Tuesday, December 23, 2008

One question: Dan Carrison

I was fascinated by the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Fugitives List as a kid. In those pre-digital days, the Ten Most Wanted - do not approach, they are armed and dangerous - were hung on a clipboard in the local post office. I carefully perused them to be sure none of them were masquerading as my neighbors, friends' parents, or elementary school teachers - or perhaps, just buying a few stamps to send Christmas cards to their gangs.

Dan Carrison, a partner in Semper Fi Consulting and founder of ghostwritersinthesky.com, has resurrected my interest in the list. Dan's new book (his fourth to be published by AMACOM) is From the Bureau to the Boardroom: 30 Management Lessons from the FBI. As the title suggests, the book mines the Federal Bureau of Investigation (which is celebrating its centennial this year, by the way) for business ideas.

I asked Dan about the Most Wanted list - why it was effective and whether it has any business applications. Here's his generous and thought-provoking answer:

I, too, was fascinated, as a kid with the FBI's Most Wanted posters. My first impression was always, "Those tough-looking guys don't stand a chance, with the FBI on their tail." But as I grew older, I wondered why the FBI published their 10 Most Wanted list. After all, they could keep the list as an internal document for all law enforcement agencies, and spare themselves the possibility of public criticism for not having captured a high profile criminal.

The FBI, by broadcasting the names and faces of its Most Wanted criminals, is leveraging the eyes and ears of the tens of millions of citizens who gaze upon the list. It is also creating a whole new level of oversight from the general public. The "pressure is on" to perform! I also think that once our goals are announced, they have a better chance of being achieved, through the benevolent serendipity of the universe.

This concept could work equally well in private enterprise. A Top Ten list of “most wanted” customers, if posted conspicuously, would alert all within the organization—from the boardroom to the mail room—of the desired business that is still “roaming free.” Why shouldn't that be common knowledge? It might surprise many a CEO to discover how few employees in the wide organization have even an inkling of the top targets of the sales department.

The effect could be galvanizing; the list would be a constant reminder of the most desirable accounts “out there” in the marketplace. Each “poster” would be modeled after the real thing—with a flattering photo of the CEO the company wants to do business with, some organizational stats, and a “reward” to the employee who contributes to the establishment of business relations.

Now every employee would be “in the know” and explicitly recruited in the quest. And one never knows what can happen when the entire workforce is being leveraged. For example: a clerk in accounts payable may have a friend who works in the “top tenner” company’s purchasing dept.; a delivery man may have noticed something unusual driving by the company—such as a strange truck pulling away from the loading dock, suggesting a change of vendors; an IT tech may have read something on an industry blog that portends change (and opportunity!) within the top tenner’s infrastructure.

These little bits and pieces of information could prove to be very helpful to the company’s strategists. But the information will not be communicated unless the rank and file is involved in the hunt for new business. A conspicuous Top Ten list would keep the company’s goals fresh in everyone’s mind—especially if there were to be a Reward (such as a tropical vacation for two) for information leading to the “capture” of the client.

By publishing its top ten target customers (i.e., through conspicuous ads and commercials), the company would, like the FBI, invite the pressure of the public. Stockholders would ask about the progress made in reining in the top ten accounts at every shareholder meeting. Business journalists would reference the list, and perhaps even make fun of its ambitiousness. The current suppliers of the top ten companies would be put on notice that determined competition is coming after them and not afraid to say so. And the targeted customers? They would love it!

Just imagine a CEO picking up the Wall Street Journal and seeing his/her own “Wanted” photo posted, and his company listed as the stated business goal of a vendor—publicly, fearlessly, audaciously. The impression could be nothing but positive. The name of the vendor would be forever ingrained in the CEO's consciousness. He would investigate. What kind of company are they? And look! One of the Top Ten has been “captured" and is now doing business with this audacious supplier. The CEO might call that company and ask about their experience with the bold supplier; he might tell his purchasing department to entertain a quote. He might say to himself, “Surely, a vendor willing to go to these lengths—publicly—to acquire my business would do much in the way of customer service to keep it.”

To carry this somewhat fanciful, but eminently doable, metaphor further, there would even be a certain amount of public pressure now exerted on the target customer. He might be asked by his own shareholders or BOD members, “Why haven’t you done business with this vendor who has laid his reputation on the line to work with you? Have you at least spoken to him?”

A vendor is known by its customers; that’s why so many marketing campaigns are eager to list the prestigious organizations already being served. But a vendor can also be known by the customers it wants to serve. The higher the ambition, the stronger the company looks—for surely it wouldn’t aspire to serve a premier customer if it couldn’t actually provide the service. A supplier with the courage to take on such an imaginative initiative as a Top Ten List of Most Wanted Customers would surely be a salient feature on the business landscape.

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