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Pouring the foundation for business success: Cement customer relations with a clear mission statement

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Pouring the foundation for business success: Cement customer relations with a clear mission statement

Picture a general addressing his nervous troops on the eve of a decisive battle. He implores them to fight fiercely for the honor of everything and everyone they hold dear. He stresses that the safety of their loved ones rests on how courageously they perform on the midnight battlefield.

Then the general strides over to a second group of soldiers and orders them to conquer the enemy or die trying. The objective, he thunders, is to earn him that elusive fifth star and secure a heftier pension. It's a safe bet the first group of soldiers will hit the battlefield with a steely resolve to give their all.

It's just as certain the second bunch would rather smash rocks in the hot sun than put their leader's objectives ahead of their own self-interest.

The do-or-die spirit of an army unit is the essence of what an enlightened executive must instill in the men and women under his command. That lofty goal is attainable, but only if the answers to three fundamental questions are clearly articulated, strategically disseminated and consistently reinforced:

1. Why does the organization exist?

2. Where is it going?

3. How does it need to act to get there? The answers to these questions must be precisely expressed -- in a mission statement, vision statement and statement of operating values -- and held with conviction throughout the culture.

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"Conviction" is the operative word. If a company's mission, vision and values aren't genuinely believed and championed by top management, they're just words on paper. Ah, but when conviction is convincing, the organization rises above the sum of its parts and produces inspired employees.

Until it clicked into place at my company, I never would have believed how much passion and creative energy could be unleashed when mission, vision and values are moving in sync. The change is palpable. It's also contagious. That's where I got the title for this article. When you hit your mission statement, vision statement and statement of operating values, you're symbolically "pouring the foundation."

Today, we'll zero in on the first body of business' holy trinity, the mission statement. Sure, it's Business 101 -- something most companies have in place. But is it working? In seat-of-the-pants outfits, it's often just slapped together, a generic, white-bread substitute devoid of motivational nutrients. Or, tons of time has been invested only to produce something too complicated to be memorable. Even if a mission statement jumps those hurdles, it often hasn't been integrated effectively into the culture.

Take a look at your mission statement. Is it on the front or back burner of people's minds? Does it drive your company's culture and inspire employees? Or is it brought out like a what-were-they-thinking wedding gift that sees the light of day only when the in-laws visit?

A mission statement is fundamentally immutable. Carve it in granite and display it behind unbreakable glass. Market forces, business strategies and senior management may shift, but a good company's core purpose is timeless.

Through boom and bust, 3M Co.'s mission will always be "To solve unsolved problems innovatively." Likewise, even when aggressive competition impacts Sony Corp.'s marketing tactics, its mission remains "To experience the joy of advancing and applying technology for the benefit of the public."

These missions don't reference profits or shareholder value. Their purpose is to inspire people to throw themselves into the work they love and make a difference in the world.

The power of a well-stated mission lies in its unifying effect. Like a maestro, it directs everyone to play the same song at the right tempo and in the right key. Without a codified mission -- or when a mission statement gathers dust like a gold-plated plaque in some long-forgotten storeroom -- exuberance and gusto give way to inertia and apathy.

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Embody your mission statement

"To help restore people to full life."

That's the essence of Minneapolis-based Medtronic Inc.'s six-part, 171-word mission. It's also the mantra Ann Krzmarzick heard in each of the eight interviews she endured to become a communications specialist at the world-renowned medical technology company. It was a test of sorts. If Medtronic's mission didn't resonate, the human resources manager told her, she should look elsewhere for employment.

Ann smiled and nodded. It was a catchy sound bite, but she figured it would have about as much impact as a bumper sticker on her day-to-day duties.

She figured wrong. Ann quickly discovered that those seven words were the beating heart of Medtronic's corporate body.

"I didn't realize," she said, "that the light of that mission would shine so brightly on the everyday work in communications, given that we're fairly removed from direct patient care." The mission is consistently -- almost reverently -- referenced in every meeting and memo. It informs every decision at every level. It even reaches all the way to the annual holiday party, where six bona fide patients share their stories of heartache, hope and renewal. There's never a dry eye in the house.

Surveys reveal that nearly every one of Medtronic's 26,000 employees knows the company's mission statement and how it applies to their job. They're inspired because they know their work makes a big difference in people's lives. Is it any wonder that Medtronic always appears on Fortune magazine's list of "100 Best Companies to Work For"?

At Tires Plus, we expressed the guiding principle of our company's existence through our 13-word mission: "Deliver caring, world-class service to our guests, our community, and to each other." A noble sense of purpose was essential for attracting quality employees. Most people consider working in the tire business only a little more appealing than getting a root canal. The industry is often thought of as dirty, unprofessional, and sometimes even dishonest. So why would people come work for us? Not to sell tires, but to improve the lives of customers, employees, and the world at large. After all, people, not tires, make the world go round.

