Customers breathe life into big success stories

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The Independent Online
Success - as that ultimate management guru Tom Peters knows only too well - can be fleeting. No sooner had he and former McKinsey & Co colleague Robert Waterman published their best-selling In Search of Excellence than the companies lauded in it started to drop like flies.

Indeed, in the decade between 1980 and 1990 nearly 40 per cent of the Fortune 500 ceased to exist. One only has to look through the debris of recent years to see a similar picture in Britain. So why do some fail and others survive?

According to the authors of a just published book, The Success Culture (Pitman), it largely comes down to "a sense of organisational purpose, where everyone understands that it is their customers who breathe life into the business".

Now, every company these days claims to be customer-focused, just as they all say that their people are their greatest asset. The reason they are not all as successful as, say, Marks & Spencer or General Electric of the US (both are featured in the book) is that they have not managed to convert this rhetoric into reality. Their employees do not understand the objectives of the business and are not committed to achieving them. Or they do not know the part they can play. Or they are not prepared to co-operate with others to achieve the common goal.

In short, there is not the consistency of message that convinces the outsider that the mission statement in the main reception is more than a decoration. But how does an organisation go about acquiring that vision and purpose?

Authors Malcolm Munro-Faure and Lesley Munro-Faure say it demands "a thorough, professional, planned approach to the areas which contribute towards success". And, far from offering a single quick-fix solution, they set a whole load of "critical attributes", one or more of which need to be addressed depending on the type of industry a business is in.

Certain over-riding principles also need to be in place. For instance, there has to be a form of leadership that knows exactly what it is trying to succeed, yet does not hold on to all the power.

Equally, pay needs to be properly linked to performance. Accordingly, at Rank Xerox, there are big bonuses but they are governed by performance in four areas - customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, market share and return on assets.