While we are still feeling some of the general spirit of good will and continue to adjust our priorities following another contemplative holiday season, I would like to consider an issue normally reserved for the non-business social conscience of our competitive society. (I have been an attorney long enough to anticipate and excuse the voices of certain skeptics who question whether a lawyer even possesses a conscience, social or otherwise.)
During this recent Christmas season, we each undoubtedly caught at least one of the many productions of the extraordinary philosophical and spiritual transformation of Dickens' most famous character, Scrooge. I was reminded this year of a disturbing Dickens-like dream I had several years ago. In this dream, I met one of my old high school friends at a large convention of authors, publishers and book dealers.My friend was struggling in the dream (as he was in real life at that time) to support his family as a novelist and was promoting a book he had just published. We were thrilled for old times sake to see each other. After receiving an accounting of the time, energy and tears he had invested in his book, I expressed interest in purchasing a copy and, banking on my old friendship with him - a friendship I realized had not for many years been drawn on or contributed to - I suggested that he consider selling the book to me at his cost. He consented without noticeable hesitation, I handed him a check and the book was mine.
As we shook hands, and I prepared to leave, he paused, holding my attention with disappointed eyes, and commented: "It is interesting that you ask me, who has so little, to reduce the price for my work, when you, who have so much, ought perhaps to offer me more than my asking price." While I thought I had merely accomplished the traditional competitive objective of maximizing my return on dollars spent, I was ashamed to discover that I had failed to account for the hidden but very real costs of a damaged friendship and wounded character. Thank goodness it was just a dream.
Competitors for clients, customers, skilled employees and other scarce resources essential to the success of any business, can appropriately be characterized this time of the year as either "pre-apparition" or "post-apparition" Scrooges, depending on their attitude toward the people who support and sustain the business.
The competitive appetite for success too often allows one to characterize as an expendable resource the people who provide, produce or purchase the goods and services offered by a business. In reality, however, any marketing, distribution and customer service strategy that emphasizes cost cutting to the detriment of clients and customers who are the lifeblood of the business will be competitively advantageous only until the last dissatisfied customer leaves the store. Exploitative employee management and compensation practices likewise obtain short-term competitive benefits only until deteriorating employee morale, loyalty and productivity eventually consume any initial savings.
Every business or professional practice, regardless of how well-conceived, financed and supported in the beginning, stays in business only if the public votes in favor of its remaining in business. Votes are registered in the form of dollars spent by individuals who want to see the business continue (with the obvious exception of liquidation and going-out-of-business sales).
Consequently, market penetration is really nothing more than getting an ever-increasing voter turnout in favor of the business. In the intense competition with other businesses to win the public's vote, sound business judgment mandates fair, generous and ethical treatment of every human being whose allegiance and loyalty to the business is necessary to its success.
Dickens' Scrooge learned through a supernatural vision of things as he had never supposed they were that he was forging his own demise by his short-term exploitation of other human beings in his obsessive pursuit of financial enterprise. He learned that his only hope of success and fulfillment in the long run depended on "making mankind his business."
The real-life experiences of countless successful businesses confirm that the single most important discovery any successful business person will ever make - particularly in the face of a recession, when the temptation to cut back on customer services and employee wages and benefits is the greatest - is that making mankind one's business is the key to being truly competitive in business.
This means that assuring the personal growth and fair treatment of each employee is one's business. Creating an environment of trust, good will and loyalty among coworkers is one's business. Making sure every customer is served and completely satisfied is one's business. Contributing to the advancement and improvement of public education, the arts and the general betterment of the community is one's business. Taking measures to protect the environment is one's business.
When a business person - any business person - becomes determined, in addition to following the traditional canons of sound business practice, to make his or her primary objective the respectful, fair and generous treatment of every employee, customer, supplier, lender, shareholder and every other individual whose life is affected by the business, he or she has entered the league of the truly competitive.
Val John Christensen is in-house counsel for Franklin International Institute Inc., Salt Lake City.