How can you be a Fred?

MARK SANBORN said he's not a futurist. Although predicting the future is easy, he said, predicting it correctly is extremely difficult.

He likes to call himself a “presentologist,” because “the future's already happened. It's just a matter of noticing it before others.”

He said he agrees with long-time football coach and philosophical sage Lou Holtz, who popularized the acronym WIN — What's Important Now.

“That's what allows you to focus on the relevant stuff,” Sanborn said in his presentation, “The Fred Factor: How to Make the Ordinary Extraordinary.” “Leadership is not getting an agenda. Leaders have to plough through a lot of information and say, ‘This is what's important.’

“There are only two ways to grow any business anywhere in the world, whether you make trailers or are in health care or law or education: grow yourself; grow your people. All increases in revenue, innovation, and customer retention, and all decreases in employee turnover go back to increasing the capability of leadership and the people they lead.”

Training employees

He said the average company invests less than 3% of its income per year on training. He said most people have been guilty of uttering this statement: “Yeah, but what if we train them and they leave?” He said he has a friend who turned that around and said, “What if you don't train them and they stay?”

“That's a much more difficult problem,” he said. “They took some students who had graduated magna cum laude and re-administered the same final exam 60 days later, and the failure rate jumped to two-thirds. So they had retained the information long enough to pass the test.

“Learning is remembering what's important. The problem is, you can't learn once and be done with it. We used to think that leaders were people who knew the right answers. But it doesn't do any good to know the right answers if you're answering the wrong questions. The quickest way to change your business is if you change the questions you ask. If you ask the same questions, you'll get the same answers.”

He said companies typically take the Statue of Liberty Approach to selling trailers: “Give me your tired, huddled masses yearning to buy trailers.” Instead, they should take the Studio 54 Approach. Studio 54 was a popular nightclub from the 1970s. During its first two weeks of business, it turned on it lights and music but didn't admit anyone. When it finally opened it doors, it didn't let just anybody through — only those who were famous or provocatively dressed, or who were behaving outrageously.

“People want selectivity,” he said. “They often want what they can't have. So I'm suggesting that you stop asking the question, ‘Who is our customer?’ If you want to accelerate your business, ask, ‘Who do we want our customer to be?’ So that you are designing a value proposition that attracts the most profitable customer or the customer whose needs most align with your product offering. That selectivity will help you define who you want. Right now, you have customers who are a pain in the neck. They do business with you but are a drain on your resources. They take a lot of time. Next time you have a customer come in and you know you'll never be able to make them happy, here's what you do: You hand them a stack of your competitor's cards — a non-NATM member — and say, ‘Here, these people can help you.’ Send bad business to the people who deserve it.”

He said that instead of asking, “Are we achieving our goals?” ask, “Are we achieving our potential?”

“You can make your goals quarter after quarter and never come close to reaching your potential,” he said.

He said you shouldn't ask, “Are we excellent?” Why not? Because “anyone can be excellent.”

Instead, ask, “Are we distinctive? What are the substantive and demonstrable reasons our product is better than our competitors'?”

“Substantive means ‘measurable, tangible reasons’ and demonstrable means ‘We can show you,’” he said. “Because if you can't demonstrate substantive reasons why your product or service is better than your competitors, you're relegated to selling on price. When you sell on price, you will always be victimized by somebody who is willing to buy your market share a little bit cheaper. It happens all the time.”

The story of Fred

He said philosophers and historians have been arguing for centuries the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Sanborn said it's an important question, but he suggests an alternative question to ask: “What gives my life meaning?”

“If you move away from doing those things that give you meaning and those people who matter, I assure you that you will burn out,” he said. “It's not too much work (that causes burnout). It's a lack of meaning that comes from not doing those things that make your life matter. You want to change your business? Change the question you ask to, ‘Who is Fred?’”

For Sanborn, Fred was Fred Shea, a postal carrier. But not just any postal carrier. A few days after Sanborn moved into a home in Denver, Fred knocked on the door and introduced himself, saying he wanted to introduce himself and find out more about Sanborn. Sanborn was struck by his sincerity and warmth. After finding out that Sanborn was a speaker who traveled a lot, Fred offered to alter his delivery to correspond with Sanborn's out-of-town trips. One time he discovered that one of Sanborn's UPS boxes had been incorrectly delivered to another resident, so he put it on Sanborn's porch.

For 10 years, he delivered extraordinary service and added a personal touch to it. So Sanborn decided to write a book. He called it The Fred Factor, and spelled out some simple yet profound lessons all the Freds around the world had taught him. He started mentioning Fred in his presentations, and later learned that numerous companies had created their own Fred Award to present to employees who demonstrated his trademark spirit of service, innovation, and commitment.

“Who are the Freds in your employment who do extraordinary things but you're too busy to notice and note?” Sanborn asked. “Who are the Freds you meet in the service or vendor environment or market? Freds are people who do extraordinary things. They take the ordinary moments of each day and make them extraordinary. Isn't that what you're trying to do in your business? You have the same raw resources as your competition. The same parts. The same labor. It's the difference not between the ingredients but the imagination and the passion you bring to your work that differentiates your products.”

Four principles

He offered four principles to be a Fred:

  • Everyone makes a difference.

    “I'm not saying your employees can make a difference. I'm saying your employees do make a difference. The only question at the end of the day is, ‘What kind of difference did you make?’ Did your employees move the ball down the field, or did they take a loss?”

  • Everything is built on relationships.

    “Go beyond simply interacting with customers and colleagues to build relationships.” Sanborn offered seven “Be's” of relationship building: be real, be interested, be knowledgeable, be empathetic, be honest, be helpful, be prompt.

  • You must continually create value for others, and it doesn't have to cost a penny.

    “You can replace money with imagination. The objective is to outthink your competition rather than outspend them.”

  • You can reinvent yourself regularly.

    “No matter what job you hold, you wake up every morning with a blank slate. You can make your business and your life anything you choose.

I hope you love what you do. I hope you love who you do it with. I hope you love who you do it for. If you do, you've embraced The Fred Factor.”

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