I served as a walking advertisement for our mission statement, as illustrated by this story offered up by my company co-founder, Don Gullett. Don, whose development department was in charge of remodeling and upgrading our stores, chartered a small, four-seat aircraft one day so that he, a contractor, a real estate agent, and I could visit all four of our stores in and near North Dakota. We landed in Fargo first and rented a car. "As we were driving into the parking lot of our store there," Don recalled, "Tom jumped out while the car was still rolling, ran over, and started talking to two people. The three of us just looked at each other, wondering what he was doing."

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I had spotted the couple coming out of the store and had sensed by their expressions that they weren't happy. I asked if there was a problem. (There shouldn't have been, because a big part of our mission was empowering store employees to resolve customer complaints.) I found out what they were upset about, got them to walk back inside, got it resolved, and turned them into happy customers. "It would have been very easy for someone in Tom's position to have remained in the car until we had finished parking," Don noted. "But by the time we had gotten out of the car and into the store, those people would have driven off. So Tom jumped out and went out of his way to introduce himself and correct the situation. I'm sure he left a lasting impression on that store's personnel, not to mention those customers."

Our corporate commandment -- "Thou shalt be caring" -- was like a global positioning satellite that helped our people navigate the choppy waters of day-to-day decision making. More important, it helped managers identify and capitalize on "coachable moments" -- instances when an employee's actions conflicted with our mission.

For instance, our follow-up system required us to contact customers not more than 48 hours after providing a price quote. On a regular systems-review visit to a suburban Minneapolis store, I checked the phone log and saw that a teammate was skipping the follow-up call. Turns out he hadn't been properly trained and wasn't sure how to do it. So I spent some time teaching him the ropes. When it was time for him to make an actual call, I listened in.

The woman he called told him she had opted to buy new tires from Firestone. "Oh, that's too bad," he said, "you really missed out." After he hung up, I said, "Wow, you basically told her she made a bad decision. How do you think that made her feel? Do you remember what our mission is?" He stammered, "To give caring, world-class service to our guests?" I asked if that phone call was consistent with the mission. He acknowledged it wasn't. "If somebody tells us their needs were taken care of," I said, "our reply should be, 'I'm glad you got what you needed. Your car is safer and will handle better now, and that's what's most important. Next time you're in the market, we'd love to have another opportunity to serve you.'" I stressed that alienating a potential customer today means we're also slamming the door shut on future sales. But that's not why people should be treated with respect. When you genuinely care about their well-being, without regard to expectations and outcomes, the goodwill generated benefits everyone.

We upheld our mission statement's integrity just as vigilantly for our "internal customers." If an employee treated a colleague rudely, I challenged him. I wanted amends made and behavior corrected immediately. "How would you feel if somebody treated you that way?" I'd ask. "How would you react?" I'd remind the offender in no uncertain terms that our mission called for everyone in the company to deliver caring service to each other, and that caring about and being of service to others was what we were all about.

Emphasizing worker civility isn't just the right thing to do. It's also practical. The average "Fortune 1,000" boss spends 13% of his time refereeing his staff, according to a study by the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California. Do the math. That's seven squandered weeks every year, a crippling price for neglecting to put your manners where your mission is.

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Retool your mission

Is your company's mission in mothballs? Two words: huge opportunity. Re-igniting your mission can set off sparks that fire up the whole team. Stir things up at the next executive-team meeting. Ask if anyone can state the mission from memory, or at least its essence. If they can't, chances are no one can. And that means your mission registers a big fat zero on the inspiration scale.

Looks like it's time for an update. First, convene a brainstorming session with top brass. The leaders (hopefully) have an innate sense of the company's purpose. (Hint: A management consultant can smooth the process if her focus is fixed on facilitating; the question of purpose requires an insider's insight.) How to begin? Start by describing your offering. Ask, "Why is that important?" Challenge what the group comes up with, asking again and again, "How does that help our customer?" Go deeper still until you finally punch through the brick wall of logic and tap into people's hearts. After five or six iterations -- the whole thing could take two or three sessions -- odds are you'll nail the essence of why you're in business.

Now, it's tweak time. Create opportunities for every employee to pitch in. Reach out to resident wordsmiths and deep thinkers by posting drafts of the mission wherever people will see it -- elevators, bathrooms, paycheck envelopes. Send it out in an e-mail blast. Call a company-wide meeting. Tell people how to submit their ideas. Getting everyone involved -- and assuring them that all suggestions will be valued -- builds trust and teamwork.

Before you know it, a well-scrubbed mission statement will be hanging on your office wall.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company's chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.

Thanks to Tom's warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team's relentless focus on customer service, the company's turnover rate ranked among the industry's lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer's Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems (www.gegax.com) to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is already a national bestseller. It can be ordered on the www.moderntiredealer.com home page.

Gegax can be reached via e-mail at tom.gegax@gegax.com or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).

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