The Growing Menace of Being Average

Nov 9, 2010 | Competing in Today's Economy, General, Small Business Advice

There is nothing more damaging to a business, or to a business district, than being average.  In fact, if I am a business owner, I would rather have a customer tell me that my business is horrible in every aspect, rather than a customer telling me: “Your business is average”.  Give me horrible over average.  At least, I know where I stand with customers if they hate what I deliver.

Here’s something else about a horrible business: fellow business owners can see horrible a mile away.  Consumers do too.  Consumers can spot a horrible business from half way down the block.  Or, they can drive by, just look at the front window of a store and they can sense horrible.  “Yuck,” their brain says.  “I’m not going in there.”  And they don’t.

People look at awful and say: “That’s flat-out awful!”  Sure, they talk about it, but it’s dismissed.  It’s an outcast, a pariah.  People avoid it naturally.  It’s like that creepy guy sitting on the downtown bench that smells like spoiled milk.  You cross the street rather than walking by.

And here’s what’s unfair:  horrible businesses scream for attention, and get it.  Once I consulted in a city (in a state I won’t name), that had a great downtown except for a tacky X-rated book and movie store.  Guess where that store is today?  I couldn’t tell you, but I know it’s gone.  In another city, one absentee landlord owned a building that was a supreme blemish to an otherwise developing downtown.  A couple of years later, that building was torn down, and it’s now a park.  (Again, I don’t know the details, just the result).  In a city last month, I was taken to an awful looking costume shop and asked what to do with such an eyesore.  Why is it that the worst looking, worst run businesses get all the attention?  Because people see horrible businesses, and jump into action to correct them.

But an average business is another matter.  No one jumps, no one acts, and no one focuses on the average.  Worse, owners of average businesses think they are operating their businesses adequately, when they’re not.

Here’s how I think of it, and this comes from my early years of teaching high school.  An average business is like that runny nose kid who’d come to my class everyday, coughing and wiping his nose on his sleeve.  The parent wanted the kid in class, thinking the kid wasn’t really sick.  Even though the kid was technically in class, he was not healthy, not alert, and not learning; just there.  Essentially, I was trying to teach a human Petri dish whose only daily success was spreading germs throughout my classroom.

An average business is like that kid.  Present, eyes-open, but still sick.  Thinking it’s doing fine, when it’s really stagnant and infecting those around it.

Relate this to your town or city.  Can you think of an owner of an average business in your community?  Sure, you can.  He’s a nice person.  He comes to Chamber meetings, and volunteers at the school.  But be honest now:  Do you tell your out-of-town guests that they absolutely must visit his business before they fly back home, and if they don’t they’ll forever miss out on a one-of-a-kind experience?  Gotcha pegged, don’t I?

As owners, we have developed the ability to identify an average business better than customers.  Most customers can’t see average from the street.  Instead, they walk into average businesses and walk back out, impressionless.  No memories.  No moments of surprise.  Baskin Robbins with only vanilla.

Face facts.  If you have a neighbor who has an average looking business, it reflects on your marketplace, it hurts your business, and it hurts other businesses around you.  And just like that kid’s viruses, average businesses multiply.  Everyone looks at the horrible business and wants to avoid it.  But we tolerate average businesses and think they are fine.

Here’s what’s worse:  comparisons lead to the spread of average.  One business owner compares his business to the average business next door, and starts to feel satisfied with what he’s created.  Since businesses have a tendency to rise to the lowest level of competency, average multiplies and no one notices.  Soon, it’s epidemic.  Everyone opens up the doors to their businesses every morning, thinking they’re fine, until an entire business district or an entire city is permeated with underachieving, unimpressive, forgettable businesses not living up to their potential.

I know this is a harsh criticism of being average.  You might be shocked because for years, in school, we were told that a letter grade of a “C” was acceptable.  We were told that a C was OK.  A grade of C meant that you weren’t the smartest, but hey, you weren’t failing repeatedly like Joey, the only seventh grader who could drive to school.

Here’s my point:  in the world of creating a Destination Business that consumers want to seek out, “C’s” don’t count! Worse: today’s economy spits out average businesses every day.

Here’s my suggestion:  Resolve as a business owner to go and look at what you’ve created.  Deep down, you know where average resides in your business.  It’s in your windows. It’s that new person you hired and didn’t train.  It’s in your marketing materials that you designed yourself, and in your 10-year old website that was never updated.  It’s that list of major to-do’s you wrote but never make time to tackle.  It’s you and how you lead your team.  I could go on, but they now tack on big fines for hitting helmet-to-helmet.

Remember this:  In the big picture of creating a successful business that generates higher sales, real profits, and might actually be worth selling someday, average is not enough if you want to become a Destination.  If these sound like your goals, a passing grade won’t be enough.