Photo by Leigh Lofgren

Innovation is the New Symbol of Survival

“What is something completely new and different that your customers would say they have recently noticed?” It was a question I asked the CEO of a medium-sized company. The CEO, known for his impatience and strong personality, launched into a mini sermon on the virtues of consistency. At the end of his monologue, I asked him, “Have you noticed customers today are bored with sameness?”

Folk singer Bob Dylan captured the sentiment of the necessity for constant change in the lyrics in his song, “That’s Alright, Mama.” The words communicate that if you are not actively being born, then you are actively dying. Today, customers notice your innovation and ingenuity and read it as an indication of whether you will survive, not whether you will progress. When I exit an enterprise that seems stuck in the present, one where employees are indifferent, and the enthusiasm to serve has wilted, I often ask, “Are you going out of business.”

Jacob Fried owns the Suds Club car wash near my home. Since I am keynoting the International Car Wash Show in Las Vegas in the fall, I needed to do some homework. His business has washed my car several times. He has cars lined up to be washed every time I pass by his car wash. He gave me an hour in his office.

The most striking feature of our conversation was his excitement as he outlined plans for unique attractions and ground-breaking solutions. When I mentioned wait time, he talked about researching moisture proof widescreen TVs for folks to watch from their cars as they waited. When I asked if little kids are afraid when the big blowers come on, he showed me a brochure on quieter blowers he is considering. He created a membership club to create a more personal relationship with his customers to learn about their unique requirements. He offers a wash-it-yourself facility right along with a touchless lane and a friction lane that uses brushes. Kids get free popsicles on the weekend. He is a car wash owner with one foot in the future.

Innovation is no longer a nice-to-have strategy. Obvious evidence of experiments, trials, pilots, and beta tests implies a company is thinking about the future (“being born”) and not just resting on the present. Moreover, today’s customers are much more interested in long-term relationships than drive-by transactions. And they are more apt to invest their time, funds, and affinities in those businesses they believe will still be around in the future. The bottom line? Change or die.