Published on: June 9, 2009by Michael Sansolo
Dining at a recent conference, I saw no great symbolism in placing my napkin of my lap. My friend Joy Nicholas, however, saw it very differently. She called over the server and asked if she could get a black napkin instead of the white one provided.
I had to ask why. White cloth napkins, she explained, tend to leave some color behind on dark slacks. Almost instantly, three women at the table pulled away their white napkins and agreed that Joy was correct. Apparently white napkins leave some color on women’s slacks, not men’s. One of the women said she didn’t know the reason, but it happens and they don’t like it.
It was a marvelous insight courtesy of Joy and the three other women who were now insisting on black napkins at my table. As women become an increasingly large portion of the audience at conferences and banquets, you’d think someone in the hospitality industry would have noticed Joy’s issue. I have to imagine that the cost of supplying black napkins instead of white would be negligible, yet the impact would be huge.
As the wonderful Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” It is something we all need to do.
Finding those little things that make the difference between satisfying a customer or leaving them wanting is always the key to business. The problem is figuring out what those things are and making sure your focus never wavers too far from them.
We had a classic business case of attention to detail play out this week on the front pages of the Washington Post. Two major US companies were on the front page on successive days: General Motors for its slide into Chapter 11 (and it announcement of new plans) and Walmart for its annual meeting.
The General Motors story has elements that every business needs to study, discuss and learn from. From losing control of costs to underestimating emerging competitors to - most importantly - losing touch with core consumers, General Motors has sadly delivered us an object lesson in steps to avoid. Yet I understand how this paragon of American business is fallen into such disrepair. Years ago my father and I bought cars within months of each other. Mine was a bottom-end Toyota; his was a high-end GM product. The next car my father bought was from Toyota. My experience was that superior.
Instead of winning me as a young customer, GM lost both me and my father’s loyalty at the same time. Here’s hoping that their new plan and cars are good enough to turn that around.
In that light, it was coincidental and strange to see Walmart’s annual meeting featured on the front page of the Post, with a picture of two celebrities and a Walmart executive. It’s hard to imagine that Sam Walton ever imagined that day would come. Yet, today, Walmart is the paragon of American business for better or worse and the Post was right to recognize it. (Maybe they read Kevin’s coverage of the meeting on MNB and decided they, too, needed to get on board.)
The question for Walmart and indeed all of its competition is, what will the future bring? Will Walmart keep its focus on cost containment, understanding emerging competitors and serving changing consumer needs? Will competitors or complacency catch up?
Want a clear sign? The following appeared in the New York Times coverage of Walmart CEO Mike Duke’s speech. “The most popular items that families buy — groceries, health and beauty goods, pet products and baby products — will be located on the same side of the store, so customers do not have to trek from one end to another. Shelves will no longer be stacked so high, so stores will feel airier and easier to navigate.”
It looks like Walmart is paying attention to black napkins. Others take notice.
Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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