Thinking In Wholes

Tom Peters

In taking stock of a new restaurant, you could doubtless gin up a list of pertinent details—the waiter's attitude, the decor, the cleanliness of the restrooms, etc.

Yet such a list misses much of the point—which is that an overall impression dominates the decision whether to return or not. Consider John Steinbeck's account of a fishing expedition:

"The Mexican sierra has 17 plus 15 plus 9 spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating in the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman.

"The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second
relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove
a stiff colorless fish from the formalin solution, count the spines and write
the truth. ... There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed --
probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself."

In short, the number of spines is not the fish itself or the experience of catching it, any more than the quality of the cutlery is the restaurant. Yet dealing with wholes—fish and fishing or "the XYZ restaurant experience"—is not easy for businesspeople.

For one thing, most of us work in narrow functional areas (sales, parts, service, accounting at the auto dealership). How can we possibly conjure up the overall sense of doing business with our company?

1. Take seriously the idea of wholes. Just thinking and talking about sweeping impressions—as ephemeral as that notion may be—is an important first step. Try to stop yourself from immediately dissecting and stick with the big picture.

2. Begin customer surveys with an open-ended, holistic question: "How was your experience with us?" Next, use a scale featuring emotional words or phrases to assess the complete experience: e.g., "neat," "OK," "yuck." (Professor Robert Peterson of the University of Texas says surveys that fail to assess the emotional link with the customer offer no meaningful clues about the propensity for repeat business.)

3. Make most work multifunctional. Companies, through re- engineering and
similar activities, are trying to make jobs more "whole" -- e.g., having one
person or a small team handle an insurance policy application from start to
finish. In general, everything from new-product development to customer
fulfillment can be made much less fragmented, thereby automatically putting the
focus on the total experience.

4. Get everyone into perpetual job-rotation programs, including stints as dealer for a day, or president for a day. Job rotation is often an important part of new-employee indoctrination. But that is usually the last time a worker directly experiences other departments in the firm. My suggestion: Everyone ought to spend several weeks a year performing different jobs—to broaden the individual's experience and offer departments the benefit of new perspectives.

5. Regularly conduct "wholes" audits. Take random groups of employees and walk through the total experience of dealing with your company—from initial contact to product or service delivery. Let everyone, if possible, occasionally experience the actual, horizontal flow of the customer through the firm.

6. In training sessions, have employees discuss encounters with dry cleaners,
real estate agents, contractors, car dealers, etc. Assessing outside, real-world
encounters can help us understand how a customer draws conclusions about our

7. Emphasize beginnings and ends. The research is clear: The way an episode starts and ends has an overwhelming impact on our general impressions. I'm constantly astonished at how few outfits obsess on beginnings and ends—and how much mileage those who do get for their efforts.

8. Debrief all job candidates, whether or not you hire them. Prospective employees see you naively; their take can be frighteningly clear. One of my mentors said consultants learn the most about a client during the first 96 hours of contact; subsequent work is mostly an exercise in fleshing out details.

9. Debrief customers you've just gained or lost, immediately after they've
announced their decision. Stay/leave choices are based mostly on wholes: Catch
the decision makers while their images are fresh. Don't limit your contact to a
questionnaire; sit down, once a month, with a couple customers gained or lost in
the previous week.

10. Work on the sincere heart! A while ago I discussed the Japanese Way of Tea: On the one hand, it takes years to learn to prepare such things as the path to the tearoom; equally important, according to the tea masters, is the development of "sincere heart." Wholes, above all, are about spirit, passion, care—precisely what we recall, for good or for ill, about car dealers, hospitals, and airlines alike.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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