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Now That Toothpaste Can Terrify Us

THOSE who aren't quite convinced that the world is changing quickly need only go to the closest airport. There they will discover that toothpaste — which previously had been used to fight cavities — is now a key weapon in the war on infidels.

When we left on a trip recently, our tube of Colgate had not been a threat to anything other than tartar and tooth decay. Baggage inspectors (who are paid to know these things) had deemed the almost-empty tube to be innocuous enough, and they permitted it to share cabin space with human beings on the outbound flight.

But when it was time to come home, the perception of such common drugstore products had been transformed. Previously, bringing deodorant on a trip was never considered dangerous — the real danger occurred when you left it at home. But instantly, toiletries and an array of other products are now perceived as potential threats to public safety. Chemically, they are the same as they have always been. Only the perception was different.

We mention this only to point out how quickly things can change. Or more accurately, how quickly the perception of things can change.

It doesn't take a terrorist threat to affect how people view things, whether it is a tube of lip gloss or the performance of a company that provides commercial trucks and trailers. Perceptions in our industry may not be altered as quickly as a baggage screener's view of liquids and gels did in August, but perspectives change nonetheless — sometimes with drastic consequences. As of yet, a bottle of mouthwash has not brought down an airliner. But changes in perceptions — customer perceptions — can bring down companies.

The day baggage screeners began viewing deodorants as potential death threats, we visited a truck equipment distributor who told us his experience setting up a network of sub-dealers. As someone who had been in business for decades, the owner was convinced he had a good idea of what his company was all about and what his customers were looking for. Even so, the process of setting up his own network of dealers brought with it an instant change of perspective.

Suddenly, he was in a new role, the same role his suppliers performed when they evaluated his company as a potential distributor. Viewing other companies from the perspective of a supplier provided a fresh way for him to look at his own operation.

His scouting expedition turned up a number of areas where — at least from his perspective — other companies could improve. A lack of cleanliness. Poor lighting. Mediocre merchandising. Maybe these are things that were not apparent to the owner, but they were obvious to an outsider. And they influenced his perception before he ever seriously evaluated the prospective company's ability to perform.

One might argue that all of these are cosmetic factors that have no effect on a company's ability to install and service truck equipment. One also could argue that business owners have the right to run their companies as they see fit, and that an outsider has no right to tell them what to do.

Perhaps. But ultimately, what we think about ourselves isn't nearly as important as what the customer thinks. From this distributor's perspective, if enough customers don't like stepping over a dog to get to the parts counter, should the company continue to keep the dog near the front door? What if the owner believes having a dog at his place of business is simply a reflection of a relaxed management style? Does his perspective make much difference to the customer? Does it make much difference to his income statement?

Perceptions change quickly as we move from one side of the sales desk to the other, from one side of the parts counter to the opposite side. If we continue to view business from one vantage point, do we really know what customers value most? In our efforts to serve those who buy from us, do we inadvertently provide some services that customers value little? Where is the “sweet spot” that enables us to provide the most value to the customer with the least amount of wasted effort or cost?

Sometimes we can't see our companies clearly because we are too close to them, and we may not always agree when we get feedback from others. But we need to take notice, particularly when the customer is the one doing the talking. It's like listening to what the baggage screener is saying. We don't have to be convinced our toothpaste is lethal, but making the necessary adjustments is the only way to fly.

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