October 16, 2017

Ignore what is lurking in your blind spots—and be ready to pick up the pieces

By Tim Kerstein, Director of Solutions Development

If you believe you are immune to competitive threats spoiling your strategy, then go ahead and move on because this article is not for you.

Still with me?

Strategic thinking is abstract. Humans often default to tactical thinking because it is more concrete. Focusing on now is certainly important, because execution is where strategies often fail; but you fail 100% of the time with the wrong strategy…or worse, no strategy at all.

It's a common pitfall to get so caught up in the weeds that you cannot fully and strategically visualize the entire landscape around you. And if you’re not looking at the whole forest, there might be hidden surprises tucked away in blind spots behind the trees.

The collapse of the “big box” store is a lesson for all. Just because life is good today does not mean it will be good in the future. Our businesses are all vulnerable regardless of annual revenue or number of offices. Admitting weakness or vulnerability is the challenge, but the impact of these “blind spots” can be crippling.

One of the biggest bombshells to hit what is already a pressure-filled food environment came this summer when Amazon purchased Whole Foods—a central icon in organic food culture. With Amazon’s first move being to cut prices at the grocery chain’s stores—on day one the chain slashed its price for organic bananas from 0.99/lb to 0.69/lb—this acquisition stands to make fresh, organic food more accessible to the average consumer. Amazon also immediately added more than 1,000 Whole Foods items to Amazon.com, meaning these wholesome goods can be delivered to your doorstep in 2-day-free-shipping Prime fashion.

This is a potential gamechanger impacting everyone from farmers (both organic and conventional) to food manufacturers to traditional supermarkets. Maybe they saw it coming, maybe they didn’t. But you can bet all these players along the value chain are scrambling to figure out how to respond.

But sometimes a strategic weakness is more of a slow erosion than a blind-side hit. You may even be aware the threat exists, yet perceive it to be too small to cause real damage.

My uncle rarely goes to the dentist but he still is the ideal patient. He brushes and flosses twice a day, rarely drinks coffee or soda, and avoids sweets except for his birthday and select holidays. He says, “Going takes too much time and my teeth don’t hurt, so why bother?” Arguing with him is wasted breath…and I can see his point. As a kid, I received multiple clean bills of oral health despite a less rigorous process than my uncle’s. But he is a cautionary tale today as an ultimate example of, “I told you so.” My uncle soon will be the recipient of multiple root canals because of problems discovered too late.  

This happens in business, too—seemingly harmless threats can quietly and discreetly siphon away your success in small bits at a time, and by the time you realize what is going on it may be too hard to recover.

Five Questions to Help Identify Blind Spots

1. If I were our competition, what would I do to put us out of business?

You know your business better than anyone, so think about how to beat yourself. Be the Trojan Horse, figuratively. Immerse yourself in the competition’s vantage point so you have a different look at those blind spots. Football coaches know exactly where their team struggles before their opponents do. The same is true for business. Imagine handing your business’ “playbook” to a competitor. How would they utilize that information? Addressing this question starts your blind spot preparation. I emphasize the word “start.” Identify the blind spot, then prepare for it. This does not need to be a scorched earth exercise either. Every dollar matters in today’s business, so auditing your exposure by product, customer, region, or strategy is valuable to sustaining long-term success.

Takeaway: Understand how to beat yourself so someone else doesn’t.

2. Are we earning our customers’ business every day?

Customer loyalty breaks a lot of “ties” when competing for their business, but loyalty is a complex beast. Everyone wants it, it is not easy to obtain, and it is frequently misjudged. I have purchased my last three vehicles from the same dealership and they asked me in a recent survey how likely I was to purchase my next vehicle from them. I provided a score of “4” on a 1-7 scale. I am not disappointed with the service, the vehicle, or the experience but the likelihood is 50/50. They were so surprised by this number that I received a phone call within days of submitting my feedback. The number must have surprised them given our history, but past success is not an indicator of future performance.

Except for a few outliers, we are spoiled by choice and options with our purchases. This makes customer loyalty critical to long-term success. Are you EARNING it…or are you just GETTING it?  

Takeaway: Strive to treat every customer encounter like it is a first date and seek feedback often.

3. Why are they doing that?

All companies are executing their own plan. But how often do we try to truly understand the competition’s plan? Going back to football, game plans are meticulously prepared to beat opponents based on game tape. Even if you have an all-star running back, how you utilize them may vary by opponent. Seek and listen to the perspectives of others (your team, customers, advisors) on what they are seeing from competitors. This seems like a simple task, but we are often not deliberate or persistent enough to generate meaningful outputs. Identifying changes in competitor game plans early can limit the impact.

Before, we looked internally on how to beat ourselves. We also need to prepare for how to beat the other team. Both plans are necessary for a well-rounded game plan. How often are you analyzing the “game tape” of your competition?

Takeaway: Seek to understand your competition before crafting your strategies.

4. Is our plan the best plan?

The adage of, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” has always been popular. It is hard to argue with, just like my uncle and his dental history. But change is happening all around us whether we like it or not. Farmers are still performing the same tasks, but how they do it and what they expect from suppliers is always changing. It is very easy to pick up last year’s winning playbook and use it again this year. But if farmer expectations are changing, why is the playbook still the same?

The same question applies to those in a new role within a company—do you use the playbook from the last head coach or do you change it?

Takeaway: Be self-aware and adapt to the situation rather than maintaining the status quo.

5. Are we actively seeking marketplace feedback, and are we asking the right questions?

As any industry evolves and the competitive landscape changes, you must keep your eyes and ears open to the implications for your business—even if it’s not what you want or expect to hear. A winning strategy from 10 years ago is probably not a winning strategy today. The first iPhone was released in 2007 and the 8th version is now available for purchase. Its continued success is the result of Apple staying intimately informed about what customers want and reacting accordingly.

We are often opposed to letting go of strategies, despite what market research may tell us. I am not sure why that is—maybe we are perpetual optimists that believe things will turn around, or we did not plan for an alternative; or maybe we failed to look objectively at our own ideas and recognize when things just are not working like they used to. 

Takeaway: Seek and utilize more information so you can plan and/or adapt quickly to changing markets.

Overcoming Strategic Weaknesses and Maximizing Outputs

Entira prides itself on partnering with ag companies to help address blind spots and discover how to build on their successes. We have helped numerous clients consider challenging questions like, “How can our competitor(s) expose strategic weaknesses?” and, “What are we missing that we should be thinking about?” Of course, you should always celebrate the good times. Enjoy what you have accomplished. Just do not ever stop checking your blind spots and anticipating disruptions that could undercut your success.

If you would like to have a conversation about how to address blind spot questions or analyze your business in a new way, please contact Tim Kerstein at 719.244.5969 or tkerstein@entira.net