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BUYING A SMALL BUSINESS

Eight Ball, Corner Pocket: Think 6 Steps Ahead of the Competition

Want explosive growth? Strategize like a world-renowned pool player.
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Years ago I met the world's top-ranked pool player, a woman named Jeanette Lee.  Her nickname was the "Black Widow."  They called her that because she wore all black--and destroyed her competition the same way black widow spiders devour their mates.

Jeanette was competing in a high stakes pool tournament for charity, which--as a member of Priceline.com's founding executive team--I was attending as a sponsor. At one point, Jeanette had an easy shot.  The cue ball was right in front of the No. 12 ball, which sat on the lip of the corner pocket. I watched as she studied the shot.  And studied the shot.  And studied the shot some more.  Finally I asked her why she was spending so much time looking at such an easy shot.  "I'm not looking at this shot," she replied. "I'm figuring out where I want the cue ball to be six shots from now."

No wonder she was the best pool player in the world.

That's exactly what I hope to teach you with this column: How to stay six shots ahead of the competition.  How to look past your present situation and plot your best future.  Strategies for winning in business.  Just like the Black Widow.

At Priceline we did specific things to stay ahead.  We not only studied our industry and tracked trends, but we did something I would recommend all of you do.  We went out to our customers, suppliers, and partners, and asked them what they thought their future would look like.  We asked them how their needs would change, how their company would change, how their jobs would change, how their buying habits would change.  We asked them which factors in the world around them worried them most about their future, and which ones they were most excited about.

This is an inexact science.  No one knows the future.  But when you take the pulse of a broad cross section of your customers and business partners, who are each experienced in assessing their own buying habits and the trends that impact them, a picture starts to form by connecting what appears at first to be abstract opinions and predictions.

Now take that picture of the future, stick it on your wall, and use it as a roadmap for your own plans, and product development.  Are you plotting a course that leads to the same destination as your customer?  Are you building hooks into your products and services that prepare them for the future your customer sees?  Don't just look at your products and services as they exist today.  Look one, two, even six shots ahead to make sure your business will wind up where you think it needs to be down the road.

That's what Zappos did.  I've spent some time with the company's founders on the speaking circuit, and learned that Zappos didn't look at customer service the way it works today.  They talked to potential customers to find out where they wanted service to be--six shots from now.  And in response, Zappos turned the traditional customer service paradigm on its head.  Spend more time with customers, not less.  And judge results by customer happiness.  Crazy, huh?  In billiards terms, I'm pretty sure they ran the table.

Don't just take my word for it.  Try it yourself.  And who knows, maybe you'll even wind up with a cool nickname, like the Black Widow.

IMAGE: flickr/mzec
Last updated: Sep 10, 2012

JEFF HOFFMAN | Columnist | Co-founder, ColorJar

Jeff Hoffman, co-founder of ColorJar, is a serial entrepreneur who was on the founding teams of Priceline.com and uBid.com. He is also a frequent public speaker on the topics of innovation, entrepreneurship, and leadership.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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