“JASON! MY OFFICE! NOW!” boomed the voice over the warhouse intercom. Jason’s shoulders dropped, his forehead furrowed. “What now?” he muttered. The staff called the warehouse ‘the warhouse’, since they were battling a never ending flow of returns, missing items, dusty old stock, and hopelessly incorrect stock levels.
It turned out that, on the shiny new website that Whack-em-out Web Design had created for Jack’s, someone had actually – surely, surely as a joke – bought 7 of the “Palleted stuff from Jill (SEE NIKKI – B-rated old stock)” product, complete with its low res image of a rubber duck.
Jason sat down nervously as Jack, the highly strung but grudgingly respected owner of Jack’s Appliances, addressed the room – there was Julie, the prim and professional owner of Whack-em-out Web Design; Jill, the confident but humble sales team manager; Joe, suitably dishevelled but widely admired IT manager, and Jason. Jason managed the warehouse team, and in this small-ish business, his duties ranged from looking after staff on the floor to monitoring stock levels and adding new products.
Jack cleared his throat, and everyone tried to stifle their defensiveness – steeling themselves for one of his epic rants, and for having to work around him to actually keep him happy afterwards.
“In this room, “ he began… you could’ve cut the tension by dropping a suitably sharp pin… “is the solution to our problems.” An audible sigh of relief – an inkling that this might actually be constructive!
“When a customer can purchase ‘Palleted crap’ from our website, that represents a systematic problem. No single person can be blamed, and we can all help to fix it, because all of you have to take some responsibility for this.” Ah yes, thought Jason, there’s the Jack we know and… tolerate.
Jack waxed lyrical for a few more minutes, without taking any responsibility of course, and then brought out a wild card: “This is Jemma. She’s a consultant I’ve known for many years who understands how to draw the solution out of us, because you guys clearly haven’t been able to do so.” … a few faces flushed, unable to hide their desire to wallop Jack. “Shut the fuck up Jack, I’ll take it from here and sort your shit out as per usual!” pipped Jemma with a wink to the audience, instantly defusing the situation and even raising a raucous laugh as the tension evaporated.
Jack was dumbfounded but duly silenced; it was clear to the room that Jemma wouldn’t take any bullshit, and had probably had a fair bit of it from Jack.
“OK guys. Have you heard of David Allen’s GTD?” – most nodded – “and his approach to brainstorming?” – fewer nods. “It’s simple…” She then outlined her plan.
Over the next few days, they went through each step. In the first session, Jemma felt as though she was pulling teeth, until she managed to surreptitiously make sure Jack had an urgent issue to attend to – and the room exploded with thoughts, not all of them positive.
- Joe was grumpy, and talked about how IT seemed to get blamed for problems with data;
- Jill was frustrated, and talked about how her team constantly have to second-guess what’s in stock and what should be sold, and have to ask Jack a lot of the time when product info is unclear;
- Julie tried to maintain her ‘professionalism’, but it was clear that she’d been under enormous pressure to ‘launch the website’ while the staff were too busy with their own jobs to help her find the data she needed;
- Jason tried to put a positive spin on it by saying that his team were really working on updating the stock, but he had to confess that the volume of returns and booking in was making them rush the data entry process.
Jemma sighed. If she had a pound for every similar situation…
“Let’s throw in a few fantasies guys. No Jason, not that sort.” She took them through a few ‘what ifs’ – “what if budget wasn’t an issue?” “what if time wasn’t an issue?” “what if…” Jemma hesitated, suddenly uncertain, “…Jack wasn’t an issue.”
- “My team don’t have time to fill in all the product data” said Jason, about the returns.
- “We didn’t have the budget to help you with the product data” said Julie.
- “We just assume the data is right but it never is” said Jill.
- “We tell people to enter data but they never do it right!” said Joe.
It was clear to Jemma that the team were resisting, just about, from blaming each other. She tried a different tactic. “What could you do to help all the other departments get the data right?”
- “If we had more staff, we’d be able to enter all the right data and photograph the returns!” said Jason.
- “We could really help you format and check that data, if we start a new project to do so” Julie chipped in.
- “Julie, we can do the data validation, but what we really need is an automated way to push that up to the website – could your team build that?” said Joe, suddenly excited about the idea of getting the data right.
- “But who’d enter all the new and current product data?” … there was silence as Jill stated the obvious issue.
After a bit of fairly heated discussion, they narrowed in on one common issue, whose name began with J. Jemma, Julie, Joe, Jason and Jill faced Jack. “Jack, “ began Julie, “we need to get all this data up to date, and none of us have any spare staff to make that happen. We need more people and we don’t have the budget for it.”
Julie continued, “Even then, you still do all the buying Jack! Last tuesday you bought seventeen palettes of microwave ovens and on the booking in sheet, you scribbled ‘mwaves from jeff’. Nobody had a copy of the PO, nobody knew exactly what was coming in until it arrived and then Jason’s team didn’t have time to take proper photos and fill in all the data!”
Several months later, things were running a little differently. Jack had relented, after a little ‘gentle cajoling’ from Jemma, there was a new team of full time staff helping Jack to order. At the management team’s insistence, they ensured that Jack actually filled in all the details before the stock even landed, they hovered around the warehouse during the booking in process, taking high quality photographs with consistent lighting, proportions and backgrounds, and writing product descriptions that genuinely answered consumers’ questions.
The description writing took a turn for the better too. Jack’s marketing team realised that they were fighting a losing battle, getting visitors to the website only to see them drop off because they’d read descriptions like “Microwave, 800w silver door. Dimensions 400x300x300.” Customer services were getting questions like “Is the door see through?”. Josie, customer services team lead, compiled a list of all the questions asked and her team helped the marketing department to write better descriptions, based on real questions that customers asked.
This in turn prompted even more detailed data; customers wanted to be able to compare similar products, but Julie said they couldn’t do that until they had “attributes”. Joe’s IT team worked with Julie’s web developers to add these attributes to both systems – dimensions, power, environmental ratings, safety ratings, and even whether or not the door was see-through. The buyers filled in this data, the website allowed customers to compare it, and even Jill’s team were thrilled to be able to answer their customers’ questions instantly without calling head office.
Sales on the website increased; reviews improved, and of course Jack congratulated his incredible initiative, but the team didn’t care – they had noticed a far bigger effect.
- Julie had far fewer website support issues to deal with, because most of them had been related to things like dodgy symbols in the product names, or incorrect images
- Joe had more time to refine their internal systems, making everyone’s lives easier.
- Jill’s team started to trust the information they were given, so they felt more confident when sat in front of clients, and sold more as a result.
- Jason’s team stopped having to consult three spreadsheets to get the right info, and the number of returns dropped, so they had enough time to properly care for the stock, and began to pride themselves on keeping the stock levels and locations up to date.
- Jack had to admit that things were better. He even began to trust the team more, and started to teach the new team his purchasing secrets.
Miles away, someone was comparing toasters on their website, looking for something that would toast bread evenly on both sides while staying economical. The descriptions of the products gave her confidence and answered her questions without being full of useless words like “fantastic” and “beautiful”; the product attributes made it really quick to find one with the right dimensions for her kitchen, and even before she’d clicked ‘add to basket’, a shipping estimate and delivery date was clearly shown.
Jack’s accountant knocked on his door later that year. “Have you got a moment?” he said with a worried look on his face. “Sure…” replied Jack, suddenly concerned. “Jack, your sales have doubled, but you’ve still got the same number of staff as last year. Something must be wrong! Can we check these figures?” Jack smiled. “No Jeff. Something is very, very right.”