business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

A CEO friend once summarized his biggest internal challenge simply. His company had become a massive game of telephone, where messages are passed person to person until the entire meaning is twisted or lost.

In his case, the great challenge was figuring out how to race from the executive suite all the way to the front lines to hear what message ended up getting through. It was a task he could rarely perform.

(To see the only successful story of anyone doing just that, watch the movie Johnny Dangerously. When a prison gang mangles a vital message, Johnny can correctly decode it because, as he said, “I know this grapevine.”)

However, if you think it’s tough getting a message through from top to bottom, consider the opposite; a message working its way up. In short, it’s something that’s bound to fail even though the front line might have stunningly important information that goes nowhere.

I got two blasts of front line vision last week from two very different sources. In both cases, the lesson is worth sharing.

The first came from my daughter, Sarah, who’s currently working sales at an upscale women’s clothing chain. Although Sarah’s store attracts a well-off clientele in a fairly affluent area, she’s noticed a problem. The store urges its staff to market the company’s credit card to shoppers. Yet even in an affluent area, the financial/credit crunch makes that one awful idea.

As Sarah has found, women still want to make some clothing purchases, especially at a store with a reputation for quality and timeless style. But right now the last thing anyone wants is another credit card in his or her purse or on a credit report. Clearly, the company needs a different strategy to build customer loyalty at the moment. Sarah’s managers are terrific, but the chain of communication to stop this policy is more than daunting. So the store level vision is dying right there - at store level.

The second story comes from Domonique Debnam, a recent retailing graduate from Portland State University. Domonique believes there’s an institutional problem at work. “Retailing has a bottom up mentality. To be successful you have to start at the bottom and work your way up.” That’s neither shocking nor abhorrent, but Domonique articulates the drawback:

“By the time you get into a position where you can effect change you've been in the colony for 20 plus years and have the normal or traditional way of doing things ingrained in your head. This is how innovation is stifled. I could offer a million ideas for improving process or stores, but by the time I get to where I can actually implement change, they maybe outdated and irrelevant.”

It would be easy to tell both Sarah and Domonique to chill out or remind them of all they don’t know, except I think they both have a point. In a dynamic and diverse climate like we have today, the people best able to understand the needs and wants of the emerging shopper generation are the people whose voices are heard least. The fact that people like me use Facebook and Twitter doesn’t mean I’ve found the fountain of youth. It means that while I think I’ve caught up with Sarah, Domonique and their cohorts, they have moved on.

And we’ll have trouble finding them unless we have the right guides.

We’re always told that youth is wasted on the young. So are freshness and innovation. The front line might have a lot to tell us if only we learn how to listen.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
KC's View: