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What Really Makes the Difference Between a GREAT Business and an Ordinary Business?

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Every once in a while I come across a business that doesn't just stand out visibly but is truly outstanding in every sense. A business that has somehow created a great Team of people, a business that has mastered the art of delighting it s customers, a business that is achieving spectacular growth and profits.

These sensational businesses are the ones that I really like to watch. After all, that's where so much of the material for my book comes from. But what is it that makes the difference? How do these businesses succeed when others around them are failing? How do they manage to recruit when other businesses cannot find good people?

There are two things that I've noticed that these businesses have in common. The first of these is systems. And I don't particularly mean information or computer systems. What I do mean are systems for all the basic things.

It starts with a vision.

Someone realizes that there is a niche in the market. Not because there aren't already businesses in that market. But because those other businesses aren't exactly making a good job of things. Haven't you sometimes had a bad experience of dealing with a business and said to yourself, "If only they could do it this way".

And with "if only" in mind they set out to do something special. They set out to create a business that does that extra something. And by going the extra mile that business learns that it can delight its customers and grow more quickly than its competitors.

Let me give you an example from the UK.

Supposing you had said to me, back in the mid 1980's, that a new sandwich outlet was going to be started that would come to dominate the London sandwich industry. I would have thought that you were mad.

London already had sandwich shops on every street and every corner. There were hundreds of them! And the market was very tough. Very competitive. How could anyone ever come to dominate such a market?

At about that time, two chartered surveyors - Julian Metcalfe and Sinclair Beecham started a business. They called it Pret A Manger. Julian and Sinclair now rank amongst the wealthiest people in the UK. And in 2001 they sold one third of their business to McDonalds for an "undisclosed sum". My interpretation of undisclosed sum is a lot of money!

Their stores may not have reached Malta yet but they have taken off in the USA - another tough market to enter. So what makes them special?

If ever you get the chance, do visit one of their stores. Or just take a look a their website to get a flavor for what they do. They are systemized. They work to a system.

The shops are always immaculately presented. Often in spectacular contrast to their neighbors. Their people are bright, energetic and full of smiles. And Pret regularly features in lists of the best companies to work for.

Their sandwiches, cakes and coffee are extraordinary. Just reading about how they make their products is enough to convince you.

"Our two noodle lunches, both Vegetarian and Prawn, are made with fresh egg noodles, not the cheaper dried variety. The noodles are dressed in our Oriental sauce, bursting with ginger, sesame and coriander." Sounds good, doesn't it?

Visit a few of their stores and you start to see some of the systems in operation. Basic systems for how the stores will look. What materials do we use to help keep them clean and make them easy to maintain? How to layout the store to make it easy for people to select their food, pay for it and take it away? How should our sandwiches be displayed and what type of cups are we going to use?

Speak to some of their people. Find out about what you'd have to do to get a job at Pret. Find out about the morning briefings that cause the Team to come running into work, laughing and punching the air! Find out about the mystery shopper programs and the incentive programs.

These things don't just happen by accident. And they don't just happen occasionally. They happen consistently. Time and time again. The result is that the customers know exactly what to expect. Fast and friendly service, superb food, great environment and easy to purchase.

Now ask yourself about your own systems. Systems for answering the phone, for writing a letter, for recruiting great people, for delighting customers with customer service programs. What do you need to do to create a GREAT business?

One of the Pret A Manger stores won The WOW! Award in 2000. A customer had picked up a number of sandwiches and several drinks and taken them to the till to pay.

The assistant took tremendous care with each item and described it to the customer as he rang it in. When he got to one of the sandwiches, he stopped. "Salmon and cucumber," he said, "I'll change that one for you."

The customer looked at him a little surprised. After all, this was the sandwich that she had chosen to buy and she only wanted to pay over her money. The assistant went on to explain. "This sandwich is not quite full with salmon and we like to see our sandwiches bursting with fresh salmon. I'll find you another sandwich."

That's the sort of thing that happens in GREAT businesses.

The second common feature of GREAT businesses is great leadership. But that is the subject of another of my articles.

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