The only four things in a business that matter

Woden works with organizations across the world, and in the past year alone I’ve had conversations with more than 400 CEOs on four continents, in dozens of industries, and in organizations ranging from recently funded startups to storied brands with hundreds of employees. Every one of these companies is different, and the discussions we shared reflected the unique challenges they faced, and opportunities they were pursuing.

Yet, underneath all of the dialogue about go-to-market strategy, raising their next funding round, or how to best lever social media, there were four threads that remained consistent in every situation. For each business, they felt success would boil down to solving four problems:

  • Attracting new customers
  • Retaining current customers
  • Finding the right people for their team
  • Improving their products or offerings

Even the most tactical challenge faced by these businesses was driven by the need to solve one of those four, core problems.

Winning new opportunities

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt reminds us: “Revenue solves all known problems.” Younger businesses in search of significant growth are always trying to figure out how to increase new user acquisition — even if they’re not ready to monetize them. One the best marketing blogs on the Internet, Kiss Metrics, has a great summary of ways seven different companies increased sales by over 400 percent, almost entirely using digital marketing. New customer growth isn’t limited to the world of marketers — traditional sales organizations are also rapidly evolving their approaches to increase revenue, shorten sales cycles, and leverage data to improve processes.

Exceeding client expectations

Retention boils down to exceeding the expectations of your customers, and few companies do it better than Amazon. Salesforce assembled seven of Jeff Bezos’ most valuable customer service lessons, and they’re all practices that should be implemented in any business. Even companies that struggle with this challenge are aggressively looking to solve it: Comcast is adding more than 5,500 jobs and aggressively managing process to improve customer experience, and turn around its low customer satisfaction ratings.

Attracting the right talent

Coursera is in the unenviable position of competing against Google and Facebook to attract talent, yet Chief Product Officer John Ciancutti has managed to grow his team three-fold in less than two years. The key for him is a process he’s refined over time, and is entirely focused on closing the deal from the minute he engages a potential hire. Once they’re in the door, you need to retain great hires, too. Entrepreneur magazine identified five companies with excellent retention, and identified the perks they offer, like working remotely, that keep people on board.

Refining your offerings

The CEO’s job is to try and put his company out of business before someone else does. That means developing or acquiring new products and services to offer customers, or better refine the ones he has. When it comes to new products or services, Monetizing Innovation author Madhavan Ramanujam argues that companies need to think about price before anything else. It’s price that determines whether a monetization strategy will be successful. And for companies that are already in business and chasing more market share, Yahoo will always be the definitive case study on adding breadth to your business without depth.

Great leaders maintain a laser-like focus on solving whichever of these items is most pressing in their business at any time. And no matter which challenge is most pressing in your business, the linked articles above provide invaluable advice on practices that can be put into place to improve performance and deliver results.

But none of them will lead to lasting change if you don’t address the underling problem — which many businesses ignore — first.

You can build the best interviewing process you want, and shower your employees with free lunches. But they’d still probably rather work for Zappos. Competitors could implement all the loyalty programs they want, but it’s unlikely Apple users will ever switch. Dillard’s has exceptional focus on sales processes, yet revenue is flat and employees are miserable. And just ask the Microsoft Zune team about what happens when you launch new product offerings as also-rans.

Organizations need to understand their story before they can create durable solutions to any of the great four problems. The story of an organization is its DNA. It explains why the organization exists, and why people should care. Well-constructed stories define the audience the brand seeks to serve, and positions it as the hero of the company’s efforts.

Woden calls this process the StoryKernel. It’s a short document (300-500 words) that defines the organization’s narrative using the Hero’s Journey narrative arc. When everyone in the organization understands the StoryKernel, it empowers solutions to problems that move the brand forward while increasing customer and team loyalty.

Effective process matters, but story (or positioning, if you prefer) needs to come first. Great process can deliver the success of the iPod or the failure of the Zune. The difference is whether you’re working to advance the organization’s narrative — in Apple’s case, to make beautiful products that are easy to use — or chasing market share.

Great companies like Zappos or Amazon are propelled forward by their story, but they implement it in every company process from sales to customer service to recruiting to product development. Their company cultures aren’t about Nerf guns and free lunch — they’re committed to bringing their brand story to life.

Woden’s StoryGuide projects are designed to align positioning and process. The StoryGuide maps out exactly how brands can apply their StoryKernel to each facet of their business, ensuring that all functions are working toward the same, shared vision of success.

Process is all about “what” the organization is doing, and how it’s going to improve. But, before you dive into creating solutions to the four challenges above, ask if you know why your customers are specifically relying on you to solve them. Devote the time to defining why your brand exists in the first place, and you will discover these problems are solved more consistently and by a broader cross-section of your team than ever before.