The Art of Liftoff

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There's a point in a successful business where you shift into liftoff mode. Looking back, you can tell where it started, but it's tough to identify when you're in the middle of it.

If you're just starting out, or if you know you haven't lifted off yet, take heart. No matter how hard you're struggling now, you can get to the liftoff stage, and continue to climb.

To stay within our flight analogy, the first thing you have to figure out is where your customers want to go. You already have some idea of where you think they want to go, and you already may be trying to take them there.

But what you think and what they think are always different. That difference will make them decide that they don't want to fly with you. On the other hand, if you do know where they want to go, because you asked them and they told you, then you will figure out how to help them get there - and then tell them you can take them there. They will fly with you, because you're going where they want to go.

The other thing you need to know is what they want to happen while they are flying with you. They have an experience in mind. Certain things are really, really important to them. Things that you might not have thought of, or perhaps might have thought were trivial.

Some things are expected. The seats should have working seatbelts. The overhead buttons should work. The flight attendants better be courteous, pleasant, and professional. The flight should take off and land on time. It definitely shouldn't crash.

I call these "baseline promises." Every industry, including yours, has them. You must keep these promises, at a minimum, or someday your aircraft will be getting their tails repainted with a different airline's graphics.

The most efficient way to find out where your customers want to go, how they want to get there, and what they expect from anyone in your industry, is to ask them. Call them. Ask them open-ended questions. Don't sell. Interview. Listen. Care. Be curious. Understand. Respect. Be sensitive to the subtle hints, and take any "mild, sugar-coated criticism" very seriously - without defending yourself on the call, of course. Make about 10 of these calls, and your eyes will be opened. You will see how you can best help these people. And, how you can tweak your product and marketing methods so they appeal to these people.

Once you know their baseline expectations, where they want to go, and the experience they want on the way, you move to the next stage: Flight preparation.

Chris Brogan has this poignant video on his website that is associated with an article called "Overnight Success." In it, he is filming himself going down a hotel elevator in the wee hours and dragging his carryon to his car in the hotel parking lot. It's still dark outside. He's in the middle of his book launch, doing the speaking tour thing, and he is making a point: There is no such thing as "overnight success."

Before you can have liftoff, you have to be prepared. You can't reach new heights until you've done the hard work on the ground. Your business has to be efficient. Your systems have to make sense. They have to be "tight" - in the sense that you've thought things through, and you've created systems and processes that don't have "leaks" in them. One action flows seamlessly to the next. The right people are in the right jobs, doing the right things, the right way. You know what they're doing, and they know you know what they're doing. You don't leave them alone too long - you keep checking - unexpectedly.

You also remind your people, frequently, where the customer wants to go and what he wants to experience on the way. You work together on ways to help the customer reach his destination, and have a pleasant trip. This is what you all think about all day. You're building a vehicle. It has to work.

Marketing used to be 80% creative, 20% logistics. Now it's the other way around. Now you have to have good systems and hire people who are strong operationally. Now you need people to watch the conversation going on - about your company, your products, your service, and your reputation. You need to engage in that conversation and fix things that are broken. You also need people to check the things that should be working - your shopping cart, your product pages, your social media sites, and so on.

Liftoff happens when you make it easy. Super easy. Staples. FedEx. Amazon. Facebook. Twitter. All of these companies figured out how to make it easy. While you're focusing on "running your business," or "trying to beat the competition," or "doing something unique," there's a customer out there who is having trouble finding you, buying from you, or using your product. You'll be stuck in a holding pattern as long as that is the case, no matter what you're doing in other areas.

So often, I am brought in after the CEO has tried many other ways to achieve liftoff. But something is keeping it from happening. In one case, it was a bullying sales VP. Now that person is gone, the company's expenses are way down and revenues (and profits) are climbing. In another case, it was a very egotistical marketing guru who was putting his "great ideas" front and center on the website, while pushing the company's products to the background...with the predictable slowdown in sales. Now we're redesigning the website so the products are front and center, using the input we gathered from customer interviews. In another case, the company's name didn't provide a clue as to what was being sold - unlike the name of a competitor. This company's clients were delighted with the software and the service, but they were worried the company wouldn't survive because the name and marketing were just not up to the standards set by the software and service. We came up with a new name, one that ties into what they sell and sounds like a market leader's name, and rewrote the website copy so it describes the things that make their software and service so delightful.

What's keeping you from liftoff? Is everyone in the company working to keeping the baseline promises? Is your customer having a great experience?

Do you even know what customers really want from you, and how they want you to provide it? Is it easy to do business with you? Or do you insist on perpetuating practices and policies just because you've always done it that way - in spite of what customers want? Are you justifying not fixing something because it is difficult to do? Do you know HOW they want you to make it easy for them? Are you doing it?

When you do all this, your customers will be glad to fly with you. They'll even contribute to the liftoff - telling others, cheering you on, finding new ways to do business with you. If that's happening to you, congratulations. If not, now you know what to do about it.


re: The Art of Liftoff

Dear Kristin,
My name is Adolfo Cruz and I am the CEO of a technology company in San Jose, Costa Rica. It is refreshing to read your post. I read it and I think you wrote it for me, since I am in the middle of that transformation you mention.
I just started 3 weeks ago and completely agree with your ideas, and I actually have a plan to tackle each of them. It was funny to read your article after being reviewing my plan last night... it was some sort of "dejavu". Thanks a lot.

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