Pubic hairs, elephant hunters and marginal gains

By Matthew Parker, Chief Executive / 8th July 2018

Senior executives tend to be elephant hunters. We look for the ‘next big thing’: that single project that will transform our company’s fortunes and help us ring the NASDAQ bell. We’d often rather spend £500,000 on something transformational that will probably fail to deliver its promised benefits than spending £500 on a ‘tweak’ that will almost certainly work. Like Chairman Mao, we continually seek the ‘Great Leap Forward’.

We tend to seek the shortcut to greatness. And that’s a problem.

Dave Brailsford realised this in 2010. Realising there were no ‘elephants’ left to hunt, he turned to making those all-important tweaks. He believed that if a team identified all of the elements that comprise the task of competing on a bike, and then improved each element by 1%, they would achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance.

This began with painting the floors of the workshop to highlight dust, included countless hours in the wind tunnel, and even a refusal to shake hands at the Olympics to avoid performance-damaging bugs. They ‘searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities’.

In other words, his belief was that that transformational performance is achieved not through expenditure, but through the aggregation of marginal gains. Side-stepping any accusations of the additional gains he may have achieved through chemically-derived performance enhancers, his theory stands that this is how he took his team to greatness.

So, given we are not trying to win the Olympics or Giro d’Italia, what race are we all trying to win?

We believe, irrespective of the industry you work within, it’s the race to deliver a competitor-beating customer experience. The fact that 89% of consumers see a great customer experience as a key factor when deciding which company to do business with makes this vital in helping a business win in its own market.

Our belief is that there are no more ‘next big things’, and that for most organisations, competitive advantage is rarely found in the big things anyway. We believe that competitive advantage is to be found in the tweaks. And what we imagine is that for most companies, the aggregation of little things is the sum of the customer’s experience, particularly in travel and hospitality.

Fortunately, most hoteliers and travel leaders get it. They are raised from the start of their career to understand that the little things matter. They know only too well that a stray pubic hair in the hotel bathroom can be the difference between 5 or 1 stars on Trip Advisor. They know it’s the little things that get the 5-star review – whether it’s the rep who found the child’s lost toy, or the non-dairy milk in the welcome pack – because ‘they remembered’.

But what we still see far too often is that there is a tendency to think that the customer experience starts at the human to human point, with a smiling face at reception or the destination airport. We disagree. We think the customer experience starts from the first interaction between a brand and a prospective customer, and for us, that’s often the very first conversation – whether this has taken place in person, over the phone, or through instant chat, social media or any other channel of conversation.

Our belief is simple: if every conversation is optimised by just 1%, the aggregated impact of that will, on the bottom line, be competitor beating. These conversations are the little things.

And so, using the law of marginal gains, it stands to reason that little improvements in the little things is what it takes to beat the competition. And that, unfortunately, is most senior executives’ idea of Hell. That’s why the little things are too often left to the ‘little people’ – and that is a massively wasted opportunity. There are, as Dave Brailsford said, ‘countless opportunities’ for small improvements, so why not take advantage of this?

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blogs on the ‘little things’: the marginal gains that can be achieved with little effort and little to no cost. Our focus will be on the world of communications technology, because that’s what we do. Whether it’s through your contact centre, your sales teams or your entire organisation, our goal is to share our ideas that on their own will make little difference, but combined with other 1% ideas will make all the difference in the world.

Stay tuned…


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