Do You Need to Be Ruthless to Succeed?

Not if you want to grow a business, earn the trust and commitment of employees and customers, and create sustained bottom-line profits.

By Alex Hiam

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

In this column, I want to rant and rave about what I view as adestructive misconception affecting many businesses today. Themisconception is this: that you have to become ruthless in order tosucceed in business.

It seems that way when you look at how the biggest and mostvisible firms behave. They're tough. They're underhanded.They chop jobs by the thousands, use unreadable small print tosnare customers, and hire fancy advisors to find them loopholeswhenever possible. So it stands to reason that to get big likethem, you have to behave like them.

The hitch is that this in not how these companies grew andearned their places in the public eye. It is not how any businessgrows and prospers. Ruthless behavior is what people do whenthey're taking advantage of someone else's careful, caringefforts to grow a brand or a business.

My friend Peter Schutz, the ex-CEO of Porsche AG, often pointsout that "the expression is 'give and take' " nottake first, because you only grow a business, earn the trust andcommitment of employees and customers, and create sustainedbottom-line profits by helping others and being of genuine value toyour community, not by seeing what you can get away with.

Yet executives at many of the companies dominating the headlinesdon't seem to understand this. For instance, I just saw newsreports about the credit card company First USA, the biggest U.S.issuer of Visa cards. The company is rumored to have a new policyin which it is reducing the time some customers are given to paytheir bills. Which customers are getting this time penalty? Youmight think it would be the deadbeats who pay late, but actually,the company is said to have decided to penalize customers whohabitually pay on time. The good customers, that's right.Suddenly good customers who never pay a bill late are finding thattheir due-dates have moved up a week. They aren't veryhappy.

So why would the company do this? Because, according to newscoverage at least, the company doesn't make as much money onthese prompt-paying customers. It wants to be able to collect moreinterest and late fees, so it's making it harder for them thanfor other customers.

My, oh my. That's not very nice, is it? In fact, it seems asif the company doesn't care. It doesn't care about itsfaithful, prompt-paying customers. All it cares about is trying tofind some clever way to squeeze cash out of them in a hurry. (Andit better be done quickly, because obviously many of those goodcustomers are going to be upset by the change and will probably goelsewhere.)

This kind of nasty, shortsighted thinking is perhaps the norm inbig corporations, but it doesn't help a smaller business growand prosper. In fact, caring can be the smaller company'scompetitive advantage. If you make a genuine effort to treat yourcustomers well, you'll have more loyal customers--andthat's a recipe for growth and profits. Same with youremployees. If they feel you care about them, they'll workharder and stay longer than they might at some larger rival. Thisis why companies that earn their place on the Fortune 500 listgradually tend to slip off it and new rivals work their way up totake their place. The company that gets so big it doesn't careany more is always doomed to decline. The entrepreneurial firm thattruly cares has a significant advantage that, with persistence, canallow it to triumph over larger rivals.


AlexHiam is a trainer and consultant and the author of Motivating & Rewarding Employees: New andBetter Ways to Inspire Your Peopleas well as Marketing for Dummies. His new book, Making Horses Drink, is now available fromEntrepreneur Press and major bookstores.

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