesn't just serve food; your restaurant may create a touchstone for a family's memories. The mp3 player you sell may not just play music but could provide the soundtrack for a teenager's life. The clothing you sell might be worn on the first day of school or on a first date.

At the time I didn't take the VP's message to heart. I stayed focused outproducing other crews and setting production records. In large part that was my fault, but some of the responsibility does lie with the expectations management set.

What your business sells could at times create a major and lasting impact. Help your employees understand how they sometimes provide customers with a whole lot more than a product or service, even though they probably will never know when those moments occur.

Both your employees and your customers will benefit.

Photo courtesy flickr user Ash-rly, CC 2.0

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