From the February 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

We're not talking hours. We're not talking minutes. We're not even talking seconds. No, to get to consumers in the hyperpaced (and cyberspaced) 1990s, it can conceivably take only milliseconds. Fast. Faster. Fastest. What an astounding, confounding and pulse-pounding time in which we live. And this push to gratify consumers in an instant--even as the jesters among us contend that instant gratification itself now takes too long--is not a phenomenon destined to lose steam.

"Customers have so many choices today that they can be very fussy about whom they buy from," observes Roger Blackwell, author of From Mind to Market: Reinventing the Retail Supply Chain (HarperBusiness). "If a store can't provide what they want, when they want it, they have plenty of alternatives that will."

It wasn't always this way, of course. Even assembly-line pioneer Henry Ford once sardonically suggested customers could have any color of car they wanted--as long as it was black. Those days are long gone. Instead, consumers are now asking for--and getting--the speed foreshadowed by Ford's assembly line coupled with choices galore. "Today, consumers have a lot of power," says Regis McKenna, chair of Palo Alto, California, business and marketing strategy firm The McKenna Group and author of Real Time: Preparing for the Age of the Never Satisfied Customer (Harvard Business School Press). "Technology providing immediate feedback [is in place], and it's building higher and higher expectations by the consumer for immediate service."

Full Speed Ahead

So what's the rush? Technology, particularly the Internet, has accelerated the pace of doing business to the point where being fast enough no longer is. "You have to be a Tiger Woods of the business world," says Blackwell. "We've set a new standard. I remember when people said it was impossible to run the four-minute mile--then Roger Bannister did it. A similar thing is happening in business: The Roger Bannisters and the Tiger Woodses are setting new benchmarks, so if you can't run the four-minute mile, don't bother to show up."

Blackwell's words ring true. Whether you refer to it as "just-in-time delivery," "real time" or "Internet time," the idea of fast-forwarding products or services to consumers in record time is revolutionizing the business world. "This is an irreversible trend," says David Peyton, director of technology policy for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). "There's no going back."

Or slowing down. As computers keep chipping away at our notions of what constitutes quick turnaround, the race is on for entrepreneurs to prove themselves capable of running that metaphorical mile in Roger Bannister's sneakers.

"One of the great mistakes many entrepreneurs make is they think if they have a good product, they'll be successful; that's no longer true," insists Blackwell, who is also a professor of marketing at The Ohio State University in Columbus. "A good product is essential, but an efficient supply chain is equally important. And that involves state-of-the-art logistics. There's a war going on between putting money into assets like inventories, warehouses and trucks, or putting money into information from the computer. And the [computer] nerds are winning the war."

Blackwell's point is clear: The swift of feet realize that in today's market, they must take an entirely new approach to business.

What's New?

To Blackwell's way of thinking, the increasing competitiveness of the marketplace is rendering the traditional supply chain obsolete. "In supply chains, the products normally start in the mind of the manufacturer, and they're pushed through to distributors, then to retailers and eventually to consumers," he says. "But when you reinvent this supply chain, you start with the mind of the consumer. I call it a `demand chain.' "

Peyton, too, points out the shift in emphasis in favor of consumer demand. "[Business is] much more customer-demand-driven than it was in the past," he says. "You have operations that have this as the ultimate imperative rather than having things organized according to how long it takes to get machine tools set up to do a production run. It's forcing companies to be much more agile--and to have faster inventory turnovers."

Again, the idea is to have exactly the right product at exactly the right time. Relatively simple in theory? Yes. Just as simple in execution? Not really. "It's easy to talk about the concepts of logistics, but it's difficult to do them," says Blackwell. "That's why execution is so important. Entrepreneurs might say `Well, yes, I can see the importance of it'--that's the first step. The next step is doing it, and that's the hard part."

Ironically, at the same time companies are striving for speed in the marketplace, they're also struggling to hold down costs through low inventories. For examples of real companies doing this--and doing it right--Blackwell points to the computer industry. "In the traditional supply chain, a computer company decides what is to be made and then builds it and puts it into inventory," he explains. "At Dell Computer and Gateway 2000, however, they've revolutionized the computer business because they don't make the computer until somebody orders it. That's much more efficient."

