Dumbness isn’t a destiny

Paul Nolan

In his new book, “Nincompoopery: Why Your Customers Hate You — And How to Fix It,” John R. Brandt says managers are the key to squelching the corporate stupidity that drives customers crazy.

SMM: You state that nincompoopery is often a sign of problems higher up the leadership chain. Can you explain?

Brandt: When you find a company that is consistently delivering bad service or stuck in the throes of nincompoopery, it’s the leaders who are responsible, not the employee you’re dealing with. The leadership hasn’t analyzed their processes or figured out what they can do to make it a better experience. As customers, we may not go back, and that’s the biggest problem, because getting a new customer is five to 25 times more expensive than figuring out how to make an angry customer happy and retaining them. It’s a huge issue across industries right now, and it’s incredibly demoralizing to employees and to managers.

SMM: Yet, at the end of your book, you express how challenging it is in today’s business environment to be a leader.

Brandt: I am incredibly empathetic toward leaders because it is more difficult to be a leader for a variety of reasons. That doesn’t absolve them from making sure they fix things.

SMM: You address the concept of innovation early and often in your book. You say innovation is rare, that few people understand what it actually means, and that it’s vastly different than it was even 10 years ago. What do we need to take away from all of that?

Brandt: Everybody loves innovation, but we don’t know what it is in many instances. People tend to think of innovation as a technological leap forward. The problem is those are actually fairly rare in the grand scheme of things. It’s more often incremental and iterative.

One study found that of 1.5 million companies, only 9% were process or product innovators. Why is this? For starters, it is really, really expensive to bring a new technology to market. What you see great companies doing is to figure out what their customers are worried about. Yes, customers love new products, but even more than that, they love it when we solve a problem or, even better, we solve multiple problems. Sometimes we have to create an integrated solution in which our product or our service is just a small component. We may even bundle it with products from our competitors. That requires thinking differently — thinking beyond what you offer.

SMM: You have a whole chapter on talent, which is obviously a significant factor in avoiding nincompoopery in a company. What are companies getting right and wrong about hiring the right talent?

Brandt: We tend to be resume-focused. We focus on technical skills and don’t think more broadly about what we are looking for. Yes, if you’re running an airline, you have to have somebody who can actually fix a plane. But we have to look beyond that. You see companies like Southwest Airlines, which hires for smarts, for diligence and for enthusiasm. There’s a reason that company has done so well.

SMM: Your message is hire smart, train well and get out of the way. You’re a big fan of empowerment.

Brandt: We have surveyed well over 50,000 companies in all types of industries. When we look over the data, the two biggest things we see that impact performance over the long-term are, No. 1, training. Companies that train more do better. The second is how much empowerment exists. We ask, “What percentage of your employees are in self-directed or empowered work teams?” The higher that percentage, in general, the better that company does. Why? In part because you don’t know what manner of nincompoopery might befall you or your company. What you want to do is make sure your employees are so well trained that they can take care of it, and make customers happy.  

John Brandt discusses how changes in the social contract between employers and employees affects that relationship. You can read the full Q&A and find archived Closers interviews at SalesandMarketing.com/Closers.

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