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Delivery is in the details

Thursday, January 6, 2011

So you have an idea for a business; one that you believe has the potential to alter the industry. You have put together a simple, straightforward proposition that potential customers find easy to understand. You have raised the necessary capital, gathered a team and publicised your new venture by every means available. What happens next? It’s time to deliver on your promises. And the only difference between merely satisfactory delivery and great delivery is attention to detail.

Anyone who aspires to lead a company must develop a habit of taking notes. I carry a notebook everywhere I go. Most of my entries are like this one, from a Virgin Atlantic flight years ago: “Dirty carpets. Fluff. Areas around bow dirty. Equipment: stainless steel, grotty. Choice of menu disappointing; back from Miami, prawns then lobster (as a main course) in Upper Class. Chicken curry very bland. Chicken should be cut in chunks. Rice pretty dry. No Stilton available on cheeseboard.” What’s most revealing is this final note: “Staff desperate for someone to listen. Make sure flight staff reports are actioned IMMEDIATELY.”

I’m pleased to say that they now are. This is the real key to getting all the other items on the list done. Employees are better able to report problems and get them fixed before I come along with my notebook. And as you decide how best to deliver your product or service, keep in mind the company’s core business values, the medium-term strategic considerations and where the industry is headed in the long term. Make your decisions on the micro level in light of that bigger picture, and your business should be headed in the right direction.

This problem-solving process should not be limited to the launch. Owners and leaders of established companies should sample their business’s products as often as possible. Many bosses regularly speak to staff at all levels, but often they do not follow up on problems they uncover. This means that their employees never learn what importance the CEO places on getting the details right, or see just how necessary and possible it is to address the everyday problems that come up. If you foster a corporate culture of waiting for someone else to solve problems, the company will suffer the consequences.

Great delivery also depends on great communication, which should start at the top. Be brave: hand out your e-mail address and phone number. Your employees will know not to misuse it or badger you and, by doing so, you will be giving them a terrific psychological boost. They will know that they can contact you anytime a problem comes up that requires your attention. Instilling attention to detail throughout your new company will prove especially important when the business begins to gain ground. It always tickles me when a spokesman explains to reporters that a company experiencing delays or other problems in delivering a product or service is “a victim of its own success”—as though it had undergone something rare and freakish.

Delivery is not just limited to the company’s first day: employees across the business should be focusing on getting it right all day, every day. A few years ago, I saw warning signs that we were starting to stumble when I received a letter from a couple who had planned to travel on Virgin Trains in Britain. We had seen a rapid 50 per cent increase in passenger numbers, and suddenly people were finding it difficult to get a seat on the busier routes. The letter writers had not realised that they now had to book seats in advance. When they arrived at the station, they found the staff unhelpful. Given that the husband was disabled and needed assistance, this was pretty terrible of us.

I personally helped them with their problem and, in the process, became concerned about the bigger picture for this company. I penned a letter to Ashley Stockwell, the brand and customer service guardian for Virgin Group, asking him to take a look. Thanks to our renewed focus on delivering great service and attention to detail, we got better and soon received plaudits. I’m proud to say that Virgin Trains delivered on its promises; it wasn’t easy. Finally, if you do start to see success in the form of new and repeat business, remember to keep a cool head. You’re delivering change and, if you are succeeding, other businesses are very probably getting hurt in the rough and tumble. They will try to shut you down.

Be sportsmanlike, play to win, and then befriend your enemies. If you do fall out with a partner, colleague or competitor, call that person a year later and take him out to dinner. It is likely you have a great deal in common. After all, why did you both get into the business in the first place? To deliver change, serve customers, reform an industry; does any of this sound familiar? Now, what can you create together?
(Adapted from “Business Stripped Bare,” by Sir Richard Branson.)

Richard Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group and companies such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin America, Virgin Mobile and Virgin Active. He maintains a blog at /richard-branson/blog. You can follow him on Twitter at Questions from readers will be answered in future columns.

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