Leaders Of The Pack

Efficient, yes. But isn't the trimming of inventories a potentially risky maneuver at a time when consumers are loath to wait for the product of their choice? What if something as unexpected as, say, a UPS strike slows down the wheels of delivery? "In doing this high-wire act, [businesses] have become a lot more dependent on everyone else to do their jobs and do them on time," says Peyton. "If you look at it as a vulnerability, then that's the price we pay for the privilege of having a system that's more attuned to ultimate consumer demand and has succeeded in squeezing out some of the inventory costs that used to be there."

On the plus side, entrepreneurs may find themselves in a position of advantage in this business-be-nimble, business-be-quick era. "Small companies can notoriously move faster than large companies," says Ted Lewis, author of The Friction-Free Economy: Strategies for Success in a Wired World (HarperBusiness). Lewis, who heads the Salinas, California-based high-tech consulting firm Technology Assessment Group, recommends a two-pronged approach to stay ahead of the pack. First, make your own products obsolete before another company does. And second, if your company falls behind in its industry, adapt the latest innovations in your own way and extend the innovation further. "A small company that has an expertise or niche in the market can always compete against even the largest companies," Lewis assures, "if they stay ahead of them."

But aren't instant-gratification-seeking consumers focused exclusively on speed, speed, speed? Not necessarily. It's imperative for a company to stay on the cutting edge because modern-day consumers don't just want what they want when they want it--they want exactly what they want, too. "Just having a good product at a good price worked in the past, but it's not enough for the new millennium," cautions Blackwell. "The consumer reins."

Speed Racers

Clearly, such elevation of consumer demands begs renewed consideration of just who exactly these consumers are in the first place--and why are they so speed-happy? Perhaps a little historical perspective is in order. Of course, we're talking about an unprecedented pace of life born from the fruits of recent technological advances--but we're also talking about a society that has always subscribed to the point of view that faster is better.

"I don't see this so much in other societies," Lewis says. "The Germans, the Japanese, the French and so on are not hooked on speed--or change. But the American way is the idea that things will always get better."

And, like it or not, getting better is irrevocably linked to getting faster. "Clearly, the United States is on the leading edge of [the quicker-is-better revolution]," agrees McKenna. "The trend is toward more and more of this sit back and push a button and get whatever you want. The TV remote control, for example, will [some day] also be a computer so if you see a product [you like], you'll simply push a button and order it. This isn't Buck Rogers; this isn't 20 years from now. This is within the next five years."

Not for a moment, moreover, should you entertain thoughts of going against the tide. "Imagine making televisions without remote controls today--nobody would buy them," McKenna contends. "And yet, what we're asking the consumer to do is get up and walk perhaps 10 feet across the room and push a button or turn a knob. But we've become so accustomed [to not doing this] that we won't buy such a TV set."

Or sit through double features at a movie theater. Or opt for bank teller service instead of ATMs. Or forsake the speedier microwave in favor of the good old-fashioned oven. "We are gradually becoming so adapted and accustomed to this real-time technology that it's changing us in subtle ways," McKenna concludes. "We're not even conscious of it."

But business owners, in particular, must tune in to this changing frequency.

Partners In Time

Interestingly, business owners have a potentially powerful ally in providing consumers with the instant gratification they crave: consumers themselves. "Adding systems where your customers can help themselves but can go away feeling content about it is key," says McKenna. For example, think of a furniture store that has every product consumers want in stock--provided the consumers are willing to assemble them themselves. Then, too, there is the delivery company that allows its customers to track the progress of their own packages. And, yes, there are the no-longer-reserved-only-for-tech-companies Web sites that provide opportunities for customization and customer service heretofore only dreamed of.

"All of these things are possible because technology is enabling consumers to have access to channels and information to serve themselves," McKenna explains. (Ironically, the very same consumers who won't walk 10 feet to turn the TV dial.)

At any rate, the future shock long predicted by pundits and philosophers alike has finally come to pass--and with it, a shocking new level of customer expectations has become the standard. Although much of the next few years remains difficult to predict, the very speed at which we'll experience these years seems all but guaranteed.

"The speed with which you can communicate is going to increase at a very rapid rate--just in the next decade," McKenna says confidently. "And we already think it's fast."

Contact Sources

The McKenna Group, (650) 354-4403, http://www.mckenna-group.com

National Association of Manufacturers, e-mail: dpeyton@nam.org, http://www.nam.org

Technology Assessment Group, email: tedglewis@friction-free-economy.com, http://www.friction-free-economy.com