The Myth Of Excellence, Or “What Are You, Anyway”

“The question should be, ‘Is it worth trying do?’ not ‘Can it be done?'” – Allard Lowenstein (The New York Times Book Review, November 7, 1993)

 Many years ago — before you were born, perhaps — JSN (my at-the-time boss and later-on partner) gave me an insight into business that eventually changed my basic thinking about marketing, made it easier for me to understand buyers, and allowed me to contribute to the success we enjoyed in the years that followed.

We were discussing one of our newsletters. At issue was the cost of paper stock and printing. Should we spend more to make the newsletter look better or save the money and have a bigger (at least immediately bigger) bottom line? I was arguing that we should go for quality, which in the long run would pay off. He disagreed. He said that the audience we were serving — penny-stock investors — didn’t appreciate good paper and nice typefaces. He said that they might well prefer something that looked cheap and dirty.

“You’ve got to make a decision about what business you are in,” he told me. “Are you fish or fowl? You can’t be both.”

I was almost stunned by the statement at the time, because up until then I had been operating on the assumption that it was better to be excellent in everything we did — to position our products as the highest quality and our prices as the lowest in the market.

JSN’s perspective was different: “If you sell yourself as cheap, you’ve got to look a little cheap,” he was saying. “Contrarily, if you sell yourself as quality, don’t cheapen your image by hyper-discounting.”

A few months later, I accidentally proved his point. I was telling him about a trip I had taken with my fiancée some years earlier. “I walked into this travel agency, feeling that I couldn’t afford anything. Then my eye spied a cheap-looking flier that was selling a Canary Island vacation for $289, everything included. I asked about it and found that it was legit, so we booked it and went. It turned out to be a great vacation.”

“That was my trip,” he told me. (His prior business was wholesale travel.) “And do you know what? We had spent six months unsuccessfully trying to promote that package with four-color glossy brochures. One day, I realized that we were sending the wrong signal and switched to a cheap offset format on garishly yellow stock. The message was, ‘I’m cheap! Look here!’ And guess what? Business boomed.”

He was right. There were dozens of brochures on that rack when I walked into the travel agency that day, but only one that I looked at. Had I not been drawn to the tacky look of the advertising, I probably would have turned around and walked out without asking a question — that’s how sure I was that I couldn’t afford any of those packaged trips.

I’ve just read a book called “The Myth of Excellence,” by two New Age business consultants, Fred Crawford and Ryan Mathews. Half of the book (the part where they insist that the world of marketing has changed because customers now want “clarity, certainty, and trust” rather than hype and discounts) is total hogwash. But the other half — the “myth of excellence” half — makes a lot of sense.

The premise is a version of what JSN taught me 25 years ago. Great companies are not excellent at everything they do. Great companies tend to be great at one thing, good at another thing, and acceptable in all other areas.

This strikes me as absolutely true — and very important in running (or helping to run) a successful business.

You don’t want to try to achieve excellence in every aspect of your business. The main reason you don’t is that you’ll never be able to do it. If you try — really try — to be excellent at everything, you’ll more than likely become mediocre at everything instead.

The second reason you don’t want to go that route is that it will send the wrong message to your market. When people want to buy cheap, they look for cheap-looking marketing packages. When they want to buy quality, they look for quality. If your market values customer service, you’d better make that a priority. If it values easy access, you’ve got to focus on that.

The “Myth of Excellence” identifies five aspects of business:

1. price

2. product

3. access

4. service

5. experience

The perfect business, the authors argue, is not excellent in every one of these. Taking “5” as “perfect” and “1” as “terrible,” the ideal business would score a “5” in one area, a “4” in a second, and a “3” in each of the other three.

The idea is that you need to distinguish yourself as truly excellent in one thing, very good at another, and competent (so you don’t disappoint) in everything else. Sam Walton has done that with Wal-Mart. It scores a “5” in the price category, a “4” in the service area, and a “3” in everything else.

This idea dovetails perfectly with my idea about competence and mastery. You can’t be masterful at everything you do in life. It’s better to become masterful at only one thing at a time (a financially valuable and valued skill, if you are interested in making money), to be very good at a second thing, and to be competent at everything else.

Mother Nature is stingy with excellence. You’ll do better personally — and so will your business — if you figure out what kind of animal you are and adjust your focus accordingly.

If you are a quality-oriented business, spend 80% of your marketing time, energy, and resources promoting (and producing) quality. If price is your mainstay, spend the lion’s share of your attention on that.

Fish or fowl. Figure it out. Then act accordingly.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]