Why 'Whatever' Will Sink Your Business

It's easy for staffers and loyal customers at a start-up to get burned out. How to keep the focus on the right things.

Remember when parents used to really care about their kids talking back or cursing? Now, we have a single word that sums it all up for an entire generation: “Whatever.” (Shoulder shrug optional.) In so many ways and so many circumstances, “whatever” says it all and gets the job done.

Why does this matter to you? As I’ve said before, no one sells a product any more: We’re all in the service business now. And the key deliverable is the ability to create, in the customer’s mind, the feeling of being sincerely cared for and cared about. No one cares how much you know or how good you are at your job, until they know how much you care about them. Caring costs a lot, but in the end, your people not caring is what kills businesses.

“Whatever” matters to your business because its real message--an in-your-face, calculated, and painfully obvious indifference--is commonplace. If you let it creep into your business and into the attitudes of your people, you’re screwed.

This gets overlooked too easily in the frenzy of rapid growth. I’m not talking about warm and fuzzy stuff. I’m talking about everyday execution of the fundamentals in your business. As you grow, your people can easily get a little “tired” and think they have too much to do, and that customers are too demanding and somewhat inconvenient. When they start communicating that indifference to your customers, it’s worse than you can imagine. Customers will pick up on it in a flash.

In many cases, this indifference is neither intentional nor evil. First, almost anything can get routine and repetitive, and it’s a short step from there to indifference. Second, passion isn’t an infinite resource. It needs to be reinforced and replenished regularly. Third, younger employees are a hard sell in a lot of ways. You need to keep in mind that at work they are generally more afraid of boredom than failure. And finally, anything that keeps growing and getting bigger always runs the risk of distancing your best people from your customers. Hearing the news - good and bad - from the horse’s mouth is critical to keeping your people’s heads in the game.

Just as it’s unsafe to drive so fast at night that you “overdrive your headlights,” a young company can outrun and outgrow its own energy and enthusiasm, among not just its customers, but its best employees as well. Pretty soon, you’ve discovered the answer to the universal question: How big can we get before we get bad?

The solution is, first, to spend the time and resources to constantly remind your people that businesses exist because they have customers, and taking care of your customers is always Job One.

Second, the very best cure for employee boredom and indifference is challenge and curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity. Your job is to make sure your employees are always looking at new opportunities and new challenges.

Finally, as always, focus. The smartest people I know care passionately about the few things in their life and in their business that really matter - the right things - and don’t waste a minute on the rest.

Remember, a different world can’t be built by indifferent people.

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