Excellence isn’t enough

By Mark Sanborn

bmw logoA car is a car, but a BMW is a driving machine. (BMW enjoys the highest profit margin in the luxury car segment.)

There is the iPad, and then there are products generically called “tablets.”

And why the premium on bags with the easily recognized Gucci logo?

Sameness we forget. Distinctive we remember, pay more for and tell others about. Success in 2013 and beyond isn’t about being excellent, good or even great. It is about being distinctive.
Excellence used to be the goal of every successful business. Today it isn’t enough and here’s why:

  1. Excellence is relatively easy to accomplish. A good copycat watches what the industry leader is doing and then does the same things. If you’re only excellent, you’re vulnerable.
  2. Excellence is a moving target. Today’s “excellent” can be next month’s “mediocre.” In a competitive market, the trend is always towards better, so excellence can never be something you attain with finality.
  3. The more excellent you become, the more demanding your customers become. A customer’s expectations increase over time based on previous experience. Getting better drives customer expectations up.

In essence, the biggest problem with excellence is that it isn’t distinctive. The killer marketplace strategy is to be distinctive: to go beyond excellent to offer something distinct and unique to your company. That way if customers ever go someplace different, they’ll miss the distinction you represent and return.
So what are the marks of distinction?
There are several things common to all companies who achieve distinction. They are: engaged people, involved customers, perpetual innovation and strategic execution.

Engaged Employees.  Engagement is about focus and passion; attention and intention. Engaged employees are involved with their work and compelled to do it with panache. The challenge is to get people as engaged about their work as they are about their outside interests and hobbies. Engaged people work smarter, serve better and come up with new ideas.

Involved customers. To have fans, you need involved customers. Involvement creates ownership and passion. Involved customers give feedback, and you listen. They make suggestions, and you take note. They ask questions and you answer. They tell others and you enter into the conversation. Today, the old adage might no longer be true: no news may not be good news. No news from those who buy and use your products probably means they aren’t involved.

Perpetual Innovation. This includes both incremental and revolutionary improvements. The status quo is a myth. You’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. I first heard Woody Hayes, late coach of The Ohio State Buckeyes say those words over 20 years ago and they are as true today than ever. Innovation must be applied to everything: operations, products and even how we think and lead.

Strategic Execution. You can write a million lines of computer code, but until you add the four characters “.exe”, the code is worthless. Business dominance isn’t about how much you know, but how well you apply and execute what you know. It’s a matter of IQ. That doesn’t stand for “intelligence quotient” but rather implementation quotient, and that is the difference between common knowledge and consistent application.

The future will be anything but boring. I hope you share my enthusiasm for challenge, because as business leaders, you have plenty of them. Just make sure you get serious about pursuing and developing distinction.