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Jul 05, 2004 12:46 am Something for the Fourth
Eric Sohn
Here's a bonus folks...

A column I penned yesterday, which should appear in the August 2004 CT Business Journal... enjoy! (All feedback gratefully appreciated).

Think Successfully
With Coach Eric

Getting a Bang Out of Business

The other night, I loaded Judi & the kids into the SUV and braved Cummings Park for Stamford’s annual Fourth of July fireworks display. We had a grand old time, despite being kept off the beach (due to lightning) for an hour. I even ran into a colleague, which got me, even on a long weekend, thinking about business.

I realized, through the rockets’ red (and green, blue and purple) glare, that fireworks displays provide an apt metaphor for running a small business. Don’t worry; there won’t be an Everything I Know About Business I Learned on July Fourth (actually, maybe there will). Regardless…

Last year’s display didn’t exactly go as planned. The sky was very overcast, although not really threatening precipitation. When the shells were set off, they couldn’t cut through the clouds; the sky just changed colors. Lots of folks ended up sitting around, derisively intoning “oooh… red” and “aaah… green.”


It doesn’t matter if there are lots of customers; getting your message through effectively in a crowded field is tough. You’re better off finding (or creating) a niche where you have prospects largely to yourself. The alternative is getting a “so what?” or “who cares?” in response to your efforts.

During this year’s performance, there was the usual number of duds - not a lot, but we did notice them. At the end, though, our conversation drifted to our favorites and never mentioned those that didn’t go off.

Perfection is unrealistic: most customers are forgiving if the overall experience is good (and if you correct your mistakes).

I also noticed that two kinds of fireworks got my attention more than others. The standard shells, which explode into a big ball of colored light, are really getting to be ho-hum, despite different combinations of colors, different geometries (oval was a big hit this year) and other variations on a theme. Even the chrysanthemums, and the orange-colored shells whose thick trails linger for a while, have become routine. But I really took notice of the shells that did something unique. Some had unusual motion, some had sound, some had multiple levels of branching, but they all distracted me from the sturm und drang of “just another fireworks display.”

Execution excellence is not enough. Memorable experiences, which evolve over time to raise the bar for your competitors, are necessary to create customer loyalty and keep, if not gain, market share.

The other fireworks that I truly enjoyed were those I didn’t see coming. A lot of shells have noticeable, if not prominent, trails as they ascend. In fact, fireworks manufacturers have even put motion into the ascent for additional viewing interest. The problem? I knew roughly when and where each new light show would commence. The “surprise” shells, on the other hand, made me shift my attention (and often crane my neck) to view them.

You can make customers happier by giving them something they don’t expect. When you remember that it costs 5 times as much to gain a new customer than to retain an existing one, the decision whether or not to incur the added expense of going above and beyond is a no-brainer.

A significant part of the experience was how much we enjoyed seeing folks we knew at the event. My girls ran into kids they knew from school, and my wife met a couple she knew from her civic involvement. It’s actually only our second year going to the local show (the noise used to scare the girls) but, despite last year’s disappointment, we invited other couples we knew; we knew they’d enjoy the quiet (and not-so-quiet) time on the beach and in our company.

Community breeds loyalty, and vice versa. The more personal the interaction a customer has with your company, the more likely they’ll be to work with you when things go poorly, and provide referrals when things go well.

Bonus thought: One of the shells exploded very prematurely. It made a spectacular display very close to the water. Was it intentional? Probably not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone develop low-trajectory shells, based on our reactions.

Expectations are a trap. Evaluating results on their own merits can yield tremendous opportunity.

There were other lessons I could draw from my family outing, but they’ll keep for now. Right now, it’s time to kick back and enjoy summer. Don’t forget sunscreen!

Coach Eric A. Sohn is the Chief Idea Officer of IdeaFountain Business Coaching (www.Idea-Fountain.com), a Stamford, CT firm dedicated to making creative businesses more energized, innovative and successful. He is a graduate of Corporate Coach U and has over twenty years of experience in information technology and business process improvement. Email any questions or comments to CoachEric@Idea-Fountain.com.

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