Successful businesses are so common today in most industries that it’s easy for them to become complacent just because you’re “making money” or doing better than last year. Because of their ubiquity, successful companies have come to bore me. They’re certainly the rule rather than the exception, and most are so content with how they’re doing they spend a lot more time talking about becoming great or getting to the next level than they do taking the action necessary to make it happen. What excites me today is working with the leaders who aspire for more than success; lots more.


Top leaders aspire to do more; they want to pull away from the pack and create for themselves a league of their own, a category of one. Don’t misunderstand: a category of one doesn’t mean merely becoming number one in your category. Rather, it means creating a different category with you being the only one in it. Going to this level requires both a special mindset and a bold strategy. First, however, let’s look at two key reasons most organizations will never make this happen:


1.   Their talk and walk don’t match. They hold meetings where they talk about greatness, create mission statements that say they’ll be great, but never take the consistently uncomfortable action necessary to pull away from the pack. So often in my training and consulting travels the talk vs. walk from leaders disconnects along these lines.


They say, “We want great teamwork”, but have no common vision or mission that unites the team, dividing it by default.


They say, “We love our customers”, but front line people have no authority to solve a customer problem without referring the customer to supervisors, filling out forms, or kissing the ring—or some other part of the anatomy—of a higher-up for permission to make it happen for the customer.


They say, “We want great people”, but have sloppy hiring practices, anemic training disciplines, and poorly trained leaders charged with the development of human capital.


2.   They like the status quo more than they’re willing to admit. Just like the guy who claims, “I want to get healthier” and then orders a double-bacon chili cheeseburger, they don’t want to pay a price for their prize. The cheeseburger guy probably does want to become healthy, he just loves cheeseburgers more. Likewise, most companies do want to pull away from commodity status and into a category of their own, they just like the comfort of the status quo more; what’s proven, safe, predictable and not too uncomfortable.


Companies desiring to pull away from the pack may also erroneously think price, product or location alone will get them there; they’re wrong. Margins have become so compressed there is less wiggle room than before to cheap-sell your way into a category of one. Why would you want to do this anyway? It simply makes you a purveyor of commodities, and no customer loyalty will exist for long when the basis of your relationship with a customer is based solely on price.


Product won’t do it either, because there is so much parity in product quality today that there are no longer large enough advantages to propel you into a category of one for long. Even with a superior product, innovations change so quickly today your edge may not last for long. As for location being enough to pull away from the pack, it’s not going to happen as the Internet has marginalized the advantage some locations once had over others.


Without a doubt, the primary strategy necessary to pull away from the pack is by creating extreme differentiation in the customer experience. People pay for better experiences; they come back for them repeatedly, and refer others to enjoy them as well. Extreme differentiation is more likely to mean that you have a number of small differences throughout the sales and service experience than a drastic advantage in any one area. When teaching my Category of One and Simply the Best Customer Experience workshops to clients, I stress seven points necessary to pull away from the pack:


1.      Companies who become categories of one can point to an identifiable decision where they decided to go for it. This decision must be reinforced and repeated continuously after it’s made, but until team members decide they’re “in”, the movement to become a category of one is dead before it starts.


2.      The process in moving from being a good or successful company into a category of one company is messy. It will require large doses of change, risk, decision-making innovation, as well as the evaluating and possible discarding of what used to work.


3.      Category of one companies go beyond a status quo with slogans and create real change throughout the culture of their organization, beginning with the training and empowerment of their front line people. This is because front line team members have more opportunities than executives to create a customer experience, but normally have the least amount of training and empowerment to make it happen.


4.      You don’t have to do anything extraordinary to become a category of one company. However, you will need to consistently do the ordinary things extraordinarily well. In fact, when ordinary people consistently doing what others are unwilling to do they will achieve extraordinary results.


5.      It requires more than a “program” to pull away from the pack. It requires continual attention, training, communication and accountability because your customers are judging you against everyone they do business with, not just those who do what you do. They compare you to shopping at the Apple Store, buying shoes from Zappos, checking in their favorite hotel, and the courtesy and happiness they encounter at Disney.


6.      If the transition from being successful to pulling away from the pack and becoming a category of one seems orderly, under control and comfortable you aren’t experiencing a transition at all; you’re merely rearranging the furniture. When you’re willing to forget a lot of what got you to where you are, throw out the furniture, blow up the old house and move into new digs, the transition is probably for real.


7.      If you think this type of change is scary, try not changing. Losing ground, relevance and customers because you won’t lead your organization through the pain and discomfort necessary to pull away from the pack is what’s truly terrifying.

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Tags: Anderson, Dave, LearnToLead,


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Comment by Kevin F. Cunningam on May 13, 2013 at 10:14am

Once again Dave gives it to us straight.



Comment by Doug Davis on May 10, 2013 at 9:59am

Dave, terrific article!  

They hold meetings where they talk about greatness,

Just yesterday, I spent about half of the day meeting with the GM of a dealership.  It was one of the most depressing experiences that I can remember.  Several times, the GM stated, "I'm out to be the best".  Over the last 120 days, he has fired (some quit) three complete teams of front end managers. I'm talking GSMs, New Car Directors, Sales Managers, Used Car Directors, Used Car Managers and entire Finance departments.

He stated that at his previous store, he told the staff to fire anyone that didn't sell 11 or more cars.  He was proud that he didn't have to fire anyone but then said that the top salespeople, at that store, sold 90, 70, and 60 cars, last month.  Really???

I have always believed that it is about people and culture. I wouldn't walk back in that store for any for any reason.  It could be a source of PTSD.

Comment by Diane Anderson on May 9, 2013 at 10:24pm
You always have a way to bring attention to topics that matter! Complacency, lack of accountability, and staying in a comfort zone is now the new normal. Kudos for "asking why". We should ALL want to be at the next level.
Comment by Bill Cosgrove on May 9, 2013 at 8:11pm

 Dave- Very gracefully expressed. Being in the trenches for many years as an employee and employer I could not agree with you more. I also think a lot people would be surprised that below the surface many businesses are running on autopilot. I see a great deal of small business " leaders"  who outwardly appear to be blind or resisting change for fear that something will gone wrong. They're insecurities make them too dependent on the management who are holding them back which equates to holding back themselves.

Maybe it is simply that there are not many true leaders out there who are,self driven to must hit that next level and always be looking to the next. From the experience that I have gained over the years I have come to believe this.

Comment by Wendi Nelson on May 9, 2013 at 6:29pm

Right on the money! If change was easy everyone would be doing it! ....and my favorite is "people dont change until they are too uncomfortable NOT to" ...not until the pain is felt to one degree or another will alternative processes and uncomfortable change be considered...its happening, slowly but surely in the stores I am in- but in my opinion NOT fast enough based on what consumers are looking for.

Comment by Brian Benstock on May 9, 2013 at 6:16pm

Great stuff- easy and accurate.

Comment by Larry Sherstad on May 9, 2013 at 6:07pm


Well said!!

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