The following blog was first published in The Book Every Entrepreneur Has to Read. Find out how to get a copy by clicking here.
If you had to focus on removing just one thing over the next six months to become more successful, what would it be?
If you're not sure, I have a suggestion you might like to consider. It's a suggestion that, if pursued with focus, can have profound results, regardless of your company's size, maturity, or offerings. It's a concept that, once found and applied, will have you wondering why you didn't apply it years earlier. From personal experience, removing this from my life has had the same benefit for my business as stopping smoking had for my health. So, what do I recommend your business removes?
One word. Friction.
This is an idea that I picked up from Stephen van Coller, one of South Africa's most respected business leaders, and at the time of writing, Group CEO of EOH.
I spoke with him just a few months after he had joined the organisation, at a time when revelations had started to emerge that the company had benefited for many years from state capture and corruption. I asked him how he was attempting to turn around the fortunes of a brand that had been compromised and that most commentators now expected to fail. I actually expected he'd tell me he was going to resign, as I knew he'd signed up to grow the company and not oversee the destruction of a once-prominent brand. I knew he was knee-deep in forensic audits and was facing significant pressure from banks that wanted to cut ties. I was therefore surprised with the brevity and simplicity of his answer …
The key to our success will be to remove friction
I was expecting many responses, but this idea of friction hadn't been at the top of the list. After all, most commentators at this point were predicting EOH would fail before the end of the year.
But the more I thought about his response, the more it made absolute sense to me. I started to think about some great brands and asked myself whether their success could be tied back to removing friction. And it turns out they could. Uber, for example, removes friction because it’s much easier to pick up a ride than the metered taxi model it's replaced. Checkers Sixty60 removes friction by helping me find, order, and receive groceries seamlessly, without expending the effort of going to a shopping centre. Netflix removes friction by delivering quality, binge-able content, without delaying my gratification with adverts or timetables. Google (frictionless search), uCook (frictionless cooking), Wise (frictionless cross-border payments), Airbnb (frictionless accommodation), and EasyEquities (frictionless investing) are also great examples of companies that I love using because they make transacting so easy. And now the fastest-growing application ever, ChatGPT, helps us to effortlessly code, produce content, learn anything, and enhance our own creativity and curiosity.
On the other hand, the brands I love to hate are the ones that waste my time and resources. Think about the pointless paperwork you fill out when hiring cars. Or your last dreadful call centre experience with an insurer. Or what about the fact that some banks still need you to visit a branch for basic services. And if you have ever worked in a large corporate, think about the ridiculous time you have spent travelling to the office, sitting in poorly run meetings, filling out timesheets and holiday requests, or learning how to comply with restrictive internal policies.
Friction kills companies. Friction kills industries. And friction creates opportunities for entrepreneurs like you and me. But if removing friction has such a powerful impact, why do so few companies seem to be able to offer frictionless services?
My answer to this question is simple. Few leaders have reducing friction as the core objective. Instead, they dance around the topic, with vague vision statements that attempt to please everyone and mean nothing. And then they cascade hundreds, sometimes thousands, of key performance indicators (KPIs) across their organisations to try to encourage people to improve profits, increase margins, uplift staff productivity, and improve net promoter scores.
In many cases, managers realise that different parts of the business have different focal points, so they allow them to allocate different weightings to these metrics. The finance team, therefore, might only apply a 10% weighting to client metrics, whereas a sales team might have to accept a 40% weighting. The result? An industry that generates billions for consultants and software providers, but one that doesn't help companies reduce friction. In most cases, it achieves the exact opposite as leaders are incentivised to worry about their own functions and not their impact on clients.
It was only a few years back when I really learned how liberating it can be to discard KPIs and replace them with one simple unifying goal. I was working for a bank and they'd asked me to 'fix' their corporate onboarding process. It was inefficient, but far worse than that was the fact it was inaccurate, which increased the risk of money laundering and regulatory fines.
Despite throwing money and resources at the problem for many years, little progress had been made in correcting these issues. Worse still, the client experience had turned into a drawn-out paper-filling exercise that could take weeks, sometimes months to complete. This was despite there being a comprehensive framework of rules, metrics, reviews, and training for staff.
So I decided to throw out the rule book and start again with one simple goal. I asked the team to focus on developing processes that might make the client love us.
As soon as we stopped worrying about internal process and procedures and instead focused on the process clients have to go through, we made progress. With this simple change, it didn't take long to see onboarding times transform from weeks to days. More importantly, though, we saw huge improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the bank's internal processes. By refocusing our attention away from a wide-ranging set of internal metrics, we were able to deliver real progress in short periods of time. That simple shift meant that teams quickly dropped hierarchies for more collaborative scrum models.
They became curious again and looked for digital solutions, rather than waiting for central technology teams to spoon-feed them. They then developed a range of other adjustments which allowed for better issue identification throughout the process.
These events happened before I spoke with Stephen. Our focus on getting the clients to love us was just an alternative way of saying we wanted to focus on removing friction.
And I am now more convinced than ever that a focus on removing client friction is about to become even more critical than it already is. Because in the world of 2022, it was still possible to create successful businesses without offering frictionless environments to your staff or customers. But all that is changing with the arrival of ChatGPT and similar AI solutions.
2023 is a watershed year where every business will be able to use technology to solve the issues of friction at speed, at scale, and at incredibly low costs.
I don't care whether you consult, develop, produce, write, code, repair, manufacture, distribute, deliver or publish. The opportunity for entrepreneurs like you has never been so big if you have the mental wherewithal to explore using AI to reduce friction for your clients and staff.
The opportunities for entrepreneurs have never been better!
For more thought-leadership on leadership and innovation, do consider The Book Every Entrepreneur Has to Read, as it is filled with insight from SA's most well-known entrepreneurs. Find out more here.