10th June 2015

Core Competencies

Core Competencies

Over ten years ago when I first became a professional business coach, one of my very first clients said, “ I bet you are constantly frustrated because wherever you go you will be able to see how that particular business could do things better”. We laughed about it, but it is true to a large extent. Something recently brought that conversation back to me.

Jayne and I were in a local market town one weekend when the weekly market was in full flow. We managed to get a table in a coffee shop, right in the window, overlooking some of the market stalls. We started a conversation about how successful owning and running a market stall might be.

The stall immediately outside the window was particularly quiet and I started to think about why that particular stall would be so quiet when some of the others appeared to be much busier.
My thoughts rotated around a number of possible reasons. It was a May day, cold and blustery, but warm in the sun. This particular stall was on the shaded side of the marketplace, and it was freezing with a strong wind cutting through anyone stopping to shop. Perhaps location was a major factor.

There was the selection of merchandise. In this case sheets and throws. Perhaps he hadn’t bought merchandise that was attractive enough to the people of the town, or maybe just not attractive enough to the people who happened to be there when we were having coffee. Perhaps stock selection was a major factor.Of course closely related to stock selection is pricing. I couldn’t say how the prices compared in absolute or comparative terms but I am sure the potential customers would have an opinion on the subject. Perhaps pricing was a major factor.

Because I was wondering about the price point I looked for the price and noticed that it was handwritten in a marker pen on what looked like a piece of card torn from a cardboard box. That got me thinking about display. The various colourways were neatly stacked in piles of matching colours, and although it looked neat enough I wondered how appealing it was to potential buyers. Perhaps display was a major factor. Including display of price.

As we were looking at what was happening, or maybe not happening, I wondered where the stallholder was. We finally noticed him sitting in the van, keeping out of the bitter wind and typing into his smartphone. If someone had stopped to browse, by the time he had noticed them, gotten out of the van the moment to engage with them would probably have been lost. There was no chance of the stallholder being proactive and engaging a potential customer. The initiative would have needed to have come from the customer. Perhaps customer service was a major factor.

Whatever the causes of the malaise I was struck by how broad the competencies needed to be for someone to run a successful market stall; selecting a location, purchasing and stock selection, pricing, display, merchandising, communication, building rapport and customer service, and also how narrow the difference between the successful and the not so successful. I am also sure that if you asked any stallholder to list the competencies that he/she needed to run a successful stall very few would have a list even half as comprehensive as the one above, and if then you asked them to rate their abilities on a scale of 1 to 10 I wonder how honest an assessment you would get. Just imagine the cumulative effect of those competencies not being at a high enough level and you can imagine a particular market stall really struggling in the same marketplace as another stall that was getting more of the same things right.

So I wonder what are the Core Competencies that are vital for you and your business? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Core Competencies are simply about how we do what we do. Before we can specify our core competencies we need to truly understand how we provide value to our clients. Remember “If Starbucks was about coffee and Bentley about transportation, they would never exist.”

I am reading “Made in America” the autobiography of Sam Walton right now. Did you know that the founder of Wal-Mart was once the world’s richest man? One comment really registered with me, after 20 years in the retailing business and by then with upwards of 25 stores he commented that he “really envied (Kmart’s) merchandise mix and the way they presented it”. He clearly understood that as a retailer there were key core competencies that his business didn’t have at a sufficiently high level.

So in thinking about core competencies, one of the most significant core competencies is the curiosity to find a better way and the drive and determination to constantly seek to improve ourselves so that we can improve our businesses.