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The Competitive Advantage



One way to stand apart from the competition and to bring new value to the customer is to focus on something that you can influence—the actions of your employees.



By Patrick Ropella



Published November 14, 2006
Economists may continue to forecast highs and lows in the coatings industry, but one thing is for certain: continued globalization means intense competition in all aspects of the market. In a hyper-competitive industry where strict regulations and commodity pricing dictate so much of how a business is run, organizations need to go the extra mile to differentiate themselves. One way to stand apart from the competition and to bring new value to the customer is to focus on something that you can influence-the actions of your employees.  

A Winning Combination



Of all the techniques for winning a lead over rivals, the first and last rule is "think customer." But, it's about more than just being customer focused. The key is to get every member of your organization, from formulations chemists all the way down to production, focused on what drives the customer and how your organization can positively impact the customer's life.

It's about creating an attitude-and behaviors-that permeate the whole business, reaching every employee and attending to every detail. It's about building an internal culture of continuously analyzing and consistently delivering on the customer's needs, expectations and aspirations.

Your Culture Is Your Brand



To dominate at the competitive edge, your employees must function within a carefully crafted corporate culture-a culture that creates an obsession for delivering value to the customer. You must also provide a compelling vision, a grand mission that gives your people a clear sense of direction and a belief that you can be the number one player in your industry.

When every person in your business shares common beliefs, values and goals, it creates a powerful force-an organization that will not tolerate anything less than exceptional performance. The beauty of this type of culture is that it becomes self-regulating, turning your business into one that consistently does the right things. Positive beliefs become positive actions. And these positive actions build your reputation for excellence, both inside and outside the organization. Ultimately, the culture becomes who you are, your brand, and your competitive edge.

So how do you create your carefully crafted culture?

• Clearly define your core values, making "customer obsession" a key component of who you are and what you do.
• Articulate a compelling corporate mission, a true sense of purpose that tells others the value you bring to the world.
• Set grand goals, significant objectives that you will have to stretch to achieve.
• Forge mutually beneficial alliances. By joining forces and becoming involved in industry-related partnerships and networks you are better equipped to gather relevant information about your customers.
• Hire for fit. You can teach people new skills, but changing their values is significantly more difficult, if not impossible.
• Manage to your values. Never tolerate anything less than 100% commitment (in words and actions) to your beliefs and goals.
• Support your culture through your compensation plans and reward systems.

Reinforce your culture with regular celebrations of your successes and public reminders of your vision, mission and core values.

Build Innovation Into Your Culture



Innovation is vital in maintaining your competitive edge. To insure that innovation is always a part of your company's culture you need to:

• Initiate constant research to help you understand, anticipate and meet your customer's expectations.
• Encourage creativity in producing your products, in developing your processes, in your communication, in marketing and logistics, and in virtually every other facet of your company's operations.
• Generate enthusiasm for innovation by continually seeking input from your employees and rewarding their creative ideas at every level.
• Publicize the ideas that lead to innovative changes and improvements.
• Celebrate innovation as a mark of accomplishment.

Leverage Technology



Make IT your culture enabler. Harness the power of your IT function to learn more about your customers, learn faster, encourage creative discussion and share your "corporate knowledge." For example:

• Customer Relationship Management (CRM) applications. CRM tools have exploded onto the market and become more than a passing fad in recent years. However, beware of the common pitfall associated with this kind of investment. Many companies have "bought in" to the idea, but have failed to utilize the program to its fullest potential. The challenge is to find ways to use these applications to uncover substantial sources of customer knowledge. This knowledge can include information about customer purchases, preferences, attitudes and perceptions that can be analyzed to improve the delivery of future customer value. When you're ready to make an investment in CRM, make sure you choose a system that will work for you, and create a strategy for how you're going to utilize the information you collect.   
• Intranets. Make your customer knowledge more accessible to more people with less effort. Encourage greater employee participation in brainstorming and other forms of creative and innovative thinking.
• Extranets. Get your customers more involved with your organization on a regular basis to make them an integral part of your decision-making processes. Create online communities that forge bonds between your employees and your customers.

The goal is to use technology in ways that will enhance your ability to respond to customer needs, whether it's through faster service, lower costs or better innovation and responsiveness to problems.

People Are The Key



At the competitive edge the real difference is people. They implement your plans. They interact with your customers. And sometimes, their ideas turn out to be the most innovative and useful because they are most in touch with customers needs. As a manager, the consistent performance of your employees will be the key to your long-term success.

As a leader in your organization, you need to manage your workforce strategies aggressively. Be proactive in determining exactly whom you need to hire and where you will find the talent. Avoid making compromises in your hiring decisions. Be passionate in your management, never tolerating anything less than exceptional performance. Your attention to the details that drive culture will keep your business a fierce competitive force in the coatings industry.

Patrick B. Ropella is President & CEO of Ropella & Associates. With 20 years of experience Ropella & Associates is an international executive search consultancy specializing in the chemical, coatings and allied industries. Ropella & Associates focuses on mid-level management to executive level retained search in sales, marketing, manufacturing and R & D. For more information on its services, visit www.ropella.com.



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