Compensating Behavior: A Leader’s Guide to Finding Problems You Don’t Know You Have

None of your problem-solving skills as a leader will work when the problem you’re facing is a problem you don’t even know you have. Before you can solve problems, of course, you have to identify them.

Below I share a simple but highly effective way to do that. And the best way to explain it is just through an example. And there’s an excellent one in David Armstrong’s book How to Turn Your Company’s Parables into Profit:

Sometime in the 1960s, the Everlasting Valve Corporation in New Jersey hired a new salesman. A few weeks into his training, he decided he was ready to visit customers, but not on a sales call. He wanted to see how they installed their Everlasting boiler valves, how they received them, serviced them, and inventoried them.

He figured that if he understood how they used what he sold them, he’d be better able to meet their needs in the future. So he arranged a visit at several customer facilities.

When he arrived at the first one, he met his contact and they began their tour. When they reached the factory floor, he noticed a crane lifting a wooden box slowly into the air. Suddenly, the box fell to the ground with an enormous crash! The salesman yelled, “Look out!” and turned away as wooden splinters flew everywhere and the contents of the crate slid to a rest on the cement floor.

“Is everyone okay?” the salesman asked.

His tour guide just smiled and reassured him, “Everyone is fine. We do that on purpose. That shipping crate is so well built that it’s easier to open it by dropping it on the floor. It takes a lot less time than trying to pry open every plank.”

The salesman looked down and saw the name on one of the broken wooden boards. It read, “Everlasting Valve Corporation.”

I have it on good faith from David Casterline, who worked with the author on that book, that the story I just shared is a true one. And it’s a classic example of what product designers call a compensating behavior. When your customers use your product in a way other than what you expect or intend, that’s a compensating behavior. And it is a clear sign that your product or service isn’t meeting their needs.

Everlasting Valve was spending about 10 percent of its sales on those sturdy wooden crates. Once this salesman realized they were too strong, the company replaced them with simple, inexpensive skids. That saved his company thousands of dollars in costs and spared his customers the time, hassle, and safety risk of opening them.

Have you ever used a hacksaw to open the plastic packaging around a small electronic toy? Ever added an ingredient to the cake mix not called for on the box? Ever placed a strip of black electrical tape over the flashing “12:00” light on your DVD player? Those are all compensating behaviors, and great indications that the product or packaging leaves something to be desired.

Observing your customers using your product— the way the Everlasting Valve salesman did—is the best way to find compensating behaviors. If the only information you have on your customers is through impersonal online surveys or focus group interviews in a hotel conference room, you probably don’t know what their compensating behaviors are.

Get out of the office and visit your customers where they use your product, whether it’s in a place of business or in their homes. You might not be lucky enough for someone to drop a crate at your feet. But if you watch carefully, you might find a compensating behavior just as telling.

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Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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