Thursday, January 29, 2009

Create A Better Story

There is a great article about Walmart is this past week's Sunday New York Times: "Green Light Specials, Now at Walmart". Walmart has been working on repositioning itself for a number of years, wanting to be more things to more people. They have also decided to aggressively go green. It takes a little adjusting to go to Walmart, the consumer's paradise, and see smart packaging, organic foods, and sensitivity to the environment. But, it is all there.

The NYT article describes the turning-point meeting for Walmart, the meeting they call The Choice. The Choice was for Walmart to bolster its market position, its consumer respect, and its profitability by going green. As CEO H. Lee Scott puts it, "It wasn't a matter of telling our story better. We had to create a better story."

I talk a lot about the importance of telling your story with the groups I work with. Two imperative components are that your story has to be authentic, and it has to be a good story. Bad stories don't attract the trust and goodwill of customers. Neither do contrived or untrue ones.

As the Walmart CEO explains, "There was a time when people in business believed all they had to do was to run their business. But, it doesn't work that way anymore. There is an accountability that goes way beyond that." What Mr. Scott realized was that Walmart's story had lost favor with its customers who wanted to do busy with a company whose values matched their own. Walmart had to understand that, in Mr. Scott's words, "As businesses, we have a responsibility to society. Let me be clear about this point. There is no conflict between delivering value to shareholders, and helping solve bigger societal problems." Wow! That is a story. For one of the largest retailers in the world to wake up and recognize what is relevant and important to its customers and retool its organization to move toward those new societal values is impressive, and it's paying off for Walmart.

If Walmart can do it, if Walmart missed the signs and clues along the way and had to have a Choice meeting, I think it calls for each of us running our businesses to ask the same questions:

What do my customers want?
What have a missed or failed to see that is right there in front of me?
What are the values of my customers that I can partner in?

Another point that Mr. Scott makes is that Walmart could not see itself all that clearly. For the first time in its history, Walmart hired outside consultants to help them see themselves as their customer did. So, another important line of questions:

How do others see us - my customers, my peers?
Is there a gap between what others see and what we see?
What can an outsider see that we can't?

Using those two big inputs of information in addition to what you know about your business can help you create a better, more sustainable future.

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