Building a Grand Theory From the Mundane

Tom Peters

I recently wrote a foreword to a marvelous book, the forthcoming Rethinking Business to Business Marketing, by long-time Raychem product developer Paul Sherlock. Though he has effectively marketed some of the most sophisticated products imaginable, Sherlock emphasizes the nonrational side of decision making, the need to trust your intuition, the importance of personal integrity to the development/marketing process. He also provides a short list of his favorite products, topped, surprisingly, by Velcro and Ziploc bags. These apparently mundane products, says Sherlock, are truly better mousetraps.

The book led me to jot down a top-of-the-head list of more or less business-related things that I like (and a few that I don’t). From that list, I intend to construct no less than a “theory of business.” Here goes.

Ziploc bags. Amen. They have a million uses and I can’t live without them—I always stuff a handful in my briefcase before leaving on a trip. How about Post-It notes? Could we survive without them now? Not I. Next: a sign I recently came across in the Cameron, Mo., Walmart. The discount store urges you to play it safe and buy more film than you need before leaving on vacation—then bring back any you don’t use.

Add in the rare airline pilot or gate worker who explains exactly what’s going on when there’s a delay. I came across a first-rate explainer the other day at United, and walked away from a mess feeling good rather than cross.

I get a kick out of old-time Manhattan cabbies who are philosophers in disguise; I often don’t want a ride to end. And don’t you get a charge out of front-line employees who are obviously having fun doing what they’re doing? The waiters at Pearl’s Oyster Bar in Palo Alto, Calif., take the prize here—my visit frequency far exceeds my love of oysters.

Three cheers and then some for executives who engage and make you feel for an instant like you’re the only person in a room that brims with a thousand other people. Walmart’s Sam Walton tops the charts on this.

I get a buzz from being around people who are absolute fanatics about the project or product they’re working on, who insist upon showing and telling you everything about it. I’m also mesmerized by the likes of Domino’s stellar franchisee Phil Bressler and peerless Dallas car dealer Carl Sewell—they can’t comprehend why most execs don’t understand that you only make money if you treat employees and customers like royalty. (I find them incapable of explaining their point of view beyond stammering, “It’s obvious.”)

I have a soft spot for big shots like Vermont Governor Madeleine Kunin and California Governor George Deukmejian, who still retain their humanity. I like people in general who explain things, people who are curious, who unabashedly ask “dumb” questions. People who listen and listen and then listen some more. I cotton to highway patrolmen who don’t wear dark glasses; and top bosses who are at ease having a beer with first-line employees.

I also admire honchos who mess up and admit it, who laugh a lot (like grocer Stew Leonard); top dogs who answer their own phones, leave their office door open. And I like curious characters in important roles: crusty Bill McGowan at MCI, even crustier Ted Turner at Turner Broadcasting.

There are also things I don’t like. Few things get my goat more than “I-know-you’re-going-to-steal-this-so-it’s not-detachable” coat hangers in hotels. I’ve little patience with just-in-time schemes that mean not-in-time for me: Sad to say, I barely remember the last time L.L. Bean had an item I wanted in stock.

I go berserk over silent pilots and silent airline counter employees who refuse to tell you what’s up—when you know something is (and your plane isn’t). And folks who hide behind electronic cash registers, refusing to make eye contact, are also near the top of my bones-to-pick list.

Both lists spotlight common themes. No matter how big the snafu, people (and firms) who behave in a human fashion are almost always winners. So are people who pay attention, listen, care. People and firms who trust you (allow you to remove the coat hangers, for instance) also come out on top; and success seems to home in on those who are spirited and committed.

Then there is the big power of pleasant little surprises. That’s the magic of those Ziplocs and Post-Its. Or a thank-you card you didn’t expect to receive. A small kindness to or from an employee. It’s not the performance of some souped-up car engine that sells an automobile, but a little design touch (a coffee-mug holder) or a little dealer courtesy that produces a thunder clap in your memory—and makes you a valued repeat buyer.

We’d do a better job running our businesses if we paid lots more attention to the “little” things that bug us or turn us on in “real” (as opposed to “business”) life: Dwell on the small details that make your customer (in Paul Sherlock’s words) “glow” or “tingle.” Attend to small employee concerns and create a genuinely caring environment, so that they in turn will exude the same attention and care toward customers.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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