takeaways from the business growth conference

Last week I had the pleasure of serving as a panelist on the marketing track for the 26th Annual Southern California Business Growth Conferenceheader_business_growth_conference_logoCo-hosted by the Harvard Business School Association of Orange County and USC Marshall Alumni Association, the conference attracted over 1,000 of the region’s elite business leaders, innovators and entrepreneurs.

Between the keynoters, Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos and the Author of “Delivering Happiness“) and Bob McKnight (Chairman of the Board, CEO and President, Quiksilver Inc.) and my fellow panelists, I gleaned a lot of insights.

Here are some of the best bits I took away from the day:

on thinking about business differently

Tony Hsieh:

“We’re hoping in 10 years people won’t even realize that we started selling shoes…  Maybe Zappos could run an airline.  We would be like Virgin which is so many different businesses but while Virgin is about being hip and cool, we’d be about providing the very best customer service.”

“Customer service shouldn’t be a department; it should be the entire company.”

We don’t tell [people about customer service], they experience it. We do things like surprising them with overnight shipping, we don’t use scripts, we don’t upsell.  If we’re out of stock on an item, we’ll look at competitors’ websites and let people know 3 different sites that have it in stock and direct people to buy from there.  It’s not about maximizing every transaction; we’re trying to build lifelong relationship with customers.”

“People ask us if we’re afraid of being so transparent [about our culture and values] with our vendors.  We actually think it’s a good thing – because now we have an extra 1,500 pairs of eyes watching what we’re doing and helping us co-manage our business.”

on the importance of having a great product

Bob McKnight:

“It’s all about product – it has to be compelling, innovative and exciting.  We need to inspire loyal fans and first time customers alike to see something they have to have.”

“We have to really be on our feet on product.  In a recession, people aren’t buying just for the sake of buying; they buy for a new product, style, or technology.”

“We’re focused on product development leadership across all of our brands.  We devote all of our talent to fantastic, high quality, innovative products that help build our brand integrity.”

on fostering culture

Tony Hsieh:

described the hiring process at Zappos:  every candidate goes through 2 interviews.  One is with the hiring manager, who ensures the person has the right skill set, relevant experience, etc.  The other is with human resources, who interviews for fit with our culture.  People must pass both to be hired.

“Your values must be committable, meaning you have to be willing to hire and fire based on whether people are living up to them regardless of job performance.

Bob McKnight:  “Of course we enjoy the $300,000 orders from Nordstroms but we focus on the $300 order from [independent surf shop] FrogHouse.  We always need to focus on the core [customer] and if we do that, we can’t lose.”

on why brands matter

Michael Distefano, Chief Marketing Officer, Korn/Ferry International:

“If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  If you build the man a brand, all the fish swim to him.”

Brands take away the guesswork.” [brands lay the foundation of trust with customers so you can cross-sell]

Ray Baird, President and Founder, Rieches and Baird:  “Brands create value for companies.” [brands represent an average of 66% of assets on the balance sheet for B2B companies, according to Interbrand/Business Week]

on brand development

Ray Baird:  “Alignment with the business strategy is key.  Oftentimes I have to tell clients, ‘you don’t need a brand; you need a strategy.’”

Mark Anderson, Managing Director, TrueNorth International: “There are 3 things when it comes to visual expression of the brand:  it must be consistent, it must be tightly controlled, and it must be pervasive.”

Peter Bretschger, CMO/CFO, Integrated Marketingworks discussed the need for an inciting marketplace condition in order to introduce a brand:  whether you take advantage of something that just happened (e.g., Ford seizing the moment during Toyota’s recalls) or you create the condition through a PR campaign, you need to build a heightened awareness of the need for the solution you’re selling.

Michael Distefano:  “For service providers, you need to be flexible [about your brand strategy].  You need to get input from your stakeholders and make adjustments because they’re the ones who have to buy it in order to sell it.”

Tony Hsieh – “The telephone is one of the best branding devices out there.  You’ve got 5 minutes with a customer and if you get that interaction right, they’ll tell their friends and family and they’ll become loyal customers for life.”

Ray Baird discussed the trade-off between building a brand fast, cheap, or well, saying “ The big idea makes time for itself…nobody remembers us for how fast we got something done or how much they paid us for it.”

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