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The One Thing

Categories: Distribution, Management, Sales & Marketing

By Skip Seal | May 7, 2018 << Back to Articles The One Thing

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In the 1991 film “City Slickers,” the lead character Mitch (played by Billy Crystal) is a New York, NY, radio-ad salesman in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He and his two closest friends decide that a cattle drive at a New Mexico dude ranch would make for the perfect vacation. A particularly interesting conversation ensues when Curly (played by Jack Palance), the tough-as-nails veteran cowboy, is riding alone with Mitch looking for stray cattle:

“Curly: How old are you? 38?
Mitch: 39.
Curly: You all come up here about the same age, same problems. You spend about 50 weeks a year gettin’ knots in your rope and then you think two weeks up here will untie ‘em for you. None of you get it. You know what the secret of life is?
Mitch: No, what?
Curly: This (holding up his index finger).
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean s—.
Mitch: That’s great, but what’s the one thing?
Curly: That’s what you gotta figure out.”

Curly is right. When your company hits a crossroads or a mid-life crisis, will you remember what The One Thing is for your company?

Whether trying to take advantage of the good times or survive through the bad times, distribution executives are forever thinking of and investing in “things” to move their company forward, solve problems, and otherwise survive. They may be trying to overcome tough times due to the economy, an aging or complacent sales force, market changes, government initiatives, or severe competition.

They may be trying to take advantage of good times due to the economy, a vibrant sales force, market changes, government initiatives, or favorable competition. This brings to mind a proverb former U.S. President John F. Kennedy often quoted: “A rising tide lifts all boats.” Distributor management may just go along for the ride and wait for the next tough time to fine-tune their business model. These managers are often piloting leaky boats that should stay close to shore so they can keep their heads in the sand!

Regardless of timing, when attempting to fine-tune the business model, distributors may purchase software and training programs, bring in new products, penetrate new markets, or hire consultants. Every now and then, the money and time invested in these initiatives is done by middle management trying to justify their existence. It is stunning the exotic programs that get created! One distributor invested in a software program that promised to eliminate back orders. It did—every “back-ordered item” became a “new order.” However, the “new order” rarely met minimums, which led to freight charges being passed to the customer and no commission paid to the salesperson on that item. Don’t get me wrong; we are all about new ideas and new technology, but only in support of good, solid programs.

Ensuring Success

After years of observing, working with, and enduring countless scenarios whereby distributor managers look for the magic to endure tough times or take advantage of good times, I stand amazed at how often they overlook The One Thing that can ensure―yes, ensure―the survival and even the success of their business.

I recently had the pleasure of working with a wholesale distributor that is experiencing not just one of the tribulations listed above, but several of them all at once. The most prominent problems include an aging and complacent sales force, inadequate warehouse space, severe competition, loss of key personnel, history of narrow market focus, and new government regulations. In spite of all this, this distributor is doing well―much better than could be expected under these circumstances.

We were brought in to evaluate the challenges, make suggestions, and outline plans to move forward. The company informed its staff that we were not “undercover bosses,” but were there to offer an objective evaluation and strategic advice on to how to better serve their customers. While this distributor was pleased with our work, we benefited as well from what we learned. This experience enabled us to put into words what had been in front of us for years.

This particular project was a pleasure because the owners know, embrace, and enforce The One Thing. If you work for this company, you put the customer first! It is just that simple. Every decision that is made and every interaction between employees, vendors, and customers is influenced by The One Thing. This distributor’s team is always expected to under-promise and over-deliver, to be able to say no in such a way as to not alienate people, and to be candid and honest.

Did I learn this by riding with sales people, meeting with employees, and listening to management? No. Rather, there is only one way that I know of to garner this information: to ride with the delivery drivers, wear the uniform (in this case, jeans and a company shirt―not my usual coat and tie), and then ask questions and listen to the customers. When I did this with a distributor whose management had already helped identify numerous challenges, what I learned surprised me. The customers absolutely love this distributor! Why? The One Thing!

For this distribution company, The One Thing is finely defined as “everyone—all the time—must focus on the customer!”

We can purchase all the programs available, hire superstars, and so on. But if any of these actions cause management to lose focus on the customer, vulnerability sets in. When considering changes or even maintaining the status quo, owners should ask the question, “How will this change, project, or strategy affect our customers?”


About the Author.

Skip Seal is a trainer and consultant with more than 30 years management experience in the cleaning industry. Seal is a LEED Accredited Professional and a Cleaning Industry Management Standard (CIMS) ISSA Certification Expert (I.C.E.). Seal supports distributors across the country with sales and operation analysis, new market penetration, and sales training. He can be reached at skip@seal-360.com.