I spend much of my time speaking to business audiences, but I learn the most when I listen to the audience. Consider, for example, what I learned at a gathering of retail bankers from across the country — a lesson that applies to the truckstop business just as much as to the financial business.
The event was in a cheerful setting, but the mood was somber. Most of the talk emphasized how brutally competitive the business had become. Market forces were wreaking havoc on profit margins; mergers and acquisitions were reshaping the competitive landscape; customers were becoming tough, demanding, fickle. Sound familiar?
It was enough to make me, as an outsider, feel sorry for the group—until one industry expert explained the real source of the problems. This consultant, whose firm has conducted thousands of “mystery shops” and interviews with front-line employees at retail banks, told the gathering that during their visits, his researchers always ask employees a simple question: “As a customer, why should I choose your bank over the competition?” And two-thirds of the time, he said, front-line employees have no answer to that question — they either stay silent or “make something up on the fly.”
The audience wasn’t all that surprised. I was stunned: How can any company of any size expect to outperform the competition when its own employees can’t explain—simply and convincingly—what makes them different from the competition and better than they’ve ever been?
Think about it. If that consultant’s researchers walked through your truckstops and started tapping your people on the shoulder, would they have something clear and convincing to say about what makes you different and better? Would what they say stand out from what employees at other truckstops would say? And would most of your people say more or less the same thing — is there a shared mindset about what makes you special? What do you promise that no one else can promise? What do you deliver that no one else can deliver?
Here’s the simple lesson: It’s not good enough anymore to be pretty good at everything. Your operation has to become the most of something — the most affordable, the most convenient, the most colorful, the most obsessed with service. For so long, companies and their leaders were comfortable operating in the middle of the road. That is, in theory, where the customers were, that’s what felt safe and secure. But today, with so much change, so much pressure, so many new ways to do just about everything, The middle of the road has become the road to nowhere. What are you the most of—and how do you become even more of that?
Over the past months, I’ve thought back often to what I heard at that conference, and to the companies I’ve met in all sorts of industries that are delivering positive results in difficult conditions. My conclusion: You can’t do big things if you’re content with doing things a little better than everyone else. The only way to stand out from the crowd is to stand for something special.
So set aside the products and services around which you’ve built your business. What are the ideas that define how you do business—and that distinguish you from how everyone else in your field does business?
All those bank employees couldn’t answer any of those questions very convincingly. Can you and your employees? And if not, why do you think you or your company are going to win?
This article originally ran in Stop Watch magazine. Stop Watch provides in-depth content to assist NATSO members in improving their travel plaza business operations and provides context on trends and news affecting the industry.
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