The Myth of Excellence

— Why Great Companies Never Try to Be the Best at Everything — 

Although it was published a year before Shoshanna Zuboff and James Maxmin’s The Support Economy, The Myth of Excellence walks a similar path, encouraging companies who want to succeed to find the ‘new consumer,’ the one that most companies don’t understand and, therefore, don’t serve. It’s a huge — and largely untapped — market, a market concerned more with values than anything else. As Crawford and Mathews went on their “expedition into the commercial wilderness,” they encountered at least one consumer who described the situation this way: “I can find value everywhere but I can’t find values anywhere.”

During interviews and research with more than 10,000 consumers, company executives, and international clients, Crawford and Mathews concluded that “most companies priding themselves on how well they ‘know’ their customers aren’t really listening to them at all. Consumers are fed up with all the fuss about ‘world-class performance’ and ‘excellence.’ What they are aggressively demanding is recognition, respect, trust, fairness, and honesty.” That should come as no surprise in our imploding Enron-WorldCom-GlobalCrossing-ArthurAnderson-Countrywide-WallStreet world.

Crawford and Mathews define the ‘myth of excellence’ as the “false belief that a company ought to try to be good at everything it does.” Obviously, if you “misdiagnose the problem…, you almost inevitably misdiagnose the solution. Because businesses focus on increasing transactional value rather than nurturing sustaining relationships, and increasing the value of a transaction rather than worrying about the values surrounding the transaction, they almost intuitively adopt strategies aimed at becoming the best at every aspect of a transaction, an approach that leads to a lack of enterprise focus, which in turn confuses and alienates customers.”

Devising a “Consumer Relevancy” scale from their research and analysis, Crawford and Mathews identified five elements present in all commercial transactions — price, product, access, service, experience — and assigned a numerical value to each (1-to-5, lowest-to-highest). They’re not lost in Consultant Pollyanna permafrost, either. They found that businesses could profitably operate by being world-class (rated as 5) in only one of these areas, while differentiating around another aspect (a 4), and simply meeting the industry standard (a 3) on all the rest. Another caveat from Crawford and Mathews: companies shouldn’t try to be either a 5 or a 4 on more than one attribute. Nor can a business sink below par on any element. You must stay even (a 3) to stay in business, but if you’ve created too much differentiation (4s or 5s in more than one area), you’re “leaving money on the table.” Obviously, that’s not a good plan.

The crux of the matter is that “customers are looking for deeper levels of personal recognition and a clear statement of values, but their pleas are going largely unheeded by the businesses that serve them. The context in which your business engages consumers (in Wal-Mart’s case, the absolute trust of an honest low price) has grown in importance, eclipsing the content of your product or service. Most businesses have been improving their product offering since opening their doors, yet the context surrounding the transaction has been an afterthought, a necessary evil in the mindless dash for differentiation. Human values, not commercial value, have become the contemporary currency of commerce.”

Beware the focus of your marketing and advertising because it too often is “concerned with creating transactions rather than building relationships and emphasizes value over values. In short, it mirrors all of the mistakes being made by most businesses.”

To get with today’s consumer-oriented program, Crawford and Mathews recommend basing your efforts on their three Consumer Relevancy foundations: 1) human values are the contemporary currency of commerce; 2) human values determine commercial value; and 3) values are more important than value in the eyes of today’s consumer. They remind us that “context has overtaken content as the primary driver of consumer value. It is within the context of any commercial transaction that the representation of human values can be found. Consumer Relevancy defines the new competitive battleground and offers a blueprint for future success.”

Authors: Fred Crawford and Ryan Mathews
Published: New York: Crown Business ©2001

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos