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Category: Valuable Accounts

Phil Bounsall

Lessons from Taranto and the Devastating Results from Inaction

Who is Taranto? It’s not who, it’s where. The Bay of Taranto is in the southern part of Italy and was the site of what turns out to be a very significant battle between the Royal Navy of England and the Italian Navy. The Battle of Taranto was a short battle during World War II, lasting just the days of November 11 and 12 in 1940.

The Battle of Taranto, November 1940

At this point in World War II, France had surrendered and the United States had not yet been drawn into the war. Britain alone fought the combined forces of Germany, Italy and Japan. In the Bay of Taranto, the Italian Navy had sheltered a strong fleet of 23 ships including cruisers, battleships and destroyers. Italy believed the shallow waters of the bay provided protection from torpedoes and other forms of attack.

But, on November 11, 1940, the British launched a surprise attack from a newly commissioned aircraft carrier, the HMS Illustrious. This, the first-ever air attack launched exclusively from an aircraft carrier, put half the Italian Navy’s fleet out of commission for the next six months. The Battle of Taranto advanced naval war strategy dramatically during the course of these 2 days. The power and importance of aircraft carriers were established for decades to come.

Two leaders, in particular, took note of the British success.

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto drew comparisons between the Bay of Taranto and Pearl Harbor, where the America Pacific fleet was moored. In January of 1941, Yamamoto began devising a plan for attacking the terrific naval and air forces the Americans had stationed at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu. (In an interesting twist, Yamamoto advised his superiors that this was a death sentence for Japan. Their reaction was to assign him to lead the attack on Pearl Harbor.)

In November of 1940, shortly after the British attack on the Italian fleet, Admiral Harold Stark, chief of naval operations for the U.S., had the insight to foresee a similar attack on Pearl Harbor. He also advised his superiors in a letter that said, “If war eventuates with Japan, it is believed easily possible that hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack upon the Fleet or the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.” War with Japan eventuated in just that fashion.

The insights were developed independently by two admirals (Seeing What Others Don’t, Gary Klein). Both were correct in the insights they delivered to their superiors. In fact, Yamamoto was correct twice. His insight delivered a successful attack on December 7, 1941 and woke a sleeping military to eventual devastating results for Japan. Yamamoto called it correctly on both accounts.

Stark called it too. In fact, reading Stark’s letter of January 1941 to the secretary of the navy is chilling. He told the secretary of the navy exactly what would happen and the naval and air bases at Pearl Harbor were still devastated. No torpedo nets were installed to protect Pearl Harbor. All of the air and sea assets were grouped together in convenient targets. Airplanes, in an apparent attempt to avoid sabotage, were parked in groups on the tarmacs making them easy targets for the Japanese airstrikes. The Japanese ships traveled 4,000 miles without being detected, and when the air strike was seen on the radar, it was ignored, brushed off as American planes returning to base.

What are the lessons we should take away from the insights formed at the Battle of Taranto? Here are just a couple:

  1. Insights can be very valuable. But, if we fail to act appropriately on the insights, those insights are worthless. Stark was brilliant and developed the insight to predict the attack. No action was taken and the value of the insight was destroyed along with 2,400 Americans. We see this constantly in the business world. The most brilliant insights about our customers and the experience we provide for them are worthless if we fail to take action.
  2. Some of the best information we can gather comes from our front-line employees. Yamamoto knew the ramifications of the attack on Pearl Harbor and he warned his superiors. He had seen and studied the might of the U.S. He warned the Imperial powers, even wondering if they had “confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.” All too often, the insights coming from the people who interact with our customers are marginalized in favor of a greater strategy that may or may not be customer friendly.

Developing insights about our customers is valuable and most companies gather some intelligence. The most successful companies use that intelligence to create strategies that address the needs of their customers. And they execute with abandon. Great strategies without execution are worthless. Great insights without action are worthless. In order to serve our customers and create value for our shareholders, we must take action. We must execute.

Phil Bounsall

Walk a Mile in Your Customer’s Shoes

Companies that have excelled at the art of customer focus display many admirable traits, but key among them is empathy for their customers. Here are three ways empathy is manifested in the way they operate:

1.      Focus on Customer Success. There is a strong realization that focusing on helping their customers succeed is the best way for them to succeed. These companies are always thinking about helping their customers. The goal is customer success, not sales figures or customer loyalty scores.

2.      Implement World Class Customer Listening. These companies generally have multiple listening posts and are very focused on understanding the ways in which they interact with customers. Their customer listening efforts are designed to understand the relationships they have with customers and what really drives those relationships. These companies are constantly looking for new and additional ways to generate insights about the ways in which they touch customers.

3.      Never Be Satisfied. One of the common threads I have noticed among some of the most successful companies is their inherent inability to ever be satisfied. These companies constantly strive to make the experience for their customers better. Better than it was the day before, better than their competitors and better than the customers expect.

Walk a mile in your customer’s shoes. Understand what it is like to work with you—from their perspective. If you aren’t too easily satisfied with the status quo, you just might find opportunities to help your customers and your company succeed.

Phil Bounsall

Ted Williams was a Failure

Ted Williams is by nearly all accounts the greatest hitter ever in baseball. He was the last player to hit over .400 for a season and his career average was .344. That means that he hit safely about a third of the time that he came to the plate. Lots of things have to happen at just the right time and in just the right place to hit a baseball solidly. It just isn’t that easy to make sure that your bat is on the same plane as a baseball being thrown in excess of 90 miles an hour with wicked spin causing the ball to curve or drop dramatically. And, that all has to happen just when your wrists are snapping the bat to its maximum velocity.

Sounds just like strategic account management to me. Our value proposition and the way we articulate it has to be on the exact same plane as our customers’ needs. And, we have to be conveying that value at the exact right time for them. Otherwise, we will strike out. Here’s the sobering reality: we don’t have the luxury of succeeding only 34.4% of the time like Ted Williams. We must succeed nearly 100% of the time to be successful.

When our value is not aligned with the needs of our customers, we fail. We fail to help them succeed; we fail to help our own companies succeed because we fail to grow our business with our customers. In fact we might even lose customers by being so oblivious to their needs. There is clearly no collaboration or synergy between our companies and our customers. We might even be working at odds.

But when you truly understand your customers and what is really important to them you can tailor your offering to help them meet their objectives. This is the real magic in strategic account management: ensuring that your value proposition meets the value requirements of your customers.

The most objective way to make sure that we are in alignment with our customers is to understand the feedback we have from them. If your company does not have a sophisticated and validated way to listen to your customers, you’d better think about getting one (The Economist predicts that by 2013, the primary competitive differentiator between companies will be the ability to gather and analyze customer information). If your company has a customer listening program, dig into the results and see what understanding you can gain, especially in the area of the value you bring. Be open-minded. Just because you don’t agree doesn’t mean the customer is wrong. After all, their perception is more important than yours.

Understand your customers’ requirements and perception of your value. Then, and only then, you can get your value proposition and timing aligned with your customers. Then, you should expect solid hits.

Phil Bounsall

The Fitness Center Phenomenon

Too often our account management programs are like the local fitness center. And I don’t mean that they are healthy. Here are three similarities that I have noticed between fitness centers and our account management programs.

1.      The New Year’s Resolution. Every year when January rolls around I can’t find a locker, and the locker room is so crowded it’s ridiculous. This happens because people make a resolution to get fit, lose weight, whatever. So people flock to the gym. Three weeks later, things are back to normal. Happens every year.

I see the same thing with account management programs. Account managers adopt a new account planning tool or commit to customer-focused account management. It lasts for a while, but sooner or later, people figure out that being customer focused takes work and they revert to their old ways. For anyone who doesn’t revert, a real competitive edge exists.

2.      Dress for Success. There are a group of people at my club that don’t really work out. But they look incredible. They buy workout outfits the way I buy suits, shirts and ties. Everything is coordinated. Style is definitely trumping function. I always figure I look tired and sweaty when I’m there regardless of my clothes.

These dressers remind me of the account managers that talk a great game, show up at all the right places, and send birthday cards to all the company executives. They just don’t sell anything. They look good, but they are not doing the right things. They are not achieving company objectives.

3.      The Injured Reserve. There is a guy at my club that is constantly present, but never working out. But, there is always an injury excuse. “I came to lift, but I tore my rotator. Better sit it out today.” Next week, a leg. His back the week after.

This manifests itself in account management with the typical excuse, “That doesn’t make sense for my customers.” Everyone else should use our account engagement tools, but this account manager is different. Uh huh.

These fitness center tactics are common. We simply have to be more diligent, more customer-focused, more value-additive than our competitors. We have to actually work out, use the tools our companies have given us. Time to get fit!

Phil Bounsall

Things That Make You Say Wow!

You know that you have witnessed or experienced something remarkable when you say, “Wow!” When you say it aloud when you are the only one in the room, you have experienced something truly special.

This weekend, I saw a story about the latest structure to warrant the moniker of the World’s Tallest Building. The Burj Dubai was just opened in Dubai, The United Arab Emirates. The following chart gives a little perspective to just how tall the Burj Dubai is (follow this link for a list of the tallest buildings in order—The World Trade Center is not on the list, but would have come in at the tenth spot).

The pictures of the building would have made me say, “Wow!” if I were among other people. The chart showing how much taller the Burj Dubai is than other buildings designed to be inhabited made me say it out loud, very loud, when I was alone. By the way, The United Arab Emirates is home to an incredible 13 of the top 100 tallest buildings (33 are in China and 30 are in the USA).

That’s the kind of experience we want to create for our customers. How can we do something or help create an experience for our customers that makes them say, “Wow!” when they are all alone? That’s the kind of experience that creates a commitment that will allow you to power through many challenges and struggles, and achieve many successes together.

There are many things that are simply required in business relationships. And we must do those things really well. But doing the fundamentals flawlessly doesn’t create that moment that really gets your customer’s attention. That requires something else. That requires creating an experience for your customer that they will not forget.

Think about the things that are important to your customers and over-deliver. Surprise them with something that helps them. Do something for them that your competitors would never think of doing. Do something that creates an experience that really sets you apart.

Don’t tell them that you are going to over-deliver, don’t even tell them once you do it. Let them discover it for themselves and experience it. Let them look off in a daze and say to themselves, “Wow